The primary feature of President Trump’s impeachment case on Tuesday was the gaping black hole at its center, where the looming potential testimony of John Bolton nullified the evidentiary claim upon which the defense was built. Trump’s legal team filled the void with three striking speeches: a stirring defense of Rudy Giuliani’s work in Ukraine, by Jane Raskin, and an extended smear of Joe Biden’s work in the same country, by Pam Bondi and Eric Herschmann.
Taken together, the two speeches expressed the Trumpiest version of the president’s defense — the one he “believes,” to the extent that his brain is able to form actual beliefs, as opposed to the convenient lies he spouts and immediately persuades himself are true. This version portrayed Giuliani as a great corruption fighter, sent to a distant land to cleanse it of wrongdoing, and his adversary, Biden, as a crook who had somehow escaped punishment.
Bondi and Herschmann began with Hunter Biden’s lamentable, gross decision to accept a lucrative position with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm obviously looking to trade on Hunter’s name and presumed access to his father, who was then serving as vice-president. From there, they proceeded to the utterly false insinuation that the effort to bribe Joe Biden had succeeded. Both lawyers played a video of Biden boasting that he had forced Ukraine to fire its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, a clip Republicans have used to imply somehow that Biden had some personal stake in the matter.
The opposite is true: Shokin was notoriously corrupt, and Biden’s position had been endorsed by Western allies, international good-government activists, and democracy reformers within Ukraine. Contrary to the Trumpist claims, Shokin was not investigating Burisma at the time. The Obama administration — in which Biden played a key role on Ukraine policy — was specifically upset with Shokin for his failure to investigate Burisma. Biden’s position in Ukraine was, in sum, a genuine record of successful anti-corruption that Trump’s camp is smearing as crooked and self-interested.
Raskin portrayed Giuliani as having sought to fight corruption in Ukraine, calling him “an internationally recognized expert on fighting corruption.” This is an even more absurd inversion of reality than the team’s depiction of Biden. Giuliani hired the hustler Lev Parnas and the Mafia-linked operator Igor Fruman, who used their connections to Trump to pursue their own business deals in the country. Giuliani and his partners were not only shaking down Ukraine for investigations on Trump’s domestic enemies, they were also shaking it down to line their own pockets. (Federal investigators are looking into whether Giuliani was trying to get his own piece of the gas business in Ukraine, which Rudy denies, but in any case, he was getting paid to serve as the political muscle for Parnas and Fruman.)
Indeed, in case nobody’s noticed, Rudy’s partners are facing federal charges for their scheme, and Rudy himself is the reported target of a federal investigation. The whole reason Trump had to pressure Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden is that there was no legitimate basis for a domestic investigation. Biden hadn’t done anything wrong. That’s why Trump needed leverage to force Ukraine to manufacture the appearance of wrongdoing by announcing a probe.
Meanwhile, Trump’s defense continues to insist that his agenda in Ukraine was not ordering up hit jobs on Biden and the deep state but exposing corruption. And the man he sent to carry this out just happened to hire some crooks and tried to get rich.
Trump has gotten away with this outrageous smear in part because the House managers have carefully built a tightly constructed case that is limited narrowly to the evidence they were able to summon themselves. But the Department of Justice is pursuing its own investigation of Giuliani and his partners that exposes how utterly upside down the narrative is. The reality is that Biden worked to reform Ukraine, and Giuliani has labored to recorrupt it, starting with his own pockets.