It’s strange to see my journalism twisted, perverted, and turned into lies and poisonous propaganda by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and their enablers. But that’s what has happened to a news story I wrote four years ago.
In 2015, I wrote a story for the New York Times about Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and Ukraine. Many observers now seem to think this suddenly hot story came out of nowhere this year, but that is not true.
The truth behind that story has been lost in a swamp of right-wing opposition research, White House lies, and bizarre follow-up stories. Now it appears that the Biden-Ukraine story will play a role in a new impeachment inquiry against Trump, amid evidence that he sought to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by withholding U.S. aid unless Zelensky agreed to investigate the Bidens.
On Wednesday, the White House released a summary of the July conversation between Trump and Zelensky, in which Trump told the Ukrainian leader to work with Attorney General William Barr and Giuliani to find out what happened between the Bidens and a Ukrainian prosecutor. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump told Zelensky, according to the summary. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Tuesday that the House will launch an impeachment investigation, and the whistleblower who complained about the Trump-Zelensky call to the intelligence community inspector general is seeking to testify before Congress. Thus, just months after the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, Congress will investigate whether Trump sought to pressure another foreign leader to help him win the 2020 presidential race.
With so much now at stake, I thought it would be useful to revisit my original story and in the process, separate the truth from the gathering lies.
In December 2015, I was an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau of the Times. That month, I published a story reporting that Vice President Joe Biden had just traveled to Ukraine, in part to send a message to the Ukrainian government that it needed to crack down on corruption.
But I also wrote that his anti-corruption message might be undermined by the association of his son Hunter with one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas companies, Burisma Holdings, and with its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky. Zlochevsky had been Ukraine’s ecology minister under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader who had been forced into exile in Russia.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Burisma in April 2014, the same month that British officials froze Zlochevsky’s London bank accounts containing $23 million. Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, an independent government agency, was conducting a money-laundering investigation and refused to allow Zlochevsky or Burisma Holdings, the company’s chief legal officer, and another company owned by Zlochevsky access to the accounts.
But the British money-laundering investigation was stymied by Ukrainian prosecutors’ refusal to cooperate. The Ukrainian prosecutors would not turn over documents needed in the British investigation, and without that documentary evidence, a British court ordered Britain’s Serious Fraud Office to unfreeze the assets.
In September 2015, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt gave a speech in which he attacked the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office for failing to cooperate with the British investigation. In his speech — which I quoted in my story — Pyatt mentioned Burisma’s owner by name.
“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,” Pyatt said. Officials at the prosecutor general’s office, he added, were asked by the United Kingdom “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.”
When Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine in December 2015 to press for more aggressive anti-corruption efforts by the government, Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma made his father’s demands, however well-intentioned, appear politically awkward and hypocritical. That was the point of my story. I quoted Edward C. Chow, who follows Ukrainian policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said the involvement of the vice president’s son with Zlochevsky’s firm undermined the Obama administration’s anti-corruption message in Ukraine.
“Now you look at the Hunter Biden situation, and on the one hand you can credit the father for sending the anticorruption message,” Chow said. “But I think unfortunately it sends the message that a lot of foreign countries want to believe about America, that we are hypocritical about these issues.”
In fact, Hunter Biden has been the black sheep of the Biden family for years. He was the younger son who could never live up to the example set by his older brother, Beau, an Iraq war veteran and the attorney general of Delaware who died of brain cancer in 2015, cutting short a promising political career.
In 2014, Hunter Biden was discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine use. He had also been involved in a hedge fund with his uncle, James Biden, Joe Biden’s brother, that went bad in the face of lawsuits involving the Bidens and a business partner.
Hunter Biden was the family millstone around Joe Biden’s neck, the kind of chronic problem relative that plagues many political families. George H.W. Bush had his son Neil; Jimmy Carter had his brother Billy.
Still, when Joe Biden went to Ukraine, he was not trying to protect his son — quite the reverse.
The then-vice president issued his demands for greater anti-corruption measures by the Ukrainian government despite the possibility that those demands would actually increase – not lessen — the chances that Hunter Biden and Burisma would face legal trouble in Ukraine.
When it first was published, my 2015 story seemed to have little impact, other than to irritate Joe Biden and his staff. It ran inside the print edition of the Times, not on the front page.
But somebody obviously read my piece, as well as others like it, because questions about the Bidens in Ukraine suddenly came roaring back this year. Giuliani, Trump, and their lackeys began spreading the false accusation that Biden had traveled to Ukraine to blackmail the government and force officials to fire the country’s chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to derail an investigation into Burisma.
In May, when this issue began to surface, The Intercept’s Robert Mackey wrote an excellent piece debunking the lies in the new pro-Trump version of the Biden story. In the process, he provided greater detail than I had included in my 2015 story. He wrote that Shokin had been forced from office at Biden’s urging because he had failed to thoroughly investigate corruption and stifled efforts to expose embezzlement and misconduct by public officials. Biden did threaten to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Shokin was ousted. But that was because Shokin had blocked serious anti-corruption investigations, not because he was investigating Burisma.