It’s an early chapter from what could become a defining story line of the 2020 presidential campaign: President Donald Trump attacking his main Democratic rival even as he faces continued questions about his own discussions with a foreign power to instigate an investigation of Joe Biden.
The Ukrainian intrigue has echoes of 2016, with Trump accused of courting foreign help to discredit his rivals with real or perceived scandals. Then, it was Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails and the Trump campaign’s attempts to solicit Russia’s help in leaking them -- which became the focus of a two-year investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
This time, Trump is accused of pressuring Ukraine into investigating a largely discredited accusation that Biden tried to interfere in a Ukrainian corruption investigation involving a company connected to his son, Hunter Biden.
“I mean, Vice President Biden did a terrible thing,” Trump said on Sunday. “Joe’s got a lot of problems.”
Biden’s response when asked about Trump’s comment: “Trump did a terrible thing.”
The episode is a preview of the kind of 2020 campaign the country will face if Biden becomes the Democratic nominee.
It’s also a clear effort by Trump to brush Biden with scandal and damage him as a potential general-election opponent. While Biden’s lead in Democratic primary polls has shrunk, he still leads on the question of which candidate could beat Trump next fall.
“I’ve been hearing about the Ukraine all through this Russian hoax, the witch hunt that they went through that now turned out to be a zero,” Trump said Sunday. “But after two years, all through I’ve been hearing the name Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine.”
The Ukraine controversy involves two parallel, partisan narratives:
For Biden and the Democrats, the story is Trump’s repeated solicitation of foreign help to discredit his rivals -- and his obstruction of any efforts to hold him accountable. The Ukraine story is a red herring, they say, nothing more than a debunked conspiracy theory meant to distract from Trump’s own corruption.
For Trump and the Republicans, Democratic corruption is the story. The intelligence agency whistle-blower who reported Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Biden must be a deep-state partisan, they say, part of a never-ending effort by Democrats to undermine a duly-elected president.
The Ukraine story also thrusts Biden’s family back into the spotlight, a particularly sensitive topic for the former vice president.
Biden uses the story of the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident on the campaign trail to show his familiarity with personal tragedy and with the U.S. health-care system. But the 2015 death of his older son, Beau, was the decisive factor in his decision to skip the 2016 presidential race.
“If we know one thing about Donald Trump it’s that he’s going to go after what he perceives as the weakness of his opponents,” Senator Chris Coons said as he marched with Biden and other supporters during the Polk County Steak Fry on Saturday.
“He is more concerned about Joe as an opponent than he is about any other opponent and what I think we’re seeing is his willingness to do virtually anything to try to take a nick out of Joe,” said Coons, who took over Biden’s seat representing Delaware. “This won’t work.”
Trump’s attacks on the Biden family come as the former vice president faces increasing pressure from the rest of the Democratic field. He’s seen his commanding lead in national polls slowly erode as Democratic voters get to know some of his rivals. And in the key early caucus state of Iowa, Elizabeth Warren edged ahead of Biden in two recent polls.
Warren, for her part, has rallied to Biden’s defense. “The way to hold the president accountable is for Congress to begin an impeachment proceeding. Congress hasn’t done that,” she said Friday. “He can go back to the well on exactly what he did before. And that is invite and profit from foreign interference in our election. It’s time for Congress to step up and begin serious impeachment proceeding against this.”
July 25 Call
The controversy broke open last week after reports that the White House was trying to block intelligence officials from submitting the whistle-blower report to Congress. That report concerned a July 25 phone call Trump made to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which Trump pressured him to investigate Biden, according to a person familiar with the call.
In fact, former President Barack Obama’s administration, led by Biden -- along with other Western nations -- pressured Ukraine in 2016 to fire then-prosecutor general Viktor Shokin on grounds of corruption. The country’s parliament voted to remove Shokin from office.
In May, Ukraine’s new prosecutor-general said he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or Hunter Biden, who once sat on the board of one of the country’s biggest gas companies. Vitaliy Kasko, a prosecutor who pursued a case against the gas company’s owner, told Bloomberg in May that there had been no U.S. pressure to close that case.
"This development has also reinforced what Donald Trump made inescapably clear from the moment that Joe Biden launched his campaign," Biden Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield said in an email to reporters on Sunday. "Trump and his campaign are terrified of facing Vice President Biden in a general election."
Still, the Biden family’s account hasn’t been entirely consistent.
“I have never talked to my son about his overseas business dealings,” Joe Biden said in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday.
But Hunter Biden told the New Yorker in July that they did speak about the issue one time. “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do,’” the younger Biden said.
Trump seized on that discrepancy Sunday.
“He made a lie when he said he never spoke to his son,” he told reporters before leaving the White House. “Who wouldn’t speak to your son? Of course you spoke to your son.”
Trump has not denied speaking with Ukraine about the Biden matter, saying only that his conversations were appropriate. And he said the topic could come up when he meets with Ukraine’s president at the United Nations this week.
“I don’t even want to mention it, but certainly I’d have every right to,” Trump said.
Democrats in Congress have said the whistle-blower’s report could provide the basis for an impeachment inquiry.
"I think if we do have evidence from this whistle-blower that the president indeed tried to bully a foreign power into affecting our elections, then we have to do something about it,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Republican lawmakers have mostly been silent about the Ukraine affair, and those who have spoken say they’re reserving judgment.
“It is not appropriate for any candidate for federal office, certainly, including a sitting president, to ask for assistance from a foreign country,” Senator Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania told NBC. “That’s not appropriate. But I don’t know that that’s what happened here.”
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, in a tweet on Sunday said if Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate a political rival, “it would troubling in the extreme.”
Read the original text at Bloomberg.