Debunking Trump’s ‘Quid Pro Joe’ conspiracy theory
President Donald Trump has been extremely successful at turning attacks on him into attacks on his opponents.
Take, for instance, the term “fake news.” The concept originated in 2016 as a description of shocking but false stories designed to circulate faster than they could be debunked. Many of these stories benefited Trump in some way, so the term was seen as hostile to him and implicitly critical of his own cavalier relationship with the truth. But Trump co-opted the label, applying it to any news organization he disliked; the mainstream media is now labeled the “fake news media” by his adherents.
A similar process is already underway with the term “quid pro quo.” The three-word phrase, meaning “this for that” in Latin, implies a situation in which two people do something to benefit each other. A quid pro quo is the essence of a deal — if you give me something, I give you something — and, in that sense, it isn’t necessarily pejorative. But if the deal involves bribing a foreign national for dirt on your political opponent, as Trump stands accused of doing, then naturally consequences follow.
Those consequences have thus far taken the form of an impeachment hearing, which formally began last week. The Democratic argument, now supported by several ambassadors and White House officials, suggests that Trump offered Ukraine a classic quid pro quo: he froze their military aid, then offered to unfreeze it if the Ukrainian government launched an investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President and current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. This would almost certainly count as soliciting foreign interference in an election; even Fox News admits that if true, it would justify Trump’s impeachment.
Trump’s response to this serious accusation has been characteristically Trumpian. In between offering loud, vague denials and smearing the witnesses against him, he’s invented an alternative theory about Ukraine, one in which the real “quid pro quo” was between the Ukrainian government, Vice President Biden and Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board of directors Hunter Biden served. In this version of events, Burisma paid a bribe to Biden in the form of hiring his son. In exchange, Burisma’s executives had Biden’s ear and were able to influence his policy decisions.
The case against Burisma and Biden is fairly complicated, but at its core is a former Ukrainian prosecutor named Viktor Shokin. In 2015, Shokin was appointed Ukraine’s chief prosecutor; one of the cases he took over was an investigation of Burisma and its leader, Mykola Zlochevsky. However, Shokin quickly earned a reputation for corruption. He reportedly refused to investigate members of Ukraine’s elite, and some of his staff were later found with diamonds and cash presumably obtained through bribery. This behavior concerned leaders in the United States and Europe, who pressured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to replace Shokin. Vice President Biden recalled that when he met with Poroshenko in 2015, he threatened to withhold American aid if Shokin was not fired. Poroshenko dismissed Shokin three months later, with overwhelming support in Ukraine’s parliament.
Shokin later alleged that Poroshenko had fired him because he refused to end his investigation into Burisma. From this, it’s easy to construct a plausible conspiracy theory: Biden used his position to have his son hired at Burisma, then, in a “quid pro quo,” coerced Poroshenko into firing the prosecutor in charge of the investigation against them in exchange for American aid.
Under a moderate level of scrutiny, this theory falls apart. Fundamentally, Shokin’s contention that he was fired because he insisted on investigating Burisma is false. Shokin was fired because he refused to investigate Zlochevsky, not because he insisted on it. The investigation against Burisma lay dormant for the entirety of Shokin’s term as prosecutor; it was revived after he was replaced, and concluded in 2017 with no finding of wrongdoing. Finally, according to Shokin’s deputy, the investigation only concerned Burisma’s actions between 2010 and 2012. This period ended two years before Hunter Biden joined Burisma’s board of directors; hence, there was never any accusation of wrongdoing against Biden or his father in the first place.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Trump’s “Quid Pro Joe” story is true or not. It provides a screen for those who insist on Trump’s innocence, an alternative set of facts for someone to believe in if they dislike the ones being discussed in the impeachment hearing.
One might think it would be relatively easy for Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the head of the impeachment hearing, to bring up the facts of the Hunter Biden case and explain them. However, Schiff has refused to do this. His laudable reasoning is that the impeachment process should be focused on Trump’s actions, and that allowing the questioning of Hunter Biden during the hearing gives credence to the conspiracy theory that the president has concocted. I, a cynic, would suggest a third reason — Democrats want to avoid talking about Hunter Biden because his employment with Burisma raises awkward questions. What the heck was Biden doing on the board of directors of a Ukrainian gas company? What relevant experience did he have? Why did Burisma hire him?
The answer should be clear: Hunter Biden received the position at least partially because his father was vice president. This isn’t good, but it isn’t illegal, either; family connections are an unfortunate fact of life. To give an example, across town right now, Malia Obama is attending Harvard. I’m sure she had excellent grades and test scores in high school, but anyone who thinks that her parentage had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to admit her is kidding themselves. However, does that put President Obama in the same camp as Lori Loughlin, who secured her daughter’s admission to USC through outright bribery? Most of us would probably say no. By the same logic, the fact that Hunter Biden traded on his last name shouldn’t make Joe Biden a criminal.
Finally, above all, it’s profoundly hypocritical for Trump to accuse Biden of nepotism, given the roles he’s assigned to his own children. Of course, profound hypocrisy from the White House is sort of a given by now.