Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, along with congressional Democrats, would rather not waste their breath engaging with congressional Republican efforts to probe Biden’s relationships in Ukraine. They’d prefer to be talking about President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as opposed to amplifying a GOP search for wrongdoing by Biden in an area where it has, to date, been non-existent.
But the recent emergence of purported evidence in that probe has forced Democrats to more directly confront the GOP’s persistent campaign to damage Biden’s political standing. The information itself is somewhat snoozy. But where it’s coming from is what’s raising their alarm about the persistence of foreign efforts to influence the 2020 election.
In May, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician linked to Rudy Giuliani, Andrii Derkach, released something intended to be a Biden bombshell: a recording of a private conversation between the then-vice president and Petro Poroshenko, then president of Ukraine. The apparently heavily edited tape is meant to be damaging—and meant to echo Trump’s own quid-pro-quo with Ukraine—because Biden seems to tie $1 billion in aid to Ukraine to the firing of prosecutor Viktor Shokin.
Many in the U.S. and international community wanted to see Shokin gone over corruption concerns, but Trump allies insist Biden viewed him as an obstacle to his son’s business dealings in the country. The tape’s content hardly broke any ground that was not explored during Trump’s impeachment proceedings, where Hunter Biden’s service on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma was explored in depth, and no evidence of wrongdoing has been found by any investigatory body.
But another pro-Russia Ukrainian with links to Giuliani, Oleksander Onyschenko, then publicly claimed that more tapes were coming—and that they’d been sent to the White House and to the Republican leading the Biden probe, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is vowing to press ahead with subpoenas for Biden aides and Obama administration officials to produce a report on Biden and Ukraine by the fall.
Asked on Tuesday by The Daily Beast if his committee had received any Biden-Poroshenko tapes, like Onyschenko suggested, Johnson replied, “I'm not aware of every piece of information our committee has gathered. We're encouraging people to send us information, but then we fully vet it, we verify anything before we'd ever use it. And again, we take everything with a grain of salt we get from Ukraine. I think you have to.”
Some Democrats, however, read Johnson’s remarks as a conspicuously cagey response to the question of whether he was reviewing tapes pushed by Giuliani associates with ties to Russia. And privately, congressional Democrats familiar with Johnson’s probe felt, at the very least, a growing alarm that Johnson appeared to hold out the possibility that he was open to reviewing any recordings obtained through this channel.
To outside experts, it is deeply ironic that it is even remotely unclear whether an investigation ostensibly about uncovering undue foreign interference is itself being influenced by foreign actors.
“If the inquiry is about foreign influence and they won’t disclose foreign sources they’re using to uncover influence,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensics Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank, “then what the fuck are we doing here? It’s just not that hard.”
The new developments represent the latest turn in a twisting saga that, over the past year, has drawn in an eccentric cast of characters on both sides of the Atlantic, whose motivations aren’t always totally clear. What is clear to some, however, is that their effort to funnel material to Trump backers in Congress that broadly gestures at impropriety by Biden may form the basis of a fresh iteration of the Russian-driven effort to hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Indeed, a July 13 letter from top Democrats on Capitol Hill requesting a FBI briefing on election meddling cited a specific, urgent increase in foreign threat—an effort aimed in part, they wrote, toward “influencing congressional action.” Politico later reported that a key concern behind the Democrats’ letter was Johnson’s probe.
Now, the Biden campaign is loudly raising the stakes and drawing public attention to that investigation. “There is no ambiguity about what this means,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, about Johnson’s comments on Tuesday. Johnson, lodged Bates, is not only diverting his committee away from oversight of the COVID-19 response, is “not only engaged in total hypocrisy by virtue of his years-long support for the anti-corruption victory Vice President Biden delivered in Ukraine, and not only advancing the interests of Russia in a manner that is openly distressing to his Republican colleagues—but he has also revealed his complicity in a foreign attack on the very sovereignty of our elections."
Representatives for Johnson said to NBC News that it was false that Johnson had taken any “oppo” from the Ukrainians, and insisted Democrats and Ukrainians were not being truthful about the situation. And on Tuesday, Johnson bristled at any suggestion that he was any kind of vessel for a foreign power seeking to influence U.S. politics. “I'm trying to gather evidence, and again, I take it all through a huge grain of salt,” said Johnson. “I don't know what Democrats are talking about in terms of Russian disinformation.”
It is the case that Johnson, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have publicly stated their desire to obtain the very tapes in question, requesting call transcripts between Biden and Poroshenko, along with other records, in an April letter to the State Department. Derkach released one such recording himself within weeks of the letter being sent.
“I’m deeply alarmed that their letter may have sent a signal that leaking the contents of a secure call between Vice President Biden and the former president of Ukraine would be a welcome development,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, in a statement to The Daily Beast. “We must protect against the Senate serving as a conduit for future foreign election interference, and that is why our committees ought to be briefed by the FBI on these foreign individuals.”
The individuals who are linked to that conduit have records potentially worth exploring. Onyschenko, who told Russian media that more tapes were being sent to Johnson, fled Ukraine in 2016 following criminal charges that accused him of embezzling over $60 million from a Ukrainian state gas company and was stripped of his immunity as a member of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, where he was a member of the pro-Russian Party of Regions. Since his ouster, Onyshchenko has tried to reform his image and fought extradition from Spain back to Ukraine.
He also embarked on a small media war against his accused. Onyschenko published a book about former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko which cast Poroshenko as a villainous “tsar” bent on persecuting the exiled oligarch. In his author bio, Onyschenko notes he has "published several recordings of conversations with people from the president's closest circle, confirming corruption involving the head of state." Among Onyschenko’s claims was that Poroshenko shook down Mykola Zlochevsky, the founder of Burisma, for a bribe by trying to revoke the energy firm’s license and later sending prosecutors to investigate Burisma.
He tried to interest the FBI in some of those recordings following a media blitz about allegations of Poroshenko’s corruption, according to reporting from RFERL, but the Justice Department later said it had cut off contact with him following a brief meeting.
“There have been indicators that the Ukrainains involved in hawking this up—the Biden leak tapes, or any number of content that has been in this echo chamber—are aligned with the Kremlin, are more predisposed to be aligned with the Kremlin,” said the Atlantic Council’s Brookie. “They’re still a very potent force, and well-resourced for somewhat obvious, if opaque reasons.”
Largely, key Democratic senators have been circumspect in commenting on whatever impact Johnson’s probe may have had on the Democratic leaders’ recent call for an FBI briefing—but are clear on what they see as the political forces at work.
“There’s no doubt that Putin’s network of lackeys are trying to feed information to friendly voices in Congress,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “They see Congress as a mechanism to get their pro-Trump, anti-Biden narrative out into the public. There’s no doubt about that.”
Outside experts like Brookie see this as a building upon Russian efforts in 2016, which were primarily defined by the hacking and leaking of emails that damaged Clinton and Democrats. That kind of meddling is still a priority to foreign actors like Russia, he told The Daily Beast, but fueling an investigation to foment distrust among Americans in the system is an appealing target, too, even if it produces nothing.
“It’s not about the evidence,” said Brookie. “It’s about having the story exist.”