Feb 22, 2024

The arrest of the Biden informant.

The arrest of the Biden informant.
Rep. James Comer (R-KY), who is leading the impeachment inquiry into Biden, had elevated the informant's claims. Image: Wikicommons

Plus, a reader question about contempt of Congress and politics.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 10 minutes.

An informant who fed information to the FBI was arrested for lying about the Bidens. Plus, a reader question about contempt of Congress and politics.

Tomorrow, we talk porn.

In case you have missed it, the topic of pornography has been getting mainstreamed recently. There are debates about how to regulate it, concerns about addiction among teenagers, and questions about how serious the threats really are. We're going to wade into it tomorrow in our Friday edition.

Quick hits.

  1. The Biden administration canceled roughly $1.2 billion of student loans for 153,000 borrowers, and plans to email each borrower to alert them. (The plan
  2. Officials from the University of Alabama at Birmingham are pausing their in-vitro fertilization treatments after the state supreme court extended legal rights to frozen embryos. (The decision
  3. With a bipartisan border bill stalled in Congress, President Biden is considering executive action to restrict asylum claims at the southern border. (The idea)
  4. New York Attorney General Letitia James said she is prepared to seize Donald Trump's properties, including Trump Tower, if he fails to pay his $354 million civil fraud fine. (The assets
  5. James Biden, the brother of President Biden, testified to Republicans behind closed doors on Wednesday as part of their impeachment inquiry. (The testimony)

Today's topic.

Alexander Smirnov. Last week, the FBI arrested Alexander Smirnov, an informant the FBI had used as a confidential source since 2010. Smirnov was charged with lying to the FBI that President Biden and his son Hunter were involved in a bribery scheme with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Back up: In the summer of 2020, Smirnov told his FBI handler that he had a series of meetings and phone calls with executives from the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma in 2015 and 2016. In those meetings, Smirnov said Burisma executives admitted that Hunter Biden was added to the board so his dad Joe could protect them from problems they may have with U.S. officials. Smirnov also said that the executives told him Hunter and Joe Biden forced Burisma to pay them each $5 million in bribes to ensure Ukraine's Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was fired, and he claimed that he possessed 17 recordings, text messages, and financial documents as proof of the entire scheme.

Smirnov's claims were memorialized at the FBI in a four-page reporting document known as an FD-1023, which was eventually subpoenaed by Republicans in Congress and then leaked to the press.

The report had not been fact-checked before it was leaked, and the FBI warned that such source material includes leads and suspicions, not conclusions made by investigators. However, it became instant political fodder when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) publicly released a copy of the record and described the claims as "very significant allegations from a trusted F.B.I. informant implicating then-Vice President Biden in a criminal bribery scheme," though he never named Smirnov.

Republicans in Congress, most notably Rep. James Comer (R-KY), have since used those documents as the backbone of their impeachment inquiry into Biden.

Now what? The Justice Department has indicted Smirnov on charges that he fabricated his allegations. On Tuesday, prosecutors also alleged in a 28-page filing that Smirnov had "extensive and extremely recent" contacts with foreign intelligence services, including Russia’s, and described him as an incessant liar who continues to make up misinformation and pass it to his FBI handlers.

“The Defendant’s story to the FBI was a fabrication,” prosecutors alleged. Smirnov  “transformed his routine and unextraordinary business contacts with Burisma in 2017 and later into bribery allegations against [President Biden].”

According to prosecutors, Smirnov hadn't met with officials from Burisma until 2017. He never delivered the documents, recordings, or records he promised. During a "custodial interview" in February, Smirnov conceded that Russian officials were involved in passing along some of the stories he shared about Hunter. However, prosecutors stopped short of saying that the claims about the Biden family bribery scheme were lies coming from his contacts in Russia.

When prosecutors interviewed Smirnov again in September, he changed his story on some claims and made up new ones, they said. Included in his new false allegations were claims that he saw footage of Hunter Biden entering a hotel in Kyiv, Ukraine, that the hotel was "wired," and Hunter was recorded while he was inside.

“Investigators know that Smirnov’s new story is false because [Hunter Biden] has never traveled to Ukraine,” prosecutors said.

In a bizarre twist, the prosecutors who brought the case forward are operating under David Weiss, the special counsel who is separately prosecuting Hunter Biden on gun and tax charges.

Today, we're going to explore some reactions to this indictment from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right takes Smirnov’s indictment seriously but doesn’t think it clears the Bidens of all wrongdoing. 
  • Some criticize House Republicans for staking their investigation on such flimsy evidence. 
  • Others suggest Special Counsel Weiss should be removed from the case for negligence. 

In The New York Post, Jonathan Turley argued “this lying witness does not exonerate the Bidens.”

“The allegation has produced a stampede of Democrats who view his indictment as a much-needed talking point as the House continues to build the case of influence-peddling by the Biden family,” Turley wrote. “However, there are a couple of aspects to the filing that undermine the claims of a ‘bombshell’ revelation of a Russian disinformation campaign. First, these disclosures were not the result of surveillance or interceptions by American intelligence. Smirnov appears to have been cooperating with the United States and told his US ‘handler’ about all of these contacts.

“Second, Smirnov’s contacts were described as ‘recent’ and did not apparently precede 2020. They have nothing to do with the laptop or the evidence of influence-peddling found in emails on that computer… Third, the Justice Department states that Smirnov had expressed ‘bias’ against Joe Biden and used ‘his routine and unextraordinary business contacts with Burisma’ to make the bribery allegations,” Turley said. “In relation to the influence-peddling investigation, this filing does not change the evidence that the Biden family made millions in shaking down foreign companies and business figures.”

In The Bulwark, William Kristol and Andrew Egger wrote “the Alexander Smirnov farce takes a sinister turn.”

“The farcical implosion of Smirnov’s claims—that he’d heard executives at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma discuss paying $5 million bribes to Joe and Hunter Biden while the latter sat on their board and the former was vice president—has been an enormous embarrassment to the congressional Republicans who had made his allegations a tentpole of their impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.”

“Smirnov’s claims were full of holes, so much so that catching him in lies was almost comically easy for special counsel David Weiss’ investigators,” Kristol and Egger added. “But if Smirnov’s buffoonish allegations and Republicans’ credulousness toward them initially seemed comical, the revelation that they may have been planted by Russian agents makes the whole thing far more sinister. Russia has had enough success meddling in our elections on their own—do they really need the help of the entire congressional GOP?”

In The Federalist, Margot Cleveland said the indictment “looks just as bad for David Weiss as the charged FBI informant.”

“The harm here is not merely that investigators wasted time chasing apparently false leads, or that Hunter and Joe Biden suffered from Smirnov’s allegedly false accusations, but also that Smirnov’s lies may overshadow the other unrelated — and substantial — evidence implicating the Bidens in a pay-to-play scandal, rendering it more difficult to obtain justice,” Cleveland wrote. “Assuming the allegations against Smirnov are true, charges are eminently justified. Also justified? Impeaching David Weiss.”

“Special Counsel Weiss clearly knows how bad this looks because, in the indictment, he tried to spin the assessment into the FD-1023 as being closed out by the Pittsburgh FBI office, implying that is why his office did not conduct any further investigative steps,” Cleveland said. “That alone should justify Weiss’s removal — and not merely for what he failed to do, but also because the country can’t trust that his special counsel team will follow all the leads, including the ones we don’t know about.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left derides House Republicans for their increasingly chaotic and baseless investigation into the Bidens. 
  • Some say Smirnov’s indictment should end the impeachment inquiry into President Biden.
  • Others wonder whether Republicans knowingly espoused false information to bolster their case with the public. 

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown wrote “the GOP keeps winning in its Biden investigation — and hating the results.”

“Rather than hurt Biden, House Republicans have more often than not found that having the power to lead investigations has backfired on them tremendously. Alexander Smirnov, who’s now been charged with lying to the FBI, was charged by the same special counsel that Republicans insisted be appointed to investigate the president and his family,” Brown said. “Smirnov’s indictment is just the latest GOP self-inflicted wound. The party rushed to launch an impeachment inquiry against Biden which drew attention to the negligible evidence it had gathered.”

“The sensible thing to do at this point would be to call it quits and admit that there’s nothing more to be gained from going down this rabbit hole. But that would involve Republicans admitting to their voters that there was nothing to their promises to prove Biden is a criminal and satiate their base’s call for his arrest. More likely, though, they’ll double down and insist that Smirnov is being silenced for his bold truth-telling.”

In CNN, Dennis Aftergut said the indictment “pushes [the] GOP impeachment probe of Biden off the edge.”

“With Smirnov’s indictment for fabricating claims, the air is out of the House inquiry’s tires. For those in the fact-based world, the oversight committee’s impeachment car, driven by Comer, is stuck on the edge of a cliff with two wheels hanging in thin air,” Aftergut wrote. “The Smirnov episode is Exhibit A in what happens when politicians grinding partisan axes make serious public charges without evidence against elected officials. That shameless behavior erodes citizens’ precious trust in government.”

“Unfortunately, the MAGA committee chairs seem to have neither time nor interest in thought, care, competence or real evidence. All that seems to matter to them is repeating the charges enough times for them to sink into the public consciousness,” Aftergut said. “From Comer and Jordan, we’ve seen plenty of spectacle but an absence of light. These point men for Trump and truthlessness are dangers to democracy.”

In his Substack, The Status Kuo, Jay Kuo discussed how “investigations and disinformation have been weaponized.”

“The same guy Reps. Comer and Jordan and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) pumped as a reason to go after Biden for bribery turned out to be a Russian intelligence tool,” Kuo wrote. “Now the question is, were GOP leaders just useful idiots for Russian election interference, or did they know, like Bill Barr and his cronies apparently did, that Smirnov’s claims were false, but amplified them anyway to dirty up Biden?"

“How amazed the Russians must have been to discover that they could easily mainline disinformation to the American public, not just through social media, but through the very people who are supposed to work to stop it,” Kuo said. “These GOP leaders are at best hapless dupes. They should have known and understood the games Russia was playing with them. But we shouldn’t discount the possibility that they were well aware that the Smirnov claims were false and may have originated from Russian intelligence… and then went along with them anyway.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • As keen Tangle readers know, the informant’s report was always unsubstantiated, and now we know it wasn’t real at all.
  • This latest flop could be the beginning of the end of Republicans’ attempts to impeach Joe Biden.
  • There are a lot of Russia hysterics out there, but let’s not understate the reality of what is happening right now, either. 

I'm going to take a brief victory lap, and then I’ll explain where this leaves us.

First, as eye-grabbing as this bit of news is, it should not be that surprising if you’ve been reading Tangle closely.

When we initially covered this in September, we were careful to note that the source behind the FD-1023 document was passing along "secondhand allegations" through "unverified documents." In "My take," I contrasted that evidence to what Democrats put forward in their first impeachment inquiry of Trump, including a recording of a phone call and a whistleblower from inside the U.S. government. Then I said:

Republicans don't have any of that. They have one form detailing an uncorroborated claim from an anonymous source that past investigators didn't seem to find particularly reliable. Even in conservative media, there has not been any blockbuster story proving that President Biden corruptly benefited from or aided in his son’s dealings. And to be clear, this is not some partisan take on this — Republicans themselves concede they are still on the hunt for evidence. As Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) said, “The inquiry would give us another tool in the toolbox specifically to look at Joe Biden’s bank records… Everyone’s screaming about the evidence, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ The bank records hold all of the evidence.”

All of this stunk from the beginning. The impeachment inquiry has not had any real, decisive focus. Some Republicans say it is about Hunter Biden's shady business dealings and his dad's involvement in them. Others were talking about Biden's mishandling of classified documents, or his handling of the border. Some have pointed to the IRS whistleblowers accusing Biden's Justice Department of obstructing the investigation into Hunter (this, to me, is still by far the most damning accusation). But there remains no single clear narrative about what they have uncovered or what crime they are pursuing.

This document, though, was supposed to be at the center of it. Some Republicans were willing to admit it was not something to take to the bank, but many others went the opposite direction.

"The most corroborating evidence we have is that 1023 form from this highly credible confidential human source according to U.S. attorney Scott Brady," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said.

Just like it was important to remember the hysteria that came from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and other Democrats when Trump was in office, it's important to remember the people who blew this into as big of a deal as possible and the people who talked in measured, reasonable ways about it. As Politico pointed out, Sean Hannity aired 85 segments about this. Kevin McCarthy used this form as justification for launching the impeachment inquiry. The New York Post ran a headline that read "Biden $10M bribe file released: Burisma chief said he was ‘coerced’ to pay Joe, ‘stupid’ Hunter in bombshell allegations."

All of that looks like total nonsense. It’s bad enough that the Republican impeachment inquiry looks to be losing steam already, and Comer is conceding there may not even be a vote (he blames the GOP’s thin majority, but it’s more likely that Hunter’s laptop and other purported leads haven’t turned up enough evidence to justify an impeachment).

And finally, it's worth saying this: There have been a lot of Russia hysterics over the last eight years in America. That has often looked like Democrats pursuing overblown claims about Donald Trump’s collusion. Now, it’s looking like Republicans pursuing wild claims about Biden in Ukraine. Russia’s government thrives on fear domestically and chaos abroad. Domestically, in the last week alone, Putin's government has killed his most prominent political opponent, arrested a dual Russian and U.S. citizen for donating $51 to Ukraine's war effort, and was likely behind the assassination of a defected pilot in Spain. It has also made significant gains in its war with Ukraine while division in Congress has stalled further military aid.

Here in the states, Russia’s strategy is to muddy the waters with disinformation to sow political discord. It’s not about one candidate or one person being some secret Russian agent — it’s about shifting the focus among politicians and voters. Now we have credible accusations that Russian officials may have been behind one of the most prominent stories from the last three years in U.S. media, one that got so much traction that Republicans in Congress actually pushed forward impeaching the president because of it

It is not hyperventilating and it is not Red Scare nonsense to point out how serious that is. As we continue to get bombarded with innuendo and rumors about the most prominent politicians in America, all of this is worth considering — just as it was in 2016 with the “Trump-Russia” narratives. The lesson — as it so often has been —  is to proceed with caution, and to keep a sharp eye on where stories are percolating and how reliable they really are.

Disagree? That's okay. My opinion is just one of many. Write in and let us know why, and we'll consider publishing your feedback.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: How come Peter Navarro gets a jail term for defying a congressional subpoena, but Hunter Biden gets nothing?

— Jack from McPherson, Kansas

Tangle: There are several key things that are similar about Navarro’s and Biden’s situations. They were both subpoenaed to appear before a House committee. They both defied the subpoenas and did not appear before Congress when they were scheduled to do so. In both situations, the leaders of those committees — the January 6 select committee for Navarro and the Oversight Committee for Biden — stated that they would initiate proceedings to hold them in contempt.

Here’s what Hunter Biden did: First, he defied the subpoena in November. Then, he said he would testify in a public hearing instead of a private one. Through his legal team, he argued that the subpoena was invalid because it was issued before impeachment proceedings began into President Biden, adding that he would abide by a new one issued afterwards. Then, Hunter capitulated, agreeing to a closed-door deposition before the House GOP put forward a motion to hold him in contempt of Congress. The whole process was a drawn-out melodrama, but it took less than two months.

Here’s what Navarro, the former Trump aide, did: First, he defied the subpoena in February. Then, along with former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, former communications chief Daniel Scavino Jr. and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, he argued that executive privilege prevented him from cooperating with the proceeding. Months later, the House then voted to hold Bannon and Meadows in contempt of Congress. Then it voted to hold Scavino and Navarro in contempt. Before Navarro was ever indicted on the same charges, Bannon — making the same argument about executive privilege — was indicted, tried, and convicted of contempt of Congress. In September, Navarro was convicted of contempt of Congress. In October, Bannon was sentenced to four months in prison (and has appealed the decision). Then finally, in January — nearly a year after he was subpoenaed — Peter Navarro was sentenced to four months in prison for contempt of Congress.

Long story short: The difference is timing. Hunter actually showed up in Congress before the House ever voted to hold him in contempt. Navarro continued to argue executive privilege throughout a House vote and a contempt charge, then tested his argument in trial where it was soundly rebuffed. Hunter never took it that far.

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Under the radar.

Tens of thousands of AT&T customers experienced outages across the country on Thursday morning, with cellular service and internet down. As many as 73,000 outages were reported around 8 a.m. ET. Some Verizon and T-Mobile customers also reported outages, but both companies said those were all cases of their customers trying to contact someone on AT&T's service. AT&T acknowledged the outages but did not offer an explanation. With no cell service, people are unable to reach emergency services or dial 911. 290 million customers are covered by AT&T's 5G network in the U.S. Reuters has the story.


  • 9. The number of democratic nations whose elections were targeted by Russia through state-run media and social media between 2020 and 2022, according to a U.S. intelligence report released in October 2023. 
  • 17. In addition to those nine countries, the number of democratic nations whose elections Russia targeted through social media to amplify domestic narratives about election integrity.  
  • 6. The number of U.S. presidents who have faced impeachment inquiries: James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
  • 49%. The percentage of Americans who said they approved of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into President Biden in a December 2023 poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist.
  • 48%. The percentage of Americans who said they disapproved of the impeachment inquiry in December 2023. 
  • 47%. The percentage of Americans who said they approved of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into President Biden in October 2023. 
  • 52%. The percentage of Americans who said they disapproved of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into President Biden in October 2023.

The extras.

Yesterday’s poll: We’re continuing to improve how we provide our poll results, as our data visualization partners at Tako have taken up the baton. More improvements will come, but we hope you like the new direction!

“Perhaps it is not a bad thing to alert real estate investors that they can no longer over or under value their property as a regular practice. They should pay the same interest rates the rest of us pay,” one respondent said about Trump’s penalty for civil fraud.

Have a nice day.

Another person with the same name is famous for his time on SNL, but Virginia’s Chris Farley has a different claim to fame. For the past 25 years, he has run a marathon every year in under three hours. That streak seemed to be over this year when he completed the New York City marathon in just over his annual goal. Then his friends stepped up. Members of the running community organized the “NCR Last Chance” marathon on a paved trail in Baltimore County just to give Farley another shot at keeping his streak alive. And he came through, on December 27, finishing in 2:57:36. “I was just relieved and very happy,” Farley said. The Washington Post has the story.

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