Former vice president Joe Biden speaks at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 8 in Des Moines. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
By Marc A. Thiessen
Columnist September 24
We don’t yet know whether President Trump delayed some military aid to Ukraine as leverage to get Ukraine’s president to reopen an investigation into Hunter Biden. But if we are concerned about U.S. officials inappropriately threatening aid to Ukraine, then there are others who have some explaining to do.
It got almost no attention, but in May, CNN reported that Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote a letter to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, expressing concern at the closing of four investigations they said were critical to the Mueller probe. In the letter, they implied that their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake. Describing themselves as “strong advocates for a robust and close relationship with Ukraine,” the Democratic senators declared, “We have supported [the] capacity-building process and are disappointed that some in Kyiv appear to have cast aside these [democratic] principles to avoid the ire of President Trump,” before demanding Lutsenko “reverse course and halt any efforts to impede cooperation with this important investigation.”
So, it’s okay for Democratic senators to encourage Ukraine to investigate Trump, but it’s not okay for the president to allegedly encourage Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden?
And then there is Joe Biden. In 2016, the then-vice president threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine if the government did not fire the country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. According to the New York Times, “Among those who had a stake in the outcome was Hunter Biden … who at the time was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general.” The Post reports that it is “unclear how seriously Shokin — who was under fire by U.S. and European officials for not taking a more aggressive posture toward corruption overall — was scrutinizing Burisma when he was forced out.” But what is clear is that Biden bragged about getting him fired, declaring last year: “I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a b----. He got fired.”
This weekend, Biden told reporters, “I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.” That is flatly untrue. Hunter admitted in an interview with the New Yorker that his father expressed concern about the Burisma post at least once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’” Moreover, the New Yorker reports that, “In December, 2015, as Joe Biden prepared to return to Ukraine, his aides braced for renewed scrutiny of Hunter’s relationship with Burisma. Amos Hochstein, the Obama Administration’s special envoy for energy policy, raised the matter with Biden.” That same month, the New York Times published an article about how Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine undermined the vice president’s anti-corruption message, which quoted a Biden spokesman saying it had no impact.
So, Biden was fully aware of his son’s involvement with Burisma when he pressured Ukraine to fire the prosecutor in 2016. He should have known that his using U.S. aid as leverage to force the prosecutor’s dismissal would create, at a bare minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Federal ethics regulations require “all employees to recuse themselves from participating in an official matter if their impartiality would be questioned.” Biden violated these rules. Imagine if Trump pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was investigating a company that employed Donald Trump Jr. as a board member. No one would be giving Trump a pass.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that Congress will initiate a formal impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine episode, a move Joe Biden endorsed in a speech, declaring, “It’s time for the Congress to fully investigate the conduct of this president.” Such an investigation will be far more damaging for Biden than the president. It will keep the story of Biden’s conflict of interest in the news through the 2020 election. Millions of Americans will learn the word “Burisma.” Senate Republicans can demand that Hunter Biden testify, and subpoena Obama White House aides such as Hochstein to explain under oath what the vice president knew and when he knew it.
Put aside the prosecutor’s firing. Hunter took the position with a Ukrainian natural gas company just a few weeks after his father visited Ukraine in 2014 to urge its government to increase its natural gas production. Hunter Biden had no expertise in Ukraine or natural gas. It will not just be Republicans calling this suspicious; nonpartisan experts in ethics law will testify that this a major conflict of interest.
And the focus will not just be on Ukraine but also how, as The Post reported, “for more than two decades, [Hunter’s] professional work often tracked with his father’s life in politics, from Washington to Ukraine to China.” Trump will use an investigation to paint Joe Biden as a creature of the Washington swamp who used his official position to enrich his son. While Senate Republicans will not remove Trump from office, Democratic primary voters might decide that Biden and his troubles are a distraction they do not need. The irony is the Democrats’ investigation might do more to deny Biden the presidency than Trump.