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The Hilarious Collapse of a Republican Smear Job

The takedown of the GOP’s pet informant has been an extremely satisfying spectacle to watch. But it won’t chasten Trump’s minions in the least.

James Comer, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee

Welcome to the least surprising turn of events imaginable: Federal prosecutors have charged a former FBI informant on Thursday with lying to the bureau about corruption allegations against President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden involving the latter’s work in Ukraine. It’s hard not to appreciate the way this ridiculous put-up job has fallen to pieces.

Special counsel David Weiss announced on Thursday evening that a federal grand jury had returned an indictment against Alexander Smirnov, a 43-year-old longtime FBI informant with ties to Ukraine, for one count of making false statements to a federal agent and one count of falsifying records in a grand jury investigation.

“Despite repeated admonishments that he must provide truthful information to the FBI and that he must not fabricate evidence, the Defendant provided false derogatory information to the FBI about Public Official 1, an elected official in the Obama-Biden Administration who left office in January 2017, and Businessperson 1, the son of Public Official 1, in 2020, after Public Official 1 became a candidate for President of the United States of America,” the indictment alleged.

Why is this so unsurprising? Because Republican officials and right-wing media outlets have spent the last five years claiming that Biden’s actions in Ukraine were corrupt without marshaling even a shred of evidence to prove their allegations. Former President Donald Trump was even impeached in 2019 for pressuring Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy to falsely smear Biden as corrupt in advance of the 2020 presidential election. So, of course the Ukraine corruption allegations fell apart. They always do, and for a very good reason.

The grand jury’s indictment is understandably vague about when and why Smirnov became a confidential informant for the FBI. He began providing information to the bureau in 2010 in “various criminal investigations,” during which FBI agents warned him multiple times to only provide truthful information or risk criminal charges. In 2017, he first described to the FBI that he had conversations with Burisma officials about acquiring an unidentified U.S. company. Smirnov mentioned, perhaps in passing, that Hunter was on Burisma’s board.

In 2020, after Biden became the likely Democratic nominee against Trump, Smirnov’s claims began to escalate. Suddenly he was alleging that “executives associated with Burisma … admitted to him that they hired [Hunter] to ‘protect us, through his dad, from all kinds of problems.’” Those same executives later went on to say, according to Smirnov, that they “specifically paid $5 million each to [Biden] and [Hunter], when [Biden] was still in office, so that ‘[Businessperson 1] will take care of all those issues through his dad,’” referring to corruption investigations into Burisma. These conversations allegedly took place in 2015 or 2016.

The lies about Biden’s role in Ukraine are based on a kernel of truth. Then–Vice President Biden did, in fact, pressure Ukraine’s leaders to fire Viktor Shokin, the country’s prosecutor general at the time, in 2015. Biden also did so with an eye toward the country’s handling of corruption cases. He even publicly boasted that he personally helped block loan guarantees to Ukraine as part of the pressure campaign. And Hunter Biden, the president’s only surviving son, did serve on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian oil and gas company, during this time.

There is one major problem with the anti-Biden narrative: The then vice president was pushing for Shokin’s removal not because Shokin was being too aggressive about corruption cases but because he wasn’t being aggressive enough. Biden’s efforts were part of a campaign by U.S. and EU diplomats for Ukrainian leaders to take a more aggressive tack on endemic corruption in the former Soviet republic. All of this was widely covered at the time because it was not only a legitimate foreign policy endeavor by the Obama administration but an important component of its Eastern European policy.

The FBI apparently realized that Smirnov was lying to them when they discovered that his interactions with Burisma executives only began in 2017, after Biden had already left office and after the alleged conversations had supposedly taken place. “In short, the Defendant transformed his routine and unextraordinary business contacts with Burisma in 2017 and later into bribery allegations against [Biden], the presumptive nominee of one of the two major political parties for President, after expressing bias against [Biden] and his candidacy,” the indictment alleged.

The indictment also included screenshots of text exchanges between Smirnov and his handler where Smirnov suggested that Biden and other “polititions” should be jailed, after which Smirnov begins suggesting that he can link Biden’s Ukraine efforts as vice president to Burisma. When his handler expressed doubt about that, Smirnov replied, “I’ll try to prove it for you bro.” The messages give the impression that Smirnov was eager to provide damaging information against a presidential candidate whom he disliked.

All of this might have gone unnoticed had someone not told Republican members of Congress about Smirnov’s false allegations. Leading GOP lawmakers, including Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Georgia Representative James Comer, drew public attention to the unnamed informant’s claims as evidence of corruption by Biden and his son after apparently learning about Smirnov’s testimony through what they described as a “whistleblower.”

“For the better part of a year, I’ve been pushing the Justice Department and FBI to provide details on its handling of very significant allegations from a trusted FBI informant implicating then-Vice President Biden in a criminal bribery scheme,” Grassley claimed in a braggadocious press release last July. “While the FBI sought to obfuscate and redact, the American people can now read this document for themselves, without the filter of politicians or bureaucrats, thanks to brave and heroic whistleblowers.”

When news of Smirnov’s indictment broke on Thursday night, Grassley expressed no regret for his role in smearing the president. To the contrary, he insisted that he had done the right thing and that he deserved credit for the outcome. “Today’s indictment makes clear that, without Senator Grassley’s oversight and exposure of the FD-1023, the agency would have continued neglecting its duties and failing to provide the transparency the American people deserve,” his office told reporters on Thursday night. Grassley also castigated the FBI for refusing to expose its sources and methods to inquiring lawmakers, then exposing Smirnov anyway when it charged him with lying.

There’s a good reason that the FBI didn’t cooperate more readily with Grassley and Comer’s inquiries: There was no evidence to substantiate Smirnov’s claims, there was plenty of reason to doubt them, and there was zero reason to believe that Republican lawmakers had any interest in publicizing them other than doing political damage. The FBI’s record in revealing sensitive information in ongoing criminal inquiries is, shall we say, imperfect, and the GOP’s record in hyping it up to inflict political damage is well established.

Indeed, the Republicans’ strategy worked. The Burisma allegations provided mountains of grist for GOP lawmakers to demand further inquiries, which gave wide latitude for their allies at Fox News and other right-wing media outlets to feverishly speculate about the all-but-certain bombshell in front of their audiences. The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump estimated that Fox hosts and guests had mentioned Biden and bribes more than 2,600 times over the past year. Comer and other House GOP lawmakers appeared on Sean Hannity’s show at least 86 times since last summer to argue for impeaching Biden based on the allegations.

Indeed, the lack of evidence or truth to support the case for impeaching Biden is why more than a few Republicans are growing dissatisfied with Comer’s leadership of the House Oversight Committee. Its goal is not to actually find out what happened, as Democrats did when they pursued inquiries into Trump during his presidency. Just as with Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, the goal is to smear the Democratic presidential candidate by locking them in a cycle of perpetual investigations. “Burisma” even vaguely resembles “Benghazi” as a catchword.

This is not to say that Democrats can’t be corrupt or that legitimate allegations of corruption shouldn’t be investigated. Senator Bob Menendez, who comes loaded down with enough comical corruption to fuel a season of Fargo, is right there. (The GOP would evidently prefer to cast Senator Gold Bars as a Biden-deep-state victim.) The real takeaway here is that Republican lawmakers like Grassley and Comer can’t be trusted to make these allegations or pursue their credibility. It’s not because these lawmakers were partisan, or overly zealous, or even because they’re wrong. (Sometimes legitimate inquiries just don’t pan out.) The problem is that they don’t seem to care whether they’re actually right in the first place.