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James Risen: I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine in 2015. The Right-Wing Media Twisted My Reporting

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Image Credit: Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images

Democrats are coalescing behind an effort to impeach President Trump over his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he pressed the Ukrainian leader to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Meanwhile, Republicans have latched onto the Biden-Ukraine story as a means of smearing the former vice president as corrupt, in an attempt to damage one of Trump’s political rivals. For more on the story, we speak with James Risen, senior national security correspondent for The Intercept, who first wrote about the Bidens and Ukraine in 2015, when he was a reporter for The New York Times. He says the “right-wing spin machine” has since twisted his reporting, misrepresenting his findings. In a new article for The Intercept, Risen writes, “It’s strange to see my journalism twisted, perverted, and turned into lies and poisonous propaganda by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and their enablers.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with James Risen, The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent, best-selling author, former New York Times reporter, published two pieces in The Intercept this week, including one headlined “I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside Down.”

Jim Risen, tell us about what these allegations are, what Hunter Biden did in Ukraine, and then how it’s been spun around.

JAMES RISEN: Sure, yeah. I mean, one of the — this is a very odd experience for me to see this story that I wrote four years ago come back in this weird way. In 2015, while Biden was vice president, I wrote about how he was — he had just gone to the Ukraine to — as sending a message, really, from the United States government and from other governments, that the Ukraine had to crack down on corruption. And in particular, there was the prosecutor general of the Ukraine, who had been refusing to do anything about major corruption cases in the Ukraine.

And I wrote that this whole effort by Biden to get the Ukrainians to crack down was very awkward for him personally and maybe even looked at as hypocritical, because his own son, Hunter Biden, was on the board of a company called Burisma, which was a Ukrainian natural gas company, and the British Serious Fraud Office was investigating Burisma and its owner, who is a Ukrainian official, or former official, and that the British investigation had been stymied because the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office had refused to turn over documents to the British officials. And as a result, the British effort to freeze Burisma’s assets had been overturned by a British court because they couldn’t get any documents from the Ukrainian prosecutor. And the money that had been frozen in banks in London immediately went offshore to Cyprus. Now, Hunter Biden was on the board of the company at the time that the assets were frozen. And he was on the board of Burisma at the time that his father took this trip to the Ukraine. But Joe Biden went there and said, “You’ve got to get rid of this prosecutor, and you’ve got to crack down on corruption.”

The significance of his trip was that it was backed up by the whole Western world. There were several large Western countries that were demanding that the Ukraine fire this prosecutor and get — and crack down on corruption. His actions to demand this, the firing of this prosecutor, and to ask for a greater crackdown had the effect — the possible effect — of making his son have even greater legal peril than he did by being on the board of Burisma, because it could have led to a more aggressive investigation of Burisma.

Now, what has happened — so, that’s essentially what I wrote. But what I wrote was, this is very awkward and bad for — politically hypocritical for Biden, which was bad enough. But what happened since then is the whole right-wing spin machine got involved in this story over the last four years, as they wanted to use it for opposition research in the 2020 election. And they say — they now claim that Biden went there in order to protect his son and to fire — and to get the Ukrainians to fire the prosecutor to stop him from investigating Burisma — which is the exact opposite of what happened. And so, the original story I wrote was bad enough for Biden, but now it’s taken — it’s been falsified by the Trump camp to make it look like Biden actually was using his position to protect his son, when that’s not true.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, President Trump is continuing to say, “Investigate Hunter Biden.” And now the former prosecutor general of Ukraine is saying Hunter Biden is not guilty. Talk about Vice President Joe Biden’s role in dealing with the prosecutor general and this question of whether he was trying to force him out.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I mean, the point that the United States was making — Biden was just really carrying a message for the United States government, for the Obama administration, which was: “You have to crack down more on corruption.” And the West felt that the prosecutor, in particular, was an obstacle to a crackdown on corruption, not — he was not leading any investigations. In fact, there are reports that he was trying to blackmail or get paid off by companies to stop investigations. So, the idea — you know, basically what’s happened is that the right wing twisted the story to try to make it look worse for Biden.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering what you think of your former paper, The New York Times, writing, “But if Trump can make 2020 another race between two unpopular nominees — if he can sully his opponent and make him another creature of 'the swamp' — then he has a shot at victory. Imagine a world where the Ukrainian government enters the election on behalf of Trump. The president can now do to Biden what he did to Hillary Clinton in 2016 — mire him in enough scandal and innuendo to undermine the vice president’s claim to honesty. 'Crooked Hillary' seamlessly becomes 'Crooked Joe.'”

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I think that’s the whole point, was to try to make it look like — you know, take corruption off the table for Trump as a problem. I mean, everybody — Trump has just emerged from the Mueller investigation looking really bad to a lot of Americans. But if he can make his opponent look dirty, too, then that would, as you say, level the playing field. So I think that was exactly the point of what they were trying to do with this story.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jamelle Bouie who wrote that in the Times. But, James Risen, this whole issue of, first, it was the Mueller report, and it didn’t find collusion between President Trump and Russia in interfering with the 2016 election, and now Russia becomes Ukraine, and this possibility —


AMY GOODMAN: — that people are going just to be infuriated that Congress is not doing its job to improve the conditions of the American people.

JAMES RISEN: Right, right. Yeah, I mean, I think Nancy Pelosi has clearly tried to hold — she has been reluctant to go after impeachment, because she has, you know, a lot of exposed House members in competitive districts that she was worried would be hurt by this. But I think the Ukrainian revelations and disclosures by this whistleblower have made it almost impossible for her to ignore this. I think if you continue to ignore what Trump is doing, you’re just going to aid and abet him and encourage him to break the law even more often. And so, I think at some point Congress has to stand up and say, “OK, we have to be here and protect the rule of law.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Trump, speaking at the United Nations yesterday — and we just played a bit of that recording — clearly very thrown by this whole situation, of course, the impeachment inquiry continuing. He calls the press “scum” and “animals,” and he says the whistleblower, he should be dealt with — or, the whistleblower should be dealt with in ways spies used to be, and says he’s guilty of, or she’s guilty of, treason. Talk about your own experience. This sort of puts together two things here, James Risen. You were pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations. You were threatened with jail for not revealing a source. Talk about how you see how you were treated, not by Trump, but by President Obama’s administration, and the trajectory through to now.

JAMES RISEN: Yeah, I think one of the problems is that Trump is taking advantage of the path laid first by the Bush administration and then by the Obama administration in prosecuting whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, in which they are, by definition, treated as spies. And the whole way in which both Bush and Obama went after the press and tried to increase prosecutions of whistleblowers has led to this, you know, final — finally, we’ve hit bottom with Trump, who is just using this kind of hateful language to undermine public servants who are trying to tell the truth. It’s one of the most disgusting things about this administration, but it’s also something that you saw the beginnings of in both the Bush and the Obama administrations. The use of the Espionage Act, both by Bush and by Obama, and now by Trump, to prosecute people who talk to the press is, by definition, calling a whistleblower a spy. And so, you know, Obama and Trump — I mean, Obama and Bush have led this, led us to Donald Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: James Risen, I want to thank you for being with us, _Intercept_’s senior national security correspondent, best-selling author, former New York Times reporter, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, published two pieces this week — we’ll link to them — at The Intercept, including “I Wrote About the Bidens and Ukraine Years Ago. Then the Right-Wing Spin Machine Turned the Story Upside Down,” author of State of War and Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Sharif Abdel Kouddous joins us to talk about Egypt. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood” by Billy Bragg, performing live in our studio this week. Visit democracynow.org to see his full interview and performances.

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