Did impeachment witnesses say Hunter Biden should be ‘looked at’?
—Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Dec. 1, 2019
Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, defended President Trump’s efforts to urge the Ukrainian president to investigate a potential 2020 rival, former vice president Joe Biden, as a responsible attempt to investigate corruption overseas. We’ve documented before that administration claims about being concerned about corruption in Ukraine don’t add up, given that the Defense Department had already certified Ukraine as meeting corruption targets to receive the military aid that Trump blocked.
But now we are interested in Collins’s assertion that witnesses in the impeachment inquiry had agreed that Hunter Biden’s association with Ukraine’s largest private gas company, Burisma, should be “looked at.” We had watched the hearings and read the deposition transcripts — and that did not ring a bell. His comment also attracted the attention of other reporters. We were especially taken with Collins’s reference to “a massive amount of money” earned by Hunter Biden — earnings that were news to many witnesses. That sounded a lot like the probes that lawmakers such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have said are necessary.
Jessica Andrews, communications director for House Judiciary Committee Republicans, said that Collins was not saying that witnesses said Biden’s contract with Burisma should be investigated, only that they said there was a perception of a conflict of interest.
As we’ve noted, one can certainly raise questions about Hunter Biden’s judgment in joining Burisma’s board in 2014, at a time his father had a high-profile role in working with Ukraine’s government. It has certainly sparked damaging headlines.
Trump has falsely claimed that the vice president pressured the Ukrainian government to fire Viktor Shokin, the top Ukrainian prosecutor, because he was investigating Burisma. In fact, the opposite is true — Biden was carrying out administration policy, coordinated with European allies, to press for the removal of Shokin because he was not investigating corruption. In September 2015, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt publicly criticized Shokin’s office for thwarting a British money-laundering probe into Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky.
During the impeachment hearings, and in earlier depositions, Republican lawmakers regularly brought up Hunter Biden. But they never received any answers suggesting a need for an investigation into his actions, specifically the money he earned as a board member. The best they received was a vague concern, offered by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, about a “possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest.”
Kent had disclosed during his deposition that in early 2015, when he was deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, he had had a phone conversation with a Biden aide and had “raised my concerns” that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma. “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.
Another witness, former special envoy Kurt Volker, would only offer that it was appropriate for the Ukrainian government to investigate possible misdeeds by Ukrainian citizens; he did not suggest that an investigation of Hunter Biden was necessary.
“I think that there is a problem with perceptions of conflicts of interest and ethics for any child of any senior official to be involved in anything that their parents are involved in, period,” said Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia specialist, in her deposition. “So this goes not just to Hunter Biden and Vice President Biden but across the board.”
We reviewed all of the hearings and relevant depositions. Here are the key exchanges that concerned Hunter Biden.
Nov. 13, 2019, hearing
STEVE CASTOR, MINORITY CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE COUNSEL: OK, so Hunter Biden’s added to the board of Burisma. Now, do you think that creates a problem that Burisma may be adding people to its board for protection purposes?
GEORGE KENT, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR EUROPEAN AND EURASIAN AFFAIRS: Sir, I work for the government. I don’t work in the corporate sector, and so I believe that companies build their boards with a variety of reasons, not only to promote their business plans.
CASTOR: OK, but you know Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma’s board of directors. At some point you testified in your deposition that you expressed some concern to the Vice President’s Office. Is that correct?
KENT: That is correct.
CASTOR: And what did they do about that concern that you expressed?
KENT: I have no idea. I reported my concern to the Office of the Vice President.
CASTOR: OK. And that was the end of it, nobody…
KENT: Sir, you would have to ask people [who] worked in the Office of the Vice President during 2015.
CASTOR: But after you expressed the concern of a perceived conflict of interest at the least, the vice president’s engagement in Ukraine didn’t decrease, did it?
KENT: Correct. Because the vice president was promoting U.S. policy objectives in Ukraine.
CASTOR: And Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma didn’t cease, did it?
KENT: To the best of my knowledge, it didn’t. And my concern was that there was the possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest.
Nov. 15 hearing
REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-N.Y.): But let’s take a first — a step back. The first time you personally became aware of Burisma was actually when you were being prepared by the Obama State Department for your Senate confirmation hearings. And this was in the form of practiced questions and answers, this was your deposition. And you testified that in this particular practice Q&A with the Obama State Department, it wasn’t just generally about Burisma and corruption, it was specifically about Hunter Biden and Burisma. Is that correct?
MARIE YOVANOVITCH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Yes, it is.
STEFANIK: And the exact quote from your testimony, Ambassador, is, quote, “The way the question was phrased in this model Q&A was, what can you tell us about Hunter Biden’s, you know, being named to the board of Burisma?” So for the millions of Americans watching, President Obama’s own State Department was so concerned about potential conflicts of interest from Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma that they raised it themselves while prepping this wonderful ambassador nominee before her confirmation.
REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE, (R-TEX.): You understood from Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent’s testimony, as it’s been related to you, that he testified a few days ago, do you understand that that arrangement, Hunter Biden’s role on the Burisma board, caused him enough concern that, as he testified in his statement, that “in February of 2015, I raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest.” He went on to talk about the Vice President’s responsibilities over the Ukraine and — or over Ukraine — Ukrainian policy as one of those factors. Do you recall that?
RATCLIFFE: Do you agree with that?
RATCLIFFE: That it was a legitimate concern to raise?
YOVANOVITCH: In that it could raise the appearance of a conflict of interest.
First Nov. 19 hearing
CASTOR: And are you aware of any specific experience Hunter Biden has in the Ukrainian corporate governance world?
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, DIRECTOR FOR EUROPEAN AFFAIRS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: I don’t know much about Mr. Hunter Biden.
STEFANIK: You are aware that Hunter Biden did sit on the board of Burisma at this time?
VINDMAN: I am.
STEFANIK: Well I know — I know that my constituents in New York 21 have many concerns about the fact that Hunter Biden, the son of the vice president, sat on the board of a corrupt company like Burisma. The Obama Administration, State Department was also concerned and yet Adam Schiff refuses to allow this committee to call Hunter Biden despite our requests. Every witness who has testified and has been asked this has answered yes. Do you agree that Hunter Biden on the board of Burisma has the potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest?
VINDMAN: Certainly the potential, yes.
STEFANIK: And Ms. Williams?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS, SPECIAL ADVISER FOR EUROPE AND RUSSIA, OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
Second Nov. 19 hearing
DANIEL GOLDMAN, MAJORITY DIRECTOR OF INVESTIGATIONS: You understood the relationship between Hunter Biden and Burisma?
AMBASSADOR KURT VOLKER, FORMER U.S. SPECIAL ENVOY TO UKRAINE: I knew that he had been a board member of the company, yes.
CASTOR: Subsequent to those facts and the bribe being paid, the Burisma company wanted to improve their image and added some folks to their board, including the president of Poland, including Hunter Biden. Are you familiar with that?
VOLKER: That’s what I understand.
CASTOR: And to the extent the Ukrainians, the folks affiliated with Burisma wanted to hire those people for their board for protection purposes so they could continue to engage in misdeeds, if that was a fact worth investigating, you certainly would be supportive of Ukrainians trying to get to the bottom of that, correct?
VOLKER: Well, I can’t speculate as to any of the specifics of what was motivating Burisma or not. Ukrainian government authorities investigating possible corruption by Ukrainian citizens is a perfectly appropriate thing…
VOLKER: … for them to do.
Nov. 20 hearing
STEFANIK: Do you believe that Hunter Biden having a position on the board of Burisma has the potential appearance of a conflict of interest?
AMBASSADOR GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: I don’t want to characterize Hunter Biden’s service on the board one way or another. I just don’t know enough.
STEFANIK: So you disagree with every other witness that has answered yes, there is a potential appearance of a conflict of interest.
SONDLAND: Well, you asked if there was a conflict or an appearance …
STEFANIK: A potential — my quote was the potential appearance of a conflict of interest.
SONDLAND: I didn’t hear the word appearance. Well, clearly it’s an appearance of a conflict.
REP. DENNY HECK (D-WASH): You’ve testified here today that you also came to believe that the request for investigations under Burisma was in fact a request to investigate the Bidens, both former Vice President and Hunter. And indeed, the transcript of the July 25 call makes specific reference to that, including Hunter Biden. And today even the Ranking Member said we could clear all this up if we could have Hunter Biden, and I have a simple question — what Ukrainian law did Hunter Biden violate?
SONDLAND: I’m not aware.
HECK: What evidence is there that he may have violated any Ukrainian law?
SONDLAND: I’m not aware.
“Ranking Member Collins meant what he said: People have testified that the relationship between Hunter Biden and Burisma needed to be looked at. At the very least, Hunter Biden’s position on the board of Burisma deserved consideration,” Andrews, the communications director for House Judiciary Committee Republicans, said. “The ranking member didn’t prescribe the who, what, or when of that consideration. Instead, he took his cue from testimony offered by Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who agreed that the matter needed to be addressed, specifically by the Office of Vice President Biden. Mr. Kent himself raised his ‘concern that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest’ with the Vice President’s office. Ambassador Yovanovitch agreed with Mr. Kent’s action. They agreed that the issue was concerning enough that it needed to be looked into, and Ranking Member Collins heard that concern.”
The Pinocchio Test
The record shows that no witnesses in the impeachment inquiry have said that Hunter Biden’s involvement in Burisma, specifically the money he earned as a board member, was worthy of investigation. But Collins’s spokeswoman says that he did not say or suggest that — he was only referring to phrases such as a “possibility of a perception of a conflict of interest.”
We’re not going to put words in Collins’s mouth and so we will leave this unrated. Readers can draw their own conclusions.