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Republicans’ thin corruption case against Joe Biden, explained

The House is having its first impeachment hearing. What they don’t have is proof of their allegations.

Hunter Biden and Joe Biden stand next to each other, both with arms crossed. Kris Connor/WireImage
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Whatever you may think about the impeachments of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, they were at least impeached for things they verifiably did.

But Joe Biden may become the first president to be impeached entirely because of an unproven theory.

Republicans, and allies of Donald Trump in particular, have spent five years searching for the proof that will vindicate their long-held assertion that Joe Biden was corruptly in cahoots with his son, Hunter — being paid off by foreign interests and skewing US policy to support them.

Yet while much has emerged about Hunter’s sordid personal life and dubiously ethical behavior, Republicans have been unable to hang anything significant on his father.

Don’t take it from me. Take it from Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO), who wrote this month: “What’s missing, despite years of investigation, is the smoking gun that connects Joe Biden to his ne’er-do-well son’s corruption.”

Of course, the GOP’s impeachment effort isn’t really about what the evidence shows — it’s political. What’s really behind this is that the hard right has been demanding aggressive action against Biden, Trump wants payback for his own two impeachments, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy is struggling to hold off threats to his speakership. The evidence is largely beside the point.

Still, some of Buck’s GOP colleagues assert that, actually, they’ve found a ton of damning information on Joe Biden — in their own investigation, and from the infamous abandoned “laptop” containing Hunter’s emails and messages, around which a sort of oppo research industrial complex has sprung up on the right.

But their grand corruption theories hinge either on uncorroborated or outright discredited accusations from questionable figures, or on Hunter throwing his father’s name around in private. The hard proof that Joe was in on Hunter’s schemes remains lacking.

What we know of Joe and Hunter Biden’s financial relationship

For nearly his entire adult life, Hunter Biden has been in the business of being Joe Biden’s son — first as a lobbyist, and then in the more opaque world of advising and consulting for high-paying foreign clients.

Viewed in isolation, it seems like one of many examples of a politician’s relative cashing in on his name. But Republicans argue there’s more to the story — their grand theory is that, really, Joe and Hunter were actively in business together, with Joe helping Hunter’s clients in exchange for a large share of the loot.

But the picture that’s emerged from the investigation so far doesn’t exactly seem impeachment-worthy.

As far as Joe’s relationship with Hunter’s business partners, the investigation has revealed the following: the vice president occasionally spoke to some of Hunter’s business associates at golf outings and dinner events. Sometimes he called Hunter to say hello during Hunter’s business meetings, and Hunter put him on speakerphone, but Joe wouldn’t talk business. Officials in Biden’s office forwarded information about White House events to Hunter. Joe once wrote a college letter of recommendation for the son of a Chinese executive in business with Hunter.

How about the money? Republicans point to a January 2019 text from Hunter to his daughter (typos included):

I love all of you. But I don’t receive any respect and thats fine I guess -works for you apparently. I Hope you all can do what I did and pay for everything for this entire family Fro 30 years. It’s really hard. But don’t worry unlike Pop I won’t make you give me half your salary.

But did Joe actually make Hunter give him half his salary?

In the laptop material, there are many resentful tirades from Hunter about how much he does for his family and how unappreciated he is, often laden with exaggerations and persecution fantasies (usually coming when family members were trying to get him off drugs).

There is evidence of some intermingling of Joe’s finances with Hunter’s. Eric Schwerin, who Hunter had hired to help with his finances in the mid-2000s, also assisted Joe Biden with managing his finances when he was vice president. Hunter covered some expenses for Joe, like home repairs and cell phone bills.

And Hunter claimed in another text that his dad had long used one of his accounts. “My dad has been using most lines on this account which I’ve though the gracious offerings of Eric [Schwerin] have paid for past 11 years,” he texted in 2018.

But there’s no documentation of anything remotely near half Hunter’s (sizable) income, or any sort of set percentage, going to Joe. The covering of expenses that’s been documented seems to have been more informal — Hunter, the highest-earning Biden, picking up the tab for his dad, or setting some bills on autopay.

Burisma and the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general

Many GOP theories of Joe Biden’s corruption center around Hunter’s work for the Ukrainian gas company Burisma — which you may remember being discussed quite a bit during the first impeachment of Donald Trump back in 2019.

Hunter served on the board of Burisma and was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by the company starting in 2014. By that point, the first phase of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia had begun, and the US government was providing aid — but US officials had concerns about corruption in the Ukrainian government. So the US, and specifically Vice President Biden, pressured Ukraine’s president to fire the nation’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin — which he did.

In recent years, Shokin has been telling a very different story. He asserts he was forced out because he was investigating corruption — Burisma’s corruption. That’s the only reason Vice President Biden urged his firing, he says: to protect Hunter and Burisma.

But Shokin’s story seems plainly false.

Shokin was appointed prosecutor general in February 2015, and US officials indeed initially had high hopes he’d be a reformer, since he was moving to set up an anti-corruption office. But in July of that year, that anti-corruption office investigated two of Shokin’s prosecutor appointees, including his former driver, and found millions in diamonds and cash in their homes. Shokin then “went to war” trying to destroy the new office, in an attempt “to destroy anybody connected with that effort,” US State Department official George Kent has testified.

So the US soured on Shokin. In September 2015, Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt gave a speech denouncing “corrupt actors within the prosecutor general’s office,” alluding to the diamond prosecutor affair. Pyatt also criticized certain prosecutors for working corruptly with Mykola Zlochevsky — the founder of Burisma — to help him regain $23 million that had been frozen abroad (though this had happened before Shokin’s appointment).

By November 22, 2015, the official position of the US government was that Shokin had to go, according to a State Department document meant to prep Biden for an upcoming trip to Ukraine, which stated:

The time is ripe for President Poroshenko to reanimate his reform agenda. You should recommend that he give a state of the nation speech to the Rada in which he reenergizes that effort and rolls out new proposed reforms.

There is wide agreement that anti-corruption must be at the top of this list, and that reforms must include an overhaul of the Prosecutor General’s Office including removal of Prosecutor General Shokin, who is widely regarded as an obstacle to fighting corruption, if not a source of the problem.

During his December 2015 trip, Biden privately told Ukraine’s president that the US would not provide a new tranche of loan guarantees unless Shokin was fired, and publicly stated that Shokin’s office “desperately needs reform.” On February 11, 2016, Biden called Ukraine’s president — and, a few days later, Shokin’s ouster was announced.

Now, it does indeed seem that, concurrently with all this, Burisma became increasingly concerned about legal jeopardy it faced from Shokin’s office — and tried to get Hunter to help.

On November 2, 2015, a Burisma executive emailed Hunter about a plan to hire a US lobbying firm to advocate for Zlochevsky to US officials, who they hoped would then intervene with Ukrainian officials on his behalf. “The ultimate purpose,” the executive wrote, would be “to close down for any cases/pursuits against [Zlochevsky] in Ukraine.”

Devon Archer, a former business partner of Hunter who also served on Burisma’s board, has testified that another exchange took place at a December 4, 2015 board meeting. According to Archer, executives told Hunter they were concerned about pressure they were getting from Ukrainian investigators, and asked if Hunter could help with that pressure. Later, Archer said, he was told that Hunter had called “DC” to try and help. But by this point the US had already concluded that Shokin had to go for its own reasons, as shown in the State Department document dated two weeks earlier.

Then, on February 2, 2016, the prosecutor general’s office seized Zlochevsky’s property — just two weeks before Shokin’s ouster. After Shokin was gone, the investigation continued, but eventually, prosecutors cut a settlement deal that activists criticized as too lenient.

Again, though, there’s no evidence that the US policy of pushing for Shokin’s ouster was meant to protect Burisma. As many US officials testified back during the Trump impeachment inquiry, the US government had concluded Shokin was corrupt for other well-documented reasons, and wanted him gone.

The totally unsubstantiated claim of a Burisma bribe

We’re not finished with Burisma just yet.

In June 2020, a confidential FBI informant reported back to the Bureau about some conversations he’d allegedly had with Zlochevsky several years back. According to the informant, Zlochevsky claimed that in addition to paying $5 million to Hunter Biden, he’d also paid $5 million to “another Biden.” An FBI document summarizing the informant’s claims reads:

Zlochevsky stated he didn’t want to pay the Bidens and he was “pushed to pay” them... Zlochevsky responded he did not send any funds directly to the “Big Guy” (which CHS [confidential human source] understood was a reference to Joe Biden)... Zlochevsky responded it would take them (investigators) 10 years to find the records (i.e. illicit payments to Joe Biden).

... Zlochevsky said he had a total of “17 recordings” involving the Bidens; two of the recordings included Joe Biden, and the remaining 15 recordings only included Hunter Biden. CHS reiterated that, per Zlochevsky, these recordings evidence Zlochevsky was somehow coerced into paying the Bidens to ensure Ukraine Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was fired.

Obviously, if Zlochevsky had secretly agreed to pay Joe Biden $5 million while he was vice president, that would be a huge scandal. But did it actually happen?

Currently, there’s not a shred of evidence that it did happen. Of course, Zlochevsky did say it was done so amazingly secretly that it will be impossible to find, which is... convenient.

Here’s another problem. The FBI document states that the informant had already briefed the Bureau on one of these talks with Zlochevsky several years ago. Back then, though, the informant didn’t mention any salacious bribe claims. Only years later, well after Trump had publicly been trying to make Biden and Burisma a huge scandal, and that the Justice Department was investigating it, did the informant “recollect” these juicy Zlochevsky claims.

Another issue is that the informant says he barely knew Zlochevsky, so this level of purported candor may seem odd. “CHS explained it is very common for business men in post-Soviet countries to brag or show-off,” the document reads.

In any case, all we have here is a claim. No evidence has emerged to prove that claim true.

The Chinese energy deal (“10 held by H for the big guy ?”)

Hunter’s other big business deal that Republicans have been trying to tie to Joe involves a Chinese energy company, CEFC, which was trying to expand its business in the US and seeking political connections.

In 2017, Hunter and his associates discussed setting up a new company to handle their proposed deal with CEFC. A now-infamous email sent by one of those associates lays out a proposed equity split, including 20 percent for Hunter, 10 percent for Hunter’s uncle Jim Biden, and “10 held by H for the big guy ?”

Tony Bobulinski, who was involved in talks over this proposed deal, has since said that “the big guy” was Joe Biden, and that he was led to believe that the then-former vice president was deeply involved.

Yet Bobulinski cannot confirm this for sure. By his own account, he only briefly met Joe Biden once, when Hunter introduced him at a conference where Joe was speaking. Bobulinski has said Joe appeared to be aware that Hunter was working on a deal with Chinese businessmen, but did not claim to be involved himself and did not discuss any business (though Joe did urge him to “Keep an eye on my son and brother,” he’s claimed).

That version of the CEFC deal did not come together. But Hunter and Jim cut Bobulinski out and continued talks with the company. By July 2017, an executive for CEFC messaged Hunter that, “based on their trust on BD family” — the Biden family — they would give them a $5 million interest-free loan.

But the money was slow showing up. A few days later, Hunter messaged back, “I am sitting here with my father and we would like to understand why the commitment made has not been fulfilled.” He continued in a threatening vein: “I will make certain that between the man sitting next to me and every person he knows and my ability to forever hold a grudge that you will regret not following my direction.”

It reads like a shakedown, and indeed, the Chinese company would send over $5 million a few days later. Was Hunter actually speaking on behalf of his father, as he appeared to imply, or again simply throwing his name around without his knowledge? When these messages emerged, an attorney for Hunter said that “any verifiable words or actions of my client, in the midst of a horrible addiction, are solely his own and have no connection to anyone in his family.”

The deal proved to be ill-fated. One CEFC associate was arrested in the US in November 2017, and charged with trying to bribe government officials in Chad and Uganda. Then, in early 2018, the tycoon behind CEFC, Ye Jianming, was detained in China under corruption suspicions, and has not been seen publicly since.

All of this is extremely messy and shady on Hunter’s part. It’s clear Hunter Biden wanted people to think his father was deeply involved in his dealings.

But again, evidence of Joe Biden’s actual involvement is absent.

As with GOP assertions about the fired Ukrainian prosecutor and the Burisma bribe, the Joe Biden-China connection remains a supposition lacking proof.

And if they can’t turn up that proof, then this impeachment effort will be proceeding based on the imaginings of Republican House members, rather than on verifiable conduct by the president of the United States.