Viral rumors that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to protect his son’s business interests in Ukraine in 2016, which spread last week from the pro-Trump media ecosystem to the New York Times, are “absolute nonsense,” according to Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption activist. That evaluation is backed by foreign correspondents in Kiev and a former official with knowledge of Biden’s outreach to Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in a popular uprising in 2014.
In an interview with The Intercept, Daria Kaleniuk, an American-educated lawyer who founded Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, expressed frustration that two recent front-page stories in the New York Times, on how the conspiracy theory is being used to attack Biden, failed to properly debunk the false accusation. According to Kaleniuk, and a former anti-corruption prosecutor, there is simply no truth to the rumor now spreading like wildfire across the internet.
The accusation is that Biden blackmailed Ukraine’s new leaders into firing the country’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to derail an investigation he was leading into a Ukrainian gas company that the vice president’s son, Hunter, was paid to advise.
The truth, Kaleniuk said, is that Shokin was forced from office at Biden’s urging because he had failed to conduct thorough investigations of corruption, and had stifled efforts to investigate embezzlement and misconduct by public officials following the 2014 uprising.
Properly debunking this particular conspiracy theory is easier said than done, though, since it is set in Ukraine, a country with byzantine political intrigue at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. The rivalries between political factions in Kyiv are so intense that even the country’s new anti-corruption agencies are at each other’s throats.
There is no question that Biden did, during a visit to Kyiv in late 2015, threaten to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless Shokin was dismissed. But the vice president, who was leading the Obama administration’s effort to fight corruption in Ukraine, did the country a favor by hastening Shokin’s departure, Kaleniuk said, since he had failed to properly investigate corrupt officials.
“Shokin was fired because he attacked the reformers within the prosecutor general’s office,” Kaleniuk said, “reformers who tried to investigate corrupt prosecutors.”
As Andrew Kramer explained in the New York Times when Shokin was finally dismissed in 2016, Biden had acted as the point man for a coordinated international effort:
The United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite. He was one of several political figures in Kiev whom reformers and Western diplomats saw as a worrying indicator of a return to past corrupt practices, two years after a revolution that was supposed to put a stop to self-dealing by those in power.
As the problems festered, Kiev drew increasingly sharp criticism from Western diplomats and leaders. In a visit in December, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said corruption was eating Ukraine “like a cancer.” Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, which props up Ukraine financially, said last month that progress was so slow in fighting corruption that “it’s hard to see how the I.M.F.-supported program can continue.”
To illustrate what he called “rot in the prosecutor’s office,” Kramer cited a notorious example, known in Ukraine as the case of the “diamond prosecutors,” in which “troves of diamonds, cash and other valuables were found in the homes of two of Mr. Shokin’s subordinates, suggesting that they had been taking bribes. But the case became bogged down, with no reasons given.”
Among the most prominent cases of official corruption Shokin had failed to pursue was against Yanukovych’s environment and natural resources minister, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had oversight of all Ukrainian energy firms, including the largest independent gas company, Burisma, which he secretly controlled through shell companies in Cyprus. After Zlochevsky was forced from office along with Yanukovych in 2014, his gas company appointed Hunter Biden to its board.
“Shokin was fired,” Kaleniuk observed, “because he failed to do investigations of corruption and economic crimes of President Yanukovych and his close associates, including Zlochevsky, and basically it was the big demand within society in Ukraine, including our organization and many other organizations, to get rid of this guy.”
By getting Shokin removed, Biden in fact made it more rather than less likely that the oligarch who employed his son would be subject to prosecution for corruption.
As the former Reuters correspondent Oliver Bullough explains in his book “Moneyland,” just weeks before Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board in May 2014, ostensibly “to strengthen corporate governance,” Britain’s Serious Fraud Office had frozen $23 million of Zlochevsky’s assets in a money laundering investigation. (Zlochevsky and Burisma have denied all allegations of corruption.) At the time, Bullough writes, “The White House insisted that the position was private matter for Hunter Biden unrelated to his father’s job, but that is not how anyone I spoke to in Ukraine interpreted it. Hunter Biden is an undistinguished corporate lawyer with no previous Ukraine experience. Why then would a Ukrainian tycoon hire him?”
Indeed, hiring the vice president’s son might have seemed to Zlochevsky like a way to protect his business from scrutiny by international investigators. But the facts show that the Obama-Biden administration strenuously opposed the decision by Ukrainian prosecutors to let Zlochevsky off the hook.
Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor who resigned in 2016 and accused Shokin’s office of being a “hotbed of corruption,” told Bullough that he had tried and failed to get his colleagues in the prosecutor general’s office to offer proper assistance to the British inquiry in 2014. But the British investigation was eventually stymied because Ukrainian prosecutors failed to provide a court with evidence that the $23 million — the proceeds from the sale of an oil storage facility Zlochevsky owned via a shell company in the British Virgin Islands — were related to criminal abuse of office by the former natural resources minister.
New reporting from Bloomberg News this week revealed that the 2014 case against Zlochevsky “was assigned to Shokin, then a deputy prosecutor. But Shokin and others weren’t pursuing it, according to the internal reports from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reviewed by Bloomberg.”
In December 2014, U.S. officials threatened Ukrainian prosecutors that there would be consequences if they failed to assist the British investigation, according to the documents obtained by Bloomberg. Instead, the Ukrainian prosecutors provided a letter to Zlochevsky’s lawyer stating that they knew of no evidence that the former minister had been involved in embezzlement.
The British investigation collapsed soon after that and the funds were unfrozen and quickly moved to Cyprus.
Kasko, the former deputy prosecutor, told Bloomberg News that there was no truth to the accusation that Biden or anyone in the Obama administration had tried to block the investigation of Zlochevsky. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” Kasko said. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”
On her center’s website, Kaleniuk has been working to debunk a series of conspiratorial stories about supposed “Ukrainian collusion” in the 2016 election which have recently been embraced and promoted by President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his son, Donald Trump Jr. But Kaleniuk was stunned and annoyed by a New York Times report published last week that focused on how the politics of the accusation against Biden might play. The report failed, in her view, to make it clear that the innuendo was false.
“What I’m pissed off about,” Kaleniuk said, “is that Shokin, who was totally corrupt, who undermined the reform of prosecution, and reformers, and who didn’t want to investigate Zlochevsky, now appears in the New York Times as the hero who wanted to investigate Zlochevsky and Burisma and who suffered because Joe Biden demanded to dismiss him because of his willingness to investigate Burisma — which is absolute nonsense.”
Compounding her frustration, Kaleniuk said, is that she was interviewed for the Times story, but it focused more on the potential harm the anti-Biden conspiracy theory could inflict on his presidential candidacy than on making clear that Shokin was fired because of his failure to properly investigate suspected corruption, including by Zlochevsky. Kaleniuk’s fear — that the Times report would be taken as confirmation that Biden had acted improperly — seemed to be realized by a viral tweet promoting the story from Ken Vogel, the Washington correspondent who wrote it, which claimed that “The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal.”
NEW: The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal:@JoeBiden pushed Ukraine to fire a prosecutor seen as corrupt.— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) May 2, 2019
BUT the prosecutor had opened a case into a company that was paying HUNTER BIDEN.
The Bidens say they never discussed it. https://t.co/tblUPYPJMG
Kaleniuk was also distressed that the Times report, and Vogel’s tweet promoting it, failed to clearly debunk the false claim that the prosecutor Joe Biden got fired “had opened a case into a company that was paying HUNTER BIDEN.” In fact, Kasko and Kaleniuk noted, Shokin had undermined efforts to investigate the company and its owner.
After he was appointed prosecutor general in 2015, Kaleniuk said, Shokin’s office did formally open another investigation into Zlochevsky, but that was done at the request of the country’s parliament, not the chief prosecutor. A review of court documents by Kaleniuk suggested that the only investigative step taken by Shokin’s office in that case was to transfer the files to another agency.
During Shokin’s tenure, American diplomats in Kyiv publicly complained about the prosecutor’s failure to investigate Hunter Biden’s employer, Zlochevsky, calling in evidence that the Prosecutor General’s Office (known as the PGO) was in dire need of reform.
“We have learned that there have been times that the PGO not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said in a speech to the Odesa Financial Forum on September 24, 2015. “For example, in the case of former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky, the U.K. authorities had seized $23 million in illicit assets that belonged to the Ukrainian people. Officials at the PGO’s office were asked by the U.K to send documents supporting the seizure. Instead they sent letters to Zlochevsky’s attorneys attesting that there was no case against him. As a result the money was freed by the U.K. court and shortly thereafter the money was moved to Cyprus.”
Pyatt added that the prosecutors “responsible for subverting the case by authorizing those letters should — at a minimum — be summarily terminated.”
Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of a Ukrainian company suspected of corruption first became a political issue three months later, in December 2015, when his father visited Kyiv and threatened to withhold financial aid unless the prosecutor general was fired for blocking corruption investigations. As James Risen reported in the Times that month, the vice president’s spokesperson insisted that the younger Biden’s business in Ukraine would have no influence over his father’s determination to push for more vigorous enforcement of anti-corruption laws. (Risen is now The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent.)
Although there is no evidence that Joe Biden did anything to shield Burisma from scrutiny, the fact that he failed to dissuade his son from helping to launder the reputation of a Ukrainian company widely suspected of corruption is hardly praiseworthy. The former vice president says that he simply never discussed his son’s business interests in Ukraine, but maybe he should have.
The bad news, for Biden, is that the false nature of the allegation about his role in Ukraine won’t stop Trump and his supporters from treating it like a major scandal, hoping to tarnish the Democrat currently leading the race to face him in the 2020 election. And since the setting for the supposed scandal is a part of the world few Americans have much knowledge of, it could be as hard to refute in the minds of voters as the attack on John Kerry’s Vietnam War record launched by the Swift Boat Veterans in 2004, or the weapons-grade innuendo about Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi generated by House Republicans.
As Dan Pfeiffer, a former communications director for President Barack Obama, explained on a recent episode of “Pod Save America” flooding the internet with baseless conspiracy theories can, unfortunately, be good politics. “This is how Trump won,” Pfeiffer said. “Which is: feed conspiracy theories to the base and just throw so much shit around that the folks in the middle say, ‘Well, it’s all confusing, I don’t know who’s right, I don’t have really any way of finding out — certainly the media isn’t capable of telling me — so I’m going to default to my natural expectations which is, both sides are corrupt liars.'”
“And when the public thinks that both sides are corrupt liars,” Pfeiffer added, “that inures to the advantage of the corrupt liar in the race.”
Pfeiffer also criticized Vogel for laying out the conspiracy theory at length before noting that there was no evidence to support it.
I read all the way to the 19th paragraph (after a graphic that looked something on a wall in The Wire"), where you buried this nugget: "No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal." https://t.co/ROzTLNZlxq— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) May 2, 2019
A New York Times spokesperson, Arí Isaacman Bevacqua, defended Vogel’s focus on how the conspiracy theory, and a new investigation in Ukraine, could impact the 2020 election. “Our reporting on the current story began last fall, well before the issue surfaced again elsewhere, and became timely now for two reasons: the recent reopening of an investigation in Ukraine touching on Hunter Biden and the owner of Burisma, and the start of former Vice President Biden’s presidential campaign,” Bevacqua said in a statement. “The role of Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House in drawing attention to the intersection of the Bidens and the situation in Ukraine was clear to us in the latter stages of reporting, and we highlighted that fact for readers in the story (and the headline). Our reporting unearthed new facts about Mr. Giuliani’s contacts with the Ukrainian prosecutors and the steps he took to keep President Trump apprised — developments that the story explicitly noted raised questions ‘about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.'”
In an interview with the Times last week, Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, boasted about pressing Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, to open a new investigation into Burisma, the firm that Hunter Biden was a board member of from May 2014 until last month. Lutsenko had previously closed the probe of Burisma after getting the company to admit to a relatively minor underpayment of taxes. But in late March, his office filed a new notice of suspicion related to the firm, according to the Times.
On Friday, the Times published a second front-page story on the anti-Biden conspiracy theory, reporting that Giuliani “plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries” into the gas company that employed Hunter Biden and allegations that an independent anti-corruption bureau there “meddled” in the U.S. election in the summer of 2016 by releasing evidence of secret payments toPaul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair at the time.
Giuliani shrugged off the suggestion that there might be something wrong with encouraging a foreign government to investigate the American president’s political rivals. “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani told the Times. “And this isn’t foreign policy,” he added. “I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop. And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
The fact that a Times reporter described Biden as “entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal” has been treated as confirmation by Trump’s supporters and the far-right media outlets that work to boost him that the allegation is true.
Before it reached the Times, the frenzied speculation about Biden, and the supposed meddling in the 2016 election by anti-corruption prosecutors in Ukraine, was regularly featured on a network of far-right websites that work to boost Trump and undermine Democrats. Among the first outlets to promote the idea of the Ukrainians as the real meddlers was Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency. That theme, and related conspiracy theories about Ukraine and Democrats, were then featured in a series of opinion columns by John Solomon, a columnist for The Hill in Washington. Solomon’s stories, based on interviews with disgruntled, far-right Ukrainian officials who had previously been featured in Sputnik, have been enthusiastically embraced by the conspiracy theorist-in-chief.
The Biden conspiracy theory has also been heavily promoted by the Epoch Times — which is owned by members of the Chinese Falun Gong spiritual movement and is virulently pro-Trump. As Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff in the White House, noted, records of political spending online show that the Epoch Times has even paid to spread the conspiracy theory more widely on Facebook.
Meanwhile in Kyiv, something of a feedback loop has developed in which Ukrainian officials who have been criticized by Obama-era diplomats are now supported by Trump loyalists.
Take the case of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who has served administrations of both parties but was appointed to this post by Obama.
Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, complained in an interview with The Hill that Yovanovitch had improperly handed him a list of people he should not prosecute for corruption. The allegation sounds scandalous, until you discover that the Ukrainians the U.S. ambassador was trying to protect were anti-corruption activists who received grants for their nonprofit work from the American government and were then baselessly accused of corruption for accepting the money.
Yovanovitch recently demanded the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was wiretapped by a rival anti-corruption agency and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught. “Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases,” Yovanovitch said in March. “Those responsible for corruption should be investigated, prosecuted, and if guilty, go to jail. And in order for that to happen, all of the elements of the anti-corruption architecture must be in place and must be working effectively.”
The disgraced prosecutor Yovanovitch criticized, Nazar Kholodnytsky, was then cited as a source in articles attacking her as a deep-state plotter on far-right American websites, leading Donald Trump Jr. to call for her ouster.
This month, the Trump administration decided to suddenly recall Yovanovitch from her post.
Update: May 12, 2019, 10:00 a.m.
The president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, announced in a rambling Fox News interview Friday night that he was canceling his trip to Ukraine after people close to the incoming president, Volodymyr Zelensky, told reporters in Kyiv that his new administration was not interested in being used to further the anti-Biden conspiracy theory. “This is definitely not our war,” a source close to Zelensky told the Washington Post. “We have to stay away from this as much as possible.”
One Zelensky supporter who spoke to reporters, Serhiy Leshchenko, is a former investigative journalist and reformist member of parliament member who helped publicize the off-the-books payments made to Paul Manafort in 2016. Leshchenko said in a statement on Saturday that Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, who was appointed by the outgoing president, Petro Poroshenko, was feeding pro-Trump conspiracy theories to Giuliani and The Hill about Biden as part of an effort to get White House support for his campaign to keep his job in the new government.
“Lutsenko is trying to manipulate the Biden/Burisma narrative so that Americans will help him cling to power because he is a disgrace and has nowhere else to go after his boss Poroshenko lost the election,” Leshchenko wrote on Twitter. “That’s why Lutsenko now claims he has evidence of wrongdoing that implicates Biden, but if this is true, why has he sat on it for YEARS? Why didn’t he do anything about it after he was appointed as Prosecutor General? And why couldn’t he give this information to his successor?”
“What really happened in the Burisma case,” the lawmaker added, “was that Lutsenko himself stopped the investigation! And not long after that the corrupt Yanukovych crony Zlochevsky went into business with Poroshenko and his corrupt cronies.”
Andrew Kramer, the Moscow-based Times foreign correspondent who first revealed the secret payments to Manafort in Ukraine that forced him to resign from the Trump campaign in 2016, pointed out on Twitter that Giuliani, in his Fox News interview, also incorrectly identified Serhiy Leshchenko as the source who made that information public. The secret payments were first published online by the independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine.
Giuliani, in an interview with Fox, falsely suggested that Leshchenko, a member of Ukraine's Parliament, was the source of so-called Black Ledger accounts showing Paul Manafort's payments in Ukraine. A law enforcement agency published the information https://t.co/fwjeSXfw7I— Andrew E. Kramer (@AndrewKramerNYT) May 11, 2019
In the same interview, Giuliani also falsely claimed that those records of illicit payments to Manafort had been “found to be fraudulent.” In fact, others in Ukraine who are also named in the ledger, detailing payments made by Yanukovych’s political party, have confirmed that the records are accurate.
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