Hillary Clinton’s email scandal was the single most-covered story of the entire campaign in 2016. Trump was key in this process: As the story went on, he would seize on any new development and blast it as part of his Crooked Hillary narrative. The press would then write stories about Trump’s statements and tweets. Rinse and repeat.
The outlines of a similar process are already taking shape for Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden over a scandal involving Ukraine. It’s EMAILS all over again.
Just as with Clinton, there is some genuine sleaze in the Biden story. As The New York Times reports, it goes back to 2016, when Biden was point man in the Obama administration’s effort to tamp down on corruption in Eastern Europe. He threatened to stop $1 billion in loan guarantees if the Ukrainian government didn’t sack their top prosecutor, who was widely viewed as corrupt. The guy was duly fired, and the guarantees went through.
But Biden himself had a conflict of interest due to his son Hunter, who “at the time was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general.” (The company is called Burisma Holdings.)
Now, by all accounts this prosecutor was genuinely corrupt, and there is no sign that Biden’s son influenced his decision. But it beggars belief to think that Hunter wasn’t being paid for his connections. Nobody spends up to $50,000 per month on a guy with no special experience who had just washed out of the Navy Reserve over a positive cocaine test. Biden apparently had no problem allowing his son to trade on his name like that, or his son creating the impression that Biden might have a corrupt motivation.
But the way the Times reported this story is instructive. They put the juicy Biden details at the top, and buried by far the most important piece of news: that the president’s personal lawyer is working with the Ukrainian government on the Biden story. “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.” He discussed this with Trump, who then suggested Attorney General Barr should open an investigation. The idea is to both smear Biden and cast doubt on the Mueller investigation as somehow coming from a Democratic conspiracy with Ukrainians.
Top law enforcement authorities potentially conspiring with the president to conduct politically motivated prosecutions is hugely more important than anything Hunter Biden did. It’s awesomely corrupt — basically straight out of the aspiring dictator’s handbook. But the Times buried it way at the bottom of their article.
It’s easy to see where this is probably going to go. Ukrainian authorities, hoping for favorable treatment from the U.S., will open an official investigation of Biden and his son, and maybe even charge them with something or other. The corrupt attack dog Barr will investigate as well, dragging it out to maximize the damage. Trump will seize on the story, repeat “BIDEN SAVED HIS COKEHEAD SON FROM PROSECUTION” ten billion times, and the mainstream media will duly amplify his message. A Media Matters investigation of major media Twitter feeds found that they did not rebut Trump’s disinformation 65 percent of the time. They “amplified Trump’s misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study — a rate of 19 per day.”
Incidentally, Trump’s media strategy is a good lesson in messaging for the Democrats, who will need to beat him at his own game. Trump’s various crimes and corrupt acts are so numerous and complicated that it will surely take future historians whole books to describe them in detail; you can’t possibly expect the public to take on the whole picture during a campaign. As Trump shows, simple messaging and constant repetition are the way to break through. As Republican strategist Frank Luntz once said, “[T]here’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time.” So just pick two or three simple stories, slap a clear, zippy slogan on each one, and repeat them over and over and over.
At any rate, it would be nice if the big-shot political press would do their jobs responsibly, and not enable Trump’s subversion of democracy. But I wouldn’t remotely expect it. Trump gets the views and clicks. Democrats in Congress are going to have to use their own power to stop or slow Trump’s corruption and push their own media campaign.
As for the party rank and file, it might be worth considering not nominating someone who has 50 years of baggage.