What offends me most about the whistleblower-Ukraine-Biden story isn’t the obvious corruption of it all. It’s the way members of Team Trump assume we’re all idiots who won’t notice they’ve abruptly shifted their narrative.
At first, it seemed like a familiar scenario of allegations met with denials. The Washington Post reported that a “U.S. intelligence official” who had worked at the White House and had access to communications between President Donald Trump and a foreign leader was so alarmed by something Trump “promised” that the official filed a formal whistleblower complaint to the inspector general of the intelligence community. The IG found the complaint credible. On advice from the Department of Justice, Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, blocked the report from being sent to Congress in accordance with (a constitutionally debatable) law.
Trump’s denials came swiftly. In a tweet, he called the allegations “Another Fake News story,” adding, “is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.”
Right, because only fools think Trump ever says anything inappropriate.
But then, just as the familiar Deep State and Fake News talking points were coming off the shelf, the president confessed.
On Sunday, Trump offered reporters this syntactically unsettling admission about a conversation he’d had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy: “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Joe Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in Ukraine.”
After Trump’s statement, his defenders set a land-speed record for switching from “How dare you!?” to “You’re damn right he did it, and I’m glad,” prompting the question: What kind of idiots do they take us for?
The Trump praetorians who initially denied there was any effort to pressure the Ukrainians into action on a Biden probe, possibly including the withholding of congressionally approved military aid, suddenly surfaced a new talking point: “They’re trying to turn what was a Biden scandal into a Trump scandal.”
The allegation that Biden’s son Hunter is guilty of sketchy business practices seems legitimate enough — he accepted a paid seat on the board of a Ukrainian business that was under investigation at a time when his father, as vice president, had direct dealings with the Ukrainian government on corruption issues. But the charge that Joe Biden was freelancing foreign policy to protect his son simply doesn’t hold water if you spend five minutes reading up on it.
Biden was acting on orders from President Barack Obama in coordination with allies and State Department policy to force the former Russia-backed Ukrainian regime to fire a dirty prosecutor who was failing to properly investigate corruption, including at the firm Hunter Biden worked with.
But even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter. Let’s assume Joe Biden is guilty of something bad. We should still be appalled that the president of the United States would use his office to pressure foreign powers to do opposition research for him. I mean, my God, the day after Robert Mueller testified to Congress about his report investigating whether the Trump campaign had colluded with one foreign power, Russia, the president got on the horn and encouraged another foreign power, Ukraine, to help with his reelection.
If Trump threatened to withhold funds unless Ukrainian officials investigated Biden, that would make it worse, but the aid issue is something of a red herring. In the language of diplomacy, hectoring a foreign leader — eight times, according to the Wall Street Journal — to investigate a domestic political opponent is as subtle as wearing a sandwich board and clanging a cowbell.
For two years, Trump defenders had an infinite supply of indignation over the mere suggestion that the president would collude with Russia. But now that indignation is reserved for anyone who suggests the president shouldn’t have tried to collude with the Ukrainians? Come on.
We’re supposed to believe a president who has never shown an iota of real concern over corruption in China, Egypt, Russia, the Philippines, North Korea and elsewhere is upset about the one corruption story that coincidentally touches on the potential Democratic opponent who’s crushing him in the polls? Does anyone believe Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, is calling Hunter Biden a “drug addict” on TV because this is all a matter of statecraft? Show of hands: If Biden weren’t running, would the president have brought up Biden eight times — or at all — with the Ukrainian president?
The questions answer themselves.
It’s reminiscent of Trump’s “Lock her up!” attacks on Hillary Clinton. Once they served their purpose, the newly elected president said, “She’s been through enough.”
It’s almost like he’s been playing us for idiots all along.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.