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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jon Healey: Hunter Biden may leave a bigger stamp on American politics than his father did

By Jon Healey Tribune News Service

It’s all Hunter Biden’s fault. And by all, I mean everything.

Just imagine how the last few months would have played out had Biden not taken a seat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, was leading the Obama administration’s push for a less corrupt government in Ukraine. Look at each key event in the process that led to President Trump’s impeachment in the House and likely acquittal in the Senate.

By the fall of 2015, a number of U.S. and European officials were calling for Ukraine to remove its top prosecutor, Victor Shokin, because he was not pursuing corruption cases aggressively enough. The complaints included Shokin’s handling of the allegations against Burisma and the Ukrainian oligarch who founded it, Mykola Zlochevsky.

That pressure campaign intensified in early 2016, culminating when Joe Biden – per U.S. policy, with Congress in the loop– insisted Shokin be fired if Ukraine wanted to receive $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees. (The International Monetary Fund was also pushing for a more aggressive anti-corruption effort.) The Ukrainian government eventually complied.

End of story, right? Nothing to see here.

For his part, Trump may still have done some bizarre things with Ukraine policy. After all, his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had been forced to resign under a cloud because of his dealings in that country – the New York Times triggered his departure by reporting that Ukraine had found evidence that Manafort had received millions of dollars in off-the-books payments from a pro-Russian political party there.

As Reuters’ Andy Sullivan lays out, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and other supporters of the president viewed Manafort’s downfall as the work of Ukrainians trying to meddle in the U.S. election. So there’s a good chance Trump, bitter that his 2016 victory was stigmatized by Russia’s interference on his behalf, would have pressured the new Ukrainian administration to pursue his bizarre and nonsensical theory about Ukrainians hacking the Democratic National Committee server or his belief that Ukrainian government officials improperly aided Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

(And by the way, writing an opinion piece laying out Ukraine’s concern about candidate Trump’s comments on Russia’s takeover of Crimea is hardly improper. If it were, Trump has crossed that line multiple times with his tweets supporting foreign candidates such as Boris Johnson.)

Trump may even have gone so far as to withhold the aid to Ukraine that Congress approved, in violation of the Impoundment Control Act. And that might even have led to a tell-all book by an irritated John Bolton after he was fired as Trump’s national security adviser.

But violating the ICA is hardly earth-shattering. What kicked things into impeachment territory was Trump’s call for an investigation of Biden. And even someone as credulous and factual-gravity-defying as Trump wouldn’t have demanded an investigation of Biden if there had been no conflict-of-interest hook to hang it on.

Enter Hunter Biden, who made the jaw-droppingly stupid decision to accept a post on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company founded and tainted by an oligarch widely labeled as corrupt, while his father was the leading Obama administration point person on Ukraine. Even if Hunter Biden’s sole interest had been to help Burisma adopt better governance practices and mend its ways – I’m offering that just for the sake of argument, not because there’s any evidence to support that idea – he should have known better than to lend his name to a company under investigation for money laundering.

That decision allowed Giuliani and his Ukrainian sources to cast Joe Biden’s actions in a sinister light, despite the overwhelming evidence that the elder Biden was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing. (I remain puzzled why so many Trump supporters are indifferent to the fact that removing Shokin was not just the U.S. government’s goal, but that of many of its Western allies.) It also allowed Shokin to claim, contrary to what other Ukrainian prosecutors and anti-corruption activists have told reporters, that he was investigating Burisma and set to interview the younger Biden at the time he was fired.

That set the stage for Trump to ask a vulnerable foreign leader to investigate one of the president’s top political rivals. This request triggered enough concern among people listening in on the call that it prompted a whistleblower complaint, resulting eventually in Trump’s impeachment in the House for abuse of power and obstructing Congress.

Granted, Trump may well have avoided that fate had he acknowledged that his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was less than “perfect,” and that he should have taken his case against Biden straight to the court of public opinion rather than trying to get Ukrainian prosecutors to do his dirty work. That version of Trump doesn’t exist in our universe.

But just as Hunter Biden was the tripwire that triggered Trump’s impeachment, so too was he the shadowy presence infusing the GOP defense of the president in the Senate. Time and again, Trump’s attorneys and allies in the upper chamber pointed to the apparent Biden conflict of interest as a legitimate source of concern for the president. Trump wasn’t demanding an investigation of a political rival; he was demanding an investigation into potentially corrupt activity by someone who, three years later, joined the presidential race.

To be clear, I don’t buy that argument for a moment. Presidents legitimately concerned about corruption by U.S. citizens seek action by federal law enforcement agencies rather than trying to persuade foreign governments to announce their own investigations. But Hunter Biden’s cash grab at Burisma gave Republicans enough material to cover the president’s actions in a layer of legitimacy.

One of the numerous ironies here is that Hunter Biden may also have damaged his father’s presidential bid beyond repair. But we won’t find that out for sure until long after the Senate has acquitted Trump.