Last week, ghosts of three years ago returned to the headlines when Rudy Giuliani announced, then cancelled, a trip to Ukraine. The trip, which Giuliani planned to undertake in his capacity as Donald Trump’s personal attorney, was intended to dig up alleged improprieties in Joe Biden’s role in the 2016 firing of Ukrainian prosecutor.  

The story, like most out of Ukraine, is convoluted. The country’s oligarch-run ecosystem, much like the Trump administration, is a place where truth is a highly malleable concept.  Combining Ukraine intrigue with the White House is a bit like the classic logic riddle where you must navigate a town in which half the people tell the truth and the other half lie – except in this case, nearly everyone has a history of lying and the best you can hope for is half-truths. 

When we parse this affair, much of Giuliani’s accusations of Biden turn out to be political-driven nonsense; but Biden doesn’t come out smelling like roses either. 

In March 2016, then-vice president Biden successfully strong-armed Ukraine to fire prosecutor general Viktor Shokin. Biden, who flew into Kiev dangling the promise of a one billion dollar loan guarantee, told Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko the loan wouldn’t be authorized unless Shokin was ousted. 

Here’s how Biden himself recounted it: “I looked at them and said:  ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch.  He got fired.” 

At the time, Shokin was allegedly investigating corruption at Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. Joe Biden’s son Hunter happened to sit on Burisma’s board, a lucrative position which was netting him millions of dollars. 

That’s where the accusations come in. Biden claims he forced Kiev to fire Shokin – who was widely seen as a corrupt Poroshenko loyalist – for the good of the country, not because of investigations into Burisma.  Shokin, meanwhile, insists his firing was politically motivated by his investigation of Burisma.

Shokin should be taken with a pound of salt.  The man was infamously corrupt; his attempt to frame himself as an honest prosecutor punished for tackling shady dealings doesn’t hold water.  Additionally, as Bloomberg reported, the Burisma case was utterly dormant. Biden didn’t need to protect Burisma because the company wasn’t under active investigation. 

In sum, Biden had no incentive to defend Burisma. And as the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine, he had every incentive to force Poroshenko to root out Kiev’s endemic corruption, the first step of which was ousting Shokin. Giuliani’s claim that Shokin’s firing was meant to protect Hunter Biden’s income is simply untrue. 

The problem – indeed, the only reason we’re discussing this three years later – is that Hunter Biden should’ve never joined Burisma’s board to begin with.  His decision to do so displays a lack of judgement on the part of both Bidens, one that is relevant now that Joe Biden is running for president. 

Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a lengthy report about Hunter Biden’s Burisma entanglement. The picture isn’t flattering:  Hunter’s involvement included the establishment of a private equity firm with other children of prominent political actors who proceeded to rake in money from murky overseas entities.  Sitting on Burisma’s board netted Hunter several million dollars.  What services Hunter provided to Burisma remains unclear, but at one point he was making as much as $50,000 a month. 

That, in itself, should’ve raised red flags.  Indeed, it had. 

Hunter Biden joined Burisma in 2014, two years before his father gleefully pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin.  That inherently problematic decision was immediately covered by Western media, including the BBC.  It was further highlighted by a 2015 Times editorial, which stated:  “It should be plain to Hunter Biden that any connection with a Ukrainian oligarch damages his father’s efforts to help Ukraine. This is not a board he should be sitting on.” 

And yet, the Bidens seem reluctant to address the situation: both men told the Times Hunter’s involvement with Burisma wasn’t an issue because they don’t discuss personal business dealings.  (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Trump family claims the same thing about their business interactions.) Unfortunately, that’s not how conflicts of interest work. 

The vice-president’s son landed a questionable – and lucrative – sinecure in an economically unstable nation that played a key role in US foreign policy and was heavily-dependent on Western aid.  This created a conflict of interest ipso facto, regardless of intentions. The fact Joe Biden doesn’t see a problem with it is a concern, especially considering Hunter – who was just reported to be a major investor in Chinese surveillance technology – continues engaging in murky overseas ventures. 

In reporting on the Times’ story, some analysts dismissed the conflict of interest inherent in Hunter Biden’s Burisma position, devoting a sentence or two to acknowledge it wasn’t a good idea, before moving on to criticize the Times for running the piece in the first place.  That’s wrong.  If coverage of the Trump clan’s numerous imbroglios is beneficial to the public, a story about the man who may well become the next president, falls in the same category. 

Biden, whose appeal stems from standing up for the common man, should address the issue, including pledging his son will disentangle himself from questionable investments that may impact foreign policy.  Doing so will deprive the White House from claiming the two men are the same, and put an end to this strange affair.