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Opinion New York Times, Bloomberg square off over Biden-Ukraine reporting

Joe Biden. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

There’s an important sentence in a recent New York Times story on presidential candidate Joe Biden: “No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal,” notes the story, by Ken Vogel and Iuliia Mendel. It arrives in the 19th paragraph of a story that starts with this headline: “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies.”

In those first 19 paragraphs is a knot of details bound to be mangled by cable-news hosts and pundits in the coming months. It all goes like this: In 2014, then-Vice President Biden started serving as liaison to Eastern European governments affronted by Russia’s aggression under President Vladimir Putin. One of Biden’s projects was to encourage reform in Ukraine, a country that has long been in the international vanguard when it comes to corruption. Toward this end, in March 2016 Biden pulled off a bit of diplomacy of which he would later boast — specifically, a threat to cut off $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine. The desired outcome? The sacking of the country’s No. 1 prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, whom many Ukrainians, international organizations and the U.S. government saw as an obstacle to reform. His appointment under President Petro Poroshenko disappointed reformers hopeful that the country would abandon a corrupt past in which prosecutors didn’t so much prosecute as gather evidence with which to extort their fellow citizens. “Shokin’s appointment was probably the earliest sign that Poroshenko was not interested in fundamental reform. He was interested in maintaining the old system,” said Edward Chow, a senior associate in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) “If anything, Biden was not tough enough on Poroshenko on firing Shokin.” The pressure prevailed, as the Ukrainian parliament bounced Shokin from office.

And therein lies an old story revived by the 2020 presidential campaign. Starting in April 2014, the former vice president’s younger son, Hunter Biden, served on the board of an energy company — Burisma Holdings — whose owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, “had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general,” according to the New York Times story. From there arise the conflict-of-interest “questions.” As the Times put it: “The broad outlines of how the Bidens’ roles intersected in Ukraine have been known for some time. The former vice president’s campaign said that he had always acted to carry out United States policy without regard to any activities of his son, that he had never discussed the matter with Hunter Biden and that he learned of his son’s role with the Ukrainian energy company from news reports.”

There’s solid evidence to back up the former vice president. For example, after Biden began serving as emissary to Eastern Europe, the Obama administration pushed Ukraine to cooperate in a British investigation into Zlochevsky — something that may not have happened had the vice president been looking out for his son’s business interests.

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And now Bloomberg News has challenged the Times’s reporting. Reporters Stephanie Baker and Daryna Krasnolutska cite a former Ukrainian official and “Ukrainian documents” to allege that the investigation into Burisma was “dormant” at the time that Biden had appealed for the ouster of prosecutor Shokin. The implication here is that Biden, in fact, couldn’t have been acting in the interests of his son because the prosecutor he was seeking to unseat wasn’t even investigating his son’s employer. “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky,” former Ukrainian official Vitaliy Kasko told Bloomberg. “It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.”

Not so, counters the Times. “We stand by the story, which is based on original, independent reporting, including extensive interviews in the United States and Ukraine and previously undisclosed documents,” said Times spokeswoman Ari Isaacman Bevacqua. As for the specific claim that Burisma and Zlochevsky were in the sights of the prosecutor at the time of Joe Biden’s intervention, the Times argues that Zlochevsky fled Ukraine and didn’t return until after Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, cleared Zlochevsky within a year of taking office — so he was feeling the heat.

There’s another disagreement between the Times and Bloomberg relating to Lutsenko. Read closely, because this is complex: The way the New York Times tells the story, Lutsenko, after taking over for the fired Shokin, continued investigating Burisma and Zlochevsky, then cleared them. This year, however, Lutsenko reopened the case during Ukraine’s presidential campaign. Why? Politics, according to one theory, the Times said: “The announcement came in the midst of Ukraine’s contentious presidential election, and was seen in some quarters as an effort by the prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, to curry favor from the Trump administration for his boss and ally, the incumbent president, Petro O. Poroshenko.”

Bloomberg, however, disputes this version of events. “[Lutsenko spokeswoman Larysa] Sargan said the prosecutor general hasn’t reopened the case into Burisma or Zlochevsky, contradicting a claim in the New York Times that the Ukrainian prosecutor is scrutinizing millions of dollars of payments from Burisma to the firm that paid Hunter Biden,” reads the story.

According to the Times, Lutsenko and a deputy, Kostiantyn H. Kulyk, spoke on the record and confirmed the reopening of the case. Also: Sargan, the newspaper said, was present for the discussions. The Times has no idea why she contradicted this reporting to Bloomberg. “We stand by our reporting,” a Bloomberg spokesperson said.

From the weeds to the weird: The Ukraine-prosecutor-Joe Biden-Hunter Biden story reflects extensive promotion from former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the Trump lawyer who’s usually “clarifying” stray remarks made on one cable TV segment or another. As the New York Times reported, Giuliani has met with both the ousted and current Ukrainian prosecutors — primarily to discuss material supporting some Republicans’ claims that Democrats worked with Ukrainians to plant the seeds for the special counsel investigation. “I can assure you this all started with an allegation about possible Ukrainian involvement in the investigation of Russian meddling, and not Biden,” Giuliani told the Times. “The Biden piece is collateral to the bigger story, but must still be investigated, but without the prejudgments that infected the collusion story.”

It’s funny how Giuliani’s investigative priorities are mirrored in the work of John Solomon, an opinion contributor for the Hill, spinner of flimsy journalism and mainstay of Sean Hannity’s conspiracy hour on Fox News. “Ukrainian to US prosecutors: Why don’t you want our evidence on Democrats?” reads the headline of a Solomon piece from last month. In another April piece — “Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian nightmare: A closed probe is revived” — Solomon writes, “U.S. and Ukrainian authorities both told me Biden and his office clearly had to know about the general prosecutor’s probe of Burisma and his son’s role.”

On Monday night, Solomon’s buddy Hannity said on his hunter, “And don’t forget of course allegations of international corruption that continue to creep closer and closer to [Biden’s] son and his work in Ukraine and in China. Remember Joe Biden, we have him on tape, bragging about getting the Ukrainian prosecutor fired or else he’s withholding a billion taxpayer dollars.” Hannity continued, “[Shokin] was investigating his son and it’s even catching the attention of left-wing outlet Vanity Fair. But will anyone else in the media mob ever cover it? Or will they just resort to the same Russian lies and hysteria and conspiracy theories that crippled down their credibility forever?”

Though the Times links to a Solomon story on Biden, the newspaper is careful to note that its story didn’t originate there. In her statement, Bevacqua says the roots of the story lie in 2015, when then-New York Times reporter James Risen wrote on the conflict of interest within the Biden family. Vogel and Mendel’s "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 wrote in an email.

More from Bevacqua:

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.

Ah, yes: Those “questions” again.

Pity anyone who has to extract contentious facts from Ukrainian politics, which is a mud pit of corruption, subterfuge and lying. Just think of proven liar Paul Manafort, who, according to prosecutors, soaked Ukrainian politicians for $60 million, and then stiffed the U.S. government on taxes.

The facts at the bottom of the Burisma story are also slimy: Its owner Zlochevsky was/is under investigation on suspicion of unlawful enrichment, among other offenses, as the Wall Street Journal explained:

Twice, Mr. Zlochevsky served in top Ukrainian government positions that oversaw the allocation of gas licenses—first under President Leonid Kuchma from 2003 to 2005, as chairman of the since-disbanded State Committee for Natural Resources, and later under President Viktor Yanukovych from 2010 to 2012, as Ecology and Natural Resources Minister.
All the while, companies now part of Burisma rose to become the largest private gas producer in Ukraine. A review of Mr. Zlochevsky’s activities by The Wall Street Journal found his oil and gas production businesses flourished by winning crucial permits while he was in office.

So that’s the fellow that Hunter Biden decided to work for. The Vogel-Mendel collaboration asserts that the details of the story “show how Hunter Biden and his American business partners were part of a broad effort by Burisma to bring in well-connected Democrats during a period when the company was facing investigations backed not just by domestic Ukrainian forces but by officials in the Obama administration.” The willingness of such pols to accept big bucks from foreign interests is a good story any time, including presidential election season.

Reporters have months and months to chase down some evidence that Hunter Biden’s wheeling and dealing influenced Joe Biden’s policymaking, though current signals indicate the opposite. For breathless updates, check in with the Hill, Fox News and Giuliani’s Twitter account.

Read more:

Oliver Bullough: Why the alleged Joe Biden ‘Ukraine conspiracy’ doesn’t hold up

Josh Rogin: U.S. ambassador to Ukraine is recalled after becoming a political target

Marc A. Thiessen: Trouble is brewing in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign

Henry Olsen: Joe Biden’s huge lead probably won’t last

Ed Rogers: Why are some people down on Joe Biden?