By the numbers, Joe Biden is president of the United States because he won the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by a combined total of some 43,000 votes.
But he also owes his victory to the groundwork laid by Democrats and their media allies one year before, during the first impeachment of Donald Trump over his supposedly strings-attached demand that the Ukrainian government investigate alleged corruption involving Biden’s son, Hunter.
The first impeachment failed to oust Trump from office, but it helped secure the White House for Biden. It shielded him from scrutiny, enabling him and his supporters to cast allegations during the campaign about dubious Biden family business ties as rehashed Trumpian conspiracy theories.
Biden’s razor-thin swing state victories might not have materialized if the Trump campaign had been able to gain traction from its October Surprise — a series of articles it helped orchestrate in the New York Post that reported information from a laptop owned by Hunter Biden suggesting corrupt foreign business deals that may have involved his father.
As many as 45 percent of Biden voters said they were unaware of Hunter’s financial scandals before the election. That’s likely because Democrats and much of the media discredited or did not report the accusations in the final weeks of the campaign — accusations that were bolstered after the election when Hunter admitted that he has been the subject of an ongoing federal corruption probe since 2018.
Once the Post ran its first laptop article on Oct. 14, Democrats and their allies immediately turned to the narrative they had long used against Trump: foreign interference. Without evidence save for the claims of Democrat partisans and anonymous official sources — like those commonly relied upon during the debunked Trump-Russia affair — the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico ran stories suggesting the laptop could be Russian disinformation. Joe Biden said the laptop was a “Russian plan” at the first presidential debate. The FBI, which was a main driver of the Trump-Russia collusion investigation, added to the narrative when word was leaked that the bureau was investigating whether the laptop emails were Russian disinformation. Twitter and Facebook reacted by actively censoring the Hunter Biden story. Twitter went so far as to lock the New York Post out of its own account.
As the Senate takes up a second impeachment of Trump, Republican objections to the Democrats’ handling of the first go-round loom large. The record of those proceedings shows that they were conducted in a highly unusual manner. In retrospect, it seems clear that they were designed not just to target Trump — but to protect Biden.
Taking Early Aim
Some Democrats were bent on impeaching Trump from the moment he took office, on Jan. 20, 2017. Just 19 minutes after Trump was sworn in, the Washington Post published a piece headlined, “The Campaign to Impeach President Trump Has Begun.”
Those early efforts were spearheaded by Texas Rep. Al Green, who drew up articles of impeachment for alleged misdeeds ranging from Trump’s insulting kneeling professional football players to his firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Green’s effort led to three different unsuccessful impeachment votes — one in 2017 and two more in 2019 after Democrats gained a House majority in the 2018 election.
Publicly, Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders said they did not approve of Green’s efforts. “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country,” the House speaker told the Washington Post in March 2019.
Privately, Democratic leaders were betting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion would produce a clearly impeachable offense.
They were wrong. After three years of thorough investigation — as well as thousands of breathless articles and untold hours of TV coverage keyed toward Trump’s prospective guilt — Mueller’s final report, issued in March 2019, concluded that the probe “[did] not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Mueller did not make a determination of whether Trump had tried to obstruct his investigation. Looking at the evidence, Attorney General William Barr determined he had not.
Nevertheless, some powerful Democrats sought to use the Mueller report as the basis to impeach Trump, only to be rebuffed by Pelosi.
The speed of what happened next blindsided Republicans.
The Ukraine Affair
In early August, a CIA employee filed a formal whistleblower complaint against President Trump aimed at forcing Congress to address the matter. He alleged that Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July 25 phone call to investigate the Bidens for political purposes, and subsequently made aid to Ukraine contingent on the probe.
Trump reportedly raised the issue because he believed there had never been any serious inquiry into why Hunter Biden, a lawyer with no experience in the energy sector, had been paid upwards of $80,000 a month to serve on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. Hunter received the appointment in 2014, shortly after his father was asked to oversee Ukrainian affairs as Barack Obama’s vice president. In 2016, Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid to Ukraine unless it fired a prosecutor widely considered to be ineffective. The fired prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, testified that he was driven from office because he was investigating Burisma.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” Trump told Zelensky, “that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.”
At the time of the whistleblower complaint, Biden was favored to win the Democratic nomination for president.
However, the allegations regarding the Trump phone call with Zelensky were problematic from the start. The man who brought the complaint was not really a whistleblower as the term is commonly understood. He had no direct knowledge of the phone call but had been leaked details of it by one of the seven American officials who were on the call with the president.
The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, whose legal opinions are normally binding on these matters, soon concluded the whistleblower complaint did not meet the requirements of an “urgent concern” for it to be forwarded to Congress.
Meanwhile, Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, worked to surface the details of the complaint publicly. He recast obstacles to legitimizing the whistleblower’s complaint as attempts to hide Trump’s malfeasance. When the White House ultimately made a transcript of the call public, Trump’s rhetorical style, an odd combination of obliqueness and bluntness, made the idea of a quid pro quo — no Biden investigation, no aid — open to interpretation.
Officials from Ukraine, which did not open an investigation, said they never felt pressured by Trump.
Despite the procedural problems with the whistleblower complaint, it provided a semblance of formal process to buttress an all-new impeachment attempt. Progressives and much of the media cast the call as an abuse of power by Trump who, they claimed, tried to extort a foreign leader to kneecap a political rival. A formal House impeachment inquiry was launched on Sept. 24, 2019, with the full support of Democratic House leadership.
From the beginning, the impeachment inquiry was rife with episodes suggesting Democrats had a larger strategy. To begin with, they took an unprecedented amount of control over the process. With the 2020 election and the prospect of a second Trump term looming, there would be no years-long special counsel or nonpartisan investigation of this matter.
While the Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, was the traditional venue for impeachment, Democrats decided that Schiff would guide the impeachment inquiry through the Intelligence Committee.
Schiff, who had raised his national profile during the Mueller probe by repeatedly claiming that he had seen more than circumstantial evidence that Trump had colluded with Russia, had already acquired a reputation for fierce partisanship. In early October, shortly after the impeachment inquiry began, the New York Times reported that Schiff’s office had helped shepherd the alleged whistleblower’s complaint. The Washington Post fact-checker gave Schiff “four Pinocchios” for repeatedly denying his office’s contact with the man. Nevertheless, Schiff received glowing press coverage for his impeachment efforts.
The corporate press further enabled impeachment by refusing to publish the whistleblower’s name, in line with Democrat admonitions, even though he wasn’t formally protected by any whistleblower laws. News organizations disclosed no agreements of source confidentiality with the man, and his identity was common knowledge in Washington.
When Paul Sperry of RealClearInvestigations reported the evidence that the whistleblower was a then-33-year-old CIA employee named Eric Ciaramella, this news blackout by major media allowed them to ignore his history of partisan ties and anti-Trump statements. Sperry reported that Ciaramella had served as an adviser on Ukraine to Vice President Biden and had been overheard in 2017 discussing with another staffer how to “take out,” or remove, the new president from office.
That colleague was Sean Misko, who left the White House in the summer of 2019 to join House impeachment manager Schiff’s committee, where, sources say, he offered “guidance” to the whistleblower. [Update, Feb. 5, 2021, 2:30 PM Eastern: In a statement dated Jan. 3, sent after publication and RCI’s request beforehand for comment, Schiff’s panel said “Misko never met with or provided guidance to any whistleblowers regarding complaints they wished to file, including the anonymous Ukraine whistleblower” and reports otherwise are “false.”]
Aside from Schiff’s backstage dealings with Ciaramella, the Intelligence Committee chairman publicly tried to spin Trump’s alleged wrongdoing. On Sept. 26, the day after the Trump-Zelensky transcript was released, Schiff gave an opening statement before acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified before his committee.
During the statement, Schiff, who had once been an aspiring screenwriter, characterized the president’s behavior on the Zelensky call as being like “a classic organized crime shakedown.” Instead of reading the plain text of the call, Schiff paraphrased what happened in hyperbolic and lurid terms.
“I have a favor I want from you,” Schiff said while seeming to read from a transcript. “And I’m going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent, understand? Lots of it, on this and on that.”
Republicans were appalled.
“He makes up a conversation supposedly between the president and Ukraine which sounds like a script from a cheap comic book. Lies and innuendo. He was called out on it and said, well, I meant it as a parody. Geez, that’s great. The fun begins,” Utah Congressman Chris Stewart would record in his journal, as quoted in “Obsession,” Washington Examiner reporter Byron York’s book on Democrats’ years-long quest to remove Trump from office.
To make the case for impeachment, it was crucial for Democrats to demonstrate the existence of a quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky, which was ambiguous because Trump never mentioned aid on the call.
Schiff responded to Republicans’ witness Kurt Volker’s testimony by taking even more unprecedented steps for Democrats to control the impeachment proceedings. Volker had sat for what was known as a “transcribed interview,” which allowed Republicans to speak about the testimony afterward. After Volker, Schiff made sure all the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry were deposed, forbidding committee members from discussing what was said publicly.
But the secrecy rules had a convenient and glaring exception — the witnesses themselves could speak about what happened. “The sessions settled into a pattern of secret testimony accompanied by quick leaks of witnesses’ opening statements,” York observes in “Obsession.” The leaked, one-sided testimonies allowed press speculation to run wild, while House Republicans who knew the particulars were subject to ethics charges if they told the public what had actually been said.
The DNC-Ukraine Nexus
For Democrats, Biden was a fraught issue in the impeachment proceedings. One obvious defense of Trump was for Republicans to argue that the president’s questions about Biden family corruption in Ukraine were legitimate and necessary to protect national security. Under questioning, multiple witnesses called by Democrats conceded that Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma was concerning, leading to calls for Hunter to testify in the proceedings. (During the subsequent Senate impeachment trial, one Democratic senator, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, said Hunter Biden was a relevant witness.)
Democrats rejected calls to question Hunter Biden, Ciaramella, and others. “I think we really could have torpedoed impeachment by making the whistleblower detail all of his prior contacts with Schiff and also his prior contacts with Biden as well,” said a Republican House staffer with intimate knowledge of the proceedings who requested anonymity because he did not want to speak for elected officials.
Democrats also shut down Republican attempts to probe the Democratic Party’s own troubling connections to Ukraine during impeachment. A Politico investigation published in January 2017 “found evidence of Ukrainian government involvement in the  race that appears to strain diplomatic protocol dictating that governments refrain from engaging in one another’s elections.”
The article, written by David Stern and Kenneth Vogel, the latter now at the New York Times, reported that Ukrainian officials had helped Hillary “Clinton’s allies research damaging information on Trump and his advisers,” including his campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Key to this effort was a Democratic National Committee operative, Alexandra Chalupa, who met with Ukrainian officials and American journalists in Washington and was invited to the White House by Biden’s Ukraine pointman — the future “whistleblower” Ciaramella.
(Chalupa wasn’t the only Democratic operative pushing Manafort dirt originating in Ukraine at about the same time. So was Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, the Democratic contractor behind the discredited Steele dossier on Trump-Russia collusion. He has acknowledged feeding the media Ukraine tips in “Crime in Progress,” the book he co-wrote with his Fusion co-founder Peter Fritsch.)
But even though Politico’s reporting on Ukraine and the DNC was largely unquestioned for three years, the media once again sprang to Democrats’ defense as Republicans sought to make an issue of it.
In the end, Schiff’s secrecy and tight control over who got to testify allowed House Democrats to sidestep any explosive questions about the chairman’s role in instigating impeachment, the DNC’s involvement with Ukraine, and Biden’s potential role in his son’s corruption.
Ultimately, the Senate refused to convict Trump and many Republicans believed that it did little to harm him politically. “Not a single Democrat speaker referenced impeachment during any of the convention, which is a really amazing thing,” the GOP staffer noted. “That just shows me they didn’t get a whole lot of political benefit out of it.”
But if impeachment failed to tarnish Trump as much as Democrats hoped, it appeared successful in delegitimizing valid questions about alleged Biden corruption. After impeachment, the corporate media showed almost no interest in investigating Biden family business ties, which were largely characterized as a series of unsubstantiated and debunked allegations.
Christiane Amanpour of PBS expressed the prevailing view in an interview with Republican National Committee spokeswoman Liz Harrington when she said “there has never been any issues in terms of corruption” with the Bidens. After Harrington disagreed and urged journalists to look into the story, Amanpour responded: “We’re not going to do your work for you.”
Some coverage transformed the potential scandals into a positive for Biden. At a campaign event in Iowa, a Democratic voter asked the candidate in December 2019 about allegations of his son’s corruption. In response, Biden called the voter a “damn liar” and challenged him to an IQ test. CNN national political reporter Maeve Reston characterized the exchange this way: “In a human moment defending his son, Biden showed the authenticity, emotion and readiness for a fight that appeals to so many Democrats as they look for someone who can take on Trump.”
Last September, when a Senate intelligence panel report revealed that a firm co-founded by Hunter Biden received a $3.5-million wire transfer from the wife of a Russian politician, the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC did not cover the story. When Trump raised the issue at the first presidential debate, Biden claimed it had been “totally discredited” even though its existence was confirmed by Treasury Department documents.
This news blackout may have helped propel Biden to victory, but questions regarding the Bidens have not gone away.
There is the laptop, which, far from Russian disinformation, did indeed belong to Hunter Biden, who in December admitted he has been the subject of a federal corruption probe since 2018.
Other evidence and testimony implicate President Biden. Tony Bobulinski, a former naval officer and business partner with Hunter Biden, asserted in October that he met with the senior Biden as part of a plan to secretly give the future president a 10 percent stake in a deal with a Chinese conglomerate with ties to the country’s communist government. Bobulinski has provided documents to back up his account and news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal have confirmed they are authentic.
President Biden seems aware of the danger of family embarrassments, including from a January 2020 FBI raid involving allegations of financial fraud at a company where Biden’s brother James was listed as “principal.” Politico reported last week that the president had pulled his brother Frank aside last summer to tell him, “For Christ’s sake, watch yourself. Don’t get sucked into something that would, first of all, hurt you.” On Inauguration Day, a law firm’s ad promoting Frank Biden’s relationship with the president caused a new stir.
Such Biden family matters, and Republicans’ awareness that their concealment may have helped seal Trump’s defeat, color Democrats’ upcoming long-shot efforts to convince at least 17 senators of the opposite party to join their legally and politically fraught effort to convict a president in an impeachment trial after he has left office. Republicans think the Democrats’ handling of the first impeachment poisoned the well.
“Republican fence sitters are probably already on the record denouncing the unfairness of the House process last time around, since both GOP House members and senators were doing that,” says a GOP staffer who insisted on anonymity. “So if that process was unfair, how can you trust Democrats enough to sign off on impeachment 2.0, when there wasn’t even any process to speak of at all?” A number of House Democrats involved in the first impeachment declined to comment on their Republican colleagues’ concerns.
In a recent vote, 45 Republican senators went on record saying they did not believe impeaching a former president was constitutional. Even prominent Senate Democrats, such as 2016 vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, are advocating censuring Donald Trump for fear that a bitter and drawn out impeachment trial is not only futile but will hamper Biden’s ability to get his administration up and running during the crucial early months of the presidency.
Congressional Republicans, for their part, have shown no signs of dropping efforts begun in the first impeachment to investigate what they see as clear Biden family corruption — even after Trump’s second impeachment. Prominent Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley, recently told Fox News they plan to ask Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland, about the Hunter Biden corruption probe during his nomination hearing.
This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations on Feb. 4, 2021.