In recent interviews, Joe Biden has distanced himself from his son’s work at a Ukrainian gas company that was under investigation during the Obama years, with the former vice president suggesting he didn’t even know Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma Holdings.
There is plenty of evidence that conflicts with the former vice president’s account, including Hunter Biden’s own story that he discussed the company once with his famous father.
There also was a December 2015 New York Times story that raised the question of whether Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma posed a conflict of interest for the vice president, especially when Joe Biden was leading the fight against Ukrainian corruption while Hunter Biden’s firm was under investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors.
But whatever the Biden family recollections, the Obama State Department clearly saw the Burisma Holdings investigation in the midst of the 2016 presidential election as a Joe Biden issue.
Memos newly released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Southeastern Legal Foundation on my behalf detail how State officials in June 2016 worked to prepare the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, to handle a question about “Burisma and Hunter Biden.”
In multiple drafts of a question-and-answer memo prepared for Yovanovitch’s Senate confirmation hearing, the department’s Ukraine experts urged the incoming ambassador to stick to a simple answer.
“Do you have any comment on Hunter Biden, the Vice President’s son, serving on the board of Burisma, a major Ukrainian Gas Company?,” the draft Q&A asked.
The recommended answer for Yovanovitch: “For questions on Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma, I would refer you to Vice President Biden’s office.”
The Q&A is consistent with other information flowing out of State. As I reported yesterday, when a Burisma representative contacted State in February 2016 to ask for the department’s help in quashing the corruption allegations, Hunter Biden’s role on the company’s board was prominently cited.
And a senior State Department official who testified recently in the impeachment proceedings reportedly told lawmakers he tried to warn the vice president’s office that Burisma posed a conflict for Joe Biden but was turned aside.
There are no laws that would have prevented Hunter Biden from joining Burisma, even as his father oversaw Ukraine policy for the President Obama.
And the corruption investigations launched in 2014 by British and Ukraine authorities involving Burisma and its owner Mykola Zlocvhevsky involved activities that pre-dated Hunter Biden’s arrival on the board. They were settled in late 2016 and early 2017.
Some of Biden’s media defenders have falsely suggested the investigations were dormant. They were not.
The real public interest question involves Joe Biden. Federal ethics rules require government officials to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and ethics experts I talked with say the vice president should have recused himself from issues affecting Burisma.
That became poignantly public when Biden leveraged the threat of canceling $1 billion in U.S. aid in March 2016 to get Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who just happened to oversee the Burisma probe. A month before the firing, Shokin escalated the corruption probe against Burisma by seizing the company owner’s property and assets.
Shokin says he was making plans to interview Hunter Biden and insists he was fired because he refused to stand down on the Burisma probe. Joe Biden insists he prompted Shokin’s firing because he believed the prosecutor was ineffective.
There are more memos and documents to be released in the coming months under the FOIA lawsuit I filed with the Southeastern Legal Foundation that may shine light on what actually happened.
But one thing is already clear: long before President Trump or his attorney Rudy Giuliani began investigating Ukrainian issues, career State officials already saw Burisma as an issue for Joe Biden.