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Hunter Biden, the youngest son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, has become a familiar name in the 2020 presidential campaign. His ties to Burisma, a Ukraninan energy company, have inspired regular attacks from President Donald Trump and his allies.
Emboldening that offensive is a recent report from Republican senators on the Senate Finance and Homeland Security committees. The 87-page document titled "Hunter Biden, Burisma, and Corruption: The Impact on U.S. Government Policy and Related Concerns" is being used as evidence in a number of online claims. It also provided the backdrop for a controversial Oct. 14 New York Post story that seems to draw the former vice president even closer to the fray.
But there’s a lot we don’t know.
We wanted to take a closer look at the report and some of the claims it has generated.
Hunter Biden, a lawyer and former lobbyist, held a directorship with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings starting in 2014, when his father was vice president, as we’ve previously reported. A statement on the company’s website at the time said Hunter Biden would help the company with "transparency, corporate governance and responsibility, international expansion," and other issues, according to Reuters. Burisma also retained the law firm where Biden had been working, Boies Schiller Flexner.
Biden’s position with Burisma drew attention because the company was owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, who had been a minister under President Viktor Yanukovych, who was considered a pro-Russia force. Yanukovych fled to Russia in 2014 after being ousted during a popular revolution and was later convicted of treason for inviting Russia to invade Ukraine. After Yanukovych’s fall from power, Zlochevsky faced a variety of corruption-related investigations involving his business.
In May 2019, Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko told Bloomberg that "Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing."
On Sept. 23, 2020, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, released the report titled "Hunter Biden, Burisma, and Corruption: The Impact on U.S. Government Policy and Related Concerns." Johnson is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Grassley is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The report makes the case that Biden’s position with Burisma was problematic and interfered in "the efficient execution of policy with respect to Ukraine." The upshot: Hunter Biden and other members of the Biden family "cashed in on Joe Biden’s vice presidency."
However, the report also says that "the extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear." The report characterizes at length what it calls the "awkwardness" created by Hunter Biden’s connection to Burisma and its potential for conflict of interest for the vice president. However, the report is also peppered with allegations that rely on what it says are undisclosed, confidential documents.
Summarizing the report’s findings, The New York Times wrote that the report did not present evidence of improper influence or wrongdoing by Joe Biden. Politico described the report as "largely a compilation of previously public information … as well as news articles and strongly worded insinuations with little evidence to back them up."
"The report leans heavily on 100 citations from 14 ‘confidential documents in lengthy passages detailing Hunter Biden’s financial connections to foreign nationals," Politico said. "The documents are actually Suspicious Activity Reports kept by the Treasury Department, in which financial institutions flag transactions but don’t verify whether any wrongdoing has occurred."
Democrats have accused Johnson and Grassley of spreading Russian disinformation and using the investigation, which started in 2019, to counter the House’s impeachment of Trump.
The Republican senators, meanwhile, have said it was a legitimate probe into potential conflicts of interest connected to Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board.
During a press conference on Sept. 27, Trump said that Hunter Biden got $3.5 million "from the wife of the mayor of Moscow," a claim that stemmed from the Senate report. The report said Hunter Biden and his business partner Devon Archer had a financial relationship with Elena Baturina, the widow of a man who had been mayor of Moscow until 2010.
"Feb. 14, 2014, Baturina wired $3.5 million to a Rosemont Seneca Thornton bank account for a ‘Consultancy Agreement,’" the report says. "Rosemont Seneca Thornton is an investment firm co-founded by Hunter Biden."
The report also said that Rosemont Seneca Thorton served as a pass-through for Baturina’s investments in a Chinese-based tech start-up in Buffalo, N.Y.
The claim relies on undisclosed documents, and the report adds no more details about the significance of any of these transactions, although it notes that Baturina appeared to have benefited from her husband’s allegedly corrupt practices.
Hunter Biden’s lawyer George Mesires said Biden did not get $3.5 million.
"Hunter Biden had no interest in and was not a co-founder of Rosemont Seneca Thornton, so the claim that he was paid $3.5 million is false," Mesires said in an email. He did not respond to a request for documents showing that Hunter Biden was not a co-founder. Republican Senate staffers similarly did not respond to requests for proof that Biden had a stake in Rosemont Seneca Thornton.
Among the Senate report’s key findings is the suggestion that Hunter Biden paid women involved in a prostitution or human trafficking ring.
"Hunter Biden paid nonresident women who were nationals of Russia or other Eastern European countries and who appear to be linked to an ‘Eastern European prostitution or human trafficking ring,’" the report says.
A Facebook post took that information one step further and alleged that "Hunter Biden has allegedly been linked to the sex traficking ring."
This post was among several similar ones flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
Like the previous claim about Hunter Biden collecting $3.5 million from the wife of a former Russian mayor, this one is underpinned by undisclosed documents, and the authors of the Senate report lean heavily on language that couches the allegation in language like "appear to be," "alleged," "possible" and "potential."
The report cites "questionable financial transactions involving Hunter Biden, other members of the Biden family, and their associations with foreign nationals" from questionable backgrounds "that have been identified as being consistent with a range of criminal activities, including but not limited to organized prostitution and/or human trafficking."
There is a footnote at this point in the report that says "there is extensive reporting concerning Hunter Biden’s alleged involvement with prostitution services."
However, the report then says that "records on file with the committee do not directly confirm or refute these individual reports."
"They do confirm that Hunter Biden sent thousands of dollars to individuals who have either: 1) been involved in transactions consistent with possible human trafficking; 2) an association with the adult entertainment industry; or 3) potential association with prostitution," the report says. "Some recipients of those funds are Ukraninan and Russian citizens. The records note that it is a documented fact that Hunter Biden has sent funds to non-resident alien women in the United States who are citizens of Russia or Ukraine. The records also note that some of these transactions are linked to what ‘appears to be an Eastern European prostitution or human trafficking ring.’"
It’s not clear whom or what records the report is quoting here.
The report makes no other mentions of human trafficking or prostitution.
We asked the homeland security committee to show us the records cited in the report but did not receive a response. Biden’s campaign also did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked about the human trafficking allegations on a radio show on Sept. 23, Johnson didn’t provide further evidence to support the report’s claims.
"We don’t have a great deal of information on it," he said.
News coverage of the report varied.
Fox News put the claim that Hunter Biden paid women linked to prostitution or human trafficking in a headline but noted that the "report also said it could not confirm allegations."
"The GOP report did not link (Hunter) Biden in any way to trafficking but suggested that he potentially paid prostitutes, presumably without knowledge, who may have stemmed from such rings," Fox said.
In 2017, Kathleen Buhle Biden, then the estranged wife of Hunter Biden, alleged in a court filing that Biden had spent "extravagantly on his own interests" including "drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts to women with whom he has sexual relations," according to the Associated Press.
According to a 2019 New Yorker profile, Hunter Biden denied hiring prostitutes.
On Oct. 14, the New York Post published a front-page story with a headline that seemed to promise proof of Joe Biden’s wrongdoing in connection with his son: "Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad."
The article relies on information from a computer hard drive that the tabloid said it received from Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Also according to the New York Post, a computer repair shop owner in Delaware said he copied the hard drive from a water damaged laptop that was brought into his shop and never retrieved.
We weren’t able to verify the email cited in the article. The email correspondence disclosed in the story didn’t contain any metadata — such as a message ID or a timestamp — that would help establish its authenticity, nor did its content establish that a meeting actually happened. According to the New York Post, the email from an advisor to Burisma’s board to Hunter Biden read, "Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent (sic) some time together. It’s realty (sic) an honor and pleasure."
The Senate report also doesn’t mention such a meeting.
Joe Biden has denied intervening in Hunter Biden’s business interests, and said that he has never spoken to his son about them.
"They never had a meeting," a spokesman for the campaign told PolitiFact.
On Oct. 18, the New York Times reported that some New York Post reporters withheld their byline from the story over concerns about the article’s credibility.
Five Post staff members told the Times that "many" Post staffers questioned whether the Post had adequately verified the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents, according to the Times. They also raised concerns about the reliability of its sources and its timing.
PolitiFact senior correspondents Jon Greenberg and Louis Jacobson as well as contributing writer Thomas Kertscher contributed to this report.
Facebook post, Sept. 24, 2020
Fox News, GOP report claims Hunter Biden paid women linked to ‘prostitution or human trafficking ring,’ Sept. 26, 2020
Vicki McKenna, Ron Johnson interview, Sept. 23, 2020
The New York Times, Republican Inquiry Finds No Evidence of Wrongdoing by Biden, Sept. 23, 2020
Politico, GOP senators’ anti-Biden report repackages old claims, Sept. 23, 2020
The Associated Press, Estranged wife: Biden son wasted money on drugs, prostitutes, March 2, 2017
The New Yorker, Will Hunter Biden jeopardize his father’s campaign, July 1, 2019
The Washington Post, GOP senators’ report calls Hunter Biden’s board position with Ukraine firm ‘problematic’ but doesn’t show it changed U.S. policy, Sept. 21, 2020
PolitiFact, Examining Trump claim that Hunter Biden got $3.5 million from wife of Moscow ex-mayor, Sept. 29, 2020
PolitiFact, A look behind the NY Post headline about Joe Biden and a Ukraine meeting, Oct. 15, 2020
PolitiFact, Trump’s Ukraine call, a whistleblower and the Bidens: What we know, what we don’t, Sept. 23, 2020
New York Post, Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad, Oct. 14, 2020
The New York Times, Ukraine’s ex-president is convicted of treason, Jan. 24, 2019
The New York Times, New York Post published Hunter Biden report amid newsroom doubts, Oct. 18, 2020