Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
A whistleblower complaint filed August 12 reportedly alleges that President Donald Trump tried to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Now, Trump and his allies are trying to muddy the waters and turn a conspiracy theory involving Joe Biden and Ukraine into an allegation of corruption against Biden.
The Biden-Ukraine connection began as an internet conspiracy theory that burst into the mainstream last week. On September 18, The Washington Post reported that a whistleblower complaint filed August 12 involved Trump’s communications with a foreign leader. Trump’s interaction included a “promise” that was “regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community.” Speculation and additional reporting suggested that the complaint involved Trump requesting that Ukraine open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s role in potentially halting an investigation into a Ukrainian energy company whose board members included his son, Hunter Biden. On September 19, Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani appeared on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time and denied, then admitted, then denied again that he had asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Additional reporting from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times appeared to confirm the whistleblower complaint, providing new additional details. The Post and the Times then both confirmed that Giuliani had met with an aide days after Trump’s call to spell out more specifics
Trump and his allies are relying on the complexity of the story to muddy the waters, pushing out a slew of myths in a rush to provide cover for Trump as details surrounding the story continue to emerge. Trump’s allies in right-wing media are frantically trying to reframe the story to be about Biden’s supposed corruption in Ukraine, push false or misleading information about the Ukrainian prosecutor at the center of the story, discredit the whistleblower as a “deep state” snitch seeking to undermine Trump, insist that Trump was just engaging in run-of-the-mill foreign policy discussions, and assert that the Trump administration doesn’t have a responsibility to turn the complaint over the Congress.
Here are six myths and facts surrounding Trump, Biden, Ukraine, and the whistleblower complaint:
Myth: The real story is alleged Biden corruption in Ukraine
Right-wing media have rushed to try to make the story not about Trump attempting to force a foreign country to investigate a political opponent, but about Biden’s connections in Ukraine. Trump and Giuliani allege that then-Vice President Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor — Viktor Shokin — overseeing a corruption investigation of one of Ukraine’s biggest gas companies, Burisma Group. Biden’s son, Hunter, was serving on the company’s board at the time.
Over the weekend, Fox & Friends Saturday guest Peter Schweizer called for the Department of Justice to investigate Biden, and Fox host Sean Hannity declared that he is “happy at the news” because of the opportunity to expose Biden. Conservative talk radio host Sebastian Gorka tweeted that Trump “did it again” and “now everyone’s talking about @JoeBiden’s corruption.” On Friday’s edition of The Ingraham Angle, Laura Ingraham brought Schweizer and Fox contributor Gregg Jarrett on to discuss what Schweizer called the “underlying story” of Biden’s corruption that Jarrett said “nobody in the media seems to be talking about.” Jarrett added that the whistleblower is really “an American spy spying on the president.”
Fact: There is no evidence of any wrongdoing on Biden’s part
The Biden-Ukraine “connection” is a conspiracy theory that has been circulating among right-wing media for months. In reality, the push to get Shokin fired was a part of a Ukrainian anti-corruption effort by advocates and international supporters of Ukraine. It was well-established that the United States’ position was that ousting Shokin was a critical aspect of anti-corruption measures. At the time of his removal, The New York Times reported that the “United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin” for “turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.”
In May, Daria Kaleniuk, a lawyer who founded Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, expressed frustration at how the false accusation was being portrayed by some. The Intercept reported that Kaleniuk felt that “there is simply no truth to the rumor now spreading like wildfire across the internet” and that the reality “is that Shokin was forced from office at Biden’s urging because he had failed to conduct thorough investigations of corruption, and had stifled efforts to investigate embezzlement and misconduct by public officials following the 2014 uprising.”
Reporter Daniel Dale also fact-checked the matter for CNN:
Myth: There was nothing untoward about Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin
Conservative media often focus on Shokin’s title without noting his widespread reputation for corruption. Giuliani claimed that Hunter Biden and the Burisma company “were being investigated by that prosecutor” — referring to Shokin — and that Biden forced the president of Ukraine “to dismiss Prosecutor Shokin who was investigating son and son’s company.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial page also repeats the claim: “The prosecutor was investigating, among other things, a Ukrainian natural gas company that hired Hunter Biden, Joe’s son, as a director and also retained Hunter’s law firm.”
Frequently conservative media, such as this opinion piece from John Solomon, do not note Shokin’s actual reputation, only calling him a Ukrainian prosecutor.
Fact: The Obama administration, along with the international community and Ukrainian activists, pushed to remove Shokin because of his own corruption
The Obama administration sent Biden to condemn Shokin’s tenure as prosecutor general because of his widespread reputation for corruption.
Shokin’s tenure as prosecutor general was marked by keeping in place holdovers from the corrupt regime of former President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of now-President Vladimir Putin. At the time, Shokin was also close to then-president Petro Poroshenko, contributing to Ukraine’s global reputation for corruption.
The International Monetary Fund cited Shokin’s continued term in office as among the reasons that a $40 billion aid package could be withheld.
Shokin had also become a target of popular protests in Ukraine, demanding that he be fired for such acts as launching an investigation against a Ukrainian anti-corruption watchdog group, as well as his having fired anti-corruption prosecutors.
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) March 28, 2016
In fact, as a Wall Street Journal news report explained, this corruption also included reported inaction by Shokin in the case of the natural gas businessman at the center of this story, Mykola Zlochevsky, and the Burisma Holdings firm. Shokin actually undermined a much vaunted attempt by British authorities to freeze $23.5 million worth of Zlochevsky’s assets.
Moreover, former deputy prosecutor general Vitaliy Kasko told Bloomberg this past May that the Burisma case in Shokin’s office had been long dormant: “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.” And while Kenneth Vogel and The New York Times said in May that Shokin had Hunter Biden’s employer “in [his] sights,” Vogel reported on September 22 that Shokin was “not aggressively pursuing investigations into Mr. Zlochevsky or Burisma.”
Shokin’s eventual firing was publicly hailed by European leaders. When he was fired, The New York Times described him as “one of several political figures in Kiev whom reformers and Western diplomats saw as a worrying indicator of a return to past corrupt practices, two years after a revolution that was supposed to put a stop to self-dealing by those in power.”
The bottom line: Given the widespread calls for Shokin’s dismissal, there is no disputing that Obama administration efforts were driven by good faith efforts to reduce corruption in the office.
Myth: Shokin was investigating Burisma, the firm that Hunter Biden worked with
The claim that Shokin was investigating Burisma and Biden was at the heart of a May story in The New York Times by Ken Vogel. Right-wing media have frequently parroted the claim as well. On May 9, Fox News contributor Dan Bongino even suggested that frequent Fox guest John Solomon receive a Pulitzer for saying so.
Fact: Shokin was not actively investigating Burisma
As a Wall Street Journal news report explained, Shokin “dragged his feet” in the case of the natural gas businessman at the center of this story, Mykola Zlochevsky, and his Burisma Holdings. Shokin undermined a vaunted attempt by British authorities to freeze $23 million worth of Zlochevsky’s assets.
Moreover, former deputy prosecutor general Vitaliy Kasko told Bloomberg this past May that the Burisma case in Shokin’s office had been long dormant: “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.” And while Ken Vogel and the New York Times said in May that the investigation by Shokin had Hunter Biden’s employer “in his sights,” Vogel reported on September 22 that Shokin was “not aggressively pursuing investigations into Zlochevsky or Burisma.” In fact, Vogel reported that the Obama administration made efforts to support Ukrainian and British investigations into Burisma and Zlochevsky; he also reported in the piece that Zlochevsky believed that Shokin was using the threat of an investigation to solicit a bribe.
The entire foundation of @kenvogel’s May 1 piece was that Biden pushed for the ouster of the Ukrainian prosecutor when the prosecutor had Hunter Biden’s employer “in his sights”
Buried in tonight’s piece, Vogel admits that the investigation was actually INACTIVE pic.twitter.com/lvPKtERBiY
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) September 23, 2019
Myth: The whistleblower is a partisan “deep state” snitch who committed a crime by undermining Trump
Trump’s allies in the media have been quick to try to discredit the anonymous whistleblower. On Fox & Friends, Fox News contributor Geraldo Rivera called the whistleblower a “deep state” punk who’s “snitching out the president’s phone calls to a foreign leader.” Fox host Jesse Watters called the whistleblower a “snake” and said that the complaint amounted to a “coup.” Justice with Judge Jeanine guest Tom Fitton claimed the whistleblower complaint was the “next phase of the coup” and called for an investigation into Biden. Hannity suggested that the whistleblower committed a “crime” and spied on the president.
Fox News contributor Dan Bongino appeared on Fox & Friends to claim that the complaint is part two of the “collusion hoax,” referring to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. He added that “I can’t believe they’re falling for this again.” Hannity insisted that “somebody probably has a political agenda,” and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs mused that the complaint is likely “pure nonsense, bunkum.”
Fact: The identity of the whistleblower is still unknown, and the inspector general agreed that the complaint was credible and lawful under current protocols set for whistleblowing to expose unlawful activity
The identity of the whistleblower is still unknown, making assertions that they’re a partisan deep state snitch ring hollow. Additionally, the whistleblower correctly followed protocol established by the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998. Under this statute, a whistleblower is protected from retaliation so long as they follow protocol when filing a complaint. The complaint was given to Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who then makes the decision whether it is credible. Atkinson determined that the complaint was credible and urgent, prompting him to forward the complaint to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire. In an unprecedented move, Maguire failed to forward the complaint to the intelligence committees within seven days, as required by the statute, and has also refused to comply with subpoenas issued by the House intelligence committee.
Myth: Trump was just engaging in foreign policy and making a deal in his unconventional style
Trump’s allies have also begun to try and normalize Trump and Giuliani’s actions if the complaint turns out to be true, insisting that this is just Trump’s way of interacting with foreign leaders. Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt asserted that “the president’s known for this, The Art of the Deal,” referring to Trump’s memoir touting his negotiation skills. Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh insisted that “the president can say what he wants to anybody” and “the real question here is what the hell is the intelligence community … continuing to do to try to get rid of Donald Trump?” Hannity claimed that Trump is “pursuing truth,” while McCarthy wrote that “the president has the power to conduct foreign policy as he sees fit.”
Fact: Reports on Trump’s phone call point to a clear abuse of power
It is difficult to determine whether the complaint alleges any criminal misconduct at this stage, but many experts agree that using foreign policy and threatening to withhold Ukrainian aid to launch an investigation into a political opponent is a flagrant abuse of power. Supreme Court lawyer and law professor Neal Katyal claimed that the attempts by the Trump administration to conceal the complaint mean that there are “probably tapes and transcripts documenting a gross abuse of power.” Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Noah Bookbinder tweeted that “if the president in fact pressured a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, that is a stunning abuse of power.” Tom Nichols, a right-wing professor specializing in international affairs, wrote that if the complaint is accurate, Trump “should be impeached and removed from office immediately.”
This is the crossroad. We are a republic only because we have elections. We may have different ideas about what “America” is or how well it lives up to all of its ideals, but there’s no legitimate conception of America that doesn’t depend on elections. /1
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) September 22, 2019
Myth: The Trump administration can decide to not hand over the whistleblower complaint to Congress
Steve Doocy claimed on Fox & Friends that the Trump administration does not have to hand over the whistleblower report to Congress because the person did not hear it firsthand, calling it akin to a “rumor.” Fox News figures had also complained that this was just a mere policy disagreement. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNN’s State of the Union that handing it over would set a “terrible precedent.”
Fact: The law requires the executive branch to turn the report over to Congress
The law is perfectly clear. Once the intelligence community inspector general determines that the complaint is of “urgent concern” to the American people, as Michael Atkinson did in this case, then the report must be disclosed to Congress. The Justice Department has concluded that the matter involved did not meet the standards of the law, but Atkinson has stated his disagreement with this conclusion, writing that “the Complainant’s disclosure not only falls within the [director of national intelligence’s] jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI’s responsibilities to the American people.”
The idea that the whistleblower complaint is merely a “policy” disagreement ignores the definition laid out in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of what is covered in its purview: genuine abuses of power and various other violations deemed worthy of “urgent concern.” The inspector general would not have referred the whistleblower complaint Congress if he did not deem the allegation credible and concerning; brushing it off as a mere “policy” difference is an attempt to undermine Congress’ need to see the complaint.