The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As vice president, Biden said Ukraine should increase gas production. Then his son got a job with a Ukrainian gas company.

Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Beijing in December 2013 with his son Hunter Biden, right, and his granddaughter Finnegan Biden. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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KIEV, Ukraine — As Joe Biden announced in April that he was seeking the presidency, his son Hunter quietly left his position here with Ukraine’s largest private gas company after serving for five years.

From the moment Hunter Biden took the job in 2014, Republicans have said it presented a conflict of interest for the Bidens. Joe Biden, then the vice president, was the point person on Ukraine policy in President Barack Obama’s administration. Biden offered U.S. aid to Ukraine to increase gas production, which could benefit the Ukrainian energy industry.

Now Hunter Biden’s service on the board of Burisma Holdings has emerged as an issue facing his father’s campaign, drawing attacks from President Trump and his allies. Just as Trump has faced repeated questions about whether his family has sought to benefit financially from his presidency, a similar focus is being given to Hunter Biden’s dealings.

Trump has said it would be “appropriate” for him to ask Attorney General William P. Barr to launch an investigation into what the president said could be “a very big situation.” Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, has urged the public to demand a congressional inquiry.

A former Ukrainian prosecutor, who was removed after Joe Biden pressured the Ukrainian government, told The Washington Post that the appointment of Hunter Biden to the Burisma board was “rather questionable” because he lacked relevant experience.

Joe and Hunter Biden declined interview requests but defended their actions via statements and spokesmen.

“The narrative that has been suggested and developed by the right-wing political apparatus [is] demonstrably false,” Hunter Biden said in a statement to The Post.

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, said in a statement that the elder Biden “acted at all times in a manner consistent with well-established executive branch ethics standards. He carried out the Obama-Biden administration’s policies without regard to any interests other than the public’s and neither discussed this with his son nor was involved in any way with his son’s private business pursuits.”

The focus on Hunter Biden’s business dealings have spotlighted how, for more than two decades, his professional work often tracked with his father’s life in politics, from Washington to Ukraine to China.

The younger Biden received new attention earlier this month with the publication of an interview in the New Yorker, in which he talked candidly about his drug use, saying: “There’s addiction in every family. I was in that darkness.” His father, he said, “never gave up on me.”

For both Bidens, protectiveness of each other is ingrained in their family history.

'Be important'

Hunter Biden was 2 years old when he was a passenger in the family car in Delaware on Dec. 18, 1972. A truck crashed into the station wagon, killing his mother, Neilia, and his 13-month-old sister, Naomi. His brother Beau, then 3 years old, suffered numerous broken bones but survived. Hunter suffered a serious head injury but recovered. 

In his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” Joe Biden told how he asked his son, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be important,” Hunter responded. 

Hunter Biden, now 49, followed his father and brother in attending Archmere Academy in Delaware, a private Catholic school from which he graduated in 1988.

Hunter also wanted to follow his father and brother into law. After graduating from Georgetown University, he spent a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, working in Portland, Ore.

Returning home, Hunter Biden applied to Yale Law School but initially was not accepted. He went to Georgetown Law School and then transferred to Yale.

Since then, much of Hunter Biden’s career has coincided with his father’s work as a senator and vice president. He has been a lobbyist for clients with interests before Congress; a senior vice president at a bank, MBNA, that was a major contributor to his father; and a board member of a company backed by Chinese entities, joining the firm just after his father met with leaders of that country.

All of those positions have led to criticism from Republicans, but it was Hunter Biden’s decision to join the board of Burisma Holdings that has drawn the heaviest fire.

At the time, Ukraine was in the midst of crisis. In February 2014, as revolution swept the streets, President Viktor Yanukovych fled. Russia, which was allied with Yanukovych, viewed his ouster as illegal. That March, Russian forces took control of Crimea and then the southeast of Ukraine, dividing the nation. The Obama administration decried the Russian intervention, and Joe Biden arrived in the country in April as vice president, bearing gifts. A key part of U.S. strategy, he said, focused on the way Russia could cut off part of Ukraine’s energy supply. He repeated his frequent plea that Ukraine’s natural gas production be increased, and he announced an aid package designed to enable Ukraine to boost energy production. 

“Imagine where you’d be today if you were able to tell Russia: ‘Keep your gas,’ ” Biden said. “It would be a very different world.”

As it turned out, that was a world Hunter Biden wanted to join.

Just a few weeks after his father’s visit to Ukraine, Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma Holdings. His friend and business partner, Devon Archer, also joined the board, saying the company had the potential to be another ExxonMobil. Archer did not respond to requests for comment.

White House officials insisted at the time that there was no connection between the vice president’s travel to Ukraine and his son’s job. 

Hunter Biden, in his statement to The Post, said he joined the company after speaking with another board member, former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski. The former president could not be reached for comment.

“We both believed that Ukraine’s independence was central to stemming the tide of Putin’s attack on the principles of a democratic Europe, and that Ukraine’s energy production, particularly natural gas, was a central part of that independence,” Hunter Biden said in his statement to The Post.

“At no time have I discussed with my father the company’s business or my board service,” he added. 

His lawyer, George Mesires, declined to say how much Hunter Biden was paid for his service on the board, which he called a private matter. 

Antony J. Blinken, who was the vice president’s national security adviser from 2009 to 2012, said in an interview that there was no connection between Joe Biden’s April 2014 speech urging Ukraine to increase gas production and Hunter Biden joining the board a month later.

“Any linkage is debunked by the fact the vice president was stating long-standing U.S. policy, supporting Ukraine energy independence,” Blinken said.

Joe Biden's threat

Burisma, the country’s largest private gas company, drew scrutiny partly because its chief executive, Mykola Zlochevsky, was an official in the government of Yanukovych, the former president.

In 2015, Western officials and Ukrainian activists began raising questions about whether Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was properly investigating corruption allegations in the country, particularly those involving the previous administration. Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, criticized the lack of vigorous efforts to combat the kind of self-dealing that had eroded public trust.

Pyatt’s criticism was echoed by Biden, vice president at the time, who said corruption was a “cancer” on Ukraine. Biden later said that he had gotten Shokin fired by threatening Ukrainian government officials that he would withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid. 

“I said, ‘You’re not getting the billion,’ ” Biden said in recounting the incident last year.

That threat and Hunter Biden’s association with Burisma have been cited by Trump and his allies as evidence that Biden undercut an investigation into his son.

But it is unclear how seriously Shokin — who was under fire by U.S. and European officials for not taking a more aggressive posture toward corruption overall — was scrutinizing Burisma when he was forced out.

As prosecutor general, Shokin’s office opened one case involving the gas company but only under pressure from the Ukrainian parliament.

In an email interview with The Post, Shokin said he believes his ouster was because of his interest in the company.

“Are you asking me about the motives of Joseph Biden?” Shokin wrote. “I will answer that the activities of Burisma, the involvement of his son, Hunter Biden, and the [prosecutor general’s office] investigators on his tail, are the only, I emphasize, the only motives for organizing my resignation.”

Had he remained in his post, Shokin said, he would have questioned Hunter Biden. “All I can say is that the appointment of Hunter Biden as a member of the Board of Directors of the energy company is rather questionable from the point of view of effectiveness. After all, this person had no work experience either in Ukraine or in the energy sector,” he wrote. 

A leading Ukrainian anti-corruption activist disputed Shokin’s assertion that he was investigating Burisma.

“Shokin was not investigating. He didn’t want to investigate Burisma,” said Daria Kaleniuk of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center. “And Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation.”

Yoshiko M. Herrera, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is an expert in Russia and Eurasian policy, said in an interview that Hunter Biden’s service with Burisma is a serious issue.

“I think there is a conflict of interest even if it doesn’t break any laws,” she said. “It’s a big deal. It’s the vice president, who is the point person of the Obama administration’s policy on Ukraine, and his son is suddenly hired to be a director on the board of Ukraine’s largest private gas producer.”

Hunter Biden, in his statement to The Post, said he joined the board “to help reform Burisma’s practices of transparency, corporate governance and responsibility.”

He said he was qualified because of his experience as chairman of the board of World Food Program USA and as vice chairman of the board of the corporation that oversees Amtrak.

An individual familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely, said Hunter Biden participated in board meetings either by telephone or in person. The person said some meetings were held outside the United States, including in Monaco, but the person did not know whether any were held in Ukraine.

 After Shokin’s firing, he was replaced by Yuri Lutsenko, the current Ukrainian prosecutor general. He did not respond to an interview request.

Lutsenko told a columnist for the Hill in a report in April that he was investigating Burisma and found information of interest about Joe Biden’s intervention in the case. But he told Bloomberg News in a report May 16 that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.

As the son of the vice president, Hunter Biden was not required to disclose anything about his job or his income, even if it posed a potential conflict. Under the law, only the dealings of an officeholder and spouse must be disclosed, leaving conflicts with children and other family members potentially unknown.

Outstanding debts

Questions about what Hunter Biden did with the money paid by the Ukrainian company have arisen as a result of disclosures made during his 2017 divorce from his wife, Kathleen. In her filing in the case, she alleged Hunter had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their joint assets “on his own interests (including drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs and gifts for women with whom he had sexual relations) while leaving the family with no funds to pay legitimate bills.” 

Hunter Biden has had a history of drug-related problems. When he joined the Navy Reserve in 2012 at 43 years old, he needed a waiver because of an incident involving drugs in his youth. His naval career ended shortly after it began when he tested positive for cocaine in June 2013. He was discharged in February 2014.

Kathleen Biden’s filing said that “outstanding debts are shocking and overwhelming,” with “maxed-out credit card debt, double mortgages on both real properties they own, and tax debt of at least $313,970.”

Hunter Biden’s conduct, it says, “creates situations that are unsafe or traumatic” for their three children. The divorce was settled in March 2017.

The settlement came just after reports about his relationship with his sister-in-law, Hallie, who was married to Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Hunter Biden’s relationship with Hallie ended earlier this year. He recently married Melissa Cohen, a native of South Africa.

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to call for the Ukraine connection to be investigated.

Giuliani said in May that he was planning to go to Ukraine to push for such an investigation, but he canceled the plan, saying there are “enemies” of Trump in the current government. 

Hunter Biden said in his statement to The Post that he ended his work with the Burisma board because “my qualifications and work” were being unfairly attacked by Joe Biden’s political enemies. 

“These distortions of reality will not distract my father, nor make me question my judgment in my initial decision to join the board of Burisma to do the good work necessary for the benefit of the company and Ukraine,” he said.

Stern reported from Ukraine; Kranish reported from Washington. Matt Viser and Alice Crites contributed to this report.