How Trump's messy Ukraine scandal feels a lot like 2016
Recent revelations about President Trump pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate Vice President Joe Biden have spurred a rising wave of calls for impeachment. As more details trickle out about Trump’s efforts to discredit one of his premier political rivals, the explosive story has also evoked an eerie resemblance to the 2016 election.
First, a quick recap: Last week, news broke that Trump reportedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate hypothetical misconduct by Biden during his vice presidency on behalf of his son Hunter, who at the time was serving on the board of a Ukranian gas company. Trump has seized on the ousting of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who at one point was investigating the company Hunter Biden was involved with, suggesting that the elder Biden somehow used his might as vice president to remove Shokin in an effort to protect his son.
The rumors of malpractice by Biden are unfounded; the investigation into the oil company was long-dormant by the time Biden was working as vice president to remove Shokin, and Shokin’s tenure was purportedly a sham anyway. But in the process of urging Zelensky to investigate the matter during a July phone call, Trump made a “promise” to the Ukranian leader that was so troubling it prompted a whistleblower complaint from an intelligence official, apparently related to an earlier threat to withhold $250 million in aid money.
On Sunday, Trump poured more fuel on the fire when he gave a marginally comprehensible answer to reporters asking about his phone call with 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 [Biden] and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump said, per The New York Times.
This latest episode of ham-handed presidential malfeasance evokes vivid memories of 2016, when Trump famously asked the Russian government “if you’re listening” to release his then-opponent Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails. Republican supporters at the time rallied around the charge that Clinton’s emails would reveal some nefarious wrongdoing, rather than object to the fact that Trump had called for foreign interference in a U.S. election. This time around, it’s no different: The GOP has once again chosen to focus on the baseless allegation Trump has made against a political opponent and ignore their own candidate’s seemingly blatant misconduct.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally, declared in an interview with Fox News on Sunday that he was “hoping that the Department of Justice will look at the Biden-Ukraine connection the way that we looked at Trump-Russia connection.” Meanwhile, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani tweeted early Monday that the “Biden scandal” was “only beginning.”
Nevermind that recent reports have shown that Biden’s actions with regard to Shokin actually made it more likely that his son Hunter would face prosecution. Republicans have used the dubious claims to smear Biden — who is, not coincidentally, currently Trump’s top 2020 competitor.
Additionally, the allegations about Trump’s communication with Ukraine are quite similar to the actions outlined in the investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office earlier this year. Mueller’s report stated that the Trump campaign welcomed “sweeping and systemic” Russian interference during the 2016 election, hoping that it would prove advantageous, and Mueller warned in subsequent congressional testimony that Russia continues to pose a threat to our democracy. Last week’s news suggests the president has yet to learn any lessons about welcoming foreign interference.
In a darkly comic twist, both the Clinton email story as well as the Biden-Ukraine story seem to have originated from dubious books by the conservative reporter Peter Schweizer. In the lead-up to 2016, Schweizer published a book called Clinton Cash, which investigated alleged bribes to the Clinton Foundation while Clinton was working at the State Department; in 2018, he published Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, which discussed at length the idea that the younger Biden had done something improper by working for companies in Ukraine while his father was vice president.
Just as he did with Clinton’s emails, Trump has been able to weaponize the media against a political opponent by repeating confusing, false claims, which are then given seeming credence when they are addressed by reporters. Writing in Columbia Journalism Review, contributor Jon Allsop urged that “when it comes to Trump’s alleged attempts to solicit Ukrainian interference ahead of 2020, let’s proceed in [the spirit of rigorous reporting], and not the spirit of reactionary false equivalence.”
As the Ukraine story continues to unfold, it remains to be seen what consequences — if any — Trump might face. “It is way too early to tell if the Ukraine issue will produce the momentum for impeachment in the House,” Alex Theodoridis, a professor of political science at the University of California at Merced, told Mic. “Trump's political existence has been characterized by a series of stories that, in the heat of the news cycle, are pronounced the last straw, the thing that will finally do him in.” And while “each of these scandals might have been enough to bring down most politicians,” Theodoridis said, none has been the one to fell Trump.
Theodoridis did note however that although “Trump has seemed largely impervious to real consequences ... there are features of this episode that may make it different. It adds a more recent transgression to a pattern of behavior that, by most standards, is impeachable.”
Whether Democrats can agree on that is still a question. In yet another 2016 parallel, the question of how best to combat Trump has exposed deep divisions within the party. Four years ago, tensions between supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and those in Clinton’s camp resulted in an internal wedge that may have contributed to Trump’s victory; this time around, it’s impeachment that is separating the party’s left-most flank and its more centrist wing. Even as more than half of the Democratic caucus has called for impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has so far refused to move the issue forward.
“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,” wrote New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, reflecting the party’s more progressive bloc.
While House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff wrote that Trump had “crossed the Rubicon,” Pelosi only went so far as to say that if the White House continued to bury the whistleblower complaint, “they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.” She didn’t specify what that new stage might entail, and she’s been making similarly vague statements for the past year as she attempts to keep both sides of her caucus in line.
But in light of behavior as cartoonishly troublesome as what Trump is alleged to have done, refusing to hold the president accountable seems to some less like prudent caution and more like an abdication of Congress’s fundamental duty to check presidential power. It also may be a risk for Democrats desperate to win back the White House in 2020.
After all, as Mark Twain once said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”