The media made a giant mistake and almost missed Trump’s biggest scandal yet

The media made a giant mistake and almost missed Trump’s biggest scandal yet
President Donald J. Trump speaks with reporters after disembarking Air Force One Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 at Joint Base Andrews, Md. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

With a damning record of his extortionate call with the Ukrainian president public for all to see, President Donald Trump is facing the strongest political headwinds he has seen and staring down the barrel of a daunting and potent impeachment inquiry.


But for all the furor surrounding the Ukraine scandal now, much of the media almost missed the story entirely or gave it inadequate weight and botched framing in light of what it deserved.

To understand the Ukraine story, we must go back all the way back to March 2018, when, according to Lawfare's timeline of events, conservative author Peter Schweizer published a book lobbing accusations of corruption at Vice President Joe Biden based on his son Hunter Biden's work for the Ukraine oil company Burisma. That's when the story entered the conservative media bloodstream, eventually making its way to the heart of the right-wing universe inside the Oval Office. It's important realize, though, that before this story became twisted by conservative media, Biden's role as vice president advocating for reform in Ukraine drew little to no criticism at the time it happened from Republicans, who had no limit on their desire to sling mud at the Obama administration.

The new attack on Biden, driven by his perceived strengths as a 2020 competitor to Trump, was that he corruptly ousted a Ukrainian prosecutor who was targeting his son's employer in 2016 by threatening to withhold aid. And when the mainstream media picked up on the story on May 1, 2019, in the form of a New York Times article, it was framed to take this allegation seriously.

"Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies," read the Times' headline on a story written by Ken Vogel and Iuliia Mendel (who would curiously soon become the new Ukrainian president's press secretary).

But this article actually broke the central story of the impeachment inquiry that now threatens to bring down Trump himself, not Biden. This fact, though, was easy to miss at the time.

In the typical style of supposedly neutral journalism, the report broadly referred to "questions" about Biden's supposed corruption or the "issue" being "in the spotlight" while dancing around what the questions were, what the specific issue was, and whether the allegations had any merit. Vogel and Mendel wrote:

The broad outlines of how the Bidens’ roles intersected in Ukraine have been known for some time. The former vice president’s campaign said that he had always acted to carry out United States policy without regard to any activities of his son, that he had never discussed the matter with Hunter Biden and that he learned of his son’s role with the Ukrainian energy company from news reports.

But new details about Hunter Biden’s involvement, and a decision this year by the current Ukrainian prosecutor general to reverse himself and reopen an investigation into Burisma, have pushed the issue back into the spotlight just as the senior Mr. Biden is beginning his 2020 presidential campaign.

Only after casting suspicious light on Biden did the story move on to what would prove to be the real bombshell:

But the renewed scrutiny of Hunter Biden’s experience in Ukraine has also been fanned by allies of Mr. Trump. They have been eager to publicize and even encourage the investigation, as well as other Ukrainian inquiries that serve Mr. Trump’s political ends, underscoring the Trump campaign’s concern about the electoral threat from the former vice president’s presidential campaign.

The Trump team’s efforts to draw attention to the Bidens’ work in Ukraine, which is already yielding coverage in conservative media, has been led partly by Rudolph W. Giuliani, who served as a lawyer for Mr. Trump in the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Giuliani’s involvement raises questions about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.

Mr. Giuliani has discussed the Burisma investigation, and its intersection with the Bidens, with the ousted Ukrainian prosecutor general and the current prosecutor. He met with the current prosecutor multiple times in New York this year. The current prosecutor general later told associates that, during one of the meetings, Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Trump excitedly to brief him on his findings, according to people familiar with the conversations.

In the above passage, we get the broad outlines of the story that finally pushed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with a majority of the House lawmakers, to vocally support an impeachment inquiry. Outside of normal channels, Giuliani — on Trump's behalf and with his consent — was pressuring foreign officials to investigate the president's potential 2020 opponent with the weight of the U.S. government behind him. The delayed military aid as likely extortion wasn't in the picture yet, but that doesn't change the fundamental matter when the president is pressuring a foreign ally to investigate an opponent, because an implicit threat is always there. Mirroring their "neutral journalism" framing of the Biden corruption allegations, Vogel and Mendel wrote that Giuliani's "action raises questions about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home." But the reporting doesn't raise that question, it answers it: Giuliani was "excitedly" briefing Trump — his client — on his efforts. Trump was already attempting to solicit foreign influence in the 2020 election; had such contacts been reported about a Trump employee with Russia in 2016, the president would already have been toast.

At the same time, the story contains pretty much all the information that is needed to exonerate Biden. Yuriy Lutsenko, the prosecutor who replaced the one Biden and Obama forced out, "initially took a hard line against Burisma." Biden's efforts to oust Viktor Shokin, the former prosecutor, were the aim of the Obama administration (and many European countries, as well), not Biden's personally. There were indeed concerns among Obama people that the role of Biden's son could "complicate" his diplomacy. But since Biden's diplomacy helped achieve the removal of Shokin — which was, again, Obama's goal — it actually turned out that the vice president was able to act neutrally, even if the concerns about the conflict of interest were legitimate before the events unfolded.

So the Times had enough information to conclude that Trump was trying to collude with a foreign government to win re-election and that the accusations against Biden were largely specious. For whatever reason, it decided to frame the story around "questions" about Biden's conflict of interest.

On Twitter at the time, Vogel was even more egregious, promoting the story in a series of tweets claiming, "The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal" — a series that never once mentioned Giuliani's efforts to influence Ukrainian policy:

To defend the reporting, Vogel claimed the Times had been "investigating the intersection of @JoeBiden & HUNTER BIDEN in Ukraine well before @RudyGiuliani seized on it." He cited a report from 2015 in the Times by James Risen, who did indeed cover the story. But in a new piece for The Intercept, Risen said the right wing's use of his reporting "turned the story upside down." He explained:

Hunter Biden was the family millstone around Joe Biden’s neck, the kind of chronic problem relative that plagues many political families. George H.W. Bush had his son Neil; Jimmy Carter had his brother Billy.

Still, when Joe Biden went to Ukraine, he was not trying to protect his son — quite the reverse.

The then-vice president issued his demands for greater anti-corruption measures by the Ukrainian government despite the possibility that those demands would actually increase – not lessen — the chances that Hunter Biden and Burisma would face legal trouble in Ukraine.

Vogel and Mandel's story was not nearly as clear.

Vogel followed up the May 1 article with another, better piece on Giuliani on May 9. That piece focused on Giuliani's open admission that he was going to Ukraine to influence policy on as Trump's personal lawyer. Again, that article, even more drastically, raised the central issues in the story now driving Trump toward impeachment. It didn't include sufficient context for the Biden allegations, again giving Trump and Giuliani too much credence by saying they "called attention to the scrutiny of Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden, and to questions about the former vice president’s involvement in the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor." But it also openly drew the connection between the Russia collusion investigation and the new Ukrainian collusion. That piece sparked enough backlash that Giuliani canceled his upcoming trip to Ukraine.

Still, though, the issue didn't take fire as much as it should have, given the explosivity of the known facts. Giuliani was even explicit that his efforts in Ukraine were mainly in Trump's personal interest, rather than the national interest, saying: "I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop [the investigation] because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

In part, the lack of a bigger reaction rests on a number of factors. First, the Mueller report had only recently come out, and media outlets were still trying to make sense of it and its implications. Second, the story was complicated, especially given the Times' confused and inadequate framing. Third, Giuliani was admitting it all out in the open — and the media has a bias against assuming that people will admit to damning information in public.

That's why what it really took for the story to take off was the whistleblower complaint. It unfolded exactly as you would write it if you were outlining a mystery novel. On Sept. 13, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-NY) subpoenaed the director of national intelligence for an unspecified whistleblower complaint that has been blocked, despite legal requirements — intriguing, but not damning. But then more information started to trickele out a little bit at a time — it may involve the president, then it definitely involved the president, then it involved a conversation with a world leader, supposedly a "promise" was in question — then, finally, we learned it was about Ukraine, and the picture became clearer. We learned there was a hidden transcript and a detailed complaint filed away, and then those documents were uncovered in dramatic fashion. The narrative was compelling, and the information was damning, and it brought us to the most forceful drive for impeachment yet.

The signs that this was a monumental story had been building. On July 22, BuzzFeed published a detailed investigative article examining Giulani's backchannel to Ukraine. On September 5, the Washington Post editorial board published an opinion piece that, oddly broke significant news: the board has been "reliably" told that Trump's delay of aid to Ukraine was intended to force the country to investigate Biden.

But even at the point the Times published its first piece on the matter, most of the story was clear — but nearly an entire summer had passed by without much focus on it. Trump was, via an intermediary, admittedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden. It was outrageous, but it was largely ignored. Congress and the media should deeply reflect on why it took them so long to react to corruption happening in plain sight.

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