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Here we go again: An explosive Hunter Biden laptop email needs context

Republican lawmakers expressed outrage last week after Fox News published a 2015 email chain from Hunter Biden’s laptop in which a Ukrainian energy company executive suggested that the “ultimate purpose” of Hunter’s hiring by the company was to shut down investigations of the company’s owner. The email exchange took place about one month before then-Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Ukraine with the express purpose of seeking the removal of the country’s top prosecutor.

Never mind that Tucker Carlson, then a Fox News host, devoted an entire show to this email in October 2020. “Did Joe Biden subvert American foreign policy to enrich his family?” Carlson asked.

The Hunter Biden saga apparently can be endlessly recycled for maximum impact.

“The calm, judicious, steady reveal of incredibly condemning evidence that clearly incriminates the Biden crime family will eventually alarm even the most ardent supporters” of Biden, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) told Fox last week.

However, working with our colleagues in Ukraine in 2019, we carefully documented the legal cases involving the energy company, Burisma, and its founder, Mykola Zlochevsky. The information continues to be relevant to assess whether the 2015 email chain provides evidence that Hunter Biden was acting to influence U.S. policy through his father at the time.

The email chain is part of 217 gigabytes of data on a hard drive purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden and obtained by The Washington Post from a Republican activist. A small portion of the data, including the chain, was verified by two security experts who examined it for The Post, so we are able to cite these emails and provide links.

On Nov. 2, 2015, Burisma executive Vadym Pozharskyi emailed Hunter Biden, who was a Burisma board member, and two of Hunter’s associates regarding the hiring of a U.S. public relations firm to bolster Burisma’s image.

“I would like us to formulate a list of deliverables, including, but not limited to: a concrete course of actions, incl. meetings/communications resulting in high-ranking U.S. officials in Ukraine (U.S. Ambassador) and in U.S. publicly or in private communication/comment expressing their ‘positive opinion’ and support of Nikolay/Burisma to the highest level of decision-makers here in Ukraine: President of Ukraine, president Chief of staff, Prosecutor General, etc.,” Pozharskyi wrote, using a nickname for Zlochevsky. “The scope of work should also include organization of a visit of a number of widely recognized and influential current and/or former U.S. policymakers to Ukraine in November aiming to conduct meetings with and bring positive signal/message and support on Nikolay’s issue to the Ukrainian top officials above with the ultimate purpose to close down for any cases/pursuits against Nikolay in Ukraine.”

After responding with an email suggesting he wanted “one more conversation” with Blue Star, the PR firm, Hunter Biden told Pozharskyi that he was “comfortable” with Blue Star and “you should go ahead and sign.”

Nine days later, the U.S. Embassy announced that the vice president would be traveling to Ukraine in December to meet with the Ukrainian president at the time, Petro Poroshenko, and members of parliament. Separately during this period, Blue Star indicated it was beginning to engage with U.S. and Ukrainian officials to shape perceptions of the company.

Here’s where the story gets complicated. A key purpose of Joe Biden’s December 2015 trip was to press Poroshenko to remove the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, by threatening to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees. Biden’s pressure eventually led to Shokin’s firing. But whether he was a shakedown artist operating at the behest of his son depends on whether Shokin was viewed as an impediment to investigating Burisma. Shokin has since claimed he was ousted because he was getting too tough on Burisma, but the available evidence shows the opposite is true.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that Biden, even though he was the Obama administration’s point person on Ukraine, did not have a free hand to implement policy as he wished. That’s not how it works in Washington. Still, it was probably ill-advised for Biden’s son to take a well-paying job with a company that intersected with Biden’s policy brief.

Biden was carrying out a policy developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The $1 billion in loan guarantees was essential leverage because the Ukrainian government needed the credit line to underwrite its budget. At stake was not just Shokin, who had become prosecutor general in February 2015, but a broad package of reforms, including a shake-up of the cabinet, sought by Western powers.

Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian foreign minister from 2014 until Aug. 29, 2019, told The Post in 2019 that the firing of Shokin was universally urged by Ukraine’s benefactors. “The demand came not just from the U.S., and not just from Biden,” he said. “I heard it in every meeting with the international financial institutions, especially the IMF and World Bank. It was not just Biden. Clearly.”

The U.S. ambassador at the time, Geoffrey Pyatt, along with Victoria Nuland, then the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, were key champions of the policy to seek Shokin’s removal at the day-to-day level. Shokin was considered a close associate of Poroshenko’s, so his removal required a lot of work. “He was completely Poroshenko’s creature,” recalled one former U.S. official involved in Ukraine policy.

Zlochevsky, meanwhile, had served in top Ukrainian government positions in the country’s energy sector and had transformed himself into one of the country’s richest men. In the process, he has faced years of legal troubles and allegations of corruption, which he has denied.

Pyatt kicked off the effort to oust Shokin with a speech on Sept. 24, 2015, in which he blasted the prosecutor’s office for “openly and aggressively undermining reform” and having “undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases.” Pyatt even mentioned a case involving Zlochevsky that he said had been bungled, allowing for a $23 million freeze in Zlochevsky’s assets to lapse in Britain. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 8, Nuland declared: “The Prosecutor General’s Office has to be reinvented as an institution that serves the citizens of Ukraine, rather than ripping them off.”

The email that Hunter Biden received from the Burisma executive was dated Nov. 2, 2015 — in other words, weeks after the administration’s policy push was launched. The train to remove Shokin had already left the station. (The laptop emails suggest that Burisma’s desire to hire the PR firm was prompted by Pyatt’s speech, as a Blue Star official offers “some intelligence on why the ambassador made his comments.”)

Vice President Biden followed up Pyatt’s and Nuland’s remarks with a visit to Kyiv. On Dec. 7, he held a news conference there with Poroshenko and announced $190 million to “fight corruption in law enforcement and reform the justice sector.” He made no public mention of the loan guarantees, but behind the scenes he had explicitly linked the $1 billion loan guarantees to reform efforts, including removing Shokin, according to a 2019 Fact Checker interview with Colin Kahl, Biden’s national security adviser in 2015. (Kahl is now undersecretary of defense.)

A day after the news conference, Biden addressed the Ukrainian parliament and decried the “cancer of corruption” in the country. “The Office of the General Prosecutor desperately needs reform,” he said.

Poroshenko was reluctant to act, however, and it took a January meeting between Biden and Poroshenko in Davos, Switzerland, and a number of phone calls in February between the men to ultimately seal the deal. Poroshenko announced on Feb. 19 that he had received Shokin’s resignation letter, pending parliamentary approval, and Shokin was finally dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament on March 29. The loan guarantees were signed on June 3, after a new prosecutor was in place.

Biden’s December trip also prompted unflattering news articles, such as in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, calling attention to the apparent conflict between Biden’s anti-corruption message and his son’s work on behalf of a Ukrainian oligarch under investigation for corruption.

Vitaliy Kasko, a Shokin deputy, told Bloomberg News in 2019 that he had pushed Shokin without success throughout 2015 to pursue the pending Zlochevsky case. But coincidentally, as Biden and Poroshenko hammered out a deal, it appeared as if the prosecutor general’s office was finally acting against Zlochevsky. News reports suggested certain assets — personal property attributed to Zlochevsky but legally owned by his family, including a mansion, a luxury car and plots of land — had been seized in February 2016.

But working with our colleagues in Ukraine, The Fact Checker determined this was largely a technical reinstatement of a court order that had been in place for at least a year. The case — which began in 2014 — was transferred in December 2015 away from Shokin’s oversight to another prosecutorial entity, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), which is funded with U.S. and European aid and received technical support from the FBI. Zlochevsky’s lawyers took advantage of the gap in oversight to win court approval to cancel the seizure, but after a public outcry, the order to seize assets was reinstated on Feb. 4. So what had appeared to be new action was in fact the status quo.

We interviewed Kahl and Anna Makanju, Biden’s senior policy adviser for Ukraine in 2016, as both had listened to the calls between Biden and Poroshenko in February. Both said neither Burisma nor Zlochevsky was ever mentioned. A reference to a private company such as Burisma would be “too fine a level of granularity” for a call between the U.S. vice president and the president of another country, Makanju told The Fact Checker.

Later in 2016, on Nov. 1, the seizure of Zlochevsky’s assets was canceled after the PGO closed the case, according to the Anticorruption Action Center (AntAC), a leading anti-corruption group in Ukraine. The case over time had been turned into an investigation of possible tax avoidance, and a Burisma subsidiary paid back taxes.

AntAC reported that prospects for success for the case against Zlochevsky were “low from the very beginning” because the statutes for “illicit enrichment” required a high burden of proof to show that assets were proceeds of bribery.

The available evidence shows that U.S. policy, executed but not developed by Joe Biden, operated independently of his son’s efforts to engage a PR firm to burnish Zlochevsky’s image. Biden’s efforts to oust the prosecutor only plausibly benefited Zlochevsky if Shokin had moved aggressively against Zlochevsky. But documents and interviews instead show Shokin had failed to act — which was a key reason the international community, led by the United States, sought his removal in the first place.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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