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Trump Resorts to Familiar Tactics in Ukraine Story

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Amid renewed calls for his impeachment following suggestions that he urged the President of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family, Donald Trump is doing what he always does: attacking the media and trying to shift the focus of outrage to his political opponents. On Friday night, he hosted a state dinner in the Rose Garden for Scott Morrison, the conservative Prime Minister of Australia, who is an avowed admirer of the U.S. President. 

In a pair of tweets on Saturday morning, Trump said, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, want to stay as far away as possible from the Joe Biden demand that the Ukrainian Government fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son, or they won’t get a very large amount of U.S. money, so they fabricate a story about me and a perfectly fine and routine conversation I had with the new President of the Ukraine. Nothing was said that was in any way wrong, but Biden’s demand, on the other hand, was a complete and total disaster.”

Trump didn’t provide any evidence to support his allegation against Biden, which his lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been pushing for months, without providing any evidence, either. (A Ukrainian official has denied that Biden did anything wrong.) In contrast, the allegation that Trump pressured the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Biden appears to have more substance. It is based on a complaint by an anonymous intelligence whistle-blower, which the acting director of National Intelligence has refused to turn over to Congress, as he is required by law to do. 

If the allegations are a fabrication, as Trump claims, they are certainly an elaborate one, with new details emerging—or being leaked—every day. “President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son . . . urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday evening, citing people familiar with the matter. Trump told Zelensky “that he should work with [Mr. Giuliani] on Biden,” the Journal story also said, citing the same anonymous sources, “and that people in Washington wanted to know” if Giuliani’s claims that Joe Biden acted improperly as Vice-President are true.

The Journal report did contain one potentially exculpatory detail relating to two hundred and fifty million dollars in U.S. aid to Ukraine, which the Trump Administration, perhaps seeking leverage, had held up for months when Trump spoke with Zelensky. Referring to a separate source, an anonymous Ukrainian official, the story said, “Trump in the call didn’t mention a provision of U.S. aid to Ukraine, said this person, who didn’t believe Mr. Trump offered the Ukrainian president any quid pro quo for his cooperation on any investigation.” Reports out of Kiev have suggested that Ukrainian officials believed Trump was holding up the aid until they agreed to launch a new Biden probe.

Biden has demanded the release of the transcript of the July 25th phone call between Trump and Zelenksy. “If these reports are true, then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country,” Biden said. “This behavior is particularly abhorrent because it exploits the foreign policy of our country and undermines our national security for political purposes.” Biden continued, “It means that he used the power and resources of the United States to pressure a sovereign nation—a partner that is still under direct assault from Russia—pushing Ukraine to subvert the rule of law in the express hope of extracting a political favor.” When reporters at the White House asked Trump about the phone call, he said, “Someone ought to look into Joe Biden.” He also claimed that his discussions with other world leaders are, “at the highest level, always appropriate,” and when he was asked whether he had spoken about Biden in his phone call with Zelensky, he said, “It doesn’t matter what I discussed.”

Trump didn’t go quite as far as Giuliani did on Thursday night, when he told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that Trump had every right to ask the Ukrainian President to investigate Biden. But the President also didn’t deny the central allegation—that he put pressure on Zelensky, and he may well be gearing up to make the argument that, even if he did put the squeeze on a foreign leader to help him out in his 2020 reëlection bid, he didn’t do anything wrong. Pursuing such a strategy would present yet another test of the loyalty that elected Republicans have to their rogue President, and, based on past experience, there is every reason to suppose that almost all of them would fall in line, abjectly. 

As Politico reports, some Trump lackeys in the G.O.P. are trying to dismiss the Ukraine story even before they know what it amounts to. “It looks to me like another deep-state attack,” Senator Josh Hawley, of Missouri, told Fox News on Friday. “We have seen this over and over and over in this Administration from anonymous sources deep inside the bureaucracy.” Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, also tried to discredit the source of the allegations against Trump. “Who is the whistle-blower—is he still working? Because I don’t know anything about him,” McCarthy told reporters on Friday. “I’ve heard rumors it’s somebody who left. Why did he leave? And now this comes up.”

On the other side of the aisle, some senior Democrats are stepping up their calls for impeachment. On Friday evening, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “After the Mueller report, Congress had a duty to begin impeachment. By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump’s latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in US elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president.” In a follow-up tweet, Warren wrote, “A president is sitting in the Oval Office, right now, who continues to commit crimes. He continues because he knows his Justice Department won’t act and believes Congress won’t either. Today’s news confirmed he thinks he’s above the law. If we do nothing, he’ll be right.”

In a post on Friday, I noted that many details of the whole affair remain murky, including exactly what the whistle-blower has alleged. I also provided a brief chronology of the whistle-blower story up to that point, but if you really want to understand what is going on here you need to delve into some of the more in-depth pieces that have sought to explain the background of the story, including the Ukrainian end of it. From 2014 until earlier this year, Biden’s son Hunter was on the board of directors of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings. 

Giuliani claims that Joe Biden pressed the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who had been conducting a corruption probe into Burisma. “However, the case had been dormant before the prosecutor’s firing, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials, and the U.S. ambassador at the time publicly called for the case against the gas tycoon to proceed,” the Washington Post said in a lengthy report on Friday. The Post story went on, “Yuri Lutsenko, the former Ukrainian prosecutor general who succeeded the fired prosecutor, told Bloomberg News in May that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.”

This week’s issue of The Economist provided more details of Giuliani’s role and suggested that his actions crossed the line. It is also worth going back and reading a couple of articles that appeared before the whistle-blower story blew up. In July, my colleague Adam Entous published a long piece about Hunter Biden that looked extensively into his business activities and some of his personal history. In May, Politico ran a story about how Trump and some right-wing activists and researchers were looking to turn Joe and Hunter Biden into targets during the 2020 campaign, much as they targeted Hillary Clinton in 2016. “Last time, he had the right-wing conspiracy media to boost his chants of ‘lock her up,’ but this time he’s going to actually weaponize the federal government against our nominee,” Jesse Ferguson, a former senior spokesman for the Clinton campaign, told Politico.

—— AUTO – GENERATED; Published (Halifax Canada Time AST) on: September 22, 2019 at 12:17AM

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