It is now becoming increasingly clear that President Donald Trump threatened Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky with the loss of military aid unless Ukraine pursued an investigation that Mr. Trump hoped would politically embarrass his chief 2020 rival, Joe Biden. On Monday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he raised Mr. Biden in a July phone call with Mr. Zelensky.
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Mr. Trump told reporters Monday.
At issue is Mr. Biden’s effort to compel Kiev to remove Ukraine’s former state prosecutor Victor Shokin. International observers widely considered Mr. Shokin to be enabling corruption by refusing to pursue prosecutions against corrupt allies. International donors did not want to issue loan guarantees until they could be confident that Kiev would address growing corruption.
At a Council on Foreign Relations event last year Mr. Biden recalled how, as Vice President, he refused to agree to a $1 billion loan guarantee backed by the US and IMF unless Ukraine took steps to implement anti-corruption measures. Specifically, Mr. Biden wanted Ukraine’s government to sack Mr. Shokin.
“I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,’” Mr. Biden recalled. “Well, son of a bitch. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
Hunter Biden’s Connection to Ukraine
It turns out, that Mr. Shorkin’s office was investigating a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma. Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, served on Burisma’s board at the time. However, the Biden camp insists that Mr. Biden and his son never spoke about this and that it had no bearing on his action.
Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for Mr. Biden’s campaign, told the New York Times that that Mr. Biden undertook his effort to remove Mr. Shokin “without any regard for how it would or would not impact any business interests of his son, a private citizen.”
Further, it is not clear that Shokin’s investigation against Burisma was actually all that active. According to Politifact, there are conflicting reports. Some in Shorkin’s office say the investigation was dormant at the time. Burisma maintains that the threat of an investigation was merely a shakedown intended to solicit bribes from the company.
Yet, in spite of the potential that Mr. Biden’s son might benefit, there was nevertheless ample justification for Mr. Biden’s push for Ukraine to fire him.
Widespread Concerns About Shokin
The IMF, the U.S. and international partners all agreed the Shokin was a problem. It would be a mistake to extend load unless they could be confident that the state prosecutor would aggressively pursue corruption.
In early 2016, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said that “it’s hard to see how the I.M.F.-supported program can continue” unless corruption prosecutions accelerate.
Also, after Ukraine’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to force Mr. Shokin out, Jan Tombinski, the EU’s envoy to Ukraine, praised the move as “an opportunity to make a fresh start.” He added that he hoped that Kiev would name a new prosecutor who will ensure that the prosecutor’s office “becomes independent from political influence and pressure and enjoys public trust.”
The Bottom Line
There were legitimate reasons for Mr. Biden to push for Mr. Shokin’s ouster and international observers widely agreed that Shokin was not doing his job and was woefully corrupt. So, there is a plausible explanation for Biden’s action that doesn’t involve a corrupt motive.
Further, there is no evidence that Mr. Biden intended to benefit his son. Yet, at the least his son’s business ties created the appearance of a conflict of interest. Mr. Biden should have been more cautious about the appearance of impropriety.
Finally, Mr. Biden’s judgement in this matter is fair game for Trump’s campaign. It would be entirely appropriate for the Trump campaign to hire researchers to investigate Mr. Biden’s actions, much as Ms. Clinton and the Democrats did in 2016 to look into Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. Still, this does not excuse Mr. Trump’s leveraging of public resources for personal political gain. Presidents must separate the duties of the office and their own interests. President Trump’s actions are a reminder of his continuing failure to understand the distinction.