Is Trump Trying to Get Ukraine to Take Out Biden for Him?

How a whistleblower case involving what the U.S. president said to a foreign leader could affect the 2020 election.

Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and current lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks to members of the media during a White House Sports and Fitness Day at the South Lawn of the White House May 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images).
Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and current lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks to members of the media during a White House Sports and Fitness Day at the South Lawn of the White House May 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images).

A festering controversy in which acting U.S. Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to give Congress details of a whistleblower complaint involving President Donald Trump is threatening to erupt into a major scandal, one that could affect the 2020 election.

On Thursday evening, the Washington Post reported that the whistleblower complaint made by an anonymous intelligence official involved the nation of Ukraine. No further details about the complaint have been revealed, but in the weeks before the whistleblower’s report, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over the phone. A Ukrainian summary of their call on July 25 states that Trump said he was sure the new Ukrainian government “will be able to quickly improve the image of Ukraine, and complete the investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”

The remark raised concerns in Washington that Trump, in his talk with Zelensky, was making a thinly veiled reference to efforts by his lawyer, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to encourage Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, the former vice president who is one of his leading Democratic challengers ahead of the 2020 presidential race. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had pressured Zelensky over the Biden investigation eight separate times during the call. 

Earlier this month, lawmakers across three Democrat-led House committees opened investigations into whether the White House had threatened to withhold $250 million in military aid from Ukraine in a bid to pressure Kyiv to investigate the former vice president, whose son Hunter had business dealings in the country. The Wall Street Journal report said that Trump did not mention U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine while on the phone with Zelensky.

As if the situation wasn’t already muddled enough, in a freewheeling appearance on CNN on Thursday evening, Giuliani flop-flopped as to whether he had asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, finally saying that he had.

Confused as to how we got here? Here’s a reminder of Giuliani’s recent history in Ukraine, which may provide the backdrop to the whistleblower complaint. 

Connecting Biden and Burisma

Stories have swirled that Giuliani was taking advantage of Ukraine’s fractious politics in a bid to dig up political dirt on Trump’s political rivals and, in particular, Joe Biden. 

The crux of Giuliani’s allegations center on the business interests of Hunter Biden. Giuliani claims that Joe Biden, who was former President Barack Obama’s point person on the crisis in Ukraine, encouraged the government of Ukraine to fire then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was investigating allegations of corruption at gas company Burisma Group, where Biden’s son was a board member. Biden allegedly even threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid to Ukraine if Shokin wasn’t removed from his position. 

Hunter Biden’s seat on the Burisma board did create a possible conflict of interest for the then-vice president, but he was not the only voice calling for Shokin’s dismissal. International institutions, multiple agencies of the U.S. government, and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists all saw Shokin as a major obstacle in Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts, failing to prosecute major cases and blocking attempts at reform. Shokin was eventually voted out of office by an overwhelming majority of votes in the Ukrainian parliament. 

Earlier this year, Yuriy Lutsenko, who was the prosecutor general, told Bloomberg News that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son, and fact-checks by the Washington Post and Politifact both reached the same conclusion. Still, the narrative was seized upon by Trump, Giuliani, and conservative commentators. 

In May, shortly after the election of the comedian-turned-president Zelensky, Giuliani had been scheduled to travel to Ukraine to try to convince the nation’s new leader to investigate two matters that Trump could stand to gain from politically ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The first related to raising questions about the origins of the U.S. special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference, in a bid to discredit the probe that dogged the first two years of the Trump presidency. The second involved Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma Group. “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation,” Giuliani told the New York Times, which first revealed details of the trip. 

While Giuliani eventually canceled his trip, his efforts to induce a foreign country to pursue an investigation with the goal of influencing a U.S. election caused a public outcry. 

What’s At Stake?

The administration’s decision to temporarily withhold $250 million in military aid to Ukraine so alarmed lawmakers in Washington it prompted the Democrat-controlled House intelligence, foreign affairs, and oversight committees to open investigations into whether Trump or his allies sought to pressure the Ukrainian government into digging up dirt on Biden to aid the president’s reelection bid. (Military aid to Ukraine was later reinstated.)

Among the documents sought by the committees is the transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky, which could possibly feature in the whistleblower complaint filed by an intelligence official. 

Meanwhile, the the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a letter sent to Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, argued that the office was within its right to withhold the complaint from Congress. He said the complaint involved someone who was outside of the U.S. intelligence community and that the substance of the complaint “did not relate to any ‘intelligence activity’ under the DNI’s supervision.”

On Friday, Trump rebuffed questions from reporters about the substance of his call with Zelensky in July: “It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this: Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden.” Zelensky and Trump are due to meet next week at the United Nations General Assembly. 

Giuliani’s freelancing has put Ukraine’s leadership in an uncomfortable position, raising fears in Kyiv that it could erode bipartisan U.S. support for Ukraine as it continues to fight a war with Russian-backed separatists in the east and pursues an ambitious reform program. Despite Trump’s apparent affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his administration has been a strong supporter of Ukraine, including arming the country with antitank missile systems, a step the Obama administration had been hesitant to take. 

If the U.S.-Ukraine relationship is undermined by Giuliani’s pursuit of dirt on Biden, there is only one party that stands to gain: Russia. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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