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The Bidens And Ukraine, Explained


President Trump's conversation this summer with Ukraine's president has sparked competing accusations. Democrats want to know if President Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Trump claims the real issue is Biden, his son Hunter and what they did in Ukraine a few years ago. Here's the president speaking to reporters today at the United Nations.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The one who's got the problem is Biden 'cause you look at what Biden did - Biden did what they would like to have me do, except for one problem - I didn't do it. What Biden did is a disgrace. What his son did is a disgrace.

CORNISH: NPR's Greg Myre has looked into this. He's here to tell us more.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: So how far back do you want to start?

MYRE: Well, why don't we go back to the early days of 2014? Ukraine is having these massive protests, and they culminate with the ouster of the pro-Russian president. And in his place, we get a pro-Western president. And the Obama administration wants to work with the new president, but Ukraine has been riddled with corruption. And so the U.S. position is shared with European governments and international institutions. They're willing to provide assistance, but they want the country to clean up its act. And Vice President Joe Biden becomes the point man and a frequent visitor to Ukraine.

CORNISH: How does Joe Biden's son Hunter get involved in all of this? What precisely is his role?

MYRE: So right around the same time in the spring of 2014, just after this revolution, Hunter Biden takes a position on the board of the country's largest private gas company called Burisma. He's reportedly paid up to $50,000 a month. And on the surface, this does raise questions about a conflict of interest, and that came up at the time. Joe Biden and his office responded that they were abiding by ethics regulations, that his son was a private citizen, made his own decision. Another important detail - the Obama administration actually supported investigations into this gas company. The owner had been close to the ousted president, and both had fled the country.

CORNISH: So help us understand this. Is there a sign of actual wrongdoing here, conflict of interest, ethics violations by either Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden?

MYRE: Well, this is what President Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani are suggesting. Trump just came out recently and said, if Republicans had done this, they'd be getting the electric chair. But he's not providing any evidence of any illegal actions to back up these claims.

Now, Joe Biden actually boasted about what he did in Ukraine in this period. He called for the ouster of the top Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, for what was widely seen as his failure to investigate corruption. So in March 2016, Biden makes one of his many trips to Ukraine and tells the leaders they have to get rid of the prosecutor if they want a billion dollars in U.S. aid. Here's how Biden told the story last year at the Council of Foreign Relations. And we should note he uses some coarse language here.


JOE BIDEN: I said, you're not getting the billion. I'm going to be leaving here. And I think it was - what? - six hours. I looked. I said, I'm leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money. Well, son of a b****...


BIDEN: He got fired.

CORNISH: So in this story, Vice President Biden sees himself as striking a blow against corruption. But how do President Trump and his supporters see this?

MYRE: So they say that Joe Biden did this because he wanted this prosecutor gone to protect his own son from investigation. And the key figure here appears to be Rudy Giuliani. He's been in contact with Ukraine multiple times, urging them to investigate the Bidens. But we have to stress this story has been percolating for a few months now, and there's no evidence of wrongdoing. Hunter Biden stepped down from his post at the gas company this spring as his term expired. And he said - he seemed to recognize it was going to be an election issue. And he said, quote, "my qualifications and work are being attacked by Rudy Giuliani and his minions for transparent political purposes."

CORNISH: This started with a whistleblower complaint from the spy community about a phone call between the president and the head of Ukraine. What should we be looking for next?

MYRE: Well, a transcript of that conversation - it exists, but the White House is not releasing it. Next big day is Thursday; Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, is set to appear before the House Intelligence Committee. He's been blocking this whistleblower complaint from going forward.

CORNISH: That's NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Greg, thank you.

MYRE: Thank you, Audie.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this report, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that then-Vice President Joe Biden visited Ukraine in March 2016. That is what Biden appeared to say when he spoke about demanding that Ukrainian authorities fire a corrupt prosecutor. In fact, Biden often traveled to Ukraine and spoke with the country's leaders from 2014 through 2016, but he was not in Ukraine in March 2016.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.