Republican Corruption Puts Democracy At Risk

Heather Cox Richardson

The centerpiece of Republicans’ case for impeaching Democratic president Joe Biden is the allegation that he and his son Hunter each accepted a $5 million bribe from Ukrainian oil and gas company Burisma when Biden Sr. was vice president. But in the last week, that accusation has revealed quite a different problem, one that implicates Republicans. 

The accusation that the Bidens accepted bribes broke into public channels on May 3, 2023, when Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Representative James Comer (R-KY), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray saying they had received “highly credible…whistleblower disclosures” that said the Department of Justice and the FBI appeared to have “valuable, verifiable information that you have failed to disclose to the American people.” 

Grassley and Comer claimed there was “growing concern about the DOJ and the FBI’s track record of allowing political bias to infect their decision-making process,” and so Congress would be conducting its own “independent and objective review of this matter.” 

Comer then issued a subpoena for the document containing the information, a so-called FD-1023, which is the form used by FBI agents to record “raw, unverified” information from confidential informants. In it, informant Alexander Smirnov made a number of allegations about the Bidens, including that they had accepted bribes. 

In July, Grassley and Comer got the document and showed it to others in a secure facility. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) saw it there, took pictures of it, and posted them on social media. She claimed that “Joe Biden is a criminal and is compromised” and that he was backing Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion because Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky “has proof of more Biden crimes.” “IMPEACH BIDEN,” she wrote.

Grassley also released it, suggesting that the Justice Department and the FBI were trying to cover up a “criminal bribery scheme” implicating the Bidens. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) jumped in, saying: “Every day, the evidence keeps mounting and the evidence that is coming in is number one, of a widespread bribery scheme of Joe Biden and Hunter Biden and the entire Biden family, to extract bribes from foreign nationals.” 

The idea that Biden had accepted bribes was central to the House impeachment effort that then–House speaker Kevin McCarthy (D-CA) announced in September 2023.

That story fell apart a week ago, on February 14, 2024, when a federal grand jury indicted Smirnov for lying and “creating a false and fictitious record.” 

And the story became even more troubling yesterday, when Trump-appointed Special Counsel David Weiss of the Justice Department filed a document establishing that the informant, Alexander Smirnov, has “extensive and extremely recent” ties with “Russian intelligence agencies.” 

The filing revealed other, more recent, false allegations Smirnov had made, and concluded that “Smirnov’s efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States continues…. What this shows is that the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2020. He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November.” 

Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, told reporters today that “the impeachment investigation essentially ended yesterday, in substance if not in form, with the explosive revelation that Mr. Smirnov’s allegations about Ukrainian Burisma payments to Joe Biden were concocted along with Russian intelligence agents. And it appears like the whole thing was not only obviously false and fraudulent but a product of Russian disinformation and propaganda. And that’s been the motor force behind this investigation for more than a year.”

The Republican release of Smirnov’s allegations in July 2023 did not happen in a vacuum: they came right after the Republican-led House censured Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) for “misleading the American public and for conduct unbecoming of an elected Member of the House of Representatives,” including “spread[ing] false accusations that the [2016] Trump campaign colluded with Russia.”

But the Mueller Report concluded that “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” and that “the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” The Senate Intelligence Committee Report found that “the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence…the outcome of the 2016 presidential election” and that Trump campaign advisor Paul Manafort worked directly with Konstantin Kilimnik, “a Russian intelligence officer.”  

That effort continued in 2020, with the U.S. intelligence community assessing in March 2021 that “Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.”

That foreign countries try to influence elections is far less a surprise than that one of the two major U.S. political parties now appears to be, wittingly or not, working on their behalf.

That willingness to do anything to win—even working with a foreign dictator—seems a logical outgrowth of the process begun during the administration of President Richard Nixon, when his people deliberately appealed to voters’ emotions with a picture of traditional America under siege by antiwar student activists, people of color, and feminist women. 

To rally voters to their party in the 1970s midterms, Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew engaged in what they called “positive polarization.” Nixon’s speechwriter Pat Buchanan wrote a memo to Nixon warning: “We are in a contest over the soul of the country now and the decision will not be some middle compromise…. It will be their kind of society or ours.” 

The theme that the Republicans’ opponents were dangerous socialists out to destroy the country became the centerpiece of Republican rhetoric. From President Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, who was scamming the system and thus taxpayers, through talk radio host Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazis,” to Trump’s claim that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” the party has defined itself as “true America” standing against enemies.

And if you believe you are fighting for the right, it only makes sense to do whatever it takes to win.

Meanwhile, that belief has now overlapped with the evangelical base that supports what it considers traditional values so that, as Alexander Ward and Heidi Przybyla outlined in Politico yesterday, the party is now advancing plans to impose Christian nationalism on the country. Leaders of the Christian nationalist movement incorrectly believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, so they intend to rest the government and public life on what they consider to be Christian values. 

In December, Trump promised: “Upon taking office, I will create a new federal task force on fighting anti-Christian bias to be led by a fully reformed Department of Justice.” 

What that might look like became clear this week when the Alabama Supreme Court decided in a wrongful death suit resulting from the accidental destruction of embryos that were part of an in vitro fertilization (IVF) process, in which doctors artificially fertilize eggs outside the womb and then transfer them into a person, that fertilized human eggs have the same status as children. Chief Justice Tom Parker declared in a concurring opinion that the people of Alabama have adopted the “theologically based view” that “life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God.”

About 2% of U.S. births are a product of IVF. Today the largest healthcare system in Alabama has announced it is halting its IVF program out of fear of prosecution. 

Reworking the nation to impose Christian nationalism requires minority rule, which aligns with the ideology of authoritarianism, enabling Trump and those who share his views to praise someone like Vladimir Putin. And, it seems, to accept his help winning elections.

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