Trump impeachment inquiry may cast shadow over Biden
Hard to assess how role in Ukraine controversy will affect Democratic primaries
Democratic presidential candidate and former US vice-president Joe Biden: his rivals for the nomination do not want to evoke public sympathy for him. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty
As Democrats proceed with their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, the controversy has drawn in another senior political figure. Former vice-president Joe Biden has found himself at the centre of the latest political storm with implications that have not yet become clear.
Trump’s efforts to find incriminating information about Biden’s involvement in Ukraine are at the heart of the current crisis. During his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy that triggered the impeachment inquiry, he asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden and his son.
The president’s interest stems from Biden’s connections with Ukraine while vice-president. Biden’s son, Hunter, was appointed to the board of gas company Burisma in 2014 – one of several appointments made by the company in an effort to boost its image following the Maidan protests and the subsequent conflict with Russia.
Burisma is owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, a businessman who held cabinet positions in Viktor Yanukovych’s government, during which time his company secured extraction licences.
During this period, Joe Biden was the key point person within the Obama administration on Ukraine. Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have focused on the vice-president’s efforts to persuade Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, arguing that Biden wanted the removal of someone who was investigating Burisma.
But the substance of their argument is flawed. First, the US was one of several international players pushing for the removal of Shokin, along with the International Monetary Fund, EU and G7.
Second, the real issue was that Shokin was not investigating companies like Burisma – a probe into the company’s activities was effectively dormant, and Biden and others were pushing the prosecutor’s office to do more as a condition for aid.
Nonetheless, while nothing untoward was proven, the appointment of Hunter Biden while his father was US vice-president opens up questions about the judgment of both men. There are reports that some aides raised potential conflict of interest worries in the White House when the board appointment was announced.
While Biden said he never spoke to his son about his business dealings, the optics of a Ukrainian gas company appointing a politically connected man with no experience in energy is a glaring example of Washington power politics at play. The Wall Street Journal reports that the younger Biden received $50,000 a month for the board position.
Even before the current crisis erupted, the vice-president’s younger son was a potential danger spot for Biden in his bid for the Democratic nomination. The 49 year old has struggled with addiction issues, and was discharged from the navy in 2014 after testing positive for drugs.
He was also romantically involved with the widow of his older brother Beau, who died of a brain tumour in 2015. Joe Biden and his wife said that the couple had their “full support” when the news broke in 2017, but the relationship subsequently ended.
Four months out from the first Democratic primaries, it is difficult to assess how Biden’s role in the full-blown impeachment controversy will play in the Democratic race. So far his camp has said very little, though it has urged networks not to give Giuliani a platform to spread unsubstantiated allegations.
Biden’s rivals for the nomination have also proceeded cautiously – while keen to lambast Trump, at the same time they do not want to evoke public sympathy for Biden.
The Ukraine controversy has ignited just as Biden has fallen behind Elizabeth Warren in early-voting states for the first time. How this new dynamic in the Democratic race will play out remains to be seen.