Joe Biden visited Ukraine on January 16, 2017 in his very last days as vice-president in the Obama administration. That he should fly to Kiev when he had so little time left in office was a sign of the importance he attached to Ukraine. He was the ‘point-man’ for America’s Ukraine policy, telling the government to clean-up the country’s notorious and endemic corruption. While he was in charge, the US gave $3 billion in economic aid to Ukraine. There was a family connection to Ukraine, too. Biden’s son, Hunter, served on the board of a big Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma. Happily, just four days before Air Force Two touched down in Kiev, it was announced that Ukraine was dropping a corruption prosecution against Burisma.
This handily removed a PR problem for the vice president. A year earlier, a piece in the New York Times reported that in the very month Hunter joined Burisma, the Serious Fraud Office in London froze bank accounts belonging to the company’s Ukrainian founder. The US ambassador to Ukraine at the time said that the money in these accounts – $23 million of it – had been ‘stolen’ from the Ukrainian people. When a court ordered the British police to unfreeze the assets, the cash ‘disappeared’ to Cyrus. The Times piece – by the noted investigative journalist James Risen – warned that the vice president’s anti-corruption message to Ukraine might have been ‘undermined’ by Hunter’s association with Burisma.
The Burisma story is retold in detail in an entertaining book by Peter Schweizer, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. He writes about the founder, a bombastic former minister with a collection of Bentleys who had to flee Ukraine; and the oligarch said to have bought the company, who’s alleged to carry out corporate raids using ‘armed lawyers’. Ukraine’s ruling elite is full of such characters. It’s why – despite Joe Biden’s efforts – the country remains stuck near the bottom of Transparency International’s annual corruption index. As for Hunter Biden, Schweizer quotes an American academic who claims that the Burisma deal means that ‘potentially, the Biden family could become billionaires’.
Schweizer is best known for his book Clinton Cash. He is also a ‘senior editor-at-large’ for Breitbart which says on its website that Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine – and China – are a bigger problem for Biden in 2020 than the ‘Groper Joe’ stories. ‘[H]is family, particularly his son, cashed in while he was vice president of the United States.’ So far, Schweizer says, Hunter has taken home $3 million from Burisma, despite having ‘no background’ in Ukraine or in energy policy. ‘There’s really no legitimate explanation as to why he got this deal…other than the fact his father was responsible for doling out money in Ukraine.’ Schweizer called for an investigation and for a grand jury to be empaneled, especially as Burisma’s founder was part of the old, pro-Russian (and obscenely corrupt) government in Ukraine. ‘There’s all kinds of questions and implications. Is there a Russian component to this?’
The Breitbart story comes after one in The Hill that attempted to connect the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general – successfully demanded by Biden as vice president – to the fact that the prosecutor general’s office was investigating Burisma. The piece says there are some ‘hard questions’ for Biden as he prepares to run for president. ‘Did you know about the Burisma probe? And when it was publicly announced that your son worked for Burisma, should you have recused yourself from leveraging a US policy to pressure the prosecutor who very publicly pursued Burisma?
A former senior official in the Obama administration dismisses all this as a ‘smear’ designed to hurt the one Democratic candidate who could win white, blue collar votes from Trump. Much of the international community was demanding the resignation of the prosecutor general, he said, this wasn’t something that Biden had come up with on his own. That’s true. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor was facing allegations that he himself was involved in massive corruption (naturally – this is Ukraine). Cockburn merely notes the new rule in American politics – which began with Paul Manafort – that Ukraine must now intrude in some fashion into every US presidential election.
If Biden does ever get to the Oval Office, this saga might reflect a different rule: that every president must have a relative to embarrass them. Biden probably has less a Ukrainian problem than a Hunter problem. Hunter was kicked out of the naval reserve because he tested positive for cocaine. His wife, Kathleen, claimed during their divorce that the family had been left without money because Hunter spent ‘extravagantly’ on ‘drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations’. Hunter then took up with the widow of his brother Beau, who had died from cancer.
The Ukraine story probably won’t hurt Biden much. The details are complicated – Cockburn has given a much simplified account of the byzantine web of financial transactions and personalities surrounding Burisma. There’s no evidence of wrongdoing – just an opening for Biden’s opponents to ask awkward questions. And after Trump, who could say now that presidential candidates must, like Caesar’s wife, be above suspicion?