• Washington Post

50 Days Later, the Biden Bribery Allegation Is No More Credible

The Washington Post
Republicans who were skeptical of whistleblower motives during Trump’s term have since touted their credibility under the Biden administration.

On May 3, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) released a statement to the press describing a letter that they’d sent to the FBI. There was a document in the bureau’s possession, it stated, that documented an interview in which a “criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Biden and a foreign national relating to the exchange of money for policy decisions” was alleged.

The letter was accompanied by a subpoena for the document, an FBI form FD-1023 filled out in June 2020. Eventually, the FBI allowed Comer and others on the House Oversight Committee to see a redacted version of the form and, on Tuesday, redacted versions of two FD-1023 documents that were mentioned in the one Comer initially sought. Grassley, for his part, revealed a component of the original FD-1023 that had been redacted: The person who spoke with the informant the FBI interviewed claimed to have recordings of conversations with Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

And that’s it. After 50 days of fuming and numerous appearances on Fox News, that’s all that congressional Republicans have in hand – little more than they had in the first place.

Before we dig into the details any further (which, I’ll tell you now, only serves to diminish the potency of the allegations), it’s useful to compare this to another allegation against another president: the claim that Donald Trump had pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden back in 2019. The parallels here are numerous, including that the allegation depended on information presented by an accuser and that each is rooted in the same interaction: Hunter Biden’s work for the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

By mid-2019, Trump and his team had become convinced that Biden only called for the ouster of Ukraine’s prosecutor general because Burisma was under investigation for corruption. But this was unfounded; the central source for this narrative was the ousted prosecutor himself. Reporting determined repeatedly that Burisma was not under investigation, and contemporaneous reports show that the prosecutor’s firing was supported by a range of Western leaders, including those in the United States.

On Aug. 12, 2019, an anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint documenting efforts to get Ukraine to announce an investigation. Members of Congress are informed about it on Sept. 9. Ten days later, Congress is briefed on the complaint. On Sept. 25, under pressure, the White House released a partial transcript of Trump’s July 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. On Sept. 26, the whistleblower complaint was released.

The span between the initial complaint and its release was 46 days. Over that period, though, a surfeit of other evidence surfaced of a campaign to pressure Ukraine: that aid had been withheld, that it might have occurred because Trump wanted Zelensky to trigger scrutiny of Biden. It wasn’t just the whistleblower complaint or just the phone call, even by the time House Democrats announced their intent to seek impeachment.

Contrast that with Comer’s efforts. Much of the 50 days that have passed since he and Grassley publicly accused Biden of allegedly having received a bribe were spent with Comer hassling the FBI about making the document public – something that was unnecessary given that he and Grassley already knew what it said. (So did others, it seems; speaking to Stephen K. Bannon last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said he knew about the 1023 a few months ago.) After the FBI allowed House Oversight Committee members to see the document, some small details trickled out, including that the informant interviewed by the FBI had spoken with an executive with Burisma. But that’s about it.

This was the first time that Democrats saw it, though, and the first time the FBI briefed members of Congress on it. The Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), disagreed with Comer’s presentations about the document, indicating that the FBI said that the allegation was determined not to be worth a full investigation by August 2020. (Raskin later sent a letter to the bureau asking it to formalize what he says the representatives had been told.) It also appears to have stemmed from a tip provided to the bureau by Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, which Comer (perhaps for obvious reasons) denies.

Having exhausted his runway, Comer then asked to see those other two 1023s, the ones mentioned in the initial document. On Tuesday, he told reporters they didn’t contain much, in part because they’re heavily redacted. He claimed that the FBI had provided at least one 1023 that wasn’t one he sought, another comment challenged by Raskin. In a statement, Raskin noted that the documents viewed on Tuesday had little to do with the Bidens and that the Bidens weren’t mentioned in any of the redacted sections.

But you work with what you’ve got. So Comer went on Fox News on Tuesday night and pledged to consider cutting the FBI’s funding because . . . they redacted more than he thought they should have. The bureau has consistently (and convincingly) argued that it has done so to protect its sources. But this is a well-worn tactic, to use the FBI’s efforts to protect its investigations as evidence of stonewalling. (See the recent kerfuffle over Ray Epps.)

William P. Barr, attorney general at the time the initial 1023 was recorded, has backed up Comer’s version of events. It was Barr who first claimed in a Fox News interview that the information the form contained had been passed to investigators in Delaware, meaning those looking at Hunter Biden’s business activities. That Biden accepted a plea deal with the government on Tuesday that his lawyer indicated was the conclusion of any federal investigation would seem to damage the idea that some bribery-related indictment was looming.

The U.S. attorney investigating Hunter Biden said in a statement accompanying the plea deal that the probe was ongoing. This may give Barr some breathing room for his efforts to suggest that the issue was still alive when he left that position. It may also simply have been standard language.

Comer, meanwhile, has largely tried to find President Biden guilty by association. He and Oversight Committee Republicans have developed a theory in which the “Biden family” (meaning the president’s son and brother) set up an elaborate set of “shell companies” to “launder” money from foreign actors. The verbiage is intentional, casting apparent business transactions as nefarious even as Republicans draw broad assumptions about how money flowed. (The committee is largely uninterested in the much more substantial manifestations of these practices by the Trump family.) Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Comer added a charge, suggesting that all of this amounted to criminal racketeering. It’s an obvious rhetorical ploy: suggest that the Bidens are so thoroughly rotten that the bribery charge is more likely than not.

We should not be surprised, then, that we get baseless accusations like this, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

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FBI Director “Christopher Wray spit in our faces and disrespected our Oversight Committee and our Chairman Comer by forcing us to see redacted versions of UNCLASSIFIED 1023 forms that gave proof of then VP Joe Biden taking a $5 million dollar bribe.”

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This is inherently contradictory: How do you know the documents contain “proof” of a bribe if they were redacted? But, then, Greene has in the past failed to duly consider the available evidence before reaching a conclusion.

It’s been 50 days and the allegation against Biden is where it was at the outset. Or, really, it’s a bit further away, given the lack of new evidence, the indications that it derived from a Giuliani tip and the admission even by Republicans that the alleged tape recordings “proving” the scheme might not exist.

But it’s something to talk about besides the indictment of Trump, so here we are.