One of the right wing’s “skills,” such as they are, is taking one little piece of fresh information that appears and using it to breathe new life into an old and discredited allegation. Those of you with elephantine memories may recall, for example, how the late discovery of private attorney Hillary Clinton’s billing records in a storage box reignited certain questions about Whitewater, producing an orgiastic frenzy of “Aha!” journalism on the right. That these records did more to exonerate Clinton than incriminate her was something the right didn’t usually mention.
This is what is going on now with the Biden “bribery” scandal. The allegation—that Joe Biden took a $5 million bribe from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company—is quite old. It was revived last month by Senator Charles Grassley’s office, which said a whistleblower came forward with credible information of something or other. Then the indictment of Donald Trump sent Fox and Newsmax into heart attack mode, because, you see, the Deep State indicted Trump only to divert people from the mosh pit of corruption into which Biden was quickly sinking.
Let’s go over some old facts one more time. Clip this out, magnet it up to your fridge, keep it there for Thanksgiving, make Uncle Roy read it. We’ll do this in quasi-catechism form, with three questions.
Question 1. Why did Joe Biden fire Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin?
Right-wing allegation: Because Shokin was investigating Burisma, on whose board Hunter Biden served, and was fast zeroing in on some epic corruption that had dirtied the young Biden’s hands and probably Biden père’s too.
Real-Earth known facts: Biden was sent to Kyiv to order that Shokin be fired for his failure to launch aggressive corruption investigations—including into Burisma.
Ukraine had, in early 2014, experienced the Maidan Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity, in which corrupt, Putin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power. The pro-Western Petro Poroshenko won the subsequent presidential election. He appointed one state prosecutor who failed to pursue corruption cases. That man was fired and replaced by Shokin.
But Shokin too proved lax in pursuing such cases. Ukraine was a pretty corrupt place, and apparently no one would take on the oligarchs. This hardened group included Mykola Zlochevsky, the head of Burisma. According to this report, Ukrainian anti-corruption crusaders were pushing for Shokin to probe Zlochevsky and Burisma; the British government had requested information from Shokin’s office as part of an investigation into alleged money-laundering by Zlochevsky. Shokin, according to anti-corruption activists, ignored the U.K. request and dragged his feet generally.
In other words: Burisma (and Zlochevsky) was one of several fronts on which Shokin was failing to act. Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, was quoted as saying: “Ironically, Joe Biden asked Shokin to leave because the prosecutor failed [to pursue] the Burisma investigation, not because Shokin was tough and active with this case.”
Furthermore, it was this failure to act, not solely on Burisma but more broadly, that convinced the Obama administration, the EU, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund that Shokin had to go. Biden demanded Shokin’s firing on a trip to Kyiv in December 2015. Two months later, IMF head Christine Lagarde threatened to withhold $40 billion in aid unless Ukraine took strong steps to fight corruption. Shokin was finally fired the next month.
There’s a lot more, but you get the picture. There is no evidence to suggest that Biden wanted Shokin fired because he was being too zealous in fighting corruption. And there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that pretty much the entire Western world wanted Shokin fired because he was failing to fight corruption. The truth—at least as far as we know it today—is the precise opposite of what Trumpworld contends.
Question 2. Aren’t there still a lot of unanswered questions about Biden’s role?
Right-wing allegation: Oh yes, and the American people obviously need nothing less than a thorough investigation!
Real-Earth known facts: It has been investigated. By Republicans. Twice! They turned up nothing.
One investigation was undertaken by Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania, appointed by Trump. When the FBI first got wind of the bribery allegations in 2020, Attorney General Bill Barr appointed Brady to poke around. He interviewed Rudy Giuliani, who was busy spreading these rumors, for several hours once. But whatever Brady did or didn’t do did not end up amounting to much. He closed up his investigation without so much as issuing a report.
The other investigation was conducted by Senate Republicans. It was a joint production of the Senate Finance and Homeland Security committees, chaired, respectively, by Grassley and Ron Johnson. The report found nothing. Oh, they padded it out to 87 pages with a lot of tissuey suggestions about possible appearances of conflict and such, but they found no evidence of anything involving Joe Biden. The committees interviewed 10 witnesses, Democrats noted in a counter-report, and none of them said they knew of any instance in which Joe Biden sought to alter administration policy toward Ukraine because of his son.
Oh, yeah—this report was released in September 2020. Right before the election. If they’d found something politically useful, don’t you think we’d have heard about it nonstop in the closing weeks of the election? But we didn’t, because they didn’t. Johnson conceded before the report’s release that it would have no “massive smoking guns” and commented on the “misperception on the part of the public that there would be.” Gee, who would have been responsible for that? Ron Johnson? (Among many others.)
Question 3. I seem to recall that Trump got impeached over Ukraine. Does all this have anything to do with that?
Right-wing allegation: Only that that first impeachment was the beginning of the witch hunt of poor President Trump, designed simultaneously to hide the true corruption, which was Biden’s.
Real-Earth known facts: Yes! It’s directly tied, because Trump wanted Ukraine to drum up some phony allegations about Biden. So it is Trump and only Trump who tried to corruptly influence Ukraine.
Before America got to know Volodymyr Zelenskiy as the courageous Putin resister, they knew him as the guy on the other end of the phone line in July 2019, whom Trump tried to blackmail to find dirt on Biden. He was indirect about it; he spoke the way a mob boss speaks, as he always does, you know, Nice little country ya got dere, be a shame if anything should happen to it. But his message was crystal clear. Like: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.” And: “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.” (These are exact quotes.)
No known set of actual facts suggests that Joe Biden shut down an investigation in Ukraine. The man who headed Ukraine’s top anti-corruption unit at the time told Reuters in September 2019 that there was indeed an investigation of Burisma going on at the time, but it was “up in the air, so to speak.” And he also said that the period being investigated was 2010 to 2012—years before Hunter Biden even joined the board.
Is it possible Joe Biden took a bribe? Look, the pope smoking dope on the Cape of Good Hope is possible. But it, like Biden being corrupt, doesn’t match any set of known facts, after a Ukrainian investigation, a Senate investigation, and an investigation by a U.S. attorney all turned up bupkes. We do know, however, that another U.S. president did behave corruptly toward Ukraine. It’s the guy who’s sitting down in Florida awaiting his third and fourth indictments.
This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.