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How a Bill Barr ‘assignment’ led to a Biden impeachment effort based on a lie

“We were not making a representation that everything in this 1023 [FBI report] was credible.”

— Former U.S. attorney Scott Brady in an interview with congressional investigators, Oct. 23

The indictment of Alexander Smirnov, a trusted FBI confidential source, on charges of lying about an alleged Ukrainian bribery scheme involving President Biden and his son Hunter is a new twist in a saga that has its roots in a project launched by then-Attorney General William P. Barr soon after President Donald Trump was impeached for the first time.

Trump was impeached Dec. 18, 2019, charged with pressuring the Ukrainian government to turn up dirt on Biden, potentially his most formidable rival in 2020. Sixteen days later, on Jan. 3, 2020, Barr tasked Brady, a U.S. attorney in Western Pennsylvania, with vetting material regarding Biden and Ukraine — some of it supplied by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani — for possible distribution to prosecutors who could use a grand jury to investigate further.

To some extent, this story mirrors that of the “Steele dossier,” a string of unverified and derogatory pieces of information on Trump collected during the 2016 election by a confidential source trusted by the FBI, Christopher Steele, on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Steele’s reports, leaked to the media, created a firestorm of speculation by Democrats about Trump’s ties to Russia — even though much of it turned out to be false. (Steele has said he stands by his work.)

In the same vein, the Smirnov tale has its roots in a Republican effort to target Biden. His story didn’t gain much traction among investigators in 2020 but emerged in 2023 and was immediately embraced as true by many GOP lawmakers. A detailed review of information contained in the indictment, Brady’s testimony before congressional investigators, public statements and other documents shows that — absent Barr’s creation of a Biden task force — Smirnov’s allegations probably never would have appeared in the FBI document that led to his indictment and to the possible collapse of the Republicans’ impeachment case with Smirnov as its star.

Barr spoke briefly to The Fact Checker, off the record, before hanging up the phone.

Here is a timeline of the years-long events ending in Smirnov’s arrest.

March 1, 2017: Smirnov, an FBI source since 2010, speaks to his FBI handler as part of a routine communication. He says that in the previous month, he had a discussion with Mykola Zlochevsky, the chief executive of the Ukrainian gas firm Burisma, about possibly acquiring a U.S.-based petroleum firm. As an aside, he mentions that Hunter Biden is on the Burisma board. He makes no mention of an alleged bribe to the Bidens. The report of the conversation, known as an FD-1023, is filed away.

Dec. 18, 2019: Trump is impeached in the House, accused of having dangled favors to the Ukrainian government if it would announce an investigation of Biden. The impeachment probe uncovered how Trump had urged Giuliani to put pressure on the Ukrainians to target Biden.

Jan. 3, 2020: In an email, Brady is informed that Barr and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen want him to undertake a “discreet assignment.” Brady later told congressional investigators that “we were to take information provided by the public, including Mayor Giuliani, relating to Ukrainian corruption. We were to vet that, and that was how we described it internally, a vetting process.” He said he personally briefed Barr on his progress twice.

Jan. 29: Giuliani is interviewed by Brady and his team at the FBI’s Pittsburgh office. “There were a lot of names, which included details allegedly derived from those people, including … bank account numbers, email addresses, cellphones that would purportedly point toward evidence,” Brady recalled. “There was information about a variety of schemes and accusations not limited to Burisma and Mr. [Joe] Biden.”

Feb. 9: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tells CBS’s “Face The Nation” that he has been told by Barr that the Justice Department has “created a process that Rudy could give information and they would see if it’s verified.”

Feb. 10: Barr confirms to reporters that the Justice Department has such a project underway. “The DOJ has the obligation to have an open door to anybody who wishes to provide us information that they think is relevant,” Barr says. “But as I did say to Senator Graham, we have to be very careful with respect to any information coming from the Ukraine.”

March: The coronavirus pandemic forces investigators to work remotely, delaying progress. At the end of the month, the FBI opens an assessment — a step before taking information to a grand jury. Brady said that for his team to keep investigating, the FBI assessment needed to be renewed every 30 days, requiring 17 sign-offs at headquarters, and agents would stop working if the renewal lapsed. “The agents would go pens down for weeks at a time,” he said. “And so that was incredibly frustrating.”

March to May: At Brady’s request, the FBI searches in its files for “Burisma” and related search terms because of the information received from Giuliani. “‘Burisma’ appeared in a lot of the material we received from Mr. Giuliani,” Brady said.

May 19: Smirnov texts his FBI handler about the release of edited fragments of private phone calls between Biden and a former Ukrainian president by Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker. “Smells bad” for Biden, Smirnov writes. Derkach, an independent member of Ukraine’s parliament who previously aligned with a pro-Russian faction, had previously met with Giuliani. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, posts one of the recordings on Twitter hours later and implies impropriety by Biden.

Smirnov suggests Biden is going to jail and mentions a possible bribe. His handler expresses doubt, saying the claim only makes sense if you believe the story that Biden pushed out Ukraine’s top prosecutor to assist Burisma —” which my [sic] all accounts it was not.” (Indeed, this was a false narrative promoted by Trump.)

“For sure yes,” Smirnov replies. “I’ll try to prove to you bro.”

Early June: The 2017 interview with Smirnov is found by FBI Pittsburgh in a Washington Field Office file because of the “Burisma” keyword search and flagged to Brady’s team. For about 20 days, Brady said, FBI officials resist asking the handler to contact the source about the reference. Brady said his impression was the FBI was trying to protect Smirnov so that they could continue to use him as a source.

June 26: FBI Pittsburgh asks the handler to contact Smirnov. That same day, he telephones Smirnov. This time, the indictment says, Smirnov said he met and spoke with Zlochevsky in 2015 and/or 2016, mentioning specific locations such as Vienna, and was told Biden and his son had each been paid $5 million to oust the prosecutor and protect Burisma. (It is unclear why neither Smirnov nor the handler followed up on the May text exchange until prodded by Brady’s team.) The indictment says this story was a fabrication.

June 30: The handler’s account of the interview is memorialized on a Form 1023, an official record of the FBI, and finalized. Brady’s team reviews it and confirms that it was sent to the Baltimore FBI field office and the U.S. attorney for Delaware, David Weiss.

July-August: To vet Smirnov’s claims, the FBI Pittsburgh office asks him for his travel records, which the indictment says he provided. The FBI then “concluded that all reasonable steps had been completed regarding the Defendant’s allegations” and that the assessment of his claims should be closed.

The indictment does not indicate whether Smirnov’s travel was confirmed. But in his testimony, Brady suggested it was.

“We attempted to use open-source material to check against what was stated in the 1023,” Brady said. “We also interfaced with the CHS’ handler about certain statements relating to travel and meetings to see if they were consistent with his or her understanding. … What we were able to identify, we found that it was consistent. And so we felt that there were sufficient indicia of credibility in this 1023 to pass it on to an office that had a predicated grand jury investigation.”

Curiously, Brady’s lawyer interrupted the congressional interview to prevent Brady from answering specific questions about what the travel records showed. He would not even let him say whether the travel records showed Smirnov had traveled to the locations mentioned in the FBI report.

Aug. 12: The FBI Pittsburgh office is informed that senior officials agree the matter should be closed, the indictment says.

Sept. 3: The FBI assessment is officially closed, according to a letter written in October 2023 by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Sept. 21: Brady submits a report, titled “VETTING,” to a senior Justice Department official, Richard Donoghue, the Grassley letter says. “We summarized some of the allegations that had been brought or alleged by Mr. Giuliani and noted where there was — either we had no basis of opining, or there was conflicting information,” Brady said.

Mid-October: Trump calls Barr and inquires about the investigation into Hunter Biden, whose laptop contents had been disseminated by Giuliani. Barr, in his memoir, says he yelled: “Dammit, Mr. President, I am not going to talk to you about Hunter Biden. Period!”

Oct. 23: Brady and FBI agents brief Weiss’s office on his findings. “We could only present what we had identified, explain to them the sources by which we believed something had indicia of credibility, and then make recommendations about what we think they might want to do with that,” Brady said. With the conclusion of the briefing, Brady’s “tasking” ends. “We pulled up our stakes and folded our tent and went on to other things,” he said.

Nov. 3: Trump loses reelection to Biden.

Dec. 27: In a conversation with Donoghue and Rosen about his efforts to challenge the election results, Trump presses for a special counsel to investigate the Bidens. “You figure out what to do with Hunter Biden,” Trump said, according to Donoghue’s notes and testimony he gave to Congress. “That’s up to you guys.” But “people will criticize the DOJ if Hunter’s not investigated for real.”

Nov. 16, 2022: Trump announces that he will run for president again.

May 3, 2023: Grassley and Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) release a letter to the Justice Department and the FBI saying they have learned the agencies “possess an unclassified FD-1023 form that describes an alleged criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Biden and a foreign national relating to the exchange of money for policy decisions.” They say it is unclear what efforts were made to investigate the allegation.

June 5: As GOP lawmakers threaten to hold FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in contempt for not releasing the document, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, says the FBI and Justice Department had reviewed it in 2020 and determined there was no need for more investigative steps.

June 7: Barr tells the Federalist, a conservative online publication, that the inquiry was not closed down. “On the contrary,” he said, “it was sent to Delaware for further investigation.” That same day, Comer cancels a vote to cite Wray for contempt after the FBI director agrees to make the document available to all members of the Oversight Committee.

July: “The FBI requested that the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Delaware assist the FBI in an investigation of allegations related to the 2020 1023,” the indictment says.

July 10: Weiss writes to Graham that his questions regarding the FD-1023 “relate to an ongoing investigation,” so he “cannot comment on them at this time.”

July 20: Grassley and Comer publicly release the document. “Why have they tried to conceal it from Congress and the American people for so long? The Justice Department and FBI have failed to come clean, but Chairman Comer and I intend to find out,” Grassley says in a statement.

July 24: The Federalist, citing a confidential source, claims that Weiss’s office was told in the 2020 briefing that the FBI had corroborated multiple facts included in the FBI report. “The Pittsburgh FBI office obtained travel records for the CHS, and those records confirmed the CHS had traveled to the locales detailed in the FD-1023 during the relevant time period,” the Federalist said. “The trips included a late 2015 or early 2016 visit to Kyiv, Ukraine; a trip a couple of months later to Vienna, Austria; and travel to London in 2019.”

July 26: Hunter Biden plea deal on tax and gun charges — which he had agreed to June 20 — falls apart after skeptical questions from a judge and Weiss’s office suggest the deal would not cover an ongoing investigation.

Aug. 11: Weiss is appointed special counsel “for the ongoing investigation and prosecutions referenced and described in United States v. Robert Hunter Biden, as well as for any other matters that arose or may arise from that investigation.”

Aug. 29: FBI investigators speak to Smirnov’s handler about the 2020 document. He says that after the public release of the FD-1023 by Grassley and Comer, he spoke to Smirnov about it. Smirnov “reaffirmed the accuracy of the statements contained in it,” the indictment says. But when the handler reviewed the travel records with FBI investigators, he found they were inconsistent with what Smirnov had said in 2020, the indictment says.

Sept. 27: Smirnov is interviewed by FBI investigators. Given the chance to recant, he reaffirms many of his claims about a bribe and says he had met with Zlochevsky earlier than 2017. He adds more details that the indictment says were also not true. “Notably, these new and inconsistent statements arose only after the Defendant had reviewed messages, emails, and travel information that were in direct conflict with what he reported in the 2020 1023,” the indictment says.

Feb. 14, 2024: Smirnov is arrested when he lands in Las Vegas and charged in the indictment with lying to the FBI.

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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