WASHINGTON — 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 testimony by Kent offers a reminder that as Democrats probe President Donald Trump’s alleged actions in pressuring Ukraine to dig up compromising information on Biden, the impeachment inquiry also threatens to keep alive questions about the former vice president’s handling of his son’s foreign work at a precarious moment for his 2020 presidential campaign.
Kent, who also testified about how Trump’s associates raised unfounded allegations about the former ambassador to Ukraine, is the first known example of a career diplomat who raised concerns internally in the Obama administration about Hunter Biden’s board position. The Washington Post has previously reported that there had been discussions among Biden’s advisers about whether his son’s Ukraine work would be perceived as a conflict of interest, and that one former adviser had been concerned enough to mention it to Biden, though the conversation was brief.
During his testimony this week, Kent did not name the Biden staffer he said he communicated with, according to people familiar with his remarks.
Although many of Trump’s charges regarding Hunter Biden have been unfounded, the elder Biden has faced questions about why he didn’t anticipate concerns about potential conflicts of interest as he took a leading role in carrying out U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Polls show Biden with an advantage over Trump in a potential general election matchup, and Biden has sought in recent days to focus attention on the actions of a president many Democrats see as corrupt and unfit for office.
A former senior Biden national security aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, had no recollection of hearing about Kent’s concerns, and also never heard a concern raised by the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time. The first time the aide recalls Hunter Biden’s involvement surfacing as an issue was in December 2015, when the vice president traveled to Ukraine to deliver an anti-corruption speech and The New York Times wrote about his son’s role. Hunter Biden’s board appointment had been publicly announced the previous year and reported by the media at the time.
The aide said that Hunter Biden’s position had no substantive impact.
“I don’t understand what the optics thing means other than someone thinking it looked bad in a political way,” the aide said. “Did it have any effect on US policies, either on what we were doing or what the Ukrainians were doing? It didn’t … In the aggregate it didn’t have any discernible effect.”
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.”
Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement that “on Joe Biden’s watch, the U.S. made eradicating corruption a centerpiece of our policies toward Ukraine.”
Hunter Biden joined the board of the Ukrainian gas company — which was headed by a former government minister investigated for possible corruption — in 2014, at the same time his father was leading U.S. efforts to crack down on corruption in that country.
The issue has erupted in recent weeks amid revelations about a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukraine’s president to “look into” the Bidens, particularly whether Joe Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to fire a prosecutor whose office had been investigating Burisma. The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is seeking to determine whether Trump withheld military aid and diplomatic support to Ukraine in an attempt to get information to use against Biden.
Trump and his allies have made the unsubstantiated claim that Biden pressed for the prosecutor’s firing to protect his son. In fact, according to former U.S. officials and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, the investigation of Burisma was dormant at the time. And Biden, adding to the calls from others in the U.S. government and Western institutions, was urging Ukraine to tap a new prosecutor who would be more aggressive in combating corruption.
Biden has said that he never spoke with his son about his dealings with Ukraine and has said that he only learned of his position on the Burisma board when he read about it in news reports.
Hunter Biden told ABC in an interview this week that he did “nothing wrong at all” but that he showed “poor judgment” in accepting the position on the Burisma board.
Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday that he wouldn’t have changed anything about his actions, including discouraging his son from joining the board, and said he had no regrets.
“No. No, I don’t,” he said. “Because I never discussed with my son anything having to do with what was going on in Ukraine. That’s a fact.”
Biden has pledged that, if president, no one in his family would have “any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or foreign country.” During the presidential candidates debate on Tuesday night, he twice dodged a question about why he did not have a similar policy as vice president.
But on Wednesday, he said his new policy was developed not because of anything Hunter Biden did but because of the actions of the Trump family.
Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, hold senior White House jobs, while Trump has retained ownership of his real estate business, which is being run by his sons and has been the subject of lawsuits alleging that the company has been a conduit for foreign governments to enrich Trump in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. On Thursday, the White House announced that Trump had awarded the 2020 Group of Seven summit of world leaders to his golf resort in Miami, using his public office to direct a large contract to his private company.
“In my White House, none of my children or family have offices at the White House,” Biden said. “They will not be invited to sit in significant meetings of a Cabinet-level post and they will have no foreign investment, and the reason to do that is not because of anything that went on in our administration. It is because of what Donald Trump has done. He has so debased the standard of what constitutes ethical behavior that the next president has to make it absolutely clear — absolutely clear — this will not happen again.”
Biden’s campaign has been attempting to move past any discussions about Hunter Biden, and his team considers most questions having already been addressed. Biden aides also pointed toward the debate on Tuesday night, where no candidate criticized Biden on the issue, as a sign that it is not resonating on the campaign trail.
“It’s been asked and answered,” Kate Bedingfield, his deputy campaign manager, told reporters after the debate. “Democratic voters know that these lies are not getting traction and it’s not the conversation they want to hear. And I think that was reflected in the fact that it was not a significant piece of the discussion.”
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The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish, Josh Dawsey, Greg Jaffe and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.