Ukraine reemerged in the 2020 presidential campaign with a Senate committee approving a subpoena in its Hunter Biden investigation and the leaking of years-old phone calls between his father, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Ukraine’s former president.
The Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee voted 8-6 along party lines this week to approve a subpoena for Blue Star Strategies, a Washington, D.C., firm known for its Democratic clients, related to its representation of Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company that gave Hunter Biden a lucrative position on its board from 2014 to 2019, while his father, former Vice President Joe Biden, was leading the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy.
President Trump and Republican allies have questioned why Burisma gave Hunter a high-paying position despite him having little experience in the energy sector and a well-documented problem with drug use. Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and other allies claim Joe Biden improperly used his position as vice president to pressure Ukraine to fire Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to protect his son from an investigation into Burisma. Democrats say the renewed focus on Burisma is part of an effort to dirty up the elder Biden as he is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
The former vice president threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees if Ukraine did not fire Shokin, who was criticized by the West for not doing enough to crack down on corruption. Washington’s ambassador to Kyiv, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and other allies had the same objective.
Biden says there is “no credibility” to the claims of corruption, but his critics have seized on video of a statement the former vice president made in January 2018, where he boasted to a Council of Foreign Relations panel that he ordered the Ukrainian government to fire Shokin or the White House would renege on a commitment to provide aid. “I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch. He got fired,” Biden said.
Biden’s version of the story compressed the timeline, which actually took place through a series of diplomatic moves and phone calls between September 2015 through May 2016. Some of the calls Biden had with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were leaked online this week.
The calls, which largely echo what Biden has openly claimed, were leaked by Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker with links to Russian intelligence, including attending the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow.
Derkach posted the calls on his YouTube page “NABU Leaks” — a reference to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine. The account has existed since March and possessed videos with a few hundred views, including interviews with Giuliani, but a few days ago, 14 videos in Ukrainian and 14 videos with English subtitles were uploaded, containing heavily edited discussions between Poroshenko and Biden, with former Secretary of State John Kerry also making an appearance.
In a Dec. 3, 2015, call, Kerry said, “Before Vice President Biden comes in, I just want to try to urge you to see if there is a way to get by this problem of replacing prosecutor general, you know, Shokin. Because to my perception, he’s blocked the cleanup of the Prosecutor General’s Office, and I know the vice president is very concerned about it.”
In a March 22, 2016, call, Poroshenko floated replacing Shokin with his eventual successor, Yuri Lutsenko. Biden said: “Tell me that there is a new prosecutor general, I am prepared to do a public signing of the commitment for the billion dollars. Again, I’m not suggesting that that’s what you want or don’t want, I’m just suggesting that that’s what we’re prepared to do.”
Two months later, in a May 13 call, Biden congratulated Poroshenko on tossing Shokin. “Congratulations on installing the new prosecutor general,” Biden said. “It’s going to be critical for him to work quickly to repair the damage that Shokin did. And I’m a man of my word. And now that the new prosecutor general is in place, we’re ready to move forward in signing that $1 billion dollar loan guarantee.”
The leaked 2016 calls also include discussions on Feb. 11, Feb. 18, Feb. 19, and Nov. 16, 2016. A Washington Examiner review found no mention of Burisma or Hunter Biden.
Poroshenko responded with outrage on his Facebook page, claiming that “the Kremlin’s fifth column started a large-scale operation against Ukraine.” He said, “Joe Biden is a friend and ally of Ukraine.” Poroshenko also suggested the leaks were part of a broader strategy by Russia to drive a wedge between Ukraine and the West and said the “main information sponsors of the provocation” were “three Russian channels” as well as wealthy Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomisky.
Earlier this week, BuzzFeed reported that Kolomisky was being investigated by a U.S. federal grand jury in Cleveland for allegedly laundering hundreds of millions of dollars through real estate holdings in the United States. Kolomisky, a powerful figure inside Ukraine and a patron of Ukraine’s current president, appeared to embrace a more pro-Russia tone last November after years of opposing Kremlin influence.
Don Trump Jr. tweeted in response to the edited May 13, 2016, call: “Yikes!!!! This is not a ‘perfect conversation.’”
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates told the Washington Post that “they heavily edited this, and it’s still a nothingburger that landed with a thud.”
The Senate’s subpoena this week called for Blue Star’s CEO Karen Tramontano and COO Sally Painter to testify about the documents the committee seeks. Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin insisted he’s “not focused on the Bidens” and argued that Burisma “sought to leverage Hunter Biden’s role as a board member of Burisma to gain access to, and potentially influence matters at, the State Department.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the Burisma-linked subpoenas.
“Nearly 100,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, yet the GOP Senate is wasting precious time and taxpayer dollars smearing the President’s political rivals,” the California Democrat said, adding, “These Republican subpoenas are a clear act of retaliation and political retribution intended to help the President keep his job.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the subpoena on Fox News, telling her that “you are not in a position to be lecturing us about what the appropriate use of Senate time is” after impeaching Trump last year.
“This is a legitimate oversight responsibility of the Senate there was a lot of apparent misbehavior going on in the opening of those investigations into Gen. Flynn and others,” the Kentucky Republican said. “And so, Ron Johnson, the head of Homeland Security, has got subpoenas out for Hunter Biden. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has laid out a series of hearings that people he wants to call to come testify.”
Burisma became a hot button issue last year when Trump seemed to reference it in a July 25 call with current Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. The call spurred a whistleblower complaint, which sparked Democrat-led impeachment proceedings in the House. In the call, immediately after Zelensky expressed interest in purchasing anti-tank weaponry, known as Javelins, from the U.S., Trump asked Zelesnky “to do us a favor though,” to look into a Crowd Strike conspiracy theory and any possible Ukrainian election interference in 2016. Trump urged Zelensky later in the call to investigate “the other thing,” referring to allegations of corruption related to Joe and Hunter Biden.
The Democrat-led House impeached Trump in December on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, but he was acquitted after a trial in the Republican-led Senate in February.