Jurisprudence

When Trump Officials Talk About “Investigating the 2016 Election,” They Really Mean Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Dec. 8, 2016, in Washington.
Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Dec. 8, 2016, in Washington.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Rudy Giuliani were preparing for their appearances on the Sunday morning shows on Sept. 22, the White House was more than a week deep into the Ukraine scandal. Nine days earlier, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff had revealed the existence of a whistleblower complaint, which news outlets soon reported involved President Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s leader. On late Friday afternoon, two days before the Sunday morning news shows were set to begin, the country’s three major newspapers reported that Trump had repeatedly pressed Ukraine’s president during the call to launch an investigation into matters involving Joe Biden’s son Hunter. But was Trump and Giuliani’s pressure on Ukraine to open an investigation on the 2016 election also tied to Biden?

When Pompeo insinuated on CBS’s Face the Nation that the swirl of Ukraine-related accusations involved the former vice president’s “interference” in the 2016 election, many were puzzled. Wasn’t the investigation of Biden supposed to relate to Burisma, not the 2016 election? Was the reference to the 2016 election just a mental slip on Pompeo’s part or “made up on the spot”? It was hard to believe he lacked discipline in his delivery. It was more likely that he prepared his responses in anticipation of such straightforward questions about Giuliani’s allegations. And Pompeo said it not once, not twice, but thrice in three separate Sunday news shows on the morning of Sept. 22. If one had studied Giuliani’s statements in right-wing media outlets and elsewhere, Pompeo’s statements would not have been so surprising.

Giuliani’s monthslong effort to press Ukraine to open an investigation into the 2016 election was explicitly and repeatedly connected by Giuliani himself to allegations that the investigation into 2016—not just the one into the Hunter Biden firm—would provide derogatory information on the former vice president. The probe into the 2016 election would also provide, according to Giuliani, politically damaging information about “the Democrats” and the Democratic National Committee (herehereherehereherehere, and here). But let’s just focus for now on the connection to Biden, as it appears to have been a significant part of the plotline for Giuliani all along.

Why is it so important to uncover this part of the plot? Giuliani’s targeting Biden through Ukraine’s 2016 investigation would be especially significant because it would connect this clear political objective to the strongest evidence of a quid pro quo in the public record involving the withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. On Oct. 17, the president’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, unequivocally admitted that there was a direct quid pro quo between the suspension of military aid and the effort to get Ukraine to investigate the 2016 election (before he later wrote an unconvincing statement trying to undo the political damage). The Wall Street Journal had already reported that the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson of this same quid pro quo back on Aug. 30. Mulvaney’s statement came the same day that Sondland was testifying before the House’s impeachment inquiry.

So what did Giuliani say about the alleged connection to Biden, and when did he say it?

On the same day that Pompeo appeared on the three Sunday news shows, Giuliani was also on Fox News Sunday, where the president’s private attorney laid out his theory of the case.

Giuliani’s (unfounded) conspiracy theory is that Biden removed Ukraine Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin and approved the new prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, as part of an effort to “frame” Paul Manafort and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. Giuliani asserts (without evidence) that the new prosecutor dropped a case against an organization that had produced information (in coordination with the Democrats and U.S. officials) to taint Manafort. This conspiracy theory fits in with the overall idea that Russia was not behind the 2016 election interference, but instead the real collusion involved Ukrainian and Democratic operatives. It is worth quoting Giuliani’s statement on Fox News in reference to Biden in full:

I went there as a lawyer defending his client. I—I have known about this for five months. I have been trying to get people to cover this for five months. So, I knew it would be very, very hard to get this out.

And what I’m talking about, this, it’s Ukrainian collusion, which was large, significant, and proven with Hillary Clinton, with the Democratic National Committee, a woman named Chalupa, with the ambassador, with an FBI agent who’s now been hired by George Soros who was funding a lot of it.

When Biden got the prosecutor fired, the new prosecutor, who Biden approved—you don’t get to approve a prosecutor in a foreign country, unless something fishy is going on.

The new prosecutor dropped the case, not just on Biden’s kid and the crooked company that Biden’s kid work for, Burisma. That was done as a matter of record in October of 2016, after the guy got tanked.

He also dropped the case on George Soros’ company called AntAC. AntAC is the company where there’s documentary evidence that they were producing false information about Trump, about Biden. Fusion GPS was there.

Go back and listen to Nellie Ohr’s testimony. Nellie Ohr says that there was a lot of contact between Democrats and the Ukraine. 

Watch the full video here.

Giuliani had, in fact, been referencing this theory for months. Two days after Biden announced his candidacy to replace Trump as president, Giuliani attempted to call attention to “possible conspiracy (collusion) between DNC and Clinton operatives and Ukrainian officials to set up members of the Trump campaign.”

Giuliani had even earlier tied the alleged conspiracy explicitly to Biden. Giuliani wrote in a tweet on March 22 that attention should be paid to “some real collusion between Hillary, Kerry and Biden people colluding with Ukrainian operatives to make money and affect 2016 election.”

Giuliani would sometimes run two ideas together—a Ukrainian investigation into 2016 and Biden’s pressure to replace the prosecutor—because of the overlap between the two conspiracy theories. Giuliani also drove the specific idea that an investigation would show Biden was involved in the 2016 election interference coming out of Ukraine. On Oct. 1, Giuliani wrote in no uncertain terms, “Joe’s wide range of corruption included obstructing an investigation of Dem 2016 election interference.”

In an accompanying tweet, a minute apart, Giuliani claimed that “corruption at the highest levels of the Obama administration” involved an “illegal impact from Ukraine on the 2016 election. I was investigating this as an attorney to vindicate my client. It began and was largely done before Biden announced his run for President.”

On Sept. 19, Giuliani had a tumultuous interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. In the rush of his delivery, Giuliani raised his conspiracy theory involving the 2016 election and Biden. “The prosecutor was removed because he was investigating the son, and he was investigating Soros’ charity or whatever the hell it was, AntAC. The new prosecutor that came in dismissed both cases,” Giuliani said. “If you listen to Joe Biden’s tape, he convicts himself. He says, ‘I told the president of the Ukraine, if you don’t dismiss this guy, you’re not going to get your $1.2 billion.’ ”

Two days after the Sunday morning shows, Giuliani was back on Fox News, this time in an interview with Laura Ingraham, where he took another opportunity to spell out that the investigation into the 2016 election investigation targeted Biden too.

Ingraham: But how are you defending him [Trump] by investigating Biden? How—please spell it out for us.

Giuliani: Because one of the things that the prosecutor that Biden had fired and then the prosecutor that Biden helped to put in, one of the things they did was to dismiss a case against an organization that was collecting false information about Donald Trump, about Paul Manafort, and feeding it to the Democratic National Committee.

Ingraham: OK, that explains it to people. I don’t think people understood that.

Like his reference to “the highest levels of the Obama administration” in connection with Biden, Giuliani has also asserted (without evidence) that the “Obama White House” was involved in other aspects of 2016 election interference. On Sept.29, he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, “What the president’s talking about is—however, there is a—load of evidence that the Ukrainians created false information, that they were asked by the Obama White House to do it in January of 2016.” He later added, “This is not about getting Joe Biden in trouble. This is about proving that Donald Trump was framed by the Democrats.”

Giuliani again repeated aspects of these claims on Sean Hannity’s show on Oct. 2, asserting that Biden was not the target of his search, but became a part of his investigation nonetheless: “I didn’t go looking for Joe Biden. The Ukrainians brought me substantial evidence of Ukrainian collusion with Hillary Clinton, the DNC, George Soros, George Soros’ company. They put it in my lap. They came and gave me a testimony.” How did that supposedly implicate Biden directly? Giuliani stated, “They–the Ukrainian oligarch, Zlochevskyi, didn’t pay millions for Hunter Biden’s nonexistent skill. He paid millions to buy the Vice President’s office, and it was a good deal for Zlochevskyi. He got Hunter Biden off the hook. He got Soros’ company out of jeopardy. … If anybody would care to investigate, they could find everything I just said.”

Let’s then return to Pompeo’s own appearances on Sept. 22. When Face the Nation’s Margaret Brennan asked Pompeo about Giuliani’s pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden, Pompeo’s response was highly consistent with Giuliani’s allegations that Biden interfered in the 2016 election. Indeed, what Pompeo insinuated about Biden closely tracked what Giuliani had been saying and has been saying ever since:

Brennan: I want to also ask you about Ukraine. The president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is publicly calling for an investigation by the Ukrainian government into Joe Biden, who is, obviously, a– a political opponent of the President. Is it appropriate for the president’s personal attorney to be inserting himself in foreign affairs like this?

Pompeo: If there was election interference that took place by the vice president, I think the American people deserve to know. We– we know there was interference in the 2016 election and if it’s the case that there was something going on with the President or his family that caused a conflict of interest and Vice President Biden behaved in a way that was inconsistent with the way leaders ought to operate, I think the American people deserve to know that.

Pompeo also repeatedly mouthed those allegations on Fox News Sunday and ABC’s This Week that same day:

We’re going to see President Zelensky this week. I do hope—I do hope that if Vice President Biden engaged in behavior that was inappropriate, if he had a conflict of interest or entered—or allowed something to take place in Ukraine which may have interfered in our elections in 2016, I do hope that we get to the bottom of that.

America cannot have our elections interfered with. And if that’s what took place there, if there was that kind of activity engaged in by Vice President Biden, we need to know.

It is widely understood that finding “dirt” on Biden, one of Trump’s main political opponents in the 2020 election, was a primary objective of Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine. Most have presumed that the investigation into the Burisma firm was the sole means for doing so, and that the pressure on Ukraine to investigate the 2016 election was something separate, even if it was to damage the Democratic party more generally.

But the trail left by Giuliani (and Pompeo) clearly shows that getting derogatory information on Biden was a key part of the “other” investigation that Trump and Giuliani pursued. The most egregious form of the quid pro quo involved pressure on Ukraine to open the “2016 investigation” in exchange for U.S. military aid. That Trump-Giuliani deal should be understood as directly linked to trying to interfere in the 2020 election by specifically damaging Biden too.

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