LS Law News The GOP ‘bribery’ allegations against Biden remain transparently thin

The GOP ‘bribery’ allegations against Biden remain transparently thin

The news release went out on May 3 from the Republican majority on the House Oversight Committee.

“Information provided by a whistleblower raises concerns that then-Vice President Biden was allegedly involved in a bribery scheme with a foreign national,” the alleged, quoting committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.).

A letter from Comer and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) to the FBI, seeking the release of documentation of a June 2020 interview, wasn’t similarly hedged. The document, it is claimed, “describes an alleged criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Biden and a foreign national relating to the exchange of money for policy decisions.”

Over the next month, Republicans pressed the FBI to release the form publicly. Comer threatened to hold FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in contempt. Grassley and he appeared on Fox News and other right-wing media over and over to use this pressure campaign to re-elevate the allegation they’d featured at the outset. Eventually, the FBI made the document available for members of Congress to view, redacting information about the confidential source who had been interviewed.

But despite the incremental new revelations about the form and about the push for the form to be released, nothing about the situation has changed from that first news release. Republicans are hyping a secondhand allegation from a single source — an allegation that was in the hands of Attorney General William P. Barr’s Justice Department in mid-2020 without leading to criminal charges or, it seems, any specific investigation.

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It’s not hard to figure out why this is unfolding the way it is unfolding. There’s an enormous appetite on the right at the moment for evidence that the FBI and Justice Department are deploying a double standard or that Biden deserves to face criminal charges just as much as former president Donald Trump. That provides the space that Comer and Grassley are filling, running far ahead of their extremely limited evidence.

According to reports from legislators who’ve seen the interview document — including Comer and Grassley, who say they’ve seen an unredacted version of it — the allegation is that an executive with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma offered bribes of $5 million to both Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Burisma, you’ll recall, was at the center of Trump’s first impeachment. Trump wanted Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden (who he correctly expected to be his 2020 opponent), claiming that Biden tried to block a corruption investigation into the company to benefit his son. This was debunked at that point, with Biden’s calls for the ouster of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin being rooted in Shokin’s not aggressively proceeding corruption. There’s no evidence that Shokin was investigating Burisma, and there was an international consensus that he needed to go.

Both because Trump was facing impeachment and because his team believed that Biden was vulnerable on the issue, Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani continued to seek derogatory information about Biden in Ukraine. This was worrisome to federal law enforcement, which warned the Trump White House that Giuliani might be a vector for Russian misinformation. (One of his sources was later added to a sanctions list during the Trump administration for being linked to Russian intelligence.) At the beginning of 2020, Barr established a process for vetting information about Ukraine, clearly in part because of concern that Giuliani’s information would trigger wild goose chases. The US attorney responsible for vetting the information, Scott Brady, met with Giuliani soon after.

Reporting suggested that the bribery allegation was brought to the FBI’s attention by Giuliani. In an interview on Fox News this week, Barr claimed that the allegation came not from Giuliani but from the FBI itself, but that may be a semantic distinction between how it got to the FBI and how it got to Brady.

Regardless, the bureau spoke with a confidential source in June 2020 about the allegation, generating the FD-1023 document Comer and Grassley are seeking. That source, whose identity the bureau is eager to protect, is someone who had been paid by the bureau for information in the past and is considered credible — though that of course doesn’t extend to the Burisma executive with whom the source spoke. It’s the executive who alleged the bribery, money purportedly offered in part to halt the investigation of Burisma by Shokin.

An investigation, remember, that doesn’t appear to have existed.

There are other problems with the story, too. The House Oversight Committee has been breathlessly dissecting Hunter Biden’s finances in an effort to build out a story about the corruption of “the Biden family.” (There’s no evidence of payments to Joe Biden, hence the blurred allegation against the family broadly.) The committee has detailed how payments from Chinese actors, for example, appear to have been divided up between people linked to Hunter Biden or his uncle.

Yet there is apparently no evidence of a $5 million payment to Hunter Biden. That Comer has spent the month fighting with the FBI about releasing an unredacted version of the interview form instead of, say, finding the $5 million in the voluminous financial documents his committee has is telling.

So is the fact that no charges for bribery were brought against Joe or Hunter Biden. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Oversight Committee Democrats said that the bureau, in showing the document to members of Congress, “informed the Committee, in no uncertain terms, that this assessment was closed in August 2020 after it failed to identify sufficient evidence to justify further investigation.”

On Fox News, Barr claimed that there was no further investigation by Brady because that wasn’t Brady’s mandate. He and a committee of Republicans have suggested that the interview became part of the ongoing investigation of Hunter Biden in Delaware, although there’s no evidence that Biden is under investigation for being a party to any sort of bribery.

On Monday, Grassley attempted to inject a new wrinkle into the discussion.

“According to the 1023, the foreign national provides fifteen audio recordings of phone calls between him and Hunter Biden,” he said from the floor of the Senate. “According to the 1023, the foreign national possesses two audio recordings of phone calls between him and then-Vice President Joe Biden.”

“What, if anything, has the Justice Department and FBI done to investigate?” he added.

It’s really important to remember that, while this is new information — purportedly redacted from the version of the document shown to Congress — it is not new evidence. This is the same alleged executive talking to the same FBI source in the same document. In other words, the claim that these recordings exist comes from the same person who alleges that the bribe was paid. It is of no more credibility than the original claim.

It also fairly obviously undercuts Grassley’s point. If there were recordings, that would seem to suggest that the FBI would have even more grounds to move forward with a probe — without appearing to have done so. Grassley is arguing that, given the breadth of allegations from the executive, it’s bizarre that the FBI didn’t investigate. The more obvious conclusion is that the claims were not the smoking gun Grassley presented.

Even Comer pumped the brakes on it. He was asked, during an interview on Newsmax, if the recordings were “legit.” He confirmed that the recordings were mentioned in the 1023 — but “we don’t know if they’re legit or not” and that they were simply claimed to exist by the executive with whom the FBI source spoke.

Grassley did something similar when a Fox News host asked him whether the document was “damning” for President Biden.

“There’s accusations in it, but that’s — it’s not for me to make a judgment about whether these accusations are accurate or not,” he said. “It’s … my job to make sure the FBI is doing their job.”

As journalist Marcy Wheeler notes, Comer and Grassley appear to be engaged in precisely what Republicans have long alleged about the dossier of reports compiled about Trump by former intelligence officer Christopher Steele: elevating questionable allegations from foreign sources that are transmitted by a paid FBI informant. But the target of these allegations is Biden, so they’re presented with a default credulousness.

It is unquestionably possible that some element of the allegation is true. We know that Hunter Biden was paid by Burisma to sit on its board — almost certainly because of his last name — and it’s not hard to imagine that he was involved in some even sketchier transactions. It is also possible that the then-vice president was also involved, although the allegation as it is currently understood doesn’t make much sense.

But it is also the case that Comer, Grassley and their allies are more interested in elevating the allegation than evaluating it. Since that news release at the beginning of May and its initial claim that Biden was bribed, the allegation has not gotten more credible. It was likely tied back to Giuliani? The FBI had it and didn’t pursue a probe? Despite there being “tape recordings”? And Oversight never got wind of the alleged $5 million payment?

Republicans have an easy response to this: The FBI is corrupt and anti-Trump. But that’s just begging the question.