President Trump has all but admitted he asked the Ukrainian government to investigate a political opponent, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he threatened to withhold Congress-approved aid if the country were to refuse to comply.
Specifically, the president and his surrogates are pressing the media to investigate Biden’s connection to the ouster of a prosecutor there. “Sleepy Joe Biden … forced a tough prosecutor out from investigating his son’s company by threat of not giving big dollars to Ukraine,” Trump tweeted Sunday night. “That’s the real story!”
Now, this may be difficult to believe, but what actually happened between Biden and Ukraine is far more complicated than the president claims. In fact, it isn’t really that much of a controversy at all. Here’s a brief rundown of what inspired Trump’s latest efforts to get a foreign government to investigate one of his chief political opponents.
From February 2015 to March 2016, Viktor Shokin was prosecutor general of Ukraine. His ouster was the result of pressure from a large consensus of Western nations, including the United States, that were concerned Shokin was at the center of a lot of the country’s corruption. Their concern peaked when, in February 2016, Shokin’s own deputy prosecutor, Vitaly Kasko, resigned, citing the corruption and cronyism within the office. “The General Prosecutor’s Office has become a dead institution, which nobody believes is independent,” Kasko said at the time.
Biden was one of the leaders of the effort to remove Shokin, and a month after Kasko’s resignation, he threatened to withhold American loan guarantees from Ukraine so long as Shokin was heading the prosecutor’s office. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, also threatened to withdraw financial support for Ukraine unless it cleaned up its corruption problem. Pretty much everyone recognized Shokin had to go, and a month later Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove him from office.
Nothing to see here, right? Not quite, according to the Trump administration. While Shokin was still in power, his office investigated a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma Holdings. Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the company’s board, a role for which he received payments of up to $50,000 per month. But according to CNN, at least one official in the prosecutor’s office said the investigation had been suspended by the time Biden threatened to withhold financial aid until Shokin was removed. The former vice president also did not appear to do anything to thwart other efforts, including those of the Obama administration, to investigate Burisma.
There also doesn’t seem to have been much legitimacy to Shokin’s investigation in the first place. According to tweets from Russia’s Crony Capitalism author and Ukraine expert Anders Åslund, the inquiry was likely nothing more than an effort to extort Mykola Zlochevsky, the company’s owner. “A prosecutor in Ukraine is usually a person who uses state power to investigate crimes, but after having done so the prosecutor goes to the culprit & extorts him or her, after which the prosecutor closes the case,” he wrote before noting that Shokin’s case against Burisma was quickly closed.
The same may have been true of Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who also investigated Burisma before closing the case 10 months later. “Lutsenko did not prosecute any serious criminal during his 3 years in office,” explained Åslund.
10. Only perverted crooks can put more credence in Shokin & Lutsenko than Biden. (I know them all three.)
— Anders Åslund (@anders_aslund) September 21, 2019
Despite having previously closed the case against Burisma, Lutsenko decided to reopen it this year for reasons that are unclear. It might have had something to do, however, with Rudy Giuliani inviting Lutsenko to New York last year and ultimately meeting with him in January. Nevertheless, nothing came of the second effort to go after Burisma, and Lutsenko is no longer in office after new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested his removal.
It was a late-July call with Zelensky that reportedly prompted the whistleblower complaint that has ignited the scandal over Trump’s alleged extortion of Ukraine’s new government. On that call, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son. Meanwhile, Trump has been considering blocking U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
Trump has called the report “Fake News” while claiming there was nothing untoward about the call with Zelensky that reportedly prompted the whistleblower complaint. “What I said was so good,” the president told reporters on Sunday. “It was a great conversation. It was a really great conversation. Everybody will say that.”