‘Lock her up’ redux? Biden’s son becomes the right’s new target
President Donald Trump’s political allies and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani have begun mobilizing to cast a legal cloud over Joe Biden and demanding that the Justice Department should open an investigation that could ensnare the former vice president as he launches his 2020 presidential bid.
“Biden conflicts are too apparent to be ignored and should be investigated quickly and expeditiously,” Giuliani tweeted Thursday morning.
The suggestion of illegal behavior and the specter of putting a political opponent behind bars sounded familiar to some senior campaign aides to Hillary Clinton, who believe Trump and his allies are running a version of their “Crooked Hillary” playbook from 2016.
“Last time, he had the right-wing conspiracy media to boost his chants of ‘lock her up,’ but this time he's going to actually weaponize the federal government against our nominee,” said Jesse Ferguson, a senior spokesperson on the Clinton campaign.
The attacks on Biden pivot off the lucrative business activities of his son Hunter during the Obama administration, most notably Hunter’s work on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma Holdings. As part of a long campaign to pressure Ukraine to combat corruption in 2015 and 2016, then-Vice President Biden leveraged financial aid to the country in order to persuade the government to fire the country’s top prosecutor.
That prosecutor, who had been roundly criticized by the international community for corruption, had been investigating Burisma at the time.
The unseemly optics of Biden’s son appearing to benefit financially from his father’s diplomacy were reported by the New York Times in 2015, though Biden’s office has long maintained that Hunter’s work had no bearing on the vice president’s approach to Ukraine. But the story has slowly reemerged over the past year — largely on the right and in conservative media — as a Biden presidential run appeared increasingly likely.
It exploded again on Wednesday night when the Times reported that Giuliani has met with Ukraine’s new prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, multiple times this year and has discussed the Burisma case with him and the prosecutor Biden helped oust, Viktor Shokin. Lutsenko reopened the investigation into Bursima earlier this year. Giuliani also told the Times that he has discussed the Biden-Ukraine case with Trump himself.
Giuliani has been suggesting that the Biden case must be investigated as part of the larger inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation, which may involve Ukraine. In a Fox News interview in early April, Giuliani spoke at length about the Biden case but said it was only because of broader questions about the Russia investigation.
“I'm bringing it up now because I want Ukraine — I don't care about Joe Biden. I want that Ukraine investigated,” he said. “Because I think in the Ukraine, we are going to find a lot of answers for how the Steele dossier was put together.” Attorney General William Barr told Congress this week that he is looking into the origins of the Russia investigation.
Asked whether Biden’s team was worried about a federal investigation, the former vice president’s campaign declined to comment. Trump has fixated on Biden over the past week, tweeting and retweeting about him far more than any other potential 2020 rival. That included a retweet of the Times' Ukraine story.
Hunter Biden could not be reached for comment, but he told the Times in a statement, “I have had no role whatsoever in relation to any investigation of Burisma, or any of its officers … I explicitly limited my role to focus on corporate governance best practices to facilitate Burisma’s desire to expand globally.”
The uproar hasn’t come as a total surprise to Biden world. In the run-up to his announcement, Biden fretted to confidants that Hunter would become a campaign-trail issue. Aside from critical reports concerning Hunter Biden’s business arrangements in Ukraine as well as China, he has been a tabloid favorite for his reported cocaine use and for leaving his wife for his brother’s widow, who is a friend of Michelle Obama, according to the New York Post, which also reported this week that Hunter Biden broke up with his brother’s widow just in time for his father’s campaign launch.
Some veterans of Democratic presidential campaigns see echoes of 2016 in the way the story had staying power in the conservative media ecosystem and then gradually reemerged into the mainstream.
“It's happening all over again,” tweeted former Obama aide Dan Pfeiffer. “Peter Schweizer does oppo research funded by conservative interests --> NYT credulously writes it up --> Trump and his allies bully the DOJ into investigating --> Trump claims his opponent is corrupt.”
Schweizer also responded to Pfeiffer on Twitter. "It's called investigative journalism not oppo research," he wrote. "What facts to do dispute?"
Schweizer, a conservative journalist, published “Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends” in 2018, a book looking at potential corruption of Republican and Democratic establishment figures. On the cover, Biden features prominently and is joined by Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell, Jared Kushner and John Kerry. The book dedicates significant portions to Hunter Biden’s private-sector work, including in Ukraine.
Schweizer is the author of the 2015 book “Clinton Cash” with the encouragement of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon. He is also the president of the Government Accountability Institute, a group funded by the Mercer family — which also bankrolled Breitbart at the time of “Clinton Cash.” The book was ultimately cited in a large investigation by The New York Times about a Russia uranium deal and a subsequent story about the Clinton Foundation’s work in Haiti.
“The Times’ hand-in-glove arrangement with Bannon's “Clinton Cash” project was one of the major press fiascoes of the 2016 cycle,” said the Clinton campaign’s Brian Fallon, who took the lead on responding to many of the “Clinton Cash” questions during the campaign. “It is mind-blowing and journalistically reckless that the Times is going down this road again. The Times is making itself an accomplice to a scheme whereby Trump likely intends to put his potential Democratic opponent under federal investigation for partisan reasons.”
Schweizer said he did not speak to the Times about the Biden story and defended his reporting to POLITICO. “Hunter Biden’s international business dealings — from China to Ukraine — deserve scrutiny,” he said. “The Times coverage is likely to make this topic a centerpoint of the 2020 campaign.”
And that may be true, at least on the right. The story spread far and wide across conservative media Thursday. One Breitbart headline read: “NYT Confirms Hunter Biden Was Paid by Ukrainians While Father Was VP.” One America News Networkpublished a story headlined “Giuliani: Biden’s Conflicts Of Interest, Alleged Corruption Must Be Probed.” Laura Ingraham had Schweizer on her Fox News show.
“The left is also blame-shifting on a story we’ve covered extensively on Ingraham Angle,” Ingraham. said. “The Biden family’s sketchy ties to Ukraine.”
The Kremlin-backed news agency RT also has been playing up the Biden-Ukraine connection, publishing a story in early April headlined “Joe Biden’s past strong-arming in Ukraine is coming back to haunt him.”
Photo: Joe Biden (middle), his son Hunter and his sister Valerie Biden Owens in 2016. Recent attacks on the former vice president pivot off the lucrative business activities of his son during the Obama administration. | Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo