Even those who worked closely with Joe Biden cringed when he said the words.
Just a year after leaving the White House, Joe Biden was sitting on stage at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, to present an article called “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin.” He had been answering questions for almost an hour when the moderator turned to the war in Ukraine and the prospects for peace. Among the things standing in the way, Biden said, was growing corruption.
And then he told a story. Recounting a trip to Kyiv in late 2015, Biden described telling the then-president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, that he had to fire the prosecutor general or the US would not release $1 billion in loan guarantees. “I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours,’” Biden told the crowd, taking a long look at his watch for effect. “‘If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch.” Here the audience laughed. “He got fired.”
Video of his statement quickly ricocheted around Ukraine and Russia. On January 24, the day after the event, it appeared on Russia Today, the Kremlin’s main external propaganda channel and a feeding house for rightwing conspiracy in the US. One week later, it was on Sputnik. Back then, it was presented as evidence of US meddling in the internal affairs of another country. Over the next 19 months, it morphed into a central pillar of a baseless conspiracy theory pushed by President Donald Trump and his allies that says Biden ordered the prosecutor’s firing because his son, Hunter, was on the board of a company the prosecutor was investigating.
Three former officials who worked closely with Biden on Ukraine said they knew as soon as they watched the appearance that Biden had not spoken well. “It was classic Joe Biden,” said one former official.
The remarks play into Biden’s desire to be the hero of the tales he tells. On the presidential campaign trail this year, he’s shown a tendency to exaggerate or conflate details. His story about pinning a medal on a Navy captain was, if well-meaning, rife with inaccuracies. He’s shared different versions of a story about how seeing two men kiss shaped his acceptance of LGBTQ people at a young age. And he has confused the Parkland and Newtown school shootings while playing up how the survivors and victims’ families turned to him for comfort. Now, this tendency is part of a conspiracy theory that led to events that launched a formal impeachment inquiry against the president of the United States.
By the time Biden made that 2015 trip to Kyiv, Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor general at the time, had become widely reviled both within Ukraine and among the Western countries providing aid to a country fighting a bloody war with a much larger and more aggressive neighbor. One Ukrainian prosecutor known for pushing for reforms quit dramatically in protest, calling the prosecutor general’s office “a hotbed of corruption.” Various US officials had publicly called out Shokin, including Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who said in October 2015 that his office had to be “reinvented as an institution that serves the citizens of Ukraine, rather than ripping them off.” Republican senators joined calls to reform the prosecutor general’s office.
“By the fall of 2015, it was impossible to talk about our aim with the prosecutor general's office which was just thoroughly corrupt without understanding that Shokin's removal would have to be step number one in the process,” said one official who worked closely with Biden. “So even though in our policy documents we didn't refer to requiring the departure of Viktor Shokin, we sort of hedged in typical diplo-speak,” the official said. “It was obvious to everyone.”
But Biden — out of office and not yet a candidate for the Democratic nomination — made the story personal at CFR, and that worried those around him for several reasons.
“It was not just us — it was other governments, it was the IMF, so it also felt not great that we were taking credit for something that lots of people had been trying to do,” a third former official said. All three spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about private deliberations.
“I think it’s quite possible that he got it over the finish line,” the former official said of Biden. “Everything that a president or vice president does, almost everything has been worked on for months or weeks by dozens if not hundreds of people.”
And finally, there was the concern that Biden’s remarks would embarrass the Ukrainian leadership. Poroshenko had a contentious relationship with Biden while the two were in office, the Ukrainian leader finding him too pushy. After Biden’s statements at the Council on Foreign Relations, Poroshenko, still president, was furious and made calls to former officials to register his displeasure.
Poroshenko emerged from the Ukrainian protests that ousted its pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, but years into his tenure, his approval ratings had sunk and rather than follow through on promises to battle corruption, he was widely believed to have become yet another leader engaged in protecting those who engaged in or covered for it, including Shokin. When Poroshenko finally decided to fire him, following months upon months of pressure, it made international news. “It had nothing to do with Burisma,” said one former official.
That Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, joined the board of the Cyprus-registered Ukrainian gas company Burisma in May 2014 is at the heart of claims by Trump and Rudy Giuliani that Biden was seeking Shokin’s firing as a matter of personal vengeance — never mind that Shokin was not investigating the company. Even those who served Trump, including Kurt Volker, his special envoy to Ukraine, have debunked that. "I have known former vice president Biden for 24 years, and the suggestion that he would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money for his son simply has no credibility to me,” Volker said in prepared remarks for Congressional testimony on Thursday as part of the impeachment inquiry. “I know him as a man of integrity and dedication to our country."
But Hunter Biden’s decision to join the board rankled those who worked with Biden on Ukraine issues — mainly because of concerns that even the appearance of impropriety could be used against the administration, especially by an adversary like Russia, which is steeped in deploying misinformation.
“I obviously believed that there was nothing improper, but, especially because there is so much scrutiny, you never want there to be anything that appears in any way inappropriate,” one former official said. “At no point did anyone think or believe that Shokin was investigating Burisma, so it wasn't that. It was more, the appearance of him getting that job not because of his own achievements but because of his connection.”
Hunter Biden reportedly made $50,000 a month as a member of Burisma’s board, a position he held until April of this year. A former official involved in ethics questions in the White House said it was standard practice to put up “a wall” between elected officials and independent adult family members on issues where there could be personal conflicts. “I actually do believe, the vice president handling it the way he did — blind, you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do and I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do — is the best practical thing in these circumstances.”
When he joined the board, Hunter issued a statement saying he would work on “consulting the Company on matters of transparency, corporate governance and responsibility, international expansion and other priorities will contribute to the economy and benefit the people of Ukraine." It’s not clear what, if anything, he actually did.
Despite their concerns, only Amos Hochstein, who served as an adviser to Biden and as then-president Barack Obama’s special envoy on global energy, is known to have raised the issue with the vice president, but, the New Yorker reported, he did not recommend Hunter leave the board.
Another former official said they believed Burisma hired Biden to cleanse its reputation. The company and its founder had faced investigations in the UK and Ukraine and by 2014, it was hoping to erase those from investors’ memories, as so many boards before it had done, in what the Atlantic recently called “perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption.”
"Donald Trump is so obsessed with not looking Joe Biden in the eye next November that he tried to bully Ukraine -- a foreign country that depends on us for their very national security -- into working with Rudy Giuliani to foment a right-wing conspiracy theory that's less believable than Elvis stepping off of a spaceship and knocking on your front door,” Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s rapid response director, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “At this point, we're convinced that you could count on one hand the things Donald Trump is more scared of than a general election against Joe Biden."
Those around Biden are adamant he did not raise the company with Ukrainian officials. “Not only did the vice president not ever raise Burisma or his son in any conversations with Ukrainian authorities, I don't believe firing Shokin was even helpful to Burisma, quite the contrary,” Hochstein, the energy envoy, said.
“I did not think that it was a problem,” one former official said of Hunter Biden joining the board. “I thought that the Russians and others would use it against Biden.”
And, the official believed, they did — seeding it in the press ahead of Biden’s trip to Ukraine. But Hunter Biden’s appointment — and his father’s words at the Council on Foreign Relations — would play a much larger role years later.
Giuliani said in a recent interview he was “defending his client” and investigating the origins of the Mueller investigation when someone showed him the video. He would not say who, just that it was a Ukrainian American. (Giuliani is known to have worked with two Ukrainian Americans in his search for information.) “I’ve known Joe for 30 years,” Giuliani said in a recent phone interview. “The minute I saw that tape I said, Oh my god, he's another one of them.”
In his quest to prove his theory, long floated in conspiracy forums, Giuliani also seized upon a supposed affidavit issued by Shokin in support of one of Ukraine’s most notorious pro-Russian oligarchs, Dmytro Firtash, who is facing extradition to the US in connection with bribery charges. Shokin presents a case that he was fired because of Biden’s personal grievance — but only after he saw the former vice president’s remarks in DC.
“After my dismissal, Joe Biden made a public statement, saying — even bragging — that he had me fired,” Shokin said in the affidavit. “This is when it became clear that the real reason for my dismissal was my actions regarding in Burisma and Biden’s personal interest in that company.” That makes it clear it’s a theory Shokin only thought of years after he was let go.