Former Vice President Joe Biden appears to be ramping up his attacks on President Trump. Notably, he's also ramping up his defense of his own dealings in Ukraine.
As Trump faces possible impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, the president is partially defending himself by repeating the same debunked accusation against Biden: That as vice president, Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor in order to protect Hunter Biden, who was serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
"Look, Biden and his son are stone-cold crooked," Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday, echoing an attack he has returned to time and time again as House Democrats have begun exploring impeachment for Trump's alleged attempt to leverage U.S. power to help influence the 2020 presidential race.
For the first week of the story, Biden was content to largely ignore Trump's allegations. While Biden campaign staffers aggressively pushed back on reporting that gave equal billing to Trump's unproven allegations and even lobbied TV networks to stop booking Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Biden himself largely stuck to brief variations of what he said during an appearance on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live: "There's not one single, solitary, legitimate journalist in the world who's giving any credibility to this. They have debunked all of what he has had to say." Biden then pivoted to his broader campaign arguments against Trump.
Biden kept statements about Trump and Ukraine brief — just four to five minutes at a time — and mostly focused on Trump's actions, not a defensive argument.
The approach made sense to Jennifer Palmieri, who repeatedly weathered unsubstantiated Trump attacks during the 2016 presidential campaign when she worked as Hillary Clinton's communications director. "That best argument is to not ever talk about the charges or respond to them, but for [Biden] to talk about why it's happening and that 'you're hearing these lies because'he's scared to run against me,' " she said. "Or 'you're hearing these lies because he knows he can't run on a record.' "
But in a speech Wednesday evening in Reno, Nev., Biden abruptly shifted gears and offered more details on why, as vice president, he pressured Ukrainian officials to fire the prosecutor many United States and European officials had viewed as corrupt.
"What I did in Ukraine was carry out the official policy of the United States government: to root out corruption in Ukraine in conjunction with our European allies, the International Monetary Fund and its leader, our closest democratic allies," Biden said. "It was a fully transparent policy, carried out in front of the whole world, and fully, fully embraced by the international community of democracies."
A Biden adviser disputed the idea that Wednesday's speech marked a shift in strategy, pointing to the statements, letters and social media pushback the campaign has been using to refute Trump's attacks on the former vice president since they began.
But Biden's Reno speech marked his most extended comments yet, on both Trump's attacks against him and his son and on the president's efforts to spark a Ukrainian investigation into his political rival.
Biden framed Trump's request to Ukraine — and alleged links to the delivery of American aid to the vulnerable country bordering Russia — as part of a broader pattern. "The abuse of power is the defining characteristic of the Trump presidency. The American presidency is an office of immense power. That's why character matters more in a president than any other office in our government," said Biden. "That's why one of the gravest threats to our democracy is a president who puts their own personal gain ahead of the public good. And that is why Trump will do anything it takes to hold on to it."
The next morning, Trump publicly urged China to investigate Biden. Biden's campaign responded almost instantly.
"What Donald Trump just said on the South Lawn of the White House was this election's equivalent of his infamous 'Russia, if you're listening' moment from 2016 — a grotesque choice of lies over truth and self over the country. The White House itself has admitted that Donald Trump tried to bully a foreign country into lying about the domestic opponent he's afraid to look in the eye next November," said deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. (In a July 2016 press conference, candidate Donald Trump urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's emails.)
Given Trump's unapologetic approach to asking for foreign assistance in anti-Biden investigations, expect the cycle to keep repeating itself.
A previous version of this story incorrectly said President Trump called the Bidens "stone-cold crooked" on Thursday. He made the statement at a Wednesday press conference.