The scale has been upended with the repeated transmissions of Trump’s lies about Biden. The real story is quite different and has yet to be properly framed by the media.
CAMBRIDGE—Today, as Donald Trump becomes the third president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives and only the second in the modern era, Republicans will try hard—very hard—to make proceedings that should be about the conduct of the sitting president of the United States about unfounded, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the Bidens and Burisma instead via gaslighting, a style of disinformation long-favored by Russia and now, increasingly, Republicans and Trump.
A good starting point to begin this exploration is by demolishing that which should not even discussed by respectable outlets. Apart from the media not even attempting to convey the larger picture of the whole Trump-Russia saga, of which the Ukrainian issues driving impeachment are just a part, another gross media misfire is the “coverage” of how Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, is “involved” in this new phase of the Trump-Russia überascandal… except there is no evidence he is involved, none at all of this conspiracy theory pushed by President Donald Trump and his political allies, as any of multiple respectable fact-checks will show (no need to repeat their fine work here); Hunter Biden’s “involvement” rests on two paper mâché pillars: Republican bonfires of lies and the media pouring gasoline onto these fires.
To be clear, this is classic Kremlin-style disinformation, especially the propagandistic, perhaps libelous lie that Hunter Biden warrants some sort of criminal probe because of wholly unsubstantiated allegations of “corruption.” Hunter Biden is no Eric Trump; while he has had some problems and his life has not been as soaring as that of Beau Biden—the close brother of Hunter and beloved son of Joe stolen before his time by cancer in 2015—Hunter did manage to pay his own way through Georgetown—even working odd jobs— and would eventually graduate from Yale Law School. Hunter’s perch on the board of Burisma—a Ukrainian gas/energy company—reeks of the standard favoritism shown scions of elites, a banal favoritism devoured almost accidentally like a minnow by the speeding great white shark that is the over-the-top corruption of the mafia-like Trump clan, whose members give the impression that they deliberately broadcast their misdeeds, as if to do so is a boast along the lines of a lion roaring that wants everyone to know it can get away with breaking the rules.
Now, for the actual history.
In an election held just months after President Viktor Yanukovych—Russian president Vladimir Putin’s stooge-in-chief in Ukraine—fled in 2014 during the (Euro)Maidan Revolution, the pro-Western chocolate oligarch Petro Poroshenko was elected Ukraine’s president. Even with an annexation in Crimea and war in the east, corruption was obviously a central issue for the new president, and it would need to be combatted effectively in order for Western companies to feel comfortable being more engaged, and for the EU to integrate more, with Ukraine.
As part of the Western effort to engage and push Ukraine on reform and especially corruption and as the point-person on all things Ukrainian for the Obama Administration, then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in December, 2015, made his fourth personal visit to Kiev since the (Euro)Maidan revolution. Reform on corruption had stalled and Biden called Ukraine’s leaders out on this in an impassioned address (highlights and full speech) to the parliament, telling them they were not doing nearly enough on corruption and that the time to act was now. Corruption is specifically how Russian President Putin plays his game in Ukraine, while fighting it is what has been advancing U.S. interests there.
Shokin was a close, longtime ally of Poroshenko, and Poroshenko needed all the help he could get, having come to power in a deeply divided country torn apart by the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and civil war in the country’s east, forcing him to engage in a delicate balancing act. The deep divisions in Ukraine were hamstringing reform efforts, and Shokin was seen as a person who could balance different regional interests and avoid inflaming tensions, but the cost was his and his office’s blatant, total inaction on justice for abuses of both the previous and current governments: his energy was simply not there in fighting corruption in general. The relatives of the protesters killed by the ousted Yanukovych’s security forces were especially vocal in their outrage at the inaction, and while Shokin was not terrible relative to others previously in his position, at that time, with the world watching, it seemed Ukraine really did need a crusader in that post.
But Biden’s message was complicated because, since April 2014, his son Hunter Biden had been on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private energy company. There is zero credible evidence produced by anyone that has shown Hunter Biden acted or intended to act in any way that was inappropriate while on Burisma’s board, let alone illegal, nor that he tried to engage his vice-president-father to influence U.S. policy in any way so as to benefit himself or Burisma. And the Burisma investigations that became dormant under Shokin had only involved activity that had occurred before Biden’s son was ever even on Burisma’s board. But Burisma was owned by Yanukovych’s former natural resources minister, Mykola Zlochevsky, concurrently while he was in Yanukovych’s government, presenting a clear conflict of interest during his ministry tenure.
Yet it was not clear to Ukraine’s people as his ownership was a secret kept hidden by secret Cyprus bank accounts. It was at a conference at the end of April, 2014, focused on efforts to track down money Yanukovych and his circle had fleeced from Ukraine, when the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) announced it had obtained a court order to freeze some $23 million in these accounts of Zlochevsky’s. Ukraine’s Deputy Prosecutor General with an excellent record on fighting corruption, Vitaliy Kasko, pushed hard for his office to respond to British investigators’ requests for information on Zlochevsky, Burisma, and the $23 million, but to no avail: Shokin’s office stonewalled the most important requests and covered up for Zlochevsky, the case falling apart over time, with a British judge ruling in early 2015 that the SFO did not have the evidence it needed and unfreezing Zlochevsky’s assets. And while these legal proceedings were unfolding, Joe Biden’s son was on Burisma’s board.
Yet Joe Biden’s message about corruption in Ukraine was still heard and he was not speaking alone: Shokin’s holding his position was holding up billions of dollars in EU and IMF aid, and Biden represented the will of the United States Government (including prominent Republican senators), the EU, the IMF, Kiev Mayor and former star boxer Vitali Klitschko, Ukrainian reform activists, and the Ukrainian people (polling had his support at a dismal 3.5%) who were all calling for this Prosecutor General Shokin to be removed from power. Kasko even resigned in protest at Shokin’s and the office’s overall gross inaction two months later in March, 2016. The following month and three months after Biden’s visit, Shokin was finally removed from power.
Sure, Hunter being on Burisma’s board did not look good, but appearances can be deceiving. For one thing, under Hunter’s watch, in 2016 and 2017, Burisma made at least two payments totaling at least $7 million in back taxes to address investigations into tax evasion, and all investigations into Burisma were closed, though, admittedly, some of the circumstances seem murky. Furthermore, once the these investigations were closed, Burisma began formally cooperating with The Atlantic Council, a NATO-affiliated think tank that promotes democratic values and cooperation between democracies. Perhaps (far?) more should have been done (in principle?), but over $7 million in back taxes is a lot more than the zero that had been obtained under Shokin, and that money was obtained after a far more aggressive investigative stance than existed previously, even if such efforts could have been more vigorous. To Joe Biden’s credit, asking for a prosecutor that would look into corruption, including into Burisma, could actually hurt the company that was paying his son by having a serious prosecutor who would re-open the Burisma cases, which is what happened after Shokin was removed. Much the opposite of future-U.S. President Donald Trump with himself and his family, then, Joe Biden put his and his son’s interests aside and did his job as vice president by acting in the interests of the United States and its friend Ukraine and countering the interests of a nemesis in Russia that was acting counter to U.S. interests.
In these years, as has been mentioned before, Poroshenko’s government was only able to make progress by balancing Ukraine’s different political factions, with his allies’ positions in the Ukrainian parliament quite precarious, and the key takeaway here is that, both after Vice President Biden’s and Hunter Biden’s involvement, in the case of Burisma, Ukraine’s government and the company still cooperated and made progress on corruption and accountability. In the end, while we do not know to what degree if any Hunter Biden was specifically involved the Atlantic Council move, as the efforts of Republicans to paint Hunter Biden negatively rely entirely on very weak circumstantial associations, the key here is that the only circumstantial evidence we do have shows that the situation with corruption got better, not worse, after Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma and after Joe Biden’s request to remove Shokin was honored.
Another obvious reality is that Trump, Republicans, the Russians, their agents, and Shokin himself have lied, engaging in a chaotic assault on reality by subscribing to not the obvious reality but its opposite: not that Biden had put his son’s position at risk to push for a prosecutor general in Ukraine that would actually tackle corruption, but the lie that Shokin was actively looking into Burisma and that Biden had him removed to protect his son and Burisma’s corruption. That lie—we already established it was completely unsupported by any substantive evidence, and Shokin can certainly not be thought of as credible—has become the mantra in a Kremlin-style disinformation campaign of the Republican party, Trump, his White House, Giuliani and his associates, and Shokin himself, along with the Kremlin and its media arms joined with right-wing American media, much to their discredit and disgrace. The even bigger disgrace is the impression of false equivalence put out by all too many of the more respectable outlets.
The favoritism shown Hunter Biden is far from rare and he is far from the poster-child of nepotism, but there is a place for a conversation about his preferential treatment. Yet that place is not the 2020 election cycle, since the actions of the father—a different person and regarding whom zero evidence exists he did anything other than put aside thoughts of his son’s job with Burisma when engaging in Ukraine policy as a representative of the United States Government advancing the interests of the United States and its ally Ukraine—are not the actions of the son and since the Trump family, whom Biden hopes to oust from the White House in November 2020, are in a league of their own crassness in American national-level politics. The counternarrative pushed by Trump, Giuliani, their associates in the U.S. and Ukraine and by extremist Kremlin and American media fly in the face of clear reality, and that their counternarrative at all even has a major place in the public discussion is already a defeat. And with more and more of an unholy alliance between Kremlin media, American right-wing media, and even media in other countries, this will only get worse.
In the interest of full disclosure, Brian interned for Joe Biden from September-December 2006.
This article has been adapted from Brian’s new eBook, A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia, or, Ukrainegate: A “New” Phase in the Trump-Russia Saga Made from Recycled Materials, available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook; preview here
© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981
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