The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP’s Hunter Biden report doesn’t back up Trump’s actual conspiracy theory — or anything close to it

Rudolph W. Giuliani, personal lawyer to President Trump, is displayed on a screen while speaking virtually during the Republican National Convention last month. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
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The Trump team’s effort to turn Hunter Biden into a liability for his father’s presidential campaign has gotten President Trump impeached, done nothing to stop Joe Biden from winning the Democratic nomination and has tied Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to someone the U.S. Treasury Department now labels an “active Russian agent.”

What remains perhaps most striking of all, though, is how little it has done to actually move the ball forward on the central claim: that Joe Biden sought to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor for personal gain.

A new report from the GOP-led Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday morning laid out what it has collected on Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company which gave him a lucrative position on its board. The report calls the setup “awkward” and “problematic,” which hasn’t really been in dispute. (Even Hunter Biden himself has admitted that taking the job showed “poor judgment.”)

But the report is perhaps most notable for what it doesn’t show — specifically, anything to back up the conspiracy theory which spurred this whole saga.

In the phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky which set off Trump’s impeachment, Trump did not focus on the idea that Hunter Biden’s employment was “problematic”; he instead suggested that Joe Biden had pushed to remove Ukraine’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to benefit his son’s employer.

“The other thing: 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. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.”

There were myriad problems with this from the beginning. The two biggest ones were that Shokin wasn’t actively investigating Burisma at the time. The second is that the Western world was united in its push for his removal, specifically because he was viewed as soft on corruption. So when Joe Biden threatened to withhold loan guarantees from Ukraine if Shokin weren’t removed, he wasn’t exactly freelancing.

(Even the GOP chairman of the Homeland Security Committee which spearheaded this report, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, backed the effort to remove Shokin, saying the “whole world” agreed he wasn’t doing a good job.)

The Bidens, Burisma and impeachment, explained

The new report only refers to Shokin by name six times in the course of 87 pages — each time rehashing things that were already known. It also very notably admits that it couldn’t conclude that Hunter Biden’s employment with Burisma had any material effect on U.S. policy — even as it noted that some, including State Department aide George Kent, worried about that possibility.

“The extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear,” the report states. “But what is clear from the records, however, is that State Department officials, particularly Kent himself, regularly considered how Hunter Biden’s connection to Burisma might affect the execution of U.S. policy.”

It adds that among the concerns were that Russian actors might exploit the situation “to drive a wedge between Ukrainian and the U.S. in an effort to undermine U.S. policy toward Ukraine.”

Again, these kinds of concerns have been clear, including most notably in the testimony given by Kent. Kent said he cautioned the Biden team against Hunter Biden taking the job, but that he was rebuffed and told Joe Biden couldn’t deal with it because of the grave health of his other son, Beau, who later died.

But as the report itself admits, there is no specific evidence for Trump’s actual claim: that Hunter Biden’s employment impacted Joe Biden’s actions vis-a-vis Shokin. And Kent himself testified that there was no evidence that Joe Biden did anything improper — “none whatsoever,” in Kent’s words.

It’s not the first time, though, that this particular theory has been cast aside or watered down by Trump and his allies. During the impeachment trial, his defense focused extensively on arguing that Hunter Biden’s employment was problematic, but spent almost no time on the Shokin situation.

As I wrote back then:

While Hunter Biden’s name was invoked more than 90 times over the three days, though, his father’s actions came up considerably less often. There were only two instances in which Trump’s team engaged in detail with the idea that Joe Biden actually sought to thwart a prosecution — both of them featuring logical holes.
Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi focused on top State Department official George Kent testifying that Burisma had a corruption problem and that Hunter Biden’s employment there was problematic. But she left out that Kent said Joe Biden didn’t do anything improper.
Bondi also botched the details. She recounted that on Dec. 8, 2015, ″the New York Times publishes an article that Prosecutor General [Viktor] Shokin was investigating Burisma and its owner, [Mykola] Zlochevsky.” Except the actual story makes no mention of Shokin or even of Ukraine investigating Burisma. Instead, it refers to Ukraine declining to cooperate with a British investigation of Burisma.
Bondi also said that, at the time Biden successfully got Shokin removed, “there was ongoing investigation into the oligarch Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma.” But U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said Shokin wasn’t actively investigating Burisma at the time; indeed, he was accused of being too soft on corruption.

It’s also important to note that the Hunter Biden situation was almost completely ignored at the Republican National Convention last month. In fact, Bondi was the only major speaker to reference Hunter Biden. Not even Giuliani brought it up, despite having spent months chasing it down.

That would seem to be instructive when it comes to just how much substance there is here and how much it actually reflects upon Joe Biden. And the fact that this new report doesn’t dwell upon Trump’s actual charge and failed to prove Hunter Biden impacted U.S. policy shows how little fruit this year-long effort has borne, relative to the amount of smoke it’s produced.