On Bidens and Ukraine, Wild Claims With Little Basis

The phone call that led to the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump was supposed to cause a headache for his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son,” Trump said during that July 25, 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, steering the conversation toward what Trump depicted as a scandal that could bring down Biden, now the Democratic nominee for president in the November election. When it comes to the Bidens and Ukraine, however, there’s little to back up the suspicions.

1. What did Biden’s son do in Ukraine?

After his father became vice president in 2009, Hunter Biden, a lawyer by training, pursued business opportunities with foreign parties, often in ways that intersected with his father’s work. In 2014, Cyprus-registered Burisma Holdings, one of the largest private natural gas companies in Ukraine, announced that Hunter Biden was among several prominent foreigners who were joining its board. The company said that Hunter Biden would advise on “transparency, corporate governance and responsibility, international expansion and other priorities.” He remained on the board until earlier this year, and court records suggest he was earning at least $50,000 a month for his service.

2. What was wrong with that?

There’s nothing illegal (or even that unusual) about people with impressive last names accepting lucrative gigs as corporate directors -- though the younger Biden has been called out for, as one article put it, his “attempts to cash in on the family name.” Even Joe Biden seemed to have been aware that the optics weren’t ideal. Hunter Biden told the New Yorker that on the only occasion they discussed Burisma, “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing.’” Hunter Biden now says that in hindsight, serving on Burisma’s board may have been “poor judgment,” though he maintains he didn’t do anything improper.

3. Why did Burisma come under scrutiny?

Its founder, Mykola Zlochevsky, served as Ukraine’s minister of ecology and natural resources under President Viktor Yanukovych, who was swept from office by mass protests in 2014. Following that uprising, Western governments pressed Ukraine’s new leaders to investigate corruption. One of the initial subjects was Zlochevsky, who was accused of money laundering and abuse of power. Zlochevsky has denied any wrongdoing.

4. What criminal charges came out of this?

None. Burisma issued a statement in 2017 saying that “all legal proceedings and pending criminal allegations” against it and Zlochevsky were closed and that it paid an extra 180 million hryvnias ($7 million) in taxes. There’s also no known evidence that any of the investigations ever involved Hunter Biden. Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, told Bloomberg News in May that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.

5. What does Trump say?

Without substantiation, Trump has said and tweeted that the Biden family “was paid off, pure and simple” and accused the family of corruption, extortion and “pillaging” foreign countries. He’s called them “stone-cold crooked” and publicly urged Ukraine and China to open criminal investigations of them. (Trump’s contention that Hunter Biden flew to Beijing aboard the vice president’s aircraft and left a billionaire -- the episode he wants China to investigate -- isn’t supported by the available facts, either. Still, Hunter Biden resigned from the board of a Chinese-backed private equity company and said he would forgo all foreign work if his father is elected president.)

6. Where does Joe Biden fit in?

Biden, as the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine, pressed successfully for the ouster of Viktor Shokin as Ukraine’s prosecutor general in 2016. At the heart of the allegation by Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is that Biden did so to derail an investigation into Burisma. “Joe Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company,” the Trump re-election campaign said in a television commercial running in states holding early presidential primary elections.

7. What evidence suggests that was Biden’s motive?

Pretty much none. The problem with Shokin -- in the eyes of U.S. leaders, their Western allies, the International Monetary Fund and many Ukrainians -- wasn’t that he was being too aggressive about corruption, but that he was being far too lax. In May, Bloomberg News reported that prosecutors in Ukraine had shelved the investigation into Zlochevsky by 2015, meaning Hunter Biden didn’t stand to benefit from the prosecutor’s ouster. Vitaliy Kasko, who pursued the case against Burisma’s owner as deputy prosecutor and is now first deputy prosecutor in the new government, told Bloomberg News that there had been no U.S. pressure to close that case. Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also told Bloomberg News that Biden never asked him to close any cases.

8. Where did all these allegations come from?

The notion that Hunter Biden and his father could be complicit in Ukrainian corruption was first aired in a 2018 book, “Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends.” Its author, Peter Schweizer, is an editor at Breitbart News and president of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit group founded by former Trump political adviser Steve Bannon. The group’s board chairwoman is Rebekah Mercer, a prominent Trump supporter. Trump has cited Schweizer by name in some of his Twitter attacks on the Bidens. But even Schweizer’s book doesn’t allege that any laws were broken.

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