How the press is helping to turn the Ukraine scandal into just another partisan brawl

Joe Biden in Iowa earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For the first time in Donald Trump’s 33-month presidency, his impeachment seems possible — maybe even probable. The dam that withstood the Mueller Report has broken in recent days over the news that Trump may have withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to strong-arm that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Joe Biden. As “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic: “If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning.”

Yet media fecklessness (and worse) has already pretty much guaranteed that the scandal will be seen in entirely partisan terms. To wit:

• In an appearance on MSNBC last Friday, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel breathed life into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the real story is Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. Vogel called it “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding that Giuliani should back off “and just kind of leave the reporters to do the work on it.”

• On Monday, NPR.org published a headline that was a parody of false equivalence: “What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump.” I captured an image of it as I was gathering string for this column. Good thing. Because within a few hours, someone had the sense to change it to “Trump And The Ukraine Call — What Happened And What’s Next?” (The old headline is still in the URL.)

• In the fever swamps of the right, Trump’s enablers are working hard to transform this into another Benghazi/ Uranium One/ “her emails” distraction. In The Hill, John Solomon wrote that the Obama administration leaned on Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on retainer. “Politics. Pressure. Opposition research,” Solomon wrote. “All were part of the Democrats’ playbook on Ukraine long before Trump ever called Zelensky this summer.” Naturally, Solomon popped up on Fox News on Monday evening, sharing his conspiracy theories with a rapt Sean Hannity.

As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.”

The Biden-Ukraine story is incredibly complicated, but the simplified version is this: Then-Vice President Biden served as the point man to pressure the Ukrainian government into removing that country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, who had been investigating Burisma. Officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom were frustrated with Shokin for not moving aggressively enough in pursuing corruption. Shokin was in fact removed, and Biden took credit for it — more than he deserved, but that’s our Uncle Joe. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden benefited in any way or that the elder and younger Bidens even talked about the Burisma matter beyond one brief, non-substantive exchange.

Now this is where you, the fair-minded reader, probably find yourself wondering if there really is anything to the Biden angle. I wondered myself. What I discovered is every major fact-checking organization has concluded that neither of the Bidens did anything wrong. It’s fair to observe that Hunter Biden traded on his family connections in an unseemly way, collecting some $50,000 a month to serve on the Burisma board of directors. But as best as journalists have been able to determine, nothing illegal or corrupt took place.

You can check for yourself: Here is what Vox (“bogus”), PolitiFact (“nothing”), The Washington Post (“no equivalency”), The New York Times (“no evidence”; by Ken Vogel, no less) and The Wall Street Journal (“Neither Mr. Biden nor his son have been accused of any wrongdoing”) have had to say about the allegations against the Bidens.

It seems like a long time ago now, but this all started coming into focus two weeks ago, when U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, publicly charged the Trump administration with violating the federal whistleblower law by not allowing an official who reportedly had damaging information about the president to come forward.

It all unraveled pretty quickly last week, with the Post and the Times moving the story forward and the Journal hitting what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop called “the motherlode”: the news that Trump had pressured Zelensky in a phone call last July, repeating about eight times that Zelensky should investigate the Bidens.

Trump’s various explanations for what happened have shifted. He’s admitted to putting the squeeze on Zelensky to go after the Bidens, but his latest explanation for suspending some $400 million in military aid was that he wanted the Europeans to contribute more. He also has promised to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky sometime today. It’s not clear what if any steps are being taken to ensure that the transcript is accurate. Nor has the whistleblower information been turned over to Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. In the weeks and months ahead, it is crucial that journalists do their job and not let themselves be sidetracked by Trump’s diversionary tactics about Joe and Hunter Biden.

Trump has actually admitted to demanding that a foreign government investigate one of his political opponents — as shocking a development as anything we have learned about Trump in his four-plus years as a national political figure. It remains to be seen if he also threatened to withhold military aid if the Ukrainians failed to comply, though the evidence suggests that’s exactly what he did.

Of course, if any legitimate concerns about the Bidens emerge, they should be investigated. What the press needs to avoid, though, is the urge to balance truthful information about Trump with his false accusations about one of his leading Democratic challengers.

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