Spinning The Press On Hunter Biden
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, announcing that the House of Representatives will pursue an impeachment inquiry, suggested that the probe will hinge in part on deceiving the American public about Hunter Biden’s foreign business ventures.
“President Biden did lie to the American people about his own knowledge of his family’s foreign business deals,” McCarthy said at a press conference. GOP lawmakers, he added, have “uncovered credible allegations into President Biden’s conduct.”
Such an investigation will likely force an examination of the public narrative regarding Hunter Biden’s consulting deals that go back at least a decade. During President Obama’s second term, then-Vice President Joe Biden was the administration’s point man on the nation’s policy toward Ukraine, a perch he used to urge the country to resist “the cancer of corruption” and enact sweeping ethics reforms.
At the time, some American journalists began to question whether the vice president’s stern message was undermined by his son Hunter Biden’s employment at the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, which was owned by a notorious local oligarch.
Emails on Hunter’s laptop reveal that the inquiries sparked an internal debate within his team of consultants and public relations agents. Ultimately, they devised a series of responses about Hunter’s work with Burisma that were, at best, misleading and, at worst, outright falsehoods.
Related: Did Hunter Biden Lie to His Own Memoir? by Paul Sperry
The Biden team has constructed a careful image of Hunter Biden’s business ventures, sometimes employing a sophisticated myth-making operation aided by allies in the media who rarely challenged or investigated their false claims. The laptop emails show that the team closely monitored critical reporting and pushed to shape coverage with reporters from the New York Times, Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press.
Their spin informed much of the ensuing coverage in the mainstream press, defusing the issue, even as President Trump and other Republicans insisted that Ukraine was a hotbed of Biden family corruption. Although he had no background in the energy field and little experience in corporate governance, Hunter Biden, who had a law degree, was appointed to the board of Burisma in May 2014.
It was revealed later that he was paid about $1 million per year – as was his business partner Devon Archer. In a press release announcing his appointment, Hunter Biden is quoted as saying, “I believe that my assistance in consulting the Company on matters of transparency, corporate governance and responsibility, international expansion and other priorities will contribute to the economy and benefit the people of Ukraine.”
That same month, journalist Michael Scherer reached out with questions about the arrangement.
Several consultants employed by Burisma, including Ryan Toohey of FTI Consulting and Heather King, a partner at the law firm Boies, Schiller, & Flexner, where Hunter worked as counsel, strategized over how to respond to Scherer, a reporter then with Time magazine who has since joined the Washington Post.
For the Scherer inquiry, laptop emails show, Hunter’s business associates settled on a strategy to deflect the most direct questions and obfuscate the true intent of Burisma’s attempts to sway U.S. government officials.
One of Hunter’s associates noted that they planned to respond to Scherer’s attempts to reach David Leiter, a former aide to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, hired to work for Burisma. The plan was to use an assistant to make Leiter “unavailable to comment, as opposed to some sort of statement that made it seem like we were unwilling or refusing to engage with the reporter.” Leiter, the emails show, was in fact available, but the public relations team wanted to keep him out of reach.
Scherer wanted to know why Burisma was on a hiring spree of well-connected American lobbyists, including Leiter and others. In response, Toohey planned to tell Scherer that the hired guns were simply working on issues related to energy independence, economic growth, as well as “transparency and good governance.”
In response to other questions posed by Scherer, Toohey prepared a statement claiming that Hunter Biden will “not be engaged with the U.S. government” on anything related to Burisma.
The response belied a detailed lobbying agenda spelled out in other emails.
Burisma had made clear that the company had hired Leiter, Hunter Biden, and other political operatives as part of a focused plan to obtain Burisma owner Mykola Zlochevsky a U.S. visa as well as to persuade American officials to intervene with Ukrainian government officials to drop an investigation of his business interests.
In a May 2014 email, Vadym Pozharskyi, a close adviser to Zlochevsky, explained to Hunter that he needed his “advice on how you could use your influence to convey a message/signal, etc. to stop what we consider to be politically motivated actions,” a reference to an ongoing investigation of Zlochevsky by Ukrainian prosecutors.
That month, Pozharskyi again wrote to Hunter, spelling out the “working plan for both FTI and David,” reiterating that he wanted the lobbyists to intervene against the “politically motivated proceedings initiated against us in Ukraine” and to overcome the “US entry ban” for the Burisma owner.
“The immediate plan is to reach out to the Energy and Ukraine desks, respectively, at State Dept,” wrote Heather King, the attorney working closely with Hunter Biden at the time. “That will include outreach to Carlos Pascual, he is the top US energy diplomat,” she added.
Scherer printed the denials, but to his credit, reported on the odd circumstances surrounding Biden’s hiring, at a time when Joe Biden was the Obama administration’s point person for Ukraine, with a special focus on energy policy in the region.
In many cases, Hunter Biden’s associates cast him as simply an auditor with a special focus on renewable energy sourced from geothermal vents. That was the strategy in response to an inquiry from Stephen Braun, a reporter for the Associated Press. “Mr. Biden will not lobby on behalf of Burisma. His role is to advise the company’s legal and compliance unit, including guidance on corporate governance standards.”
Behind the scenes, Hunter Biden’s team knew otherwise. In emails conferring over how to deal with Braun’s questions, one lobbyist reiterated the plan to provide Braun with “minimum information.”
Like many other articles from this time, the AP story focused on the conflict of interest issues, noting the denials around any lobbying with a degree of skepticism:
A former Washington lobbyist, the vice president’s son is effectively exempt from most rules that would require him to describe publicly the legal work he does on behalf of Burisma.
Hunter Biden will not lobby for the company, said Lawrence Pacheco, an official with FTI Consulting, a Washington government affairs company recently hired by Burisma.
Pacheco did not say whether Biden might oversee or advise on any future Burisma lobbying strategy in the U.S. Pacheco said the company “does not take positions on political matters.”
Braun could not be reached for comment. Scherer declined an opportunity to comment on the Hunter Biden emails. Biden, Toohey, and King did not respond to a request for comment.
However, the emails clearly indicate that substantial resources were allocated to managing both Burisma and Hunter’s personal image. Pozharskyi pointed out that Burisma had retained American consultants to reach out to “the most reputable European and American journalists/newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs,” while assistance was required to handle Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online platforms. Burisma, wrote Pozharskyi, sought a “detailed algorithm on how the Company should act in case of bad publicity.” The effort included scrubbing negative details from Hunter Biden’s Wikipedia, while bolstering the online credentials of Burisma, emails show.
A highly focused effort to monitor and shape news media coverage helped maintain the public profile. Even with relatively low visibility, independent media were closely watched. Hunter and his team monitored Vice News as well as the gadfly website ZeroHedge. In response to critical reporting from Vice, one colleague noted approvingly that the article was not being “reposted or republished” in Ukrainian media.
In July 2014, Toohey circulated an investigative piece I wrote for Salon about Hunter Biden’s hiring at Burisma, which noted that the vice president’s son had been retained amid a string of nepotistic hires likely aimed at influencing natural gas and energy policy.
In the article, I noted that Joe Biden had traveled to Ukraine to “announce a $50 million aid package that included technical support for increasing the country’s natural gas production – an investment that could bolster profits at Burisma Holdings, where his son is a director.” What was not known at the time, however, was that Hunter Biden was already working with a team of public affairs consultants to channel U.S. government technical assistance to his client.
The laptop emails show that even this relatively brief mention of Hunter Biden and a potential conflict of interest with his father raised concerns.
“All, please see below a piece that mentions Hunter’s appointment as part of a broader trend, mostly within the context of relatives of eleceds [sic] engaged to lobby for the energy industry,” wrote Toohey, attaching a copy of the text of my piece. But, he added, “This was a freelanced piece picked up in a number of web-based outlets including Salon, but nothing with significant reach.”
Pozharskyi replied that he had seen the piece earlier and “wanted to have a discussion in this regard.”
In some cases, the team celebrated media coverage that elevated its desired narrative. Politico reported Hunter’s hiring at Burisma and simply printed quotes from the company’s official statements:
“The company’s strategy is aimed at the strongest concentration of professional staff and the introduction of best corporate practices, and we’re delighted that Mr. Biden is joining us to help us achieve these goals,” Alan Apter, Burisma Holdings’ chairman of the board of directors, said in a statement, which was reported by The Moscow Times on Tuesday.
Biden, joining the board, will be in charge of the legal unit, the company said. He will also provide support for Burisma Holdings “among international organizations.”
Biden said the company will help strengthen Ukraine’s economy.
Pozharskyi circulated a link to the Politico article to Hunter and his associates, noting the “positive coverage.”
Hunter’s membership on the Burisma board received renewed attention in late 2015, as then-Vice President Biden was set to visit Ukraine where he planned to address the parliament on the need to adopt new reforms against a culture of corruption in the country. James Risen of the Times, among others, renewed inquiries directed toward Hunter and his associates about the rationale behind his appointment to the company, Burisma, and why the company appeared to be buying access to high levels of government.
In one email found on Hunter’s laptop, Risen asked, “What lobbying activities is the company engaged in the US?” among other questions to Hunter Biden. In response, a Burisma spokesperson straightforwardly claimed that “no one is lobbying on their behalf.”
The company’s lobbying efforts were not covered in the story ultimately published by the New York Times, which featured Risen’s piece on Dec. 8, 2015. The article included a statement from the Hunter Biden team, crafted by the strategy firm FTI Consulting, asserting that the company’s focus was on “corporate governance and transparency.”
Risen’s article did not address whether Hunter’s business career demonstrated such expertise or his lack of experience in the energy field. Although Risen identified Hunter as “a former Washington lobbyist,” he accepted the denial that no lobbying was involved.
In reality, just a month prior to the email exchange with the Times, Burisma, following Hunter Biden’s advice, had hired Blue Star Strategies, a Democratic lobbying firm, to influence the Obama administration. A copy of the agreement, belatedly filed with the Justice Department, reveals that the firm, which aided in lobbying State Department officials on Ukrainian energy policy, received a monthly retainer of $30,000.
Blue Star Strategies was even copied on the emails with the Hunter Biden team on its response plan to Risen.
Risen also allowed a Burisma spokesman to decline to state Hunter’s compensation while claiming it was “not out of the ordinary” for such board positions. It was later disclosed that he was paid about $1 million per year, which is far higher than the typical compensation. As a point of comparison, median annual compensation of board members at Fortune 500 companies is around $110,000.
Risen, now with The Intercept, did not respond to a request for comment.
Political operatives of all ideological backgrounds frequently manipulate public perception – often employing specialized “crisis communication” firms to suppress negative coverage and shape desired narratives. What is remarkable about the Hunter Biden episode is how successful it was, and how uncritically most media organizations treated this unorthodox relationship between a president’s son and a controversial foreign corporation.
In response to the Wall Street Journal, Toohey worked closely with Blue Star Strategies’ Sally Painter and Karen Tramontano to craft a message defusing questions around a conflicting message between Hunter and his father. They settled on a strategy of presenting the Ukrainian gig as perfectly “aligned” with an anti-corruption agenda, laptop emails show. The lobbyists suggested that they release a statement to the Journal claiming that Hunter’s work for the Ukrainian energy giant, to supposedly strengthen corporate governance, are “also goals the United States.”
The Journal printed the statement, attributing it to a spokesperson.
Such coverage – which suggested Hunter Biden had engaged in questionable but ultimately harmless behavior that did not involve, much less implicate, his father – set the narrative for most coverage in mainstream outlets. When President Trump told Ukraine’s president in 2018 that “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son” and asked him to look into Joe Biden’s demand that the prosecutor looking into Burisma be fired, Democrats moved to impeach him.
The Biden spin continued even after the New York Post published the first articles based on material from Hunter’s laptop in October 2020. The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, sought to discredit the New York Post’s reporting that Hunter Biden had arranged a dinner meeting between his Ukrainian associates at Burisma and his father when he served as vice president. At the time, the Biden presidential campaign claimed that it “reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time, and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.” Kessler reiterated this denial as though it were an established fact.
It turned out to be false. The July testimony by former Hunter Biden associate Devon Archer confirmed that Hunter Biden had arranged a secret dinner with his Ukrainian business partner and his father, as the New York Post had originally reported. The ongoing saga over the Washington Post’s role in discrediting the Biden revelations was detailed last month by RealClearInvestigation’s Paul Sperry.
Last month, Kessler “updated” his article to acknowledge this.
Also last month, Washington Post columnist Philip Bump, who has dismissed any hint of scandal regarding Biden business dealings, appeared on Live at the Table, a podcast hosted by Noam Dworman, the owner of New York City’s Comedy Cellar. The show went viral as Dworman challenged Bump’s claims that there was “no evidence” of wrongdoing by Joe Biden.
In a heated exchange, Bump conceded that Hunter Biden’s text messages that claim, “unlike pop, I won’t make you give me half your salary,” was one form of “evidence.” Moments later, Bump ended the interview and walked off the set.
The interaction provided a rare moment of visible accountability for the establishment press, which has largely followed the Biden spin for an entire decade on this issue.
Yet the White House is still hoping it can still instruct journalists on how to cover the story. Shortly after McCarthy’s impeachment inquiry announcement, President Biden’s White House staff circulated a memo, instructing media outlets on how to cover the news. In bold type, the memo claimed that the entire Hunter Biden conflict of interest scandal had been “refuted” and “debunked” – language that was adopted in media reports about the inquiry in Vox, NBC News and CNN.
Lee Fang is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. He writes an investigative newsletter on Substack via www.leefang.com.