Biden–Ukraine conspiracy theory

The Biden–Ukraine conspiracy theory is a series of unevidenced claims centered on the false allegation that while Joe Biden was Vice President of the United States, he engaged in corrupt activities relating to the employment of his son Hunter Biden by the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.[1] They have primarily been spread in an attempt to damage Joe Biden's presidential campaign.[2]

The conspiracy theory alleges that then-Vice President Biden withheld loan guarantees to pressure Ukraine into firing a prosecutor, so as to prevent a corruption investigation into Burisma and to protect his son. Although the United States did withhold government aid to pressure Ukraine into removing the corrupt and ineffective prosecutor,[3] this was the official and bipartisan policy of the federal government of the United States, which, along with the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, believed the prosecutor to be too lenient in investigating corruption.[4][5]

A New York Post article published in October 2020 with the involvement of Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon brought renewed attention to the allegations;[3] its veracity was strongly questioned elsewhere.[6][7]

Background

Hunter Biden is a lawyer whose career previously included a period as an executive vice-president at MBNA and three years at the United States Department of Commerce. He then worked as a lobbyist until 2006, when he was appointed to the board of directors of Amtrak by George W. Bush, a post from which he resigned in February 2009, shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, with his father Joe Biden becoming Vice-President. He then resumed lobbying, and was of counsel to law firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, until he was hired by the Ukrainian oil and gas firm Burisma Holdings. As he had no prior experience in the energy sector, this is viewed as a likely attempt to buy influence via his father, and was considered awkward by advisors to the Obama administration.[8]

The conspiracy theory holds that Burisma used his position to influence then-vice president Joe Biden, who subsequently conditioned the release of $1 billion in US government aid on a requirement that Ukraine fire its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, so as to prevent the company from being investigated for corruption. This narrative is inconsistent with contemporaneous reports and has repeatedly been found to be false.[1] It was asserted that Hunter Biden's employment was suspicious because of his lack of expertise in the energy industry, though he is a lawyer who was hired to consult on "transparency, corporate governance and responsibility, international expansion and other priorities" rather than on energy matters.[9] No evidence has been found indicating Hunter Biden engaged in influence peddling with his father.[10] While Vice President Biden did withhold $1 billion in government aid to Ukraine in 2015, this was done as a matter of American and international policy to induce Ukraine to remove a corrupt and ineffective prosecutor, not to prevent an investigation into Burisma. Shokin had failed to seriously investigate the affairs of the country's corrupt oligarchs, including Burisma's founder Mykola Zlochevsky.[3]

Viktor Shokin

Shokin was appointed by, and loyal to, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, and representatives of the EU and the United States pressed Poroshenko for his removal[11] as did the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.[12] Shokin was finally removed from office in March 2016 by an overwhelming majority vote in the Ukrainian Parliament,[13] after an investigation into extortion of another company led to associates who were found in possession of diamonds, cash and other valuables[14] as well as documents and passports belonging to Shokin.[15] Poroshenko was subsequently defeated in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential election by the reformist candidate Volodymyr Zelensky, who ran on an anti-corruption platform.

Trump impeachment

The impeachment of Donald Trump was triggered by reports of a phone call with Zelensky where Trump demanded an investigation of Burisma and Hunter Biden in exchange for the release of congressionally mandated financial and military aid. During the hearings and trial of President Donald Trump in 2019-20, he and his allies repeatedly alleged that and Joe Biden and his son were engaged in corrupt activities in Ukraine.[16] Trump said he planned to make it a major issue during the 2020 United States presidential race,[17] while a Republican-controlled Senate committee carried out an investigation into the allegations in spring 2020.[18] The Senate investigation concluded in September 2020 that Hunter Biden "'cashed in' on his father's name to close lucrative business deals around the world", but found no evidence of improper influence or wrongdoing by his father.[19]

Rudy Giuliani

Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, spearheaded an effort to gather information in Ukraine to advance the allegations, and Attorney General William Barr confirmed that the Justice Department created an "intake process" to review Giuliani's findings.[20] Giuliani and his associates worked with individuals linked to Russian intelligence and organized crime, including Andrii Derkach and Dmytro Firtash.[21][22] Derkach released snippets of a supposed conversation between Joe Biden and Poroshenko, in which Biden linked loan guarantees to the ouster of the country's corrupt and ineffective prosecutor general.[3] The recordings, which were not verified as authentic and appeared to be heavily edited,[23] did not provide evidence to support the ongoing conspiracy theory that Biden wanted the prosecutor fired to protect his son.[24] Poroshenko denied in June 2020 that Joe Biden ever approached him about Burisma and characterized the recordings as fake.[22][25] In September 2020, the United States Department of the Treasury sanctioned Derkach, stating he "has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services". The Treasury Department added that Derkach "waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election," including by the release of "edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials".[26][27]

In late 2019, it was revealed that the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which Giuliani had once led, was investigating Giuliani for multiple felonies relating to his activities in Ukraine.[28][29] The chairman of the Senate committee investigating the Bidens, Ron Johnson, was warned by intelligence officials he risked spreading Russian disinformation.[30] The Washington Post reported in October 2020 that American intelligence agencies had warned the White House in 2019 that Giuliani was the target of a Russian influence operation, and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien warned President Trump about accepting what Giuliani told him. American intelligence monitoring Russian assets intercepted Giuliani communicating with them.[31] According to officials interviewed by The Daily Beast, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton told his staff not to meet with Giuliani, as did his successor Robert C. O'Brien, because Bolton had been informed that Giuliani was spreading conspiracy theories that aligned with Russian interests in disrupting the 2020 election. These officials were also concerned that Giuliani would be used as a conduit for disinformation, including "leaks" of emails that would mix genuine with forged material in order to implicate Hunter Biden in corrupt dealings.[32] Interviewed by The Daily Beast, Giuliani would later declare that Derkach's being sanctioned was the result of a conspiracy led by George Soros and that "the chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50".[33]

Ukrainian businessman Hares Youssef told The Times that an associate of Dmytro Firtash asked Youssef to lie about Hunter Biden's business dealings in order to damage Joe Biden's presidential campaign, in exchange for a United States visa.[34]

New York Post reporting

On October 14, 2020, the New York Post published articles containing purported emails of unknown authorship which suggested that Hunter Biden provided an "opportunity" to Vadym Pozharskyi, an advisor to the board of Burisma, to meet his father, then-vice president Joe Biden.[35][36][37] Joe Biden stated in September 2019 that he had never spoken to his son about his foreign business dealings.[38] Joe Biden's presidential campaign denied such a meeting took place and stated that the New York Post had never contacted them "about the critical elements of this story".[39] Michael Carpenter, Vice President Biden's foreign policy adviser in 2015, told The Washington Post that he had accompanied Biden during all of his meetings about Ukraine and that "He never met with [Pozharskyi]. In fact, I had never heard of this guy until the New York Post story broke."[3] One of the purported emails showed Pozharskyi saying he would share information with Amos Hochstein, a State Department advisor close to Vice President Biden, though Hochstein stated, "The Republican Senate investigation subpoenaed all my records, including emails and calendars and found no mention of this man. I led the US energy efforts in Ukraine and never even heard of him before yesterday."[40] The New York Post published images and PDF copies of the alleged emails, but their authenticity and origin have not been determined.[41]

According to an investigation by The New York Times, editors at the New York Post "pressed staff members to add their bylines to the story", and at least one refused, in addition to the original author, reportedly due to a lack of confidence of its credibility. Of the two writers eventually credited on the article, the second did not know her name was attached to it until after it was published.[6] In its opening sentence, the New York Post story misleadingly asserted "the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating" Burisma, despite the fact that Shokin had not pursued an investigation into Burisma's founder.[3] The opening sentence also misleadingly stated that Hunter Biden introduced his father to Pozharskyi, but the purported email from Pozharskyi only mentioned an invitation and "opportunity" for the men to meet.[42][43]

A reporter for The Wall Street Journal observed that the metadata of the PDFs indicated they had been created in the fall of 2019, though the emails were supposedly from 2014 and 2015.[44] The materials were provided to the paper by Rudy Giuliani after they were allegedly found on a MacBook Pro left at a Delaware computer repair shop owned by John Paul Mac Isaac. Mac Isaac contacted Giuliani, who he said was his "lifeguard" (voicing credence in the conspiracy theory that the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign was behind the murder of campaign worker Seth Rich[44]). The New York Post was informed of the laptop by Steve Bannon,[45] and Bannon and Giuliani delivered a copy of the supposed laptop hard drive to the publication.[46] Weeks before, Bannon had boasted on Dutch television that he had Hunter Biden's hard drive.[46] Giuliani was later quoted as saying he had given the copy to the New York Post because "either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out."[6]

According to the New York Post story, the computer was left by an unknown person for repair of water damage, but once repair was done the shop had no contact information for its owner, and nobody ever paid for it or came to pick it up.[47] Criticism has been focused on Mac Isaac over inconsistencies in his accounts of how the laptop came into his possession and how he passed it on to Giuliani and the FBI.[47][44] When interviewed by CBS News, Mac Isaac offered contradictory statements about his motivations.[48] Thomas Rid, a political scientist and disinformation expert at Johns Hopkins University, noted that the emails could have been forged or that forged material could have been mixed with genuine materials, a "common feature" of disinformation operations.[49] The Daily Beast reported that according to two "individuals with direct knowledge", multiple senior officials in the Trump administration and reelection campaign were aware of the laptop hard drive "several weeks" prior to the New York Post story.[50] Giuliani later confirmed to The Daily Beast that he had informed Trump about the material before the New York Post story.[33]

The New York Post reported it had been shown an image purporting to show a federal subpoena that resulted in the computer and an external hard drive being seized by the FBI in December 2019.[3] NBC News reported the FBI had acquired the devices via a grand jury subpoena, though it was unclear if this was the subpoena cited by the New York Post, and was investigating whether the contents were linked to a foreign intelligence operation.[51] The existence of the FBI investigation into possible foreign-intelligence activity was confirmed by the Associated Press.[52] Citing a "US official and a congressional source briefed on the matter", CNN reported the FBI was specifically investigating possible connections to ongoing Russian disinformation efforts against Biden.[40]

Material similar to the alleged hard-drive contents was reportedly circulating in Ukraine during 2019. One individual interviewed by Time magazine stated that he had been approached in late May 2019, and a second person stated that he had been approached in mid-September. The seller, according to the second individual, wished to sell compromising information about Hunter Biden to Republican allies of Donald Trump for $5 million. "I walked away from it, because it smelled awful," he told Time. Igor Novikov, a former advisor to the Ukrainian president and a disinformation researcher, said that the market for kompromat had been very active in the past year in reaction to political events in the United States, with political operatives rushing to respond to Giuliani's call for damaging information on the Bidens. Novikov characterized the materials available on the market as "extremely hard to verify, yet very easy to fake". On October 19, Derkach posted on social media that he had a second Hunter Biden laptop, stating, "The facts confirming international corruption are stored on a second laptop. These are not the last witnesses or the last laptop."[53] Lev Parnas told Politico that Giuliani had been told about compromising material regarding Hunter Biden on May 30, 2019, during a visit with Vitaly Pruss, an associate of the corrupt oligarch Zlochevsky.[54]

Earlier in the month and prior to the Post's report, a White House lawyer and two others affiliated with Trump had already pitched a story about Hunter Biden's business dealings in China to The Wall Street Journal, which the Trump affiliates saw as an ideal outlet for its combination of conservatism and industry credibility. While the Journal conducted due diligence and unbeknownst to the Trump affiliates, Giuliani and the Post published a version of the story with unclear provenance that alleged but did not prove Joe Biden's involvement in his son's affairs. Bannon had expected the Journal story to publish on the 19th and Trump told reporters to anticipate a major story in the Journal. Internally, the Journal editors were irritated by the insinuation that their journalism was affiliated with or on behalf of Trump. Tony Bobulinski, a business partner of Hunter Biden who was interviewed for the Journal's report, was spooked that the Journal would not run the piece and issued his own statement on the 21st, which Breitbart News published unedited. At the next day's presidential debate, Trump made vague reference to the emails and hosted Bobulinski as his special guest. After the debate, the Journal published its brief story, that Bobulinski and corporate records assessed by the Journal "show no role for Joe Biden".[55]

After a scandal narrative failed to gain traction in the mainstream press, conservative media and personalities pivoted to a "meta narrative" that the press, social media platforms and the deep state were suppressing news of the scandal.[56]

Reactions

Intelligence officials

On October 19, a group of over 50 former senior intelligence officials, who had served in the Trump administration as well as the three previous, released an open letter stating that the release of the alleged emails "has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation".[57][58]

During an interview with Fox News on October 19, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe claimed that the laptop was "not part of some Russian disinformation campaign" and accused Adam Schiff of mischaracterizing the views of the intelligence community by describing the alleged emails as part of a smear campaign against Biden.[59] Schiff's spokesman accused Ratcliffe of "purposefully misrepresenting" the congressman's words.[60] Ratcliffe is considered a Trump loyalist,[61] and a number of commentators had previously expressed concerns over his partiality.[62][63] The New York Times reported that no solid evidence has emerged that the laptop contained Russian disinformation.[2] An FBI probe seeking to determine whether the laptop was part of a foreign intelligence operation is still ongoing,[40][51] which Ratcliffe was criticized for appearing to pre-judge.[64] The FBI has publicly stated that they had "nothing to add" to Radcliffe's remarks in response to a request for more information made by Sen. Ron Johnson.[65]

Social media corporations

Twitter and Facebook both implemented measures on their platforms to prevent sharing of the New York Post article, with Twitter doing so according to their Hacked Materials Policy and Facebook per a policy that "in many countries, including in the U.S., if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker."[66][67][68] The Hill reported on the Facebook action, "it is unclear what 'signals' triggered the limit on the New York Post article".[66] Twitter briefly locked President Donald Trump's presidential campaign Twitter account for sharing a controversial Hunter Biden video earlier, on October 15. The account was unlocked later that day.[69] Between October 14 and 23, the original New York Post story received over 54 million Facebook views.[70]

Commentators from varied political backgrounds criticized the actions taken by Facebook and Twitter, arguing that they could have amplified disinformation thanks to the Streisand effect.[39] Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey noted, "Our communication around our actions on the @nypost article was not great," adding that "blocking URL sharing via tweet or [direct message]" without context as to why was "unacceptable".[71]

President Donald Trump tweeted twice on October 14 in response to Facebook and Twitter's actions: "So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of 'Smoking Gun' emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in the @NYPost," and "It is only the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician. REPEAL SECTION 230!!!".[72]

Congressional Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee called on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify before the committee in response to their platforms' actions. Senators Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Josh Hawley announced that the committee would vote on subpoenaing Dorsey to appear on October 23.[67] Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell described the restrictions made by Facebook and Twitter as "absolutely reprehensible" and stated that the companies were acting as "speech police".[73]

Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign

The Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign campaign press secretary Jamal Brown stated that Twitter's action with regard to the New York Post story indicated that the allegations in the story were false.[74] They specifically denied that Joe Biden ever had a formal meeting with Pozharskyi, and said that if they had ever met, it would have been a brief encounter.[75]

Other press outlets

Fellow press outlets The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal stated that they could not independently verify the data provided by New York Post.[6] NBC News requested a copy of the hard drive from Giuliani, who told them that he would not provide one; they say Guiliani offered them copies of a small group of emails and wouldn't give them the full set of emails.[76]

David Folkenflik of NPR observed that the New York Post story asserted as facts things it presumed to be true. He also noted that the credited lead author of the New York Post story, deputy political editor Emma-Jo Morris, had virtually no previous bylines in reporting, and her most significant prior employment was a nearly four-year position as a producer on Sean Hannity's Fox News program. Hannity, a close Trump advisor, has repeatedly suggested wrongdoing by Biden in Ukraine.[41]

Vanity Fair observed that the story had exposed an ongoing journalistic "cold war" within Rupert Murdoch's media empire, which includes The New York Post, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. In particular, it described an internal rift about coverage by the Journal, which published an opinion article by conservative columnist Kimberley Strassel inflating the claims, only to have the news section publish an article which "swept the legs out from under their Opinion colleague's argument" four hours later. Ryan Lizza, reporter for Politico, was quoted as saying "reporters at the WSJ, Fox News, and NYP have all come to the same conclusion about these documents but they are being drowned out by bad faith activists on the opinion side at these Murdoch companies who favor Trump's re-election."[77]

See also

References

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Further reading