What Happened in Ukraine?

Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump pressured the Ukranian government to act. But the similarities are only surface deep.

Bastiaan Slabbers / Reuters

One of the more confusing things about the current controversy swirling over Ukraine is the superficial similarity between former Vice President Joe Biden’s actions there during the Obama administration and President Donald Trump’s more recent actions.

Both Biden and Trump pressured the Ukrainian government about corruption prosecutions, and both used the leverage of American government money to try to force action. If the situations are the same, that raises tough questions for partisans on both sides: If what Biden did is okay, how did Trump overstep? And conversely, if everything Trump did was on the up-and-up, how can the president claim that “if a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did ... they’d be getting the electric chair by right now”?

The reality is that despite the facial similarities, the situations are not the same. The differences are important to understand morally, legally, and politically. There is still more to be learned about both the Biden and, crucially, the Trump cases, and new information could change the picture, but as it stands now, the essential difference is that Biden’s intervention was aimed at fighting corruption in Ukraine, while Trump’s appears to have been engaging in it.

The story begins in spring 2014, when Hunter Biden, then–Vice President Joe Biden’s son, took a seat on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural-gas company, not long after the fall of Kremlin-tied President Viktor Yanukovych. Burisma’s owner was Mykola Zlochevsky, who’d been a minister in the Yanukovych government. In February 2015, Viktor Shokin became Ukraine’s prosecutor general, and said he would investigate Burisma.

But the international community came to view Shokin as too weak on corruption, despite his promises to investigate wrongdoing. The United States, the International Monetary Fund, and others pressured Ukraine to investigate corruption more thoroughly, but Shokin took no serious action. In December 2015, Biden was in Kyiv, where he was scheduled to announce a $1 billion American loan to the Ukrainian government.* Biden told a version of the story himself, in which he condensed the actual sequence of events, at a Council on Foreign Relations event in 2018:

I said, nah, I’m not going to—or, we’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, you have no authority. You’re not the president. The president said—I said, call him. I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. I said, you’re not getting the billion. I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.

To summarize, Biden threatened to withhold aid if the prosecutor wasn’t fired, and he was. Importantly, Biden was not freelancing, but was acting as a representative of President Barack Obama. There’s no evidence that Biden was helping his son. Shokin’s former deputy, who quit in frustration over his boss’s intransigence, told Bloomberg in May that the U.S. wasn’t pushing to drop probes of Burisma. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” he said. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”

In effect, Biden’s pressure to install a tougher prosecutor probably made it more likely, not less, that Burisma would be in the cross hairs. But since then, the Ukrainian government has not produced any evidence of wrongdoing by Burisma, and the current prosecutor general said in May there was none. A Ukrainian interior-minister official told the Daily Beast that though Ukraine has no evidence that either Biden broke the law, the government would investigate further if the U.S. formally requested it. Hunter Biden has left Burisma’s board.

Joe Biden says he did not discuss Burisma substantively with his son, though Hunter Biden told The New Yorker it came up briefly once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’” Given Hunter Biden’s checkered past, and the political difficulty that he has caused his father, it’s doubtful he really knew what he was doing.

Hunter Biden seems to have been trading on his father’s famous name to make a buck—a common but distasteful practice familiar from Billy Carter to Roger Clinton, and indeed up to the Trump children today. He’s not exempt from criticism for this behavior, but that isn’t the same as producing evidence that Joe Biden did anything untoward, something that no one has done so far. It’s still possible that more information will emerge that will implicate Biden in trying to assist his son, but Trump has already rhetorically convicted him without any such evidence.

That brings us to the Trump case and its echoes of Biden. Trump’s relationship with Ukraine has been vexed from the start. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had invaded Ukraine, and suggested he accepted Russian annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. This placed Ukraine in a difficult position: dependent on the U.S. to defend itself against Russian aggression, but aware of Trump’s ambivalence.

Beginning in the spring of 2019, various outlets began reporting on meetings between Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and Ukrainians, in which Giuliani pushed them to turn up dirt on Biden, apparently without success. According to The Washington Post, Giuliani managed to sideline many key officials, including the experienced ambassador to Ukraine and senior National Security Council aides, as he pursued his quest. In July, according to a separate Post report, Trump told his chief of staff to place on hold about $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. The decision reportedly stunned Ukrainian officials. (The money was finally released to Ukraine this month.)

Trump was scheduled to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Aides reportedly tried to scuttle the call, fearing Trump would use the conversation not to talk about U.S.-Ukrainian relations, but to press for dirt on Biden. That is precisely what happened. On Sunday, Trump acknowledged having spoken to Zelensky about the Bidens.

“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption—all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to [sic] the corruption already in the Ukraine,” he said.

Trump did not initially acknowledge allegations that he had withheld aid as part of a quid pro quo. On Monday, however, he did.

“We’re supporting a country. We want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”

On its face, this sounds similar or identical to what Biden did. Biden was acting as an agent of the president of the United States; Trump is the president of the United States. Both acted, they say, to combat corruption.

But there are two complications. The first is whether Trump had the legal right to hold up the aid, since it was a congressional appropriation. Lawmakers have the power of the purse, and the president can’t simply block it because of a sudden pang of concern about corruption.

The second is about motive. Perhaps Trump really believed he was fighting a righteous fight against corruption by the Bidens, though it’s hard to see why anyone would give Trump the benefit of the doubt at the moment. On the other hand, Trump has a long history of demanding investigations into political opponents, even those who have already been investigated, and he has a long history of seeking and saying he would accept foreign interference to help his campaign. In this case, the information so far points to Trump hoping Ukraine would turn up dirt on the Democratic candidate whom Trump seems to fear most, and being willing to use U.S. aid to try to wheedle that dirt out of Zelensky.

Making it even harder to discern Trump’s motive, and harder to believe his accounts, he changed his story on Tuesday, saying he had frozen the funds to try to get other countries to contribute more.

“I’d withhold again, and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine. Because they’re not doing it. Just the United States. We’re putting up the bulk of the money,” Trump said at the United Nations. “And I’m asking why is that … But I always ask: Why aren’t other countries—in Europe, especially—putting up money for Ukraine?”

This explanation not only is false, but conflicts with the rationale Trump offered Monday.

On Tuesday, as Democrats prepared an impeachment inquiry over the Ukraine matter, Trump said he’d release a transcript of his call with Zelensky. It will be valuable to get that transcript to the public, but it will probably be of limited usefulness. Trump would be unlikely to release the transcript if it were incriminating, and beyond that, he’s shown a deft ability to send messages and make threats without making them explicit. The phone call didn’t take place in a vacuum: It took place in the context of Giuliani’s previous meetings, Trump’s freezing of aid, and his approving comments about Putin. More important is the whistle-blower complaint that precipitated this crisis, and which the White House has been working fervently to keep from Congress. Politico reported late yesterday that the administration might release it late this week.

The stories of Biden’s and Trump’s interventions in Ukraine each leave some corners unexplored, and worth exploring. More detail is likely to emerge about both, especially if the whistle-blower report is released to Congress, but some conclusions can be drawn based on what’s available now.

Contrary to Trump’s claim, Biden’s pressure on Ukraine was intended to increase corruption prosecutions, there’s no evidence it aided his son, and it could potentially have hurt his son’s business. Trump, however, appears to have tried to enlist Zelensky in his reelection campaign, has offered confusing and contradictory explanations for his freeze on military aid, and may have been breaking the law regardless of the rationale. There are similarities between the two stories, but they are less than they appear at first glance—an example, to paraphrase Marx, of history repeating itself, the first time as statesmanship and the second time as fleece.

* This story originally misstated the date of Biden's trip to Kyiv. He traveled there in December 2015, and not March 2016.