WASHINGTON – It’s fair to say at this juncture that America’s Quid and Ukraine’s Quo have been caught in bed together.
The fevered search for a damning quid pro quo since the White House released a readout of Donald Trump’s July 25 telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – in which Trump requested an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter – has proved productive.
A series of text messages provided to Congress by former U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker shows a clear quid pro quo. Contrary to White House assertions, the congressionally approved military aid that Trump was unilaterally withholding at the time (and an invitation to the White House) was being used as leverage for pushing Zelensky to conduct an investigation into the Bidens.
In a 2018 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden recounted telling former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in December 2015 that the U.S. would withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee if then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin wasn’t removed from office. It was believed by both American and European officials at the time that anti-corruption efforts had become sluggish under Shokin.
Said Biden: “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. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
Biden’s diplomatic triumph seemed to come at a propitious time for Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company for which Hunter Biden was serving as a board member. This potential conflict of interest is the basis for Trump’s consuming obsession with the Bidens and Ukraine.
Burisma had been under investigation, but for activities before Hunter Biden joined the company’s board in 2014. Indeed, it was under Shokin that the investigation into the company stalled. In 2015, the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine decried Shokin’s laggardly attention to corruption throughout the country, and Shokin’s ouster was greeted by Western diplomats as a victory.
Most, if not all, of what Trump thinks he knows about the Bidens and Ukraine has come from his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who reportedly has been all over the map, from Madrid to Warsaw to Paris, working back channels and coaxing Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate a conspiracy commensurate with the president’s appetite for same.
Giuliani’s conclusion and, therefore, Trump’s, is that the Bidens were in cahoots to issue $1 billion in loan guarantees in exchange for Shokin’s firing, thus putting an end to the Burisma investigation. Judging from Washington Post interviews with some of these prosecutors and with other Ukraine experts, it’s possible Giuliani was being fed information by Ukrainian officials that may or may not have been true as a means of currying favor with Giuliani (and by extension Trump), thereby enhancing their own political status within Ukraine.
Such byzantine calculations remind us that quids and quos come in a wide variety of flavors and textures.
So far, no strong evidence has emerged that the Bidens did anything wrong, but the optics aren’t pretty for Joe or his son. Perhaps Hunter was just a guy and who was naive or proud enough to believe he was tapped for the Burisma board on his merits. Maybe he really believed that his father was then vice president of the United States and the point man for the Obama administration’s Ukrainian policy – pushing for increased gas production while withholding monetary backing until Shokin was fired – had nothing to do with anything at all.
But it’s at least as likely that Hunter was knowingly profiting from his father’s position. He was paid as much as $50,000 a month to sit on the board of a company in an industry in which he had no experience. And he got the job just as his father was urging Ukraine to increase its gas production.
Perception is everything in politics, columnists tend to say about now. Depending upon one’s politics, Trump’s leveraged “favor” may not seem any worse than Biden’s threat to withhold loan guarantees until another official was fired. But there is a difference.
What Biden sought had international backing, and the loan guarantees were always tied to anti-corruption measures. What Trump did jeopardized our global diplomatic position and put Ukraine’s future in peril – all for personal political advantage. Trump’s abuse of power has invited criminal prosecution and impeachment.
Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.