Two years after leaving office, Joe Biden couldn’t resist the temptation last year to brag to an audience of foreign policy specialists about the time as vice president that he strong-armed Ukraine into firing its top prosecutor.
In his own words, with video cameras rolling, Biden described how he threatened Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in March 2016 that the Obama administration would pull $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees, sending the former Soviet republic toward insolvency, if it didn’t immediately fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.
“I said, ‘You’re not getting the billion.’ I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,’” Biden recalled telling Poroshenko.
“Well, son of a bitch, he got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time,” Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations event, insisting that President Obama was in on the threat.
Interviews with a half-dozen senior Ukrainian officials confirm Biden’s account, though they claim the pressure was applied over several months in late 2015 and early 2016, not just six hours of one dramatic day. Whatever the case, Poroshenko and Ukraine’s parliament obliged by ending Shokin’s tenure as prosecutor. Shokin was facing steep criticism in Ukraine, and among some U.S. officials, for not bringing enough corruption prosecutions when he was fired.
But Ukrainian officials tell me there was one crucial piece of information that Biden must have known but didn’t mention to his audience: The prosecutor he got fired was leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings that employed Biden’s younger son, Hunter, as a board member.
U.S. banking records show Hunter Biden’s American-based firm, Rosemont Seneca Partners LLC, received regular transfers into one of its accounts — usually more than $166,000 a month — from Burisma from spring 2014 through fall 2015, during a period when Vice President Biden was the main U.S. official dealing with Ukraine and its tense relations with Russia.
The general prosecutor’s official file for the Burisma probe — shared with me by senior Ukrainian officials — shows prosecutors identified Hunter Biden, business partner Devon Archer and their firm, Rosemont Seneca, as potential recipients of money.
Shokin told me in written answers to questions that, before he was fired as general prosecutor, he had made “specific plans” for the investigation that “included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden.”
He added: “I would like to emphasize the fact that presumption of innocence is a principle in Ukraine,” and that he couldn’t describe the evidence further.
William Russo, a spokesman for Joe Biden, and Hunter Biden did not respond to email messages Monday seeking comment. The phone number at Rosemont Seneca Partners LLC in Washington was no longer in service on Monday.
The timing of Hunter Biden’s and Archer’s appointment to Burisma’s board has been highlighted in the past, by The New York Times in December 2015 and in a 2016 book by conservative author Peter Schweizer.
Although Biden made no mention of his son in his 2018 speech, U.S. and Ukrainian authorities both told me Biden and his office clearly had to know about the general prosecutor's probe of Burisma and his son's role. They noted that:
Hunter Biden's appointment to the board was widely reported in American media;
The U.S. embassy in Kiev that coordinated Biden's work in the country repeatedly and publicly discussed the general prosecutor's case against Burisma;
Great Britain took very public action against Burisma while Joe Biden was working with that government on Ukraine issues;
Biden's office was quoted, on the record, acknowledging Hunter Biden's role in Burisma in a New York Times article about the general prosecutor's Burisma case that appeared four months before Biden forced the firing of Shokin. The vice president's office suggested in that article that Hunter Biden was a lawyer free to pursue his own private business deals.
KYIV, UKRAINE - JANUARY 16: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (R) and US Vice President Joe Biden (L) shake hands during a press conference to discuss the outcome of official talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, 16 January 2017. Biden is in Ukraine for a brief visit to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. (Photo by Vitaliy Holovin/Corbis via Getty images)