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Donald Trump's M.O. is becoming well-known at this point. It's almost eery how his 2020 campaign is reflecting back on 2016 in many ways. Both times he has tried to out a person from the Obama administration as doing something illegal, both times Russia was involved in some way, and both times it's only reflected back on him and brought him more trouble.
Just as his campaign pushed the idea that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was doing something devious when she used her personal email server, this year he, his allies, and the campaign are pushing that former Vice President Joe Biden was using his position to force Ukraine to make changes that would aid his son, Hunter Biden, who was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, at the time.
A Ukrainian lawmaker with ties to Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, released recordings of private phone calls between Biden and then-Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko. This was an attempt to force the narrative that Biden was doing something wrong, but the recordings really didn't show that. Nonetheless, Donald Trump Jr. celebrated the continuation of this storyline of his father's.
Trump and Giuliani have been chasing this story since last year. The former mayor of New York City was going to travel to Ukraine last May to investigate the Bidens' ties to Ukraine but didn't get there until December where he met with Andriy Derkach.
Last July Trump asked current Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to conduct investigations of the Bidens and implied there would be no aid for Ukraine unless he publicly announced the investigations. Once a whistleblower blew the lid off this call, it led to Trump being impeached in the House. He was later acquitted by the Senate.
An independent member of the Ukraine parliament, Derkach, was previously aligned with a pro-Russia group. He said at a Kyiv news conference on Tuesday that he received the recordings from "investigative journalists" and said they were made by Poroshenko. The recordings consist of edited pieces of the phone calls between Biden and Poroshenko.
Derkach attended the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow. His father had been a KGB officer before his time as the head of independent Ukraine's intelligence service. He retired from his position during a scandal involving the kidnapping and murder of a Ukrainian journalist.
The recordings were played at the news conference, but they didn't show much. Biden had previously said that in 2105 he linked loan guarantees for Ukraine to the country removing its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, from office. Derkach nevertheless used these recordings to push the unproven allegations.
Donald Trump Jr. posted one of the recordings to his Twitter just hours later and remarked, "Yikes!!!! This is not a 'perfect conversation.' " "Perfect conversation," however, is how his father had described his phone call with Zelensky.
Trump allies have alleged that it was Ukraine that intervened in the 2016 election, and not Russia, to help Clinton, alleging that Trump's campaign chairman Paul Manafort was targeted. He was recently released to home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic. He is serving a seven-year sentence for financial crimes, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and obstruction of justice.
Ukraine's anti-corruption bureau released entries from a black ledger that allegedly showed $12 million in cash from its pro-Russia political party to Manafort when he was a political consultant in Ukraine.
Giuliani met with Derkach in December in Kyiv. When he was asked via text whether he knew the recordings were being released, he didn't answer. However, he said the focus should be on the Biden family and what happened while Joe Biden was the vice president. "Just the tip of the iceberg," he said.
The recordings, however, do not back Giuliani's accusation that Biden pushed for the prosecutor general's dismissal to help Hunter Biden. The owner of Burisma was a former government minister and was under investigation in Ukraine
The Biden campaign contends the tapes being released is just more of the Russian effort to hurt him. They noted that RT, the Russian state-controlled news network, played and promoted the recordings and also noted Derkach's ties to Russia.
"They heavily edited this, and it's still a nothingburger that landed with a thud," said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates.
Biden's side is also noting that the recordings are
consistent with the official U.S. and European policy in 2015 and with what both participants had said of the call since.
Poroshenko's political party, European Solidarity, said the release of the recordings is a Russian provocation that is designed to reflect negatively on Ukraine and drag it into the U.S. presidential campaign. It also noted it was an attempt to ruin the support that Ukraine has from the U.S.
Biden had publicly pushed for Shokin's ouster in 2015 and later said he told Poroshenko that Ukraine would not receive $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Shokin was removed and the office was reformed. Much of this can be heard in the recordings.
"It's going to be critical for him to work quickly to repair the damage that Shokin did," Biden said on the recordings. "And I'm a man of my word. And now that the new prosecutor general is in place, we're ready to move forward to signing that new $1 billion loan guarantee."
Burisma and Hunter Biden are not mentioned in the recordings, and the former vice president has denied discussing Burisma with his son.
Poroshenko said in one recording that he'd met with Shokin and asked him to resign. He added that an hour before the call, Shokin had written a letter of resignation. Poroshenko described it as the "second step of keeping my promises."
"Great," Biden said. "I agree."
Poroshenko also sought Biden's approval with Shokin's replacement, Yuri Lutsenko. He noted that if Biden were opposed to him that he'd rethink it.
Biden said he'd "huddle" with his team and "talk over what you and I just talked about."
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