The story of Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma isn’t a scandal about his father, as the Trump campaign claims, but part of a personal tragedy for the vice president’s son, compounded by this week’s dissemination of what looks like disinformation about Joe Biden’s role.

What’s clear, beyond the false scandal-mongering, has been evident for years: Hunter Biden made a mistake getting involved with a dubious company like Burisma. But the notion that the Burisma affair undermines Joe Biden’s case to be president is, as he would say, malarkey.

The Biden campaign has been understandably reluctant to respond, for fear of giving the story legitimacy. Still, Biden has said his son made a mistake. Family friends say the vice president is reluctant to publicly criticize Hunter Biden further, but they stress that both Bidens have learned the painful lesson that a president’s children should stay away from international business. Would that the Trump family recognized that rule.

To provide perspective, I talked this week with a business consultant with extensive experience in Ukraine, whom Hunter Biden contacted in early 2014 as he was considering joining the Burisma board. The consultant strongly urged against this move, but Biden, struggling with personal and financial issues, pressed ahead.

The danger that Hunter Biden’s Burisma connection might be misused was illustrated soon after. Burisma posted a photograph on its website of Devon Archer, Hunter Biden’s business partner, standing with the then-vice president before an American flag at what appeared to be the White House. Archer, with Hunter Biden, joined the Burisma board in the spring of 2014.

The consultant, who requested anonymity, said he urged Hunter Biden through a friend to have Burisma take down the photo, and it was removed from the company’s website that day. A copy couldn’t be located, but the Biden campaign doesn’t dispute that it may have been taken when Archer visited the White House in April 2014 with his son.

Russia's disinformation campaign is designed to polarize the U.S. public. And it's still going. (Kate Woodsome, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

The Hunter-Ukraine connection has been a political sideshow since the Biden campaign began. It got new voltage this week when the New York Post published what it claimed were emails from Hunter Biden’s laptop suggesting that he had helped arrange a 2015 meeting between his father and a Burisma executive. The Biden campaign denied any such meeting, and its accounts, based on recollections of multiple staff members, are believable. An Eastern European expert in digital forensics who has examined some of the Ukrainian documents leaked to the New York Post told me he found anomalies — such as American-style capitalization of the names of ministries — that suggest fakery.

People in personal trouble, as Hunter Biden was in 2014, often ignore good advice, and that seems to be the case here. The consultant, elaborating on a fragmentary account I reported in March, told me that he was approached in the spring of 2014 by one of Biden’s friends, who was worried about his plans to join Burisma.

The consultant said he met Biden and the friend for drinks at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Georgetown. Biden described the discussions between Burisma and his company, Rosemont Seneca Partners, which he had founded five years before with Christopher Heinz and Archer, both friends from Yale.

Biden asked the consultant about some of the Ukrainians involved with Burisma, whom Archer had encountered in Kyiv. Burisma was pursuing new gas leases in Ukraine that it claimed might attract international investment, the consultant remembers, and wanted prominent people on its board.

The consultant made some inquiries about several senior Burisma executives and then met with Biden a week later. The consultant told Biden the planned Burisma gas licenses involved small assets that weren’t likely to attract foreign investors, and cautioned the vice president’s son against working for the company.

“They’re using you for your name. They will exploit your name to your detriment and your father’s,” the consultant remembers warning Biden.

Biden responded poignantly about his need for income, the consultant recalls. “My mom and dad don’t have money. Beau [Hunter’s brother, now deceased] will run for office. I have to make money for the family.” Biden said he planned to join Burisma as a director. Family friends say he was struggling with a drug problem at that time, and his judgment was erratic.

About a month later, the photo of Joe Biden and Archer appeared on the Burisma website. The consultant phoned and texted Hunter Biden, without response, and then contacted the mutual friend who had connected them. “This is the kind of nonsense I talked about,” the consultant said he warned. Evidently someone contacted Burisma, the consultant said, because the photograph disappeared.

Archer, like Hunter Biden, joined the Burisma board in 2014. As a director, Biden received $50,000 a month. The Biden campaign said Joe Biden’s tax returns before and after he left office show he didn’t receive any money from Hunter Biden. Archer left the company in 2018, and Hunter Biden left the next year. In 2018, a federal jury convicted Archer on a fraud charge involving bonds for a Native American development company, a verdict reaffirmed this month by a federal appeals court.

Joe Biden said in January it was a “mistake” for his son to join the board, and promised that if he becomes president, none of his family members will have “any involvement with any foreign government at all.” Hunter Biden, too, said he made a “mistake” for which he bore “full responsibility.” That’s the sort of self-criticism we rarely hear from Trump or his family.

This is smoke without a fire. Hunter Biden erred. His father has said so quietly but clearly. He should get on with the business of trying to put the country back together after Trump’s ruinous presidency.

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