For several days last week, I avoided commenting on the story involving an allegedly problematic 'promise' allegedly made by President Trump to a foreign leader. Details were thin-to-nonexistent, and I was very much cognizant of the wider context of the media repeatedly blowing various reports out of proportion -- often based on speculation and incomplete information -- during the whole Russia saga. By Friday, some more apparent answers had emerged, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that Trump had urged the leader of Ukraine to investigate accusations involving the Biden family:
President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden ’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent. “He told him that he should work with [Mr. Giuliani] on Biden, and that people in Washington wanted to know” if his lawyer’s assertions that Mr. Biden acted improperly as vice president were true, one of the people said. Mr. Giuliani has suggested Mr. Biden’s pressure on Ukraine to fight corruption had to do with an investigation of a gas company for which his son was a director. A Ukrainian official this year said he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Biden or his son Hunter Biden. Mr. 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.
The president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, appeared on CNN late last week, first denying that he'd pressured Ukrainian officials to look into the Bidens, then pulling an abrupt about-face and confirming that he'd done exactly that. If the president did indeed deputize his personal lawyer to pursue oppo research against his potential 2020 challenger from a foreign government, reiterating that appeal directly to the foreign government's leader, that seems unethical and inappropriate (even if it's not illegal). People who've argued that presidents have the right to say anything they want to foreign leaders should also acknowledge that the content of any such discussions are not exempt from potential consequences. If they're deemed seriously improper by Congress, they can be punished via various mechanisms.
As for the manner in which this accusation was flagged, it seems the unidentified whistleblower filed a formal report with a nonpartisan watchdog, which strikes me as sound protocol. It's certainly preferable to leaking sensitive information to the press, and it may have been politically savvier than bringing the issue to the FBI, whose handling of a previous probe involving this president has sowed mistrust among many Americans. If you see something that you believe is urgent and wrong, going to the Inspector General is a reasonable and responsible move. Question, though: Did this 'whistleblower' actually personally witness the conduct he or she reported up the chain? Hmm:
“The whistleblower didn't have direct knowledge of the communications, an official briefed on the matter told CNN.”— Robert Laurie (@RobertLaurie) September 21, 2019
Then they’re not really a “”whistleblower.” They’re just spreading a rumor. https://t.co/GjBKxMgVLL
No direct knowledge? That seems...strange. But the Trump/Zelensky conversation hasn't been denied, and Giuliani outright admitted that he was involved in precisely this sort of anti-Biden effort. The lack of an explicit quid pro quo, as reported in the Journal, may seem partially exculpatory, but Allahpundit's comparison here is apt: "If you’re waiting on a life-and-death loan from the bank and the head of the bank calls you up asking for a personal favor, does he need to literally say the words “do it or you won’t get your loan” for you to understand the consequences if you decline?" A quid pro quo doesn't necessarily need to be explicitly spelled out to be extremely obvious to all parties involved. But what if Trump was just pushing for Ukraine to clean up its act on corruption? That's the high-minded defense I've seen of this episode. But if that were the case, (a) the president didn't have to invoke the Biden-tied issue eight times, and (b) why was Rudy involved?
Rudy says Trump is just "doing his job" when he presses the Ukrainian president to investigate corruption -- but why does the president's personal counsel have to be involved? The presence of personal counsel implies the request was a personal favor: https://t.co/ORzvbU7Rr3— David French (@DavidAFrench) September 20, 2019
On the substance of the Biden-Ukraine controversy Trump et al want investigated, it might amount to a nothingburger (the prosecutor Biden boasted of using the Obama administration's leverage to get fired was considered deeply corrupt, and there's no smoking gun evidence at this point that Biden was trying to protect his son's business interests). But I think it's very premature to simply declare this a non-issue. "There is a story here" about Biden's involvement in the matter, a New York Times reporter said on MSNBC last week, outraging liberals who want this controversy to be exclusively damaging to Trump. Biden has also been caught in an apparent contradiction on this subject:
To me, this is not an either/or situation, in which there are either ethical problems for Trump, or for Biden. It could be both. These statements generally reflect my attitude:
Seems pretty simple: There are open questions about Biden and Ukraine, but it’s not something that Trump should be raising with Ukraine’s President.— Chuck Ross (@ChuckRossDC) September 21, 2019
This point will doubtless be lost on both sides, but whether there are legitimate grounds to criticize Biden over his son's Ukrainian ventures is a separate question from whether Trump acted improperly in trying to get it.— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) September 20, 2019
I just love the partisan hack mirror imaging.— Drew McCoy (@_Drew_McCoy_) September 21, 2019
And that's not to say both sides are equally right/wrong. Team Trump has a long way to go to prove Biden acted on personal interest.
Meanwhile *IF* reports of Trump's statements are true, it's clearly about personal gain.
I'll leave you with Andy McCarthy's thorough analysis of this furor's various moving parts (I concur with his call for a continued investigation, and the need for more facts), as well as a frustrated AOC asserting that at this point, the greatest scandal in Washington is her own party's complicity in Trump's corruption, or something:
At this point, the bigger national scandal isn’t the president’s lawbreaking behavior - it is the Democratic Party’s refusal to impeach him for it.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) September 22, 2019
Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor that Biden pushed to oust, actually *hampered* the investigations into the owner of Burisma Group—whose board Hunter Biden sat on—and effectively squashed one probe in London by failing to cooperate w/U.K. authorities. https://t.co/KOMBSUZ1Xf— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) September 22, 2019