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Hunt for Biden tapes in Ukraine by Trump allies revives prospect of foreign interference

Petro Peroshenko, then president of Ukraine, hugs Vice President Joe Biden in 2015. (Matthias Schrader/AP)

President Trump’s allies were in pursuit of a tantalizing prospect last year: tape recordings of Joe Biden speaking to Ukrainian officials while he was vice president, conversations they believed could help them damage Biden’s current bid for the White House.

The previously undisclosed hunt for tapes of Biden and other recordings in Ukraine, described by several people who were involved, came as the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was casting a wide net for material to undermine Trump’s political rival — a scheme that ultimately helped set in motion the president’s impeachment.

“We would have loved to get the recordings, but we never did,” Giuliani said in a recent interview.

Now, with just four months to go before Election Day, that material is surfacing in Ukraine and being touted by some of the president’s backers in the United States, including his eldest son in May.

Last week, a Ukrainian lawmaker who was once affiliated with a pro-Russian political party and has met with Giuliani released 10 edited snippets of what appeared to be Biden’s official vice presidential phone calls in 2016 with Petro Poroshenko, then the president of Ukraine. It was the second cache of recordings the lawmaker, who studied under the KGB in Moscow in the early 1990s, has released since May.

The recordings show that Biden, as he has previously said publicly, linked loan guarantees for Ukraine to the ouster of the country’s prosecutor general. The tapes do not provide evidence to back Giuliani’s long-standing accusation that Biden sought to have him fired to block an investigation of a gas company that had hired his son Hunter.

The authenticity of the audio files, which appear heavily edited, could not be verified. The Ukrainian government is investigating how they were obtained. Biden’s campaign has said they are part of an effort to concoct conspiracy theories to smear him. Poroshenko has gone further and called them fake.

Still, the material was quickly seized upon by One America News, a favorite network of the president that has featured pro-Trump conspiracy theories and in June debuted the first installment of what it said will be a series of reports featuring recordings of Biden.

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Both Giuliani and Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian American businessman who served as his fixer in Ukraine, confirmed that they sought tapes of Biden last year. Giuliani said he received assistance in his pursuit from a source within the State Department, who he claimed pointed him to the dates of certain conversations between Biden and Poroshenko by accessing an official U.S. government archive.

Giuliani told The Washington Post that he did not know the recently released recordings were coming before they were posted online in May. But in a recent interview with OAN, the former New York mayor claimed to be aware of other tapes that were “far more damaging,” saying, “I would hope that those tapes are put out also.”

On their own, the audio snippets that have been released do not significantly change what was already known about Biden’s diplomacy toward Ukraine, where he led a U.S. and European effort to back Poroshenko’s pro-Western government in the face of a Russian invasion and destabilization campaign. And other than from OAN, they have received little attention. 

But the efforts to promote the recordings in Ukraine and the United States — and pledges by other Trump allies to release more in the coming months — suggest a new push by foreign forces to sway American voters in the run-up to the 2020 election, one welcomed by the president’s personal lawyer.

On June 30, former vice president Joe Biden explained how he thought President Trump should've responded to reports of Russian military action against the U.S. (Video: The Washington Post)

The developments further illustrate Trump’s willingness to benefit from foreign intervention in U.S. elections, even after being impeached on charges of pressuring Ukraine to launch investigations into his political rivals. In an interview last year, the president said that if a foreign country called offering information on his opponent, “I think I’d want to hear it.” His former national security adviser John Bolton alleges in a newly released book that Trump last year asked the Chinese president to help him win reelection. The White House has denied Bolton’s account.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, declined to comment on the Ukraine tapes. The campaign has so far not focused on the recordings in its attacks on Biden.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said, “All the president’s men, both within our country and outside of it, have been constantly trafficking in objectively false, malicious conspiracy theories targeting Joe Biden since before he even entered the race. And their efforts have invariably fallen apart — because the American people know Joe Biden, his character and his values.”

Giuliani has been interacting on and off with the Ukrainian lawmaker who has been releasing the clips, Andrii Derkach, since meeting him in Kyiv in December, the former New York mayor told The Post. In an interview, Giuliani described the former member of Ukraine’s Russian-leaning Party of Regions as “very helpful” and said that they talked many times about Ukraine.

Derkach, who is the son of a former KGB officer and says in his official biography that he attended the now-renamed Higher School of the KGB in Moscow, also appeared on Giuliani’s podcast in New York in February. Since then, Derkach has said his U.S. visa was revoked.

Giuliani, who has worked as Trump’s unpaid personal attorney since 2018 and was recently tapped by the president to negotiate with the presidential debate commission, said he would be concerned if Derkach had obtained the tapes from the Russians. 

But, Giuliani said, the lawmaker “doesn’t seem pro-Russian to me.”

Asked about Derkach’s background, Giuliani said: “I don’t depend on his credibility. I depend on the credibility of his documents.”

Derkach declined to be interviewed. In a statement, he said allegations that he is working in the interests of foreign intelligence services are attempts to pressure him into stopping his activity. “There is not a single confirmed or reliable fact of my illegal activity or wrongful connections,” he said.

Asked whether he discussed the tapes with Giuliani during their meetings, Derkach did not answer directly. “We discussed available information on international corruption and the need to investigate it in the United States,” he said.

Foreign interference redux

The hunt by the president’s allies for the Biden tapes and their subsequent release have echoes of the 2016 campaign, when Trump publicly asked Russia to find emails of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Trump later said the comment was a joke, even as GOP operatives mounted a serious but unsuccessful operation to obtain her emails from hackers claiming to have them.

Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers were ultimately released through WikiLeaks, as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III detailed in his report. The sequence of events sparked a nearly two-year investigation, multiple congressional inquiries and federal charges against 12 Russian military intelligence officers.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia could reprise its 2016 efforts to influence the race for the White House in 2020.

In January, the Ukrainian gas company whose board used to include Biden’s sonsaid that it had been hacked by Russian spies, raising fears the Kremlin could be intending to release stolen material to sway U.S. voters in coming months.

Giuliani said he would welcome new material about Biden in Ukraine, but he said he wasn’t aggressively seeking it, as he had been last year. Any new revelations, he added, should not be dismissed even if Russia may be involved.

“The strange thing is what the Russians put out last time — it may have been illegal how they obtained it, but it was all true,” Giuliani said.

Michael Carpenter, a Biden foreign policy adviser and former senior Defense Department official, called the tape snippets that Derkach is releasing “a KGB-style disinformation operation tied to pro-Russian forces in Ukraine whose chief aim is to make deceptive noise in the U.S. election campaign to advance the interests of their oligarchic backers, the Kremlin, and the faltering Trump campaign.”

Ukrainians with a variety of competing political and personal agendas have claimed to be releasing or publicizing the Biden tapes,moves critics say align with both Russia’s and Trump’s interests.

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In addition to Derkach, they include former Ukrainian prosecutor Kostiantyn Kulyk, former Ukrainian diplomat Andrii Telizhenko and Ukrainian gas tycoon and former lawmaker Oleksandr Onyshchenko, who all have interacted with Giuliani or his associates. Some have promised more leaks are coming to help Trump later in the year.

“This summer, there will be more release of conversations, with full transcripts,” said Telizhenko, who said he speaks regularly with Giuliani in between aiding various Ukrainian tycoons, some of them with Russian interests. Telizhenko said he is working independently from Derkach, noting: “I’m going to release everything all together when the time is right.”

Onyshchenko told The Post that the tapes that have been released are his, part of a cache he said he obtained from Poroshenko aides.

He told the Russian state news service Sputnik in late May that his lawyers and Giuliani’s team had “exchanged hundreds of emails,” and that he has handed over materials about Biden, which he said Trump’s allies will make use of in the fall.

“Because of the coronavirus, they are waiting,” Onyshchenko told Sputnik. “But in September, closer to the elections, they will begin to use them more.” He told The Post the materials were being given to the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is pursuing an inquiry into Biden’s activities in Ukraine.

A spokesman for the committee did not respond to a question about whether the panel has received such tapes or plans to use them.

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Like Derkach, Onyshchenko is a former member of the now-defunct Party of Regions, a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. He has been waging a multiyear campaign against Poroshenko since fleeing Ukraine on corruption charges he says are fabricated.

Onyshchenko has said that he has tried to tell U.S. authorities about his corruption accusations against Poroshenko various times. Poroshenko references ­Onyshchenko twice in the leaked calls with Biden, telling the vice president that the exiled lawmaker holds a Russian passport and is working in Russia’s interests to destabilize Ukraine. Biden appears in one snippet to reassure Poroshenko that the FBI is not working with Onyshchenko.

When asked for comment on Poroshenko’s accusation that he’s advancing Russian interests, ­Onyshchenko said the former Ukrainianleader accuses everyone who is against him of doing the Kremlin’s bidding. ­Onyshchenko said he is speaking out because the former Ukrainian president “destroyed my life.”

While the recordings released in Ukraine have received little attention in most mainstream U.S. news outlets, they are being heavily promoted by One America News, which has more than 700,000 followers on Facebook and some 900,000 on Twitter.

Carpenter, the Biden adviser, has accused OAN of being “the preferred conduit for Kremlin disinformation in the 2020 cycle.”

One of its correspondents, Chanel Rion, traveled around Europe last year with Giuliani to film Ukrainians who made accusations against Biden, many of them unproven or spurious.

In a program that aired last month, Rion said she had received 10 hours of recordings related to Biden from the “Ukrainian secret service” and “a source who was present during some of those recordings.” She said she would be pursuing the story “well past the summer and into the fall.”

The Department of the State Guard, Ukraine’s version of the Secret Service, said in a statement that it “does not make any recordings and has never recorded any conversations of the state guarded public officials.”

An OAN spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. In its stories, the network has suggested that accusations that Russia is promoting the allegations against Biden are efforts to distract from the story.

'We knew about these tapes'

Biden made five trips to Ukraine during the last three years of the Obama administration and held at least 70 phone calls with Ukrainian leaders, as The Post previously reported. Most of his calls were with Poro­shenko in an effort to shore up the fledgling pro-Western government against Russia.

The recently released recordings, which Derkach has said he obtained from “investigative journalists,” appear to feature conversations the two men had at the time. But if they are authentic, it is unclear who made them.

It is possible Poroshenko aides taped the calls he had with Biden. Russian intelligence agencies have intercepted the phone calls of U.S. officials in Ukraine in the past.

In an interview in May, Parnas said he and his colleague Igor Fruman were told by sources in Ukraine of the Biden-Poroshenko recordings, along with a number of other recordings Ukrainians claimed existed of Americans, including embassy officials in Kyiv.

“We knew about these tapes,” Parnas said.

Parnas and Fruman were arrested in October and charged with making illegal campaign contributions, including from foreign sources, to Republican candidates and political action committees. They both pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

After his arrest, Parnas turned on Giuliani and Trump, saying the president had blessed their endeavors in Ukraine. The White House has dismissed his claims as false.

Parnas told The Post that he and Fruman discussed the recordings with then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko and Kulyk, a former Ukrainian prosecutor who has been working with Derkach and appearing alongside him at news conferences releasing the recordings.

In a statement, Lutsenko said he “never discussed, provided or promised to provide any recordings to Giuliani or his colleagues.” Kulyk declined to answer directly, dismissing the question as lacking credibility.

Parnas said that at one point during a trip to Kyiv in spring 2019, he anticipated being provided copies of some of the recordings to bring back to the United States. But, he said, Ukrainian officials did not ultimately hand them over at the time.

After the trip, Parnas said, he and Fruman discussed the elusive recordings with Giuliani at strategy sessions they held at the BLT restaurant at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Victoria Toensing, a conservative lawyer who attended some of those sessions, said she did not recall the discussions but did not dispute that Parnas may have told the group about tapes.

“Lev is a fast talker,” she said. “He was always telling us, ‘There is Biden stuff.’ It would go in one ear and out the other.”

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Giuliani was particularly interested in obtaining tapes of calls that Biden made to Poroshenko in early 2016 to feed his claims that the former vice president used his office to protect the business interests of his son Hunter, according to Parnas.

Giuliani has asserted without evidence that Biden pushed for Ukraine’s prosecutor general to be fired because Hunter Biden was serving on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company owned by a former government minister whom Ukrainian authorities were investigating.

In fact, at the time, Biden was serving as the lead voice in a coalition of U.S. and European officials, including top Republicans, who were sharply critical of the prosecutor general’s office for failing to go after high-level corruption cases and thwarting the probe of an episode in which lower-ranking officials were found with diamonds and cash thought to be bribes.

Among the cases that the United States argued had not received enough attention: an inquiry into the owner of Burisma.

In late 2015, Biden delivered a blunt message to Poroshenko: Unless the prosecutor’s office got a new leader, a $1 billion loan guarantee for the Ukrainian government wouldn’t be forthcoming. The prosecutor general agreed to resign.

In the recordings that Derkach released, Biden can be heard urging Poroshenko to fire the prosecutor general. At one point, Poroshenko defends the top prosecutor, saying there was “no information” he had done anything wrong, but said he asked for the prosecutor’s resignation as part of his promise to the U.S. vice president.

In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last month, Poroshenko said that Biden never brought up Burisma in their many conversations. “My absolutely clear answer: No, never,” Poro­shenko said.

Ruslan Ryaboshapka, who served as Ukraine’s prosecutor general until March, conducted a full audit of all the criminal cases in Ukraine involving the company and told The Post he found no evidence of illegal acts by Biden or his son.

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Giuliani told The Post that his pursuit of the Biden-Poroshenko calls was aided by someone inside the State Department.

“A guy at the State Department who gave us a lot of information” consulted the archive of conversations between American leaders and their counterparts overseas to identify three conversations in February 2016 during which Biden mentioned the prosecutor general’s name in conversations with Poroshenko, he said.

“He didn’t show it to us but told us they existed,” Giuliani said of the State Department official. “He said, ‘I guarantee there are three conversations on February 15, 17 . . . one of them is quite lengthy. It’s between Biden and Poroshenko. There are transcripts of them, but they are classified.’ ”  

Giuliani declined to name the State Department official. A spokeswoman for the State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Giuliani said last year that he regularly kept the president abreast of his efforts in Ukraine, but it is unclear whether Trump knew about the hunt for the tapes.

When pressed in May if he specifically mentioned the recordings to the president, Giuliani declined to comment.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether Trump knew his lawyer was seeking tapes of Biden in Ukraine.

But one witness during the House impeachment hearings said that Trump made an allusion to tapes of the former vice president.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukraine expert who served on the National Security Council, testified that he heard Trump refer to recordings of Biden during his July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the conversation that set in motion the impeachment investigation.

According to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House, Trump told Zelensky: “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it.”

Vindman testified that his own notes, which he took while listening to the call, show that Trump added, “There are recordings.”

That phrase was not included in the call’s official transcript. Vind­man testified that he notified his superiors of the omission when the transcript was circulated internally for review, but that no changes were made.

Vindman was uncertain what Trump meant by “recordings,” his lawyer said recently.

At the time, his description of Trump’s mention of “recordings” on the call was widely assumed to be a reference to the tape of a public speech Biden delivered in 2018 bragging that he had held up loan guarantees to Ukraine until the prosecutor general was fired.

Tom Hamburger contributed to this report. Stern reported from Kyiv.