Merriam-Webster has not yet added the word “swiftboating” to its dictionary, but the Urban Dictionary and Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary have. The term refers to “the act of discrediting a political opponent by making exaggerated or outrightly false claims about his/her character and past actions.” If successful, this form of disinformation can falsely turn a decorated war hero into a traitor, as it did in the eyes of some voters for then-Senator and Navy veteran John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign. President Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s debunked narrative about Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine fits the mold, but there is an important dimension that’s not been widely understood.
Even some of the best analysis that explains the falsity of the Trump-Giuliani allegations has fallen into a trap. The Trump-Giuliani allegations are called “exaggerated,” while others write that “no evidence has surfaced to support Mr. Trump’s claim.”
What’s missing from those types of assessments is evidence that actually points in the opposite direction. That became clearer to us as researchers when we prepared a chronology of events published on Just Security earlier today. The timeline covers developments from November 2013 to the present, including Biden’s work in Ukraine and Trump and Giuliani’s actions in what has become known as “Ukrainegate.”
The publicly available evidence suggests that the Vice President, working in tandem with other U.S. officials such as Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, pursued anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine that would increase the legal risks to the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings, where Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board. The U.S. government’s efforts, led by Biden, explicitly and specifically targeted the office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine not only for its failure to pursue investigations – but also for blocking an investigation into allegations concerning the owner of Burisma.
One might hesitate to bring further attention to a smear campaign, as writing about it can help spread the disinformation itself. But the more complete record on Biden also reveals the nature of Trump and Giuliani’s offenses.
Here are the most important elements in the chronology relevant to this topic:
1. The Ukraine investigation of Burisma did not simply lie dormant at the time the U.S. vice president was calling for the ouster of the General Prosecutor. That office appears to have engaged in a cover-up to protect Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevskiy, from a British investigation.
See the following entries from the timeline (summarized here):
April 16, 2014, Sept. 24, 2015, and Feb. 11, 2016 – U.K. authorities freeze assets of Burisma owner Mykola Zlochevskiy, who challenges the freeze and wins, in part because the Prosecutor General’s Office didn’t provide necessary evidence and, according to Ambassador Pyatt, even “sent letters to Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no case against him.” Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor general who had worked under Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin and resigned in frustration at his stymying of corruption investigations, says the office’s probe into Burisma Holdings had been long dormant, including under Shokin’s predecessor, by the time Joe Biden issued his ultimatum in 2016. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against” Burisma owner Zlochevskiy, Kasko says. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”
Feb. 16, 2016 – Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin resigns, then returns to office before finally being ousted. The Kyiv Post reports later that it “wasn’t able to find any public comments that Shokin made about [Burisma] during his 14 months in office.”
2. In line with the EU, the IMF, and other Western donors, the U.S. government, led by Biden, publicly and privately called for Shokin to step down for his failure to address corruption.
See the following entries (summarized here):
Fall 2015 – Biden, along with the EU, publicly calls for the ouster of Prosecutor General Shokin for failure to work on anti-corruption efforts, according to many including congressional testimony by John E. Herbst, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush.
Feb. 11, 2016 – Documenting Biden’s coordination with other administration officials on approach to Shokin.
3. Biden and Pyatt gave back-to-back speeches in 2015, in which the ambassador specifically castigated officials in the Office of the Prosecutor General for the Burisma cover-up and called for those officials to be investigated and removed from office for those actions.
See entry (summarized here):
Sept. 24, 2015 – Ambassador Pyatt excoriates officials in the Prosecutor General’s Office for stymying the anti-corruption investigation by UK authorities, including those involving Burisma.
4. The Special Prosecutor who replaced Shokin, Yuriy Lutsenko, initially took a hard line against Burisma
See the following entries (summarized here):
May 12, 2016 – Lutsenko’s initial hardline on Burisma demonstrates that Shokin’s ouster wasn’t, in fact, good for the company. On the contrary.
Feb. 11, 2016 – Daria Kaleniuk a leading Ukrainian anti-corruption advocate, says, “Shokin was not investigating. He didn’t want to investigate Burisma…And Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation.”
* * *
As Taegan Goddard’s Political Dictionary explains about swiftboating, “The term comes from the 2004 presidential campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book that challenged Kerry’s military record.”
Names that have become more familiar to Americans today – like Jerome Corsi – were behind that effort. At the time, John Kerry was the Democratic nominee challenging Republican George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Kerry had served as a commander in Vietnam of a U.S. Navy swift boat, a type of vessel used in the war. Kerry had obtained three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star.
The smear of Kerry was debunked, though Kerry’s campaign was faulted for not taking it seriously enough at first. They had mistakenly assumed Americans would not be persuaded by such a fringe and outrageous falsehood.
Part of what makes the swiftboating of Joe Biden different is that it’s clearly coming directly from within the White House. And with Kerry, the news media could at least remind itself and the audience of Kerry’s decorated service. There was always the idea that the smear was trying to flip the candidate’s strength (military service) into a weakness (alleged traitor).
The swiftboating of Biden is magnitudes more pernicious than what happened in 2004. That’s in part because, if the voluminous reporting of recent months and especially the past week is borne out, the President of the United States has used the power of his office to try to get Ukrainian authorities to “investigate” Biden not only on false accusations, but on a smear that so obviously flies in the face of known facts.