Goooood question. I can think of a guy who spent a lot of time around Trump in foreign-policy contexts in 2018 and 2019, where this exact subject might reasonably have come up, who might have something to say about it.
Several guys, actually. Will any of them be called to the stand to shed some light on the matter?
I’ve asked this same question myself in posts. Trump’s core defense until this week was that he had a legitimate public purpose in nudging Ukraine to reopen the Burisma probe, exposing possible corruption by a former U.S. vice president to protect his possibly crooked son. Democrats countered by accusing him of an illegitimate private purpose, wanting to damage Biden in the expectation that he’ll be Trump’s Democratic opponent in this fall’s election. Is there any way to discern the truth about the president’s motive? One way would be to look at the timeline of his interest in the Biden/Burisma matter. The earlier Trump started inquiring about it, the easier it is to believe that he was interested in fighting corruption for its own sake, not because he was trying to get a leg up on 2020. Is there any evidence that he asked about it before Biden became a candidate?
I mean, the Ukraine thing has been front-page news since late September. We had an impeachment inquiry, testimony by a variety of witnesses, a formal vote to impeach, and now a Senate trial. You would think at some point some current or former aide would have stepped up and said, “Oh, sure, he was chattering to me about this in 2017. He’s always wondered about the Bidens.”
Has anyone made that claim? Even a single person, despite the obvious benefits it would have to Trump’s defense if it could be established? Lindsey Graham has spent the past two weeks insisting that it’s high time that someone looked at the Bidens and Burisma, neglecting the fact that his party had total control of Congress for the first two years of Trump’s presidency and never made a move in that direction. Why not?
Patrick Philbin, one of Trump’s lawyers, made a game attempt to answer the question posed by Collins and Murkowski. Watch, then read on:
Q: Before Biden entered the 2020 race in April 2019, did Trump mention Joe or Hunter in connection with corruption in Ukraine to former President Poroshenko or other Ukrainian officials, Trump's cabinet officials or top aides or others? If so, what did Trump say to whom and when? pic.twitter.com/63XGPHXptV
— POLITICO (@politico) January 29, 2020
There are three parts to his reply:
1. He’s limited to what’s in the House record. Obviously he can’t know everything Trump has said in every conversation since he’s been president. Although, again, Bolton — and Pompeo, and Mulvaney — could illuminate this subject considerably.
2. Trump couldn’t raise the Biden/Burisma issue with Ukraine’s former president, Poroshenko, because Poroshenko was the guy who fired the Ukrainian prosecutor at Joe Biden’s urging. How could POTUS ask for an investigation into corruption from an official who participated in the allegedly corrupt act? He had to wait until Zelensky was president to ask. A smart answer — although Collins’s and Murkowski’s question also asked whether Trump had raised Biden and Burisma with any of his own advisors. Did he broach the subject privately, among his own team? Any evidence of that would suggest that Trump’s interest in the subject wasn’t piqued by the election.
3. In fact, Team Trump was looking at Biden before he formally jumped in. Giuliani was interested in Biden and Burisma as early as fall 2018 in Philbin’s telling. He was interviewing Ukrainians in January 2019 and passing along his notes to the State Department in March 2019. Biden didn’t declare his candidacy until April 25 of that year. QED?
Well, hold on. Here’s a notable story from the Axios archives:
Advisers to President Trump say Joe Biden is the Democrat he most fears running against, and that Pennsylvania is the state he worries most about flipping against him.
Trump’s calculation is based partly on how weak he sees other Democratic possibilities, including Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and partly on who’s capable of appealing to his base of working class whites…
Trump advisers say Biden, like the president, conveys authenticity, is comfortable in his own skin, can work a crowd, and relishes throwing and returning punches.
Date: July 25, 2018, months before Giuliani’s Ukraine effort against Biden got going. Trump was being asked about Biden even before that story appeared, telling CBS a week earlier that Biden would be his “dream” opponent. But of course that’s not true, and virtually all of the head-to-head polling this past fall bore it out. Biden consistently does better against Trump than any other Democratic candidate tested, an outcome Trump himself foresaw per Axios.
That is to say, just because Biden didn’t formally announce until April 25, 2019 doesn’t mean that he wasn’t on the White House’s radar long before then as a likely candidate and probable nominee. Politico reported in August 2018 that Biden led Trump by seven points in an early hypothetical match-up. The AP reported a month later, in September 2018, that Biden would decide on a run by January, news which may or may not have inspired Rudy to get cracking. In October 2018 a CNN poll found Biden leading the Democratic field by 20 points, raising the possibility of an easy primary for Grandpa Joe and a looming match-up with Trump. Trump had plenty of reason before the fall of 2018 to think Biden was his likeliest opponent.
In case we need one more data point about the timeline and what it says about Trump’s and Rudy’s intentions, note that the now-famous NYT story in which Giuliani admitted to the whole scheme to pressure Zelensky for Biden info was published exactly two weeks after Biden’s formal announcement. As soon as Biden was finally in, Rudy was warning the electorate via the country’s biggest newspaper to prepare for dirt on dirty, dirty Joe Biden.
In lieu of an exit question, here’s an old clip of Bolton making the rounds today that’s supposed to discredit him. You’d better believe I’d lie to protect America’s national security, he says, citing the specific example of the secret landing spot for D-Day. The idea, I guess, is that we can’t trust a man who admits he’s willing to dissemble, particularly when we know that Bolton considers Trump’s dovish foreign policy a threat to national security. Isn’t it possible that he’d lie about Trump’s Ukraine conduct in hopes of damaging him politically and seeing him defeated this fall? Well, sure, but this clip is a poor way to illustrate that since everyone in government would answer the same way, particularly in the context of Bolton’s D-Day example. If you want to believe that he has ideological motives for criticizing Trump, have at it, but it’s goofy to treat a comment as prosaic as this as revelatory.
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) January 29, 2020