Trump’s Impeachment Saga Stems From a Political Hit Job Gone Bad
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a New York Times article during a news conference with Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, not pictured, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Trump’s Impeachment Saga Stems From a Political Hit Job Gone Bad

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The irony of President Trump’s sudden impeachment peril is that it’s the unintended result of an effort to help him: a political hit job aimed at a likely opponent (Joe Biden) and funded by a major right-wing donor (Rebekah Mercer) that Trump and his lawyer (Rudy Giuliani) impatiently hijacked, with consequences that could turn out to be disastrous for them.

To understand how Trump wound up the target of a House impeachment inquiry, it’s first necessary to understand why he was so obsessed with finding dirt on Biden that he pressured Ukraine’s president in a July 25th phone call to “do us a favor” and investigate Biden and his son, Hunter. The notion that Hunter Biden and his father could be complicit in Ukrainian corruption was first aired in a 2018 book, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, by conservative author Peter Schweizer. The book and its author had a purpose and a lineage. 

Schweizer, an editor at Breitbart News, is the president of the Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a nonprofit group whose board chairwoman and major donor is Rebekah Mercer, a prominent Trump supporter and benefactor of right-wing causes.

In a book I wrote about Trump and Steve Bannon, I described how Schweizer and Bannon, GAI’s founding chairman, deployed a staff of lawyers, investigators, and forensic data scientists to scour public records, corporate filings, and the dark web to compile damning evidence that Hillary and Bill Clinton behaved unethically by associating with unsavory, favor-seeking foreign donors through their work with the Clinton Foundation. Bannon, the project’s mastermind, had a specific goal in mind. He wasn’t interested in firing up conservatives, who already despised the Clintons. He wanted GAI’s findings presented in non-partisan fashion to independents and Democrats who were considering supporting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid. In May 2015, on the eve of her campaign launch, Schweizer published GAI’s findings in a book, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. It instantly became a New York Times bestseller. 

Trump’s Impeachment Saga Stems From a Political Hit Job Gone Bad

Because the book documented a series of ethically dubious actions—unreported foreign gifts, Bill’s dinner with Kazakhstan’s autocratic president on behalf of a donor seeking lucrative mining rights—the mainstream media took up and amplified its investigations into the Clintons. As Bannon had intended, the whiff of corruption attached itself to Hillary and became a major theme of the media’s coverage, poisoning her image. “They’ve enriched themselves while playing up the worst cast of characters in the world,” Bannon argued of the Clintons at the time. Material from GAI even showed up on the front page of the New York Times. “Looking at it from their point of view,” the liberal strategist David Brock told me of Schweizer and GAI, “the Times is the perfect host body for the virus.”

Clinton’s subsequent loss in the 2016 election was proof of concept: You could spot a Democratic frontrunner years out and tarnish that person badly enough to ruin their candidacy.

So Schweizer and GAI sought to repeat the trick. Looking ahead to 2020, it wasn’t hard to foresee that a moderate, two-term vice president like Joe Biden, popular across the party, was likely to run for president and be a good bet to win. Nor was it difficult for GAI to turn up examples of ethically questionable behavior by Biden’s family members and publish the information in Secret Empires.

 In 2014, while his father was vice president, Hunter became a highly paid director of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company, despite lacking expertise in resource extraction, Eastern European energy concerns, or Ukrainian regulatory affairs. The year before, after flying to China with his father aboard Air Force Two, Hunter Biden joined the board of an investment fund, BHR Partners, co-founded by a Chinese private-equity investor trying to raise $1.5 billion. To all appearances, Hunter Biden was cashing in on the family name in way that’s common among political families in both parties. (In this 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek piece, for example, I explained how Jeb Bush leveraged his famous surname to fund private equity deals with Chinese investors.)

As with Clinton Cash, Schweizer didn’t allege in his book on the Bidens that any laws were broken. Instead, his reporting laid out a suggestive timeline that led readers to the inescapable conclusion that what had transpired reeked of influence-peddling and moral, if not legal, corruption—the sort of self-dealing voters despise. While Ukraine’s prosecutor general told Bloomberg News he found no evidence of wrongdoing, the facts surrounding Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings prompted the mainstream media, including the New York Times, to take notice. 

But Secret Empires didn’t have anything like the effect on Biden that Schweizer’s last book had on Clinton—it pretty much came and went. When I spoke to Schweizer last week, he offered several reasons why the book kind of came and went: one, it didn’t focus solely on Biden, but included other politicians. “That probably affected the vectoring of the narrative,” he speculated. It also appeared well before Biden entered the race, he noted, depriving it of “the urgency of the campaign” to drive it into the news cycle. Another factor, which he didn’t mention, is that the primary bad actor in Schweizer’s tale isn’t Joe Biden, but his son, who isn’t running for president.

Rather than the wall-to-wall cable news coverage his Clinton book produced, the impact of Secret Empires landed almost exclusively in conservative media, much to the frustration of Bannon, who griped about it at the time. 

This is important for two reasons. First, the political effectiveness of projects like Clinton Cash and Secret Empires rests on their ability to enter the public’s consciousness as something other than “conservative attacks.” The information needs to be legitimized—or “weaponized,” to use Bannon’s term—through the mainstream press. This requires patience, restraint, and enough sophistication to understand why a damaging story published on the front page of the New York Times has infinitely more political utility for conservative partisans than the same story appearing on Breitbart.com. As a GAI staffer explained to me in 2015, “We don’t look at the mainstream media as enemies because we don’t want our work to be trapped in the conservative ecosystem.” 

By this past spring, it was clear the Biden attack was stuck in the conservative ecosystem. And here’s where Trump enters the story—and inadvertently kicks off the whole impeachment saga: Trump may be the single most devoted consumer of conservative media, absorbing hours of it each day. He was mainlining the Biden coverage as part of his daily media diet.

We know from his Twitter feed and frequent outbursts that Trump isn’t patient, doesn’t restrain himself from trying to dictate press coverage, and repeats—and often exaggerates—what he hears in right-wing media. (Helpfully, he also name-checks his sources, including Schweizer.) His former Homeland Security adviser Thomas Bossert confessed over the weekend to being “deeply disturbed” that Trump couldn’t distinguish truth from fiction, choosing to believe a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.

What differentiates Trump from other power-consumers of conservative media is that he’s the president and was willing to use his governmental powers to attack a political rival. Impatient to advance a story he believed would damage Biden, Trump tapped Giuliani, who told the New York Times in May that he was going to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to push the new government to investigate the Bidens. “That information will be very, very helpful to my client,” he said. (He later canceled the trip.) He told CNN that “a well-regarded investigator” had brought Hunter Biden’s story to his attention.

Schweizer says it wasn’t him. “I don’t know Rudy and I’ve had no contact with Trump or the White House,” he told me. “I know there was a lot swirling around Ukraine, but I was as surprised as everyone” to learn that Trump delayed military aid to Ukraine and called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy about Biden.

Last week, the White House released a rough transcript of the call, along with a whistleblower’s report, confirming that Trump pressured a foreign government to help him discredit his rival. On the same day the transcript became public—even as Republicans began to recognize the danger it poses to his presidency—Trump was still trying to force the Biden story into the news by misconstruing and exaggerating one of Schweizer’s central claims in Secret Empires. Trump told reporters: “When Biden’s son walks out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund and the biggest funds in the world can’t get money out of China and he’s there with one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two, I think that’s a horrible thing.” (In a statement, a lawyer for Biden called this a “gross misrepresentation” and said “Mr. Biden has not received any return or compensation on account of this investment or his position on the board of directors.”)

The collective effort to impugn Biden doesn’t appear to have sent him into a tailspin, at least not yet. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll this morning finds that 40% of likely Democratic voters think Biden has the best shot of beating Trump, up one point from the last poll.

But there’s no question the anti-Biden effort has boomeranged on Trump, who is suddenly under siege from the Democrats’ fast-moving impeachment inquiry. Giuliani has been subpoenaed by House investigators. So has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who admitted this morning he was on Trump’s call with Zelenskiy. Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine who quit on Friday, will testify in the House impeachment inquiry on Thursday, while Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly ousted in May, will sit for a joint House deposition next week.

At this point, no one can say what effect all this will have on the 2020 election. But it looks increasingly like it won’t be the one that Biden’s antagonists, from Trump to Schweizer, were aiming for. 

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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