Jul 24, 2023

The IRS whistleblowers.

The IRS whistleblowers.
Two IRS whistleblowers are sworn in to testify before their hearing. Image: Screenshot / CSPAN

What did we lean from their testimony?

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: 11 minutes.

Today, we're breaking down testimony from the IRS whistleblowers who said their investigation into Hunter Biden was impeded. Plus, a reader question about journalism and science.

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Quick hits.

  1. The Justice Department is threatening to sue Texas over the use of buoy barriers that were placed in the Rio Grande river to deter migrants. (The threat)
  2. The House passed an aviation bill to increase funding for air traffic controlling hires, improving airports, and updating airport security. (The bill)
  3. A tornado in North Carolina damaged a Pfizer plant that makes anesthetics and other common drugs in hospitals, creating new concerns over shortages. (The concerns)
  4. Israeli parliament passed a contentious law limiting the power of the Supreme Court just hours after tens of thousands of Israelis marched 45 miles in protest of the legislation. (The law)
  5. At least 18 people have died from heat-related causes in Phoenix during a record-breaking heat wave, with 69 more deaths being investigated. (The deaths)

Today's topic.

The IRS whistleblowers. On Wednesday, two whistleblowers from the Internal Revenue Service testified in front of Congress about the investigations into President Biden's son, Hunter. The whistleblowers, IRS special agent Joseph Ziegler and his supervisor Gary Shapley, alleged that the U.S. Attorney for Delaware David Weiss and other prosecutors slow-walked the case and showed preferential treatment for the president's son. Shapley first went public with his allegations in June, but Ziegler was not identified until last week.

In June, Hunter Biden reached an agreement with the Justice Department, pleading guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges while avoiding further prosecution on a more serious gun charge. Critics of the agreement suggested the deal was soft on Biden, an allegation buttressed by Ziegler and Shapley, who said they had noticed irregularities in the case’s handling and were then sidelined after voicing their concerns.

"There should not be a two-track justice system based on who you are and who you’re connected to," Shapley, a special agent in the IRS criminal division for 14 years, said. "Yet in this case, there was."

During the testimony, Ziegler insisted that Hunter Biden was guilty of felony charges, including falsely claiming business deductions for payments he made to a drug dealer, to a sex club membership, and to Columbia University for his daughter’s tuition.

Shapley also implicated a Delaware prosecutor named Lesley Wolf, saying she blocked search warrant requests for President Biden's residence and also halted questioning about the elder Biden during witness interviews, even in cases where the president had been referenced in his son's business communications.

In an interview with CBS News, Ziegler added that he "felt handcuffed" during the investigation and was blocked from pursuing leads that he thought might implicate President Biden.

While the testimony included hours of questions from Republicans and Democrats, there were several controversial moments and partisan spats during the hearing. Most notably, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) used part of her floor time to display nude photos of Hunter Biden engaging in sex acts while asking whether he committed crimes of human trafficking. Democrats expressed disgust at the move and members of the committee challenged the appropriateness of displaying the photos during the hearing.

Democrats also alleged that, even after years of investigations, House Republicans have failed to show evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden. “Despite years of obsession and countless wasted taxpayer dollars on a wild goose chase, the @HouseGOP hasn’t offered a single credible piece of evidence of wrongdoing by the President,” Ian Sams, a White House spokesman, wrote on Twitter. “This waste of time reflects the extraordinarily misplaced priorities of House Rs.”

Democrats framed Shapley and Ziegler's testimony about investigatory decisions as normal disagreements among investigators. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) called the differing accounts a "traditional tug-of-war" between prosecutors and investigators, just as the indictment of former President Donald Trump focused on mishandling of classified documents, despite investigators saying they also found other violations.

On Thursday, Republicans released a copy of an unverified tip recorded in an FD-1023 form, which FBI agents use to record source data, that tied President Biden to payments from Ukrainian energy firm Burisma during his tenure as vice president. The form details accounts from a confidential FBI source with secondhand allegations that Burisma's CEO and founder thought having Hunter on its board would insulate the company from investigation, and that he sent millions of dollars to Hunter and then-Vice President Joe Biden. 

Today, we’re going to break down some commentary about these allegations and the testimony from the right and left. Then, my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say the testimony was stunning, and the reliability of the investigation into Hunter is now in doubt.
  • Some argue that Attorney General Merrick Garland is protecting President Biden.
  • Others say the FBI is covering up "shocking corruption.”

National Review's editors said the "jaw dropping" testimony has established three things.

"First, the investigation into Biden corruption — millions of dollars pouring into the family coffers from apparatchiks of corrupt and anti-American regimes seeking to buy Joe Biden’s political influence — is real and has been thwarted by the Biden Justice Department," the editors wrote. "Second, the president’s son Hunter Biden received preferential treatment, and, next week, a federal judge should reject the sweetheart plea deal he was given by the Justice Department. Third, Attorney General Merrick Garland owes the country an explanation for why the Biden investigation has been sabotaged from within, even as he maintains publicly that it was conducted with independence and integrity."

Shapley and Ziegler "recounted being blocked at every turn by Justice Department prosecutors as they tried to go about the routine steps investigators would take in any case," the editors said. "The day before they planned to conduct interviews of Hunter Biden and other investigative subjects, the FBI alerted the Secret Service, which tipped off the Biden transition team." Hunter and most other subjects "then refused to speak to the IRS." Lesley Wolf, the lead prosecutor from David Weiss's office, "forbade them from pursuing investigative leads that could potentially connect the president himself to the Biden family business — instructing them not to ask questions about Hunter’s 'dad,' or about 'the big guy' (as we now know several investigative subjects referred to the now-president)."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it's getting harder to believe Attorney General Merrick Garland’s claim that there was no interference in the Hunter Biden case.

The IRS agents say the Justice Department interfered "by tipping off Hunter’s legal team to a planned search and preventing questions related to Joe Biden. They also said the IRS team didn’t have access to Hunter’s laptop or the FD-1023 document in which an FBI informant alleged that Joe and Hunter each accepted a $5 million bribe from Ukrainian energy giant Burisma."

Some Democrats "tried to dismiss this all as normal disagreement between investigators and prosecutors. But Mr. Shapley testified that Justice’s 'handling of the Hunter Biden tax investigation was very different from any other case in my 14 years at the IRS.' They were backed up by a new FBI whistleblower, a former supervisory special agent assigned to the Biden investigation." Shapley testified that [Delaware U.S. attorney David] Weiss "admitted to six IRS and FBI agents that he wasn’t the deciding authority," and that Weiss applied "and was turned down for special counsel status,” a detail that undermines what Weiss has said publicly. 

In Fox News, Andrew McCarthy said the whistleblowers reveal "who's really to blame" for shocking Biden corruption.

"When committee Democrats tried to poke holes in the testimony, they ended up on the receiving end of what they hadn’t bargained for: fusillades of fact — damning data about the millions raked in by the president’s son and family members from apparatchiks of corrupt and anti-American regimes," McCarthy said. Ziegler and Shapley have combined decades of experience in tax law and financial bookkeeping, and have been "involved in some of the most significant tax investigations" in the U.S.

As Shapley explained, "the case agents and line prosecutors agreed that felony charges were appropriate; it was higher-ups in the Justice Department who slammed the brakes on the case." The agents also stressed "that they were being ordered by prosecutors not to follow leads that could have garnered evidence against Joe Biden... There could be no more profound conflict than the Biden Justice Department’s being in the position of investigating President Biden’s son and other family members in an international corruption probe in which the president himself is deeply implicated... The culprit here is not Weiss. It’s [Attorney General Merrick] Garland."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left mock the right's obsession with Hunter Biden and say Republicans’ claims continue to fall short of the facts.
  • Some argue that the central issue here seems to be a misunderstanding or disagreement between prosecutors and agents.
  • Others say the IRS agents undermined the GOP before the hearing even began.

In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank mocked Republicans for denying they were obsessed with Hunter Biden.

“Last month, the president’s troubled son reached a deal with federal prosecutors in which he will plead guilty to two minor tax crimes and admit to a gun charge. [Chairman James] Comer declared it a ‘sweetheart deal’  — and said he had two ‘whistleblowers’ who could prove that Hunter Biden got favorable treatment because of his father,” Milbank wrote. “With great fanfare, he brought them before the committee Wednesday: two IRS agents (one dramatically advertised as ‘Whistleblower X’). The pair did testify that they believed prosecutors had gone easy on Biden for political reasons. But once again, Comer’s witnesses didn’t have the goods.”

“Their complaints about how prosecutors were handling the Biden case began in 2019 and continued in 2020, during the Trump administration,” Milbank said. “That’s when, the whistleblowers alleged, ‘junior varsity’ prosecutors in the Justice Department were engaged in ‘election meddling’ to benefit the elder Biden. So Trump’s DOJ tried to throw the 2020 election to Biden by giving his son kid-glove treatment? Makes total sense. There was also the inconvenient matter of the prosecutor who struck the deal with Hunter Biden being a Trump appointee — and that Trump-appointed prosecutor’s contradiction of the whistleblowers’ claims." Shapley even "admitted that government lawyers have disagreed with his prosecution recommendations 90 percent of the time."

In MSNBC, Barbara McQuade said this all feels "more like confusion" than conspiracy.

"Weiss explained one reason for the possible disconnect between what Shapley said he heard: a misunderstanding between two different types of prosecutors — a 'special counsel,' which is an attorney appointed under one set of regulations, and a 'special attorney,' which is an attorney appointed under a different set of regulations. According to Weiss, he never asked to be appointed a special counsel, which would have given the attorney general the power to overrule charging decisions," McQuade wrote. "It seems to me entirely possible that Weiss and Shapley were talking past each other — that Weiss was telling Shapley, correctly, that he would not be appointed a special counsel and that the agent interpreted that statement, incorrectly, to mean Weiss could not bring charges outside Delaware."

"I have also been in rooms where agents wanted to proceed in cases far more aggressively than the prosecutors, who must decide not only whether the evidence is sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction, but also whether charges are an appropriate exercise of discretion in light of the Justice Department’s Principles of Federal Prosecution, a series of considerations with which agents are unfamiliar," McQuade wrote. Some Republicans have called Hunter's plea a "sweetheart deal," but "his charges strike me as harsh, not lenient. In my experience, prosecutors seldom use scarce resources to charge misdemeanor tax offenses.” And "the charge of possessing a gun while using illegal drugs was one that we prosecuted only rarely in my former office."

In The New Republic, Tori Otten said the whistleblowers have "undermined" the GOP's case.

Ranking Member Jamie Raskin (D-MD) "already debunked" Republicans’ star whistleblowers’ testimony in a memo before the hearing even began. "'Both witnesses acknowledged it is very common for agents, supervisors, and prosecutors to disagree about investigative steps and charging decisions,' Raskin said." In addition, "Shapley previously testified that such disagreements happened with '90-plus percent' of his work. Meanwhile, [Ziegler] said that even his direct supervisors disagreed with his conclusion about the strength of the case against Hunter Biden."

"Both agents even previously acknowledged that the evidence wasn’t strong enough in certain cases to merit charges. But they have continued to cry foul over the investigation," Otten wrote. "Raskin also noted that many of the investigative decisions that the two IRS agents took most issue with actually happened under former President Donald Trump. Shapley and [Ziegler] disagreed with decisions made from September to December 2020, when Bill Barr was still attorney general... Weiss has already debunked several of Shapley’s claims, including that Weiss did not have final say on charging Hunter Biden and that the Justice Department blocked him from pursuing charges in D.C. and refused to grant him special counsel status."

My take.

  • The plea agreement Hunter Biden struck does not seem out of the ordinary, but the central question is whether this investigation was impeded.
  • Based on the testimony of two very credible witnesses, it certainly seems like it was.
  • At the very least, Attorney General Merrick Garland should testify under oath and explain what happened.

On the charges brought against Hunter, my general opinion remains the same: I think they were fine. For the tax crimes he plead guilty to and the gun crime he settled on, the punishment didn't seem that out of the ordinary or overly lenient. You can read my full opinion on that here if you missed it. 

But in that discussion, I also said there was a major caveat: “Gary Shapley, the 14-year IRS veteran… has complained under whistleblower protections that he witnessed deviations from the normal process while investigating Hunter.” So: Was the investigation stymied? The settlement could still be totally normal while the investigation itself was prevented from uncovering other, more serious charges.

And to that end, the answer we've gotten from Shapley and Ziegler is not encouraging.

Even if you accept the left's argument that much of this is merely a matter of prosecutor-investigator disagreement — which very well may be true — that doesn't address everything else they claimed. The whistleblowers said they never even got access to the FD-1023 form implicating President Biden that Republicans released last week. They were also not allowed access to Hunter's laptop. Wolf agreed with the agents they had probable cause to search Hunter's home, but denied the request due to optics. When the agents convinced Weiss to get a warrant for a commercial storage unit that Hunter had moved his documents into, Wolf  ultimately kept them from being able to access whatever was inside by alerting Hunter's lawyers about the unit.

These kinds of things seemed to have happened again and again, always keeping Hunter just out of reach of the investigators. And Ziegler and Shapley appear about as legitimate as they come. Not that it should matter, but Ziegler is a self-described Democrat and together, the two are about the most qualified duo of IRS investigators you can find — which is why they were put on this case in the first place.

In his Washington Post piece (under "What the left is saying"), Dana Milbank criticized Marjorie Taylor Greene's decision to show nude photos of Hunter Biden, listed all the ways Shapley and Ziegler said they disagreed with prosecutors, and then asked snarkily, "what does all this have to do with the bribery, money-laundering and influence-peddling that [James] Comer accuses President Biden of? Not much."

It's the worst kind of argument. Milbank is linking Greene's contemptible actions with testimony from two very credible whistleblowers and then dismissing them both.

The entire message from Shapley and Ziegler was simple: They believed they were stopped from conducting a full and complete investigation of Hunter Biden.

They did not say that such a total investigation would have led to incriminating evidence of President Biden, nor did they disagree with the idea that they might have had genuine, good-faith disagreements with prosecutors. But they did say that they were prevented from taking steps they considered normal and rational, and they made it clear they believed that was due to political concerns. And while this investigation did start under Trump's administration, Ziegler and Shapley are saying that it wasn’t until after Biden was elected that their attempts at finding new evidence were undermined.

All of the claims from Democrats and Republicans can actually co-exist. And when they do, it looks far worse for the Justice Department than anyone else.

Now it's up to Garland: If he and Weiss want to add context to these claims, refute them, or undermine them entirely, they should do what Shapley and Ziegler just did and testify under oath. 

Your questions, answered.

Q: With regards to Friday’s newsletter about the media, I wonder if there is another solution to add to your list. Does journalism needs to be treated more like a science, whether it be in journalism school at university or in practice? Both journalism and science are about the discovery of truth in a complex world. Both disciplines require (or should require) a rigid process to discover truth and report these observations to the public. Would treating journalism more like a science make a difference?

—Ned, from Henderson, Nevada

Tangle: I think you're onto something about journalism and science both being similar in their principles, because they both teach people how to discover truth. But I disagree with your suggestion about what that means. I don't think we should teach journalism more like we do science; I think we should simply teach journalism more.

Frankly, I don't see how treating journalism like a science would help journalists uncover their biases; and to be honest, I don't even know what 'treating journalism like science' would actually mean. But I do know what teaching media literacy means, and I think it's exactly what we need to do — at the high school and college levels.

Teaching media literacy will help us learn how to separate facts from opinion, good arguments from bad, and real news from fake.

When we published a piece last year about the ethics of having kids because of climate change, I remember a reader writing in to say that any discussion of what individuals could do to fight climate change was a distraction from the fact that corporations deserved all of the culpability. That argument really frustrates me, for two reasons: One, it robs individuals from having agency, and leads to a defeatist attitude that doesn't accomplish anything. Two, it ignores the role we have in corporate actions. Corporations are organizations of people, and people do what makes sense to them: If no one were buying, they wouldn't be selling.

Journalists absolutely can — and should — be better about the kind of partisan news they produce. I have been very critical of media organizations feeding into their own biases and stoking partisan divisions. I wrote about this on Friday, and frankly too many other times to count. But media bias is not just a "media problem" — it's an "us problem." If no one were buying biased and rage-inducing media, then they wouldn't be selling.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Efforts to begin industrial-scale seabed mining to extract car battery metals in the Pacific Ocean have been delayed after the International Seabed Authority concluded that it needs more time to finalize mining rules. The decision is expected to most directly impact the Metals Company, a Canada-based mining startup that pursued the first license for industrial-scale Pacific mining. Metals Company teamed up with the island nation Nauru in hopes of beginning its mining next year. Some environmentalists want to stop the mining entirely, while supporters hope the endeavor will be underway by 2025. The New York Times has the story.


  • $10 million. The size of the alleged bribe for then-Vice President Biden and his son Hunter from Mykola Zlochevsky, the founder of Burisma.
  • $80,000. The amount of money Hunter Biden made per month when he was first added to the board of Burisma.
  • 40%. The percentage of Americans who approve of Joe Biden's presidency, according to the latest Reuters poll.
  • 21%. The percentage of all respondents who cited the economy as their top concern.
  • 15%. The percentage of all respondents who cited crime or corruption as their top concern.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we didn't have a newsletter, but had just published a piece on everything we learned from the January 6 hearings.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter was the story we're covering today — whistleblowers in the Hunter Biden investigation.
  • Experiment unsuccessful: Last week we experimented with a change to our email subject lines, hoping to make our emails stand out more in your inbox, and we asked Tangle readers for their thoughts. 715 responded, 49% of whom were apathetic, with 26% saying they didn't notice and 23% saying they didn't approve or disapprove. 28% were in favor, with 9% strongly approving and 19% approving. 23% were opposed, with 15% disapproving and 8% strongly disapproving. We viewed this response as not strong enough to support the change — but expect us back in the lab again soon.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Images of a giant deep-sea oarfish.
  • Take the poll. What do you think the implication of the whistleblower testimony is for Hunter or Joe Biden? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

The city of Portsmouth, England, is having a go at maintaining its city spaces — by turning an abandoned shopping plaza into a community skatepark. The Pitt Street Skatepark is located in the city center and is seen as a way to help “unlock long-term regeneration opportunities.” The park's founder, Jacob Skinner, saw the vacated shopping center as an opportunity to give back, saying, “As a child, skateboarding was my outlet and I want to give others the opportunity to use it in a positive way." Local councilor Steven Pitt (no relation) sees the park as a community asset. "We know this area has huge potential to help transform the city centre and using empty spaces like this is a great way to start to unlock new community facilities and business opportunities while we develop long-term regeneration plans," he said. Good News Network has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.