Breaking: Impeachment witness says he tried to warn about Ukraine influence — with Biden

Impeachment, as it turns out, cuts any number of ways. In their attempt to prove that Donald Trump tried to strongarm Ukraine into digging up dirt on Joe Biden, House Democrats dug some up on their own. The Washington Post reports that a career State Department officer tried to warn officials in the Obama administration about the conflict of interest that Hunter Biden’s work created in Ukraine and with efforts to target corruption. When those warnings reached the Vice President’s office in early 2015, Biden’s team shut them down:

A career State Department official overseeing Ukraine policy told congressional investigators this week that he had raised concerns in early 2015 about then-Vice President Joe Biden’s son serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company but was turned away by a Biden staffer, according to three people familiar with the testimony.

George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state, testified Tuesday that he worried that Hunter Biden’s position at the firm Burisma Holdings would complicate efforts by U.S. diplomats to convey to Ukrainian officials the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality rules surrounding the deposition.

Kent said he had concerns that Ukrainian officials would view Hunter Biden as a conduit for currying influence with his father, said the people. But when Kent raised the issue with Biden’s office, he was told the then-vice president didn’t have the “bandwidth” to deal with the issue involving his son as his other son, Beau, was battling cancer, said the people familiar with his testimony.

The timing on this is very instructive. Supposedly Biden didn’t have the “bandwidth” in early 2015 to deal with the problem, but by late 2015 Biden was all over it — by his own admission. Last year, Biden bragged to the Council of Foreign Relations about how he’d used the leverage of a billion dollars in US aid in December 2015 to get then-Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko to fire his general prosecutor, over Biden’s dissatisfaction with progress in anti-corruption probes:

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BIDEN: Well, I was, not I, but it just happened to be that was the assignment I got. I got all the good ones. And so I got Ukraine. And I remember going over convincing our team, our, others to convincing that we should be providing for loan guarantees. And I went over, try to guess the 12th, 13th time to Kiev, and I was going to, supposed to announce that there was another billion dollar loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor, and they didn’t. So they said they had, they were walking out to a press conference, and I said no, I said I’m not going to, we’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said you have no authority. You’re not the president. The president said. I said call him. I said I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. I said you’re not getting the billion, and I’m going to be leaving here, and I think it was what, six hours. I looked. I said I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a bitch. He got fired.

According to Kent’s testimony, this was months after the State Department career officer warned that Biden’s involvement would create a conflict of interest. Biden’s office, at the very least, would have known that the issue had already come up in the US diplomatic corps, and why wouldn’t it? Biden was pressing to get a prosecutor fired over corruption while his son held a very high-profile position for one of the oligarchs suspected of corruption. Regardless of what Biden intended, what were the Ukrainians supposed to think about Biden’s pressure and his leveraging of US aid over the issue? It’s all but guaranteed that the message wasn’t “please go after my ne’er-do-well son‘s patron.”

Furthermore, the Post interviewed an anonymous Biden aide from that period, who largely defends the former VP on charges of conflicts of interest. However, he also throws some cold water on the excuse Kent was given at the time:

The aide said that Joe Biden was dealing with a lot during Beau Biden’s bout with cancer, but that it had a minimal impact on his work.

“Day to day the vice president was at work and he was pretty focused,” the aide said. “Does that mean it’s inconceivable that someone said, ‘Hey look it’s not the time to raise a family issue?’ I guess it’s conceivable. But I never saw evidence he wasn’t capable of doing the VP role and dealing with his family at the same time.”

In other words, Kent got pushed aside because no one cared at the time about quid pro quos and the appearance of impropriety. Just three years earlier, Biden’s boss had gotten caught on camera and a live mic asking Dmitri Medvedev to back off on contentious issues until after his 2012 election, when he would have “more flexibility” to meet the Russian positions. Medvedev had then helpfully offered to transmit that request to Putin. In 2015, leverage and quid pro quos were apparently all the rage.

House Democrats stepped onto a land mine with Kent. They may step a little more carefully after this, but it raises questions about what kind of witnesses Senate Republicans might call when the trial begins after impeachment — or maybe if after this. George Kent’s little bombshell should have Nancy Pelosi reconsidering whether the alea has truly been iacta’d, and just how much she’s willing to expose the previous administration’s own peccadilloes in their fervor to get revenge over the 2016 election.

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