The big lie spouted by Donald Trump and his allies in the unfurling Ukraine affair—an unprecedented abuse of public trust, which has now led directly to an impeachment inquiry—is that former Vice President Joe Biden urged the Ukrainians to fire the Kyiv general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in order to save Biden’s son's hide. Many of Trump’s cronies and foot soldiers have already spun this line, from Donald Trump Jr. to Rudy Giuliani to Arthur Schwartz.
Others have rightly pointed out that, in reality, Biden was not simply relaying the message pushed by the Obama administration, but that his position was supported by Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, European allies, and even groups like the International Monetary Foundation (IMF). As Tom Malinowski, former assistant secretary of state under Obama, recalled this week, “All of us working on Ukraine wanted this prosecutor gone, because he was NOT prosecuting corruption. So did the Europeans. So did the IMF. This didn't come from Joe Biden—he just delivered our message.”
That’s all, of course, true. Anyone interested in the success of Ukraine’s democratic transition, and its efforts to clean up rampant corruption, wanted Shokin gone. But here’s something that seems to have been lost in this geopolitical shuffle. Not only was Biden not trying to protect his son, Hunter, who was then working at a Ukrainian energy company named Burisma. If anything, what the former vice president did was make the prosecution of his son’s company more likely, not less—a fact that seems to have been overlooked, but which flips Trump’s lies on their head.
I’m not the first to make this point. A few months ago, when Giuliani first began laundering his accusations through friendly voices like The Hill’s John Solomon—a man with an outsized history of whitewashing post-Soviet kleptocracies—The Intercept’s Robert Mackey tried to untangle Giuliani’s ludicrous line of logic. Mackey’s conclusion: “By getting Shokin removed, Biden in fact made it more rather than less likely that the oligarch who employed his son would be subject to prosecution for corruption.”
And it’s not difficult to see why. Shokin was, by any measure, a clear and present obstacle in Ukraine’s efforts to steer toward a transparent, democratic polity in the aftermath of the country’s successful 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution. Most charitably, Shokin’s work could have been described as ineffective; others would prefer the term “corrupt,” a hangover from the ancien régime, more accustomed to shakedowns and shirking his duties whenever it benefited him and his confidants.
That reprehensible behavior could be seen, most pertinently, in the way Shokin treated an investigation into Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. Launched in 2014, the investigation focused specifically on the means and machinations of Burisma’s oligarchic owner, Mykola Zlochevsky. Initially, the investigation appeared a sign of Ukraine’s new ways, of a willingness to target all and sundry, regardless of political connection.
But it quickly became apparent that Shokin had little interest in actually uprooting any corruption percolating within Burisma, or within Zlochevsky’s network. According to former members of Shokin’s staff—including one, Vitaliy Kasko, who reiterated a few months ago that Biden never pressured anyone to avoid looking into his son’s company—Shokin ignored offers of aid from foreign partners to track Zlochevsky’s international financial network. In particular, Shokin effectively ignored the U.K.’s move to freeze tens of millions of dollars allegedly attached to Zlochevsky, identified during a money-laundering investigation directly tied to the ousted Ukrainian regime.
Even after Britain’s Serious Fraud Office pronounced that the funds linked to Zlochevsky were “believed to be the proceeds of… criminal conduct,” Shokin didn’t budge. He and his office declined, time and again, to send London the documents necessary to link the frozen funds to Zlochevsky’s kleptocratic malfeasance. Instead, even when the case went to a British court, those advocating for the funds to remain frozen found that someone in Shokin’s office—it was never quite clear who—had written a letter to the British judge claiming that Zlochevsky was not suspected in any crimes.
The case was as clear as any to come out of post-2014 Ukraine. And then it collapsed. An arrest warrant for Zlochevsky lapsed. The funds were eventually unfrozen, and allowed to seep back into the offshore networks linked to Zlochevsky, unseen since. All because Shokin, and his office, thought it better to allow the previous regime’s kleptocratic methods to flood back in.
The Americans—and the Europeans, and the IMF, and all those in Ukraine who had marched and stood and demanded better—were livid. Shokin clearly didn’t “want to investigate” Burisma or Zlochevsky, as Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center and perhaps Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption voice, recently said. Or as then-U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt pronounced in 2015, “Those responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should—at a minimum—be summarily terminated.”
This was the world into which Biden stepped, when he became the point-man for all of those demanding Shokin’s removal. And he did so, with thunder and alacrity. As with so many things Biden has done with Ukraine, he wasn’t concerned with whose toes he stepped on. When it came to pushing for Washington to supply arms to Kyiv to fight off Russian revanchism, it didn’t matter if Biden stood at odds with the president for whom he served. And when it came to ousting a prosecutor who refused to do his job, it didn’t matter if his son’s company—a company Hunter Biden should, obviously, never have joined—got caught in the cross-fire.
Biden, as the messenger for demanding a new, and more effective, prosecutor, succeeded. That success meant that Ukraine would be more likely to investigate his son’s company. And in that success, a conspiracy theory—that Biden was actually trying to protect his son, rather than push Ukraine to a more democratic path, no matter who got caught in the middle—was born.
In the time since, Shokin has taken to rewriting history, claiming that he was on the warpath trying to take down Zlochevsky. (Shokin’s preferred mouthpiece for spouting this revisionism? Solomon, unsurprisingly.) But just like the president’s claims that Biden was up to something nefarious, there’s nothing to back up Shokin’s claims. As Oliver Bullough, a British journalist who covered the Zlochevsky saga, wrote earlier this year, Solomon and the rest of the pro-Trump sycophants are “putting two and two together—and coming up with 22.”
That’s putting it kindly. More broadly, they’re taking a bludgeon to anything resembling fact. The lies and spin and rank illiberalism now being spun by the White House are all in an effort to undercut a looming impeachment by rewriting a history most Americans are only now discovering.
In pushing to oust the former prosecutor, Biden did the right thing, no matter the personal cost. And in pushing for impeachment, in the face of Trump’s unprecedented move to pressure Kyiv to investigate Biden, House Democrats are pursuing the right tack, no matter the political cost.