WASHINGTON ― Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) does not like it when people suggest his big, wholly unproven allegation against President Joe Biden ― that the president received a $5 million bribe ― is just Rudy Giuliani’s leftovers, slightly warmed up in the microwave.
Back in May, when Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on Comer’s committee, suggested Comer was simply “recycling” allegations on Biden previously turned up by Giuliani, Comer offered some unfriendly advice for Raskin.
“Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Comer told HuffPost at the time.
The problem? Giuliani himself keeps going on television and blabbing about how good the meal was the first time around.
“If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t know about Joe Biden. I put out the original allegations of criminality in 2018,” Giuliani said Saturday on Newsmax TV. “If there was no Rudy Giuliani… there might not be this kind of problem for Joe.”
Giuliani’s comments reveal something the GOP is trying to keep hidden and something the average voter ― confused by an array of unfamiliar names, obscure officials and incremental advancements ― might miss: The bribery allegation against Biden that Republicans are now investigating is essentially the same thing President Donald Trump pushed against the Democrat four years ago, leading to Trump’s first impeachment.
“I spent over a year and a half in Ukraine trying to get this information on behalf of Trump, and we could never get it because it was obviously not true,” Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian American former business associate of Giuliani’s, told HuffPost.
Parnas is no longer in business with Giuliani and has become disillusioned with Trump. Last year, he was sentenced to prison for fraud and campaign finance violations committed while trying to help the ex-president and the former New York City mayor.
Comer insists he’s working with new material. He and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced in May that they had learned the FBI received a tip in 2020 that Biden asked for $5 million in exchange for an unspecified “official act” when he was vice president.
The two Republicans have gradually released more details about the alleged bribe, including that the FBI received the tip from a confidential human source who himself heard it from an executive at the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, where Hunter Biden was a board member from 2014 to 2019.
Hunter and Burisma, of course, are a familiar story. Trump and his allies have falsely claimed for years that then-Vice President Biden pushed for a Ukrainian prosecutor’s ouster in order to block an investigation of Burisma and protect his son.
Using Giuliani as his intermediary, Trump pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation of the Bidens, warning that the country wouldn’t receive millions of dollars in military assistance if its officials didn’t do what Trump wanted. Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry as soon as they learned of the scheme in 2019.
During depositions and public testimony as part of the impeachment process, a series of State Department officials told Congress that, yes, Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma looked bad.
George Kent, then the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the European and Eurasian Bureau, testified that he complained to the vice president’s office that Hunter Biden’s position on the Burisma board created the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“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 said.
Ultimately, however, Kent and others testified that Biden hadn’t twisted U.S. policy toward Ukraine because ousting the prosecutor in 2016 was in the interest of the U.S. and other Western countries. They also said the policy had been developed from the ground up within the State Department and that the prosecutor had actually been soft on corruption, including on embezzlement allegations against Burisma founder Mykola Zlochevsky.
Comer has not said what “official act” he believes Biden performed in exchange for the alleged bribe, but Republicans never accepted the professional consensus that there wasn’t anything fishy about Joe Biden and Ukraine.
“This is, for the most part, a rehashing of the now-debunked allegations first put forward by Rudy Giuliani and then promoted by Donald Trump and other Republican allies,” said Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who conducted witness interviews as a Democratic staff attorney during the impeachment hearings.
Alexander Vindman, director of the Institute for Informed American Leadership and former director for European affairs at the National Security Council under Trump, said he doesn’t expect anything new to come out.
“There is nothing further here than there was when Trump was in office,” Vindman, who was a key witness during the impeachment inquiry, told HuffPost. “We’re not going to learn anything new or different.”
Gordon Sondland, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the European Union and who was another star witness in the impeachment proceedings, said it was possible Comer had the goods, but he seemed skeptical.
“There appears to be something new,” Sondland said, referring to the bribe allegation, “but it could be someone simply flogging old facts and flogging them through a new prism.”
Sondland, for most of his life a hotelier, was the witness who clearly stated that there was a “quid pro quo” of Trump demanding dirt on the Bidens in exchange for military aid and a White House visit for Ukraine’s leader. He recently published a memoir that describes the experience of essentially buying his way into an ambassadorship and then finding himself at the center of a major political scandal.
Even for Sondland, someone who had no foreign policy experience, it was weird having Giuliani trying to run things behind the scenes.
“Giuliani should have never been involved in this in the first place,” Sondland told HuffPost. “There were proper channels to go through to investigate this corruption if in fact the United States felt that there were issues going on in Ukraine “
As for the supposedly new material, Sondland backed Comer’s call for the FBI to release the document memorializing the tip from its confidential human source about the Bidens in 2020. The FBI has refused to do so, telling lawmakers that such documents lack context and that making them public could endanger secret sources.
But the FBI did brief Raskin and Comer, and Raskin has asked the bureau to make the contents of the briefing public. He said officials explained that they interviewed their confidential human source after having received material from Giuliani earlier in 2020 and ultimately deemed it not worth investigating further. (The FBI has refused to say anything publicly about the case.)
Comer has said Raskin is lying, but the ever-helpful Giuliani offered some clarity during one of his many Newsmax TV interviews last month: “That document was discovered because it was at least one FBI agent that went out and tried to corroborate what I gave them,” Giuliani said.
Some of the material Giuliani fished out of Ukraine backfired on the former mayor. Parnas sent a series of written questions to Zlochevsky about his contacts with Biden, but Zlochevsky responded that he’d had none. A transcript of the interview became public only after Raskin released it last month.
“When Giuliani saw those responses, he was pissed off,” Parnas said. “He tried to bury them.”
Even if the Justice Department didn’t want to open a formal investigation, Republicans kept digging. Grassley and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) put out a series of reports examining Hunter Biden’s Burisma board membership as well as his receipt of payments from foreign nationals in other countries, especially from China. But their initial report in 2020 noted there was no clear quid pro quo: “The extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear.”
Using bank records and subpoenas, Comer has sought to build on the Senate reports, publishing a memorandum in May outlining a web of companies that allegedly funneled money from foreign sources to Hunter Biden and other family members. Much of the material seems to retread the ground covered by Senate Republicans and investigative journalists. The reports by Senate and House Republicans, for instance, both highlight transfers to and from Hunter Biden’s firm Owasco, such as an August 2017 payment for $100,000 from a Chinese energy conglomerate.
“It’s all the same transactions,” Johnson said. “Comer, maybe it sounds like he’s got some more information. We had the Treasury records through the end of 2018. He has more recent ones.”
Comer has said the payments show that Joe Biden is “compromised” with regard to both Ukraine and China, but the congressman has faced frustration from conservative media wanting him to deliver damning information linking Hunter Biden’s schemes to the president. So far any connection to the elder Biden has proved elusive.
Even if Republicans can’t nail the president, highlighting Hunter Biden’s apparent nepotistic profiteering has a clear political upside. Vindman said the idea that the vice president’s son can earn millions off his father’s name without relevant expertise validates people’s feelings that politics is corrupt.
“It takes what people suspect is going on, that differentiates them with the people that are more successful, and explains it,” Vindman said. “It’s the rich and the powerful, the wealthy, doing better than the rest of us because of an inside track.”
(Republicans choose to ignore the fact that Trump gave his daughter and son-in-law White House posts, pardoned political allies and never divested from his business, which received millions in payments from foreign sources during his time in office.)
Hunter Biden was discharged from the Navy in 2014 for failing a drug test. He has been open about his struggles with addiction, which he suggested spurred him to take high-paying jobs despite the headache they’d cause his family. Still, he has insisted he was qualified for the work.
“I was on about a dozen boards before I joined the board of Burisma,” Biden told NPR in 2021. “I had an expertise in corporate governance. I was a lawyer for Boies Schiller Flexner, which is one of the best law firms in the world.”
But Biden acknowledged that his famous last name helped him get gigs and that it was “certainly not wise” to have taken the Burisma job. He’s also facing legal fallout, having agreed to plead guilty for failing to pay what he owed in taxes on more than $1.5 million in income in 2017 and 2018.
The plea deal has only made Republicans more adamant that the Biden family is corrupt, and a whistleblower has claimed the key prosecutor on the case has been hobbled by the Justice Department. The prosecutor said he had full authority to bring charges however he wanted, but the whistleblower’s claim has put U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on a collision course with impeachment by House Republicans.
Johnson said anything coming out of Ukraine has to be taken with a grain of salt, but the truth of the bribery allegation is irrelevant. The bigger question for him, at this point, is the extent to which the Justice Department is protecting the Bidens.
“We’ve more than proven the corruption of the Biden family,” Johnson said. “Nobody should have voted for Joe Biden just based on what we uncovered in terms of a vast web of foreign financial entanglements.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.