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Come On, Republicans! Stop Smearing Joe Biden.

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Perhaps I’m just a hopeless optimist, but the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump grew a little bit less depressing on Thursday. As senators lobbed questions in the general direction of Trump’s defense team and the House impeachment managers serving as prosecutors, it felt as if Trump’s lawyers were backing gently away from the more radical implications of their arguments on Wednesday that would read impeachment out of the Constitution. To be sure, they didn’t explicitly say anything different. But during the first hours on Thursday they didn’t volunteer the arguments against “abuse of power” as a legitimate grounds for impeachment, sticking closer to issues of fact and procedure. And Alan Dershowitz, the Trump lawyer who had pushed the farthest, took to Twitter to complain he’d been misinterpreted. 

If Team Trump is really de-emphasizing constitutional radicalism, it’s good news. Not just because accepting the Dershowitz version of the Constitution would give presidents far too much license for misbehavior. But also — again, if true — it would be at least a hint that someone in the Republican Party was able to engineer a course correction based on criticism and new information.

What would make me feel even better is if Republicans would stop smearing the Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden. But that’s not happening. Pam Bondi of the president’s team repeated the smear on Thursday. The claim is that Biden, while vice president, forced the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor in order to shield his son, a board member of an energy company called Burisma that was supposedly being investigated.

The truth, as reported month after month, is quite the opposite. The true part is that Biden was indeed the operative who successfully pushed to have the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, fired. But the rest? Not even close. Biden was carrying out U.S. policy. As the Washington Post’s fact-checker said:

Biden was among the many Western officials who pressed for the removal of Shokin because he actually was not investigating the corruption endemic to the country. Indeed, he was not investigating Burisma at the time. In September 2015, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt publicly criticized Shokin’s office for thwarting a British money-laundering probe into Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky.

The Post’s Greg Sargent reported today that in congressional oversight hearings back in 2016, including some attended by current senators, officials serving under President Barack Obama laid out that same administration policy. No one objected, because the policy wasn’t controversial. It was widely understood that Shokin was a problem in the fight against corruption. In other words, this isn’t a close call, or something subject to legitimate differences of opinion; the claim against Biden is just plain wrong.(1)

It’s bad enough to accuse Biden now of improperly shutting down investigations into Ukrainian corruption by pushing to fire Shokin. It’s worse for the president of the United States to falsely make that same claim that to the Ukrainian president, as Trump did in their July 25 phone call. 

To recirculate the smear in the Senate after it’s been publicly debunked for months — the fact-checker article is dated Sept. 27, and it’s only one of many such items explaining the truth — is even worse than that. Don’t forget that the senators need only to refresh their memories because they knew this information just a few years ago.

If Bondi and the rest of the president’s legal team actually believe this smear anyway, it demonstrates how deeply many Republicans seem to be submerged in a closed information loop, in which they are shielded from simple corrections to basic factual errors. If they’re saying it without believing it … well, you can think of several reasons why that’s even worse.

And it’s entirely unnecessary if all they’re trying to do is to defend the president. Whether Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into aiding his re-election campaign were legitimate or not simply does not turn on whether the things that Trump believed about Ukraine, Biden, and the 2016 election were true or false. If presidents are not allowed to pressure foreign governments to intervene in U.S. elections — and they are not — including by soliciting announcements of investigations against their political opponents, as abundant evidence shows Trump did, it doesn’t matter whether that opponent is guilty or not. 

I’m not so naive as to believe that politicians will jettison their attack lines just because they turn out to be supported by flimsy factual underpinnings. But I have seen politicians from both parties pull back in such circumstances, sometimes by dropping a particular claim completely, sometimes by modifying the claim, sometimes by just downplaying it. What’s happening inside and outside the Senate is different. And it’s not healthy. Not at all.

(1) I should add: There are some legitimate questions involved in the career of Biden's son, Hunter, although he's hardly the only relative of a U.S. politician to cash in on his name. And it's also entirely legitimate to question whether Joe Biden should have taken steps to keep Hunter Biden from taking a board position that may have created an appearance of a conflict of interest.The accusation about Joe Biden and Shokin is the part of this that is simply false.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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