Hunter Biden could be collateral damage as Trump impeachment hearings begin
Democrats are not expected to approve every name on the GOP's impeachment probe witness list; Garrett Tenney reports from Washington.
The Trump impeachment hearings set to launch in full public view this week will give Democrats the chance to make the case for why President Trump should face the prospect of removal from office — but the reputation of Hunter Biden, whose dealings in Ukraine touched off the chain of events leading to this point, could also take a beating by the time the hearings are through.
Republicans signaled their intent to focus on the younger Biden when they sought him as a hearing witness in a letter sent over the weekend. Democrats are unlikely to approve the request, but his conduct may be an unavoidable topic in this week's hearings, given that witnesses' closed-door testimony to date has made clear some in the administration held concerns about his role on the board of Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma Holdings.
Even without Hunter Biden in the hearing room, Republicans will be eager to publicly pry into those concerns, if only to offer justification for the act at the heart of the impeachment inquiry: Trump's request for Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden's role, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden's connection to the firing of a prosecutor looking into the firm's founder.
"I think this is absolutely worth looking into," Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, of Florida, said Sunday on Fox News' "America's News HQ," regarding the Hunter Biden controversy. "Yet the mainstream media and the Democrats just want to say 'nothing to see here'."
One of the first impeachment witnesses, State Department official George Kent, could be pressed by Republicans about Hunter Biden's work. He is one of two witnesses scheduled for the first day of public hearings Wednesday.
Republicans are likely to zero in on his prior closed-door testimony, where he discussed his concerns about Biden’s work with Burisma, but said he was told it wasn’t appropriate to discuss the matter because of the health struggles of former Vice President Joe Biden’s eldest son, Beau, who died of brain cancer.
According to a transcript of his Oct. 15 deposition released last week, Kent said that in January or February 2015, he “became aware that Hunter Biden was on the board” of Burisma Holdings while his father was overseeing Ukraine policy as vice president to former President Barack Obama.
“I did not know that at the time,” Kent testified. “And when I was on a call with somebody on the vice president’s staff and I cannot recall who it was, just briefing on what was happening into Ukraine, I raised my concerns that I had heard that Hunter Biden was on the board of a company owned by somebody that the U.S. government had spent money trying to get tens of millions of dollars back, and that could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”
After discussing those concerns with Biden’s staff, Kent testified that “the message that I recall hearing back was that the vice president’s son Beau was dying of cancer and that there was no further bandwidth to deal with family-related issues at that time.”
Kent also told congressional investigators that he had repeatedly raised concerns with the Obama administration about Burisma, and also discussed the administration’s efforts to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin from his post. At the time, Shokin was investigating Mykola Zlochevsky, the former minister of ecology and natural resources of Ukraine— also the founder of Burisma.
Shokin was fired in April 2016, and his case was closed by the prosecutor who replaced him, Yuriy Lutsenko (though Ukraine is now reviewing such cases). Biden once famously boasted on camera that when he was vice president and leading the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy, he successfully pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin.
Biden allies, though, maintain that his intervention had nothing to do with his son, but rather was tied to corruption concerns.
Shokin was widely accused of corruption on both sides of the Atlantic. Biden has said that the international community was supportive in pushing for his firing. The former vice president has repeatedly defended himself and his son, saying that neither of them did anything wrong when it came to work in Ukraine.
"My son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong," Biden said during a Democratic primary debate in October. "I carried out the policy of the United States government, which was to root out corruption in Ukraine and that's what we should be focusing on."
He added: “Rudy Giuliani, the president and his thugs have already proven they are flat-out lying."
Hunter Biden has also defended his role, saying he did nothing improper, while acknowledging that it was "poor judgment" to have joined Burisma's board.
“I know I did nothing wrong at all. Was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is a swamp in many ways? Yeah,” the younger Biden said last month.
The Biden family actions in Ukraine, along with a separate issue connected to 2016 election interference, were at the core of what Trump wanted investigated out of Kiev. Trump's now-famous July phone call in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch the investigations prompted a whistleblower complaint and, in turn, the impeachment inquiry in the House. The president’s request came after millions in U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been frozen, which Democrats and some witnesses have cited as a quid pro quo arrangement.
The whistleblower’s complaint also stated their concerns that Trump was soliciting a foreign power to influence the 2020 presidential election — a concern that U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor directly testified to last month.
Taylor, during his closed-door deposition, testified that he “understood that the reason for investigating Burisma was to cast Vice President Biden in a bad light,” Taylor testified, adding that it would benefit “a political campaign for the reelection of President Trump.”
Taylor is expected to testify with Kent on Wednesday as part of the first round of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry.
Meanwhile, in a letter penned by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Republicans have also proposed Hunter Biden’s former longtime business partner, Devon Archer, as a witness, claiming he could help to understand “the nature and extent of Ukraine’s pervasive corruption” which could provide “information that bears directly on President Trump’s longstanding and deeply-held skepticism of the country.”
But according to formal rules for the impeachment inquiry passed last month, Democrats have final say over witnesses.
Even outside the impeachment inquiry process, GOP lawmakers are amplifying concerns over the younger Biden’s business dealings. Last week, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, taking issue with Biden and Archer’s roles on the board of Burisma.
“Emails recently obtained and made public through a FOIA request indicate that Burisma’s consulting firm used Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board to gain access and potentially influence matters at the State Department,” they wrote, further requesting State Department information related to Biden and Archer’s work.
They cited a 2016 email, first reported by Fox News contributor John Solomon, from a State Department official describing a request for a meeting from a Burisma representative -- the request name-dropped Hunter Biden.
“She noted that two high-profile U.S. citizens are affiliated with the company (including Hunter Biden as a board member)," the email said, saying the representative wanted to get "a better understanding of how the U.S. came to the determination that the company is corrupt" while arguing there was no evidence of corruption.
Meanwhile, on Friday former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovich is expected to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in public. Yovanovich has previously told congressional investigators as part of the probe that former Vice President Biden never "raised the issue of either Burisma or Hunter Biden" with her.