In April 2014, Hunter Biden had been appointed to the Board of Directors of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, whilst his father, ex-Vice President Joe Biden, was supporting America’s efforts in maintaining the strength of Ukrainian democracy in the face of Russian aggression, with one of his prime focuses during his tenure being that of anti-corruption.
With two members of the Biden family both prominently active in Ukraine, it is perhaps undoubtful that questions were going to be raised. Indeed, documents do suggest that Hunter Biden and his business partners were attempting to get American Democrats on board with the company, at a time when Burisma itself was under investigation by both domestic forces and that of the Obama administration. Naturally, fears were raised that this could complicate Joe Biden’s diplomatic efforts within Ukraine. However, the investigation into the owner of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, resulted in no charges being brought forward, and no evidence has been furnished to suggest that there were improper dealings between the American father and son.
So why, you may ask, does this affair have the 45th President of the United States teetering on the edge of impeachment? Well, on July 25th 2019, Donald Trump is alleged to have pressurised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating the activities of both Burisma and the Bidens. There are conflicting reports regarding a quid pro quo element to Trump’s alleged behaviour, with some media outlets suggesting that military aid was to be withheld unless Zelensky complied with Trump’s instructions. With Joe Biden amongst the front-runners to be the Democratic candidate in the next year’s presidential election, these allegations, if true, would suggest the President was encouraging a foreign power to severely undermine the electoral independence of the United States through withholding military aid that had already been approved by Congress. This would possibly constitute bribery, which is explicitly stated to be an impeachable offence within the United States constitution.
“There is a clear pattern of these men and women putting their names, their reputations, and their livelihoods at risk, all because they are willing to stand up against abuse of power and for what they believe is right.”
These allegations stemmed from the actions of an anonymous whistleblower, who filed a complaint to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community in mid-August. Details of a closed session held by the Inspector General were later leaked to the press, and his reaction to the allegations were described as “urgent” in a letter by Democratic Representative Adam Schiff.
At this stage the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Witnesses have been called to testify before the House of Representatives in both open and closed meetings, and Trump, true to form, has not shied away. If anything, he has doubled down, behaviour the Irish public are only too familiar with when it comes to whistleblowers.
In recent memory, Ireland has had its own fair share of dealings with whistleblowers. The appalling treatment of Maurice McCabe by An Garda Síochána which included a spurious, seemingly spiteful child sex abuse allegation being brought against him, is truly engrained in the public conscience, and is just one example of the dangers of speaking out against injustice. In a separate case a whistleblower alleged that rumours were spread of her having an affair and that she was physically intimidated by another Garda after disclosing that she was not made aware that a criminal who threatened her was in possession of a handgun. There is a clear pattern of these men and women putting their names, their reputations, and their livelihoods at risk, all because they are willing to stand up against abuse of power and for what they believe is right.
In light of these injustices, which the Irish public have unfortunately become accustomed to, the treatment of the anonymous whistleblower by Trump and the Republican Party at large is given particular resonance. Here we have arguably the world’s most powerful man, backed by the largest political party in the US (with an estimated 36 million members), engaging in a coordinated attack on the integrity of the whistleblower, including accusations of fraud, partisanship and ignorance. Trump himself has suggested several times that he should have the right to not just meet his accuser, but to interview him, which it is fair to say constitutes thinly-veiled intimidation of a private American citizen who utilised the correct, legal bureaucratic procedures to highlight what they perceived as wrongdoing by the President.
These strongarm tactics are nothing new to President Trump. A reasonable person could never have considered him to be a stout defender of the checks and balances used to prevent the excessive wielding of power by the President of the United States. Perhaps a more optimistic cohort could have believed that he was simply all bark and no bite, that his attacks against democracy were simply for political gain and to galvanise his support base – he wouldn’t be the first to stoop that low. But these attacks against the whistleblower feel different.
In truth, we should all see a bit of ourselves in the whistleblower. We would like to think that we would readily highlight any injustices we encounter – after all, it’s the right thing to do. However, time and time again we are exposed to the harsh reality that good men and women often have their lives turned upside down for speaking out against their “superiors”. Every time it happens we think it will be the last time, that as a people we have finally learned our lesson – and then another scandal reveals itself. In light of Donald Trump’s flagrant attacks in the most public of fora, Twitter, maybe we won’t be able to tell ourselves that lie anymore, maybe whistleblowers are just doomed to systematic punishment. You could certainly be excused for feeling that way, especially in Trumpland.