Donald Trump stands accused of pressuring Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to investigate allegations of wrongdoing in that nation by former vice president Joe Biden, among Trump’s rivals for the election in 2020.
Adam Entous, a reporter for the New Yorker, first tackled the allegation that Biden had pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was looking into an oil and gas company, the Burisma Group—which employed Biden’s son Hunter as a board member—in a story published in July.
We asked Entous whether there was anything to the accusations, and how others might go about reporting out such a complicated and polarizing story. The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
As a starting point, could you talk a little bit about your New Yorker piece? What brought you to write it? What made it newsworthy, at the time?
Entous: The accusations mainly began with a conservative researcher named Peter Schweizer, who was the author of Clinton Cash. He had come out with a book in early 2018 that went into what he termed “corruption by proxy.” The idea was that foreign governments that want influence with politicians in the United States would sometimes throw business in the direction of their siblings or family members to try to curry favor with them. Earlier this year, it started to get a little bit more traction with a new twist in the allegations, which was that Joe Biden, when he was vice president, [pushed for Ukraine to dismiss] a prosecutor named Shokin, who was, according to the accusation, investigating Burisma at the time.
And so my assignment was, basically: get to the bottom of it. Is there any “there” there? I gradually decided, “You know what, I’m just going to reach out to Hunter.” And so I sent him an email, and a little bit to my surprise, he said that he’d be willing to talk with me, walk me through everything. And so the story, which began as a “get to the bottom of these allegations swirling in the mainly conservative press,” became something else. It became much more of a personal account about his struggles, not only in business, but also with drugs and alcohol.
Related: “I had to rewind this to believe what I was hearing”: The media’s missteps in the Ukraine scandal
So what was the answer to the question? Is there any “there” there?
So when he took this job, he didn’t talk to his father in advance. He told me that was part of a long-standing arrangement that he and his siblings had, where they wouldn’t talk to [their father] about these activities. I can understand the criticism of Hunter’s decision to take this position on this board at a moment when his father was overseeing the policy. When you look at it further, particularly when it comes to some of these allegations in the conservative media—did they take the argument farther? What they said was that Biden used the power of the vice presidency, in this case that Ukraine had this prosecutor fired. When I looked into that, I found from talking to senior members of the Ukrainian government, talking to senior advisers to Biden, talking to members of the company in question—I found that the allegation, as best I could tell, was not true. That Biden didn’t use his office to protect his son.
What’s the relationship between the concept of “corruption by proxy” and the concept of nepotism? What’s the allegation, really?
The basic argument is that foreign governments—the Chinese government, Ukrainian oligarchs—are enriching the kids to influence the parents. It’s not a completely crazy concept. I think that it is legit to raise the question, but [Schweizer] should have looked, in my opinion, a little bit further, to see whether in fact there was any adjustment. What he’s doing in the book is just raising the question. He brings together what he claims are facts but actually are completely unrelated things. For example, Hunter Biden—around the same time as he’s joining the board at Burisma—is going to the White House with one of his business partners, Devin Archer. And the idea is that they must have gone there to meet with Joe Biden to discuss [the gas company].
[Schweizer] didn’t have much of a chance of actually directly speaking to the principals here. So when I asked them, you know, “Hey, what was…the deal with that White House visit?” Archer put his son on the phone with me—maybe he was seven at the time, something like that. His son said he was working on a school project to basically do a model of the White House. When Hunter had heard that, he invited him and cleared him in with the Secret Service to come in there to walk around.
This is something I think a lot of journalists unfortunately tend to do when we don’t understand. We see coincidences and we automatically assume that there must be some nefarious intention there. But if you actually poke a little, if you look a little more closely, you often find that it’s not nefarious. If [Schweizer] had done more human reporting, actually talking to people instead of just looking through calendars and looking at press reports and lining everything up in chronological order—if he had actually talked to people, he would’ve gotten closer to the truth.
I found that the allegation, as best I could tell, was not true. That Biden didn’t use his office to protect his son.
How should reporters, or how should media coverage, include the Biden allegations?
I’ll be honest with you—I’ve sort of struggled with that myself. The editors wanted me to make a firm pronouncement one way or the other on the allegations. And where I came down was it’s legit to question [Hunter Biden’s] activities, his decision to take the money from these companies at a time when his father was active. But at the same time I didn’t know enough to be able to say outright that the allegations are false. I find it hard to do that as a reporter. It was a line that we kinda went over and over, back, over and over again, because I prefer to just spell it out in the story, lay it out. I wanted to just lay out all the comments from people in order to show what I found. This allegation is not backed up by what I found, talking to people.
There are just, frankly, too few journalists who are trying to go carefully back and figure it out. Because people don’t have that much time to do their research. There’s so much appetite for it, and it’s a very hard story to get your hand around. It’s in another country, and most American journalists have no access to sourcing in Ukraine. It’s very hard to get information that you can trust. At the New Yorker, they let me spend the time. So I’m spoiled in that way.
So you talked about the importance of talking to people. How do you know when you’ve talked to enough people, and how do you know when you’ve talked to the right ones?
I think the answer to that is…you’ve never talked to enough people, but the deadline pressure causes you to eventually decide that you reached a critical mass. Basically, I try to come up with a chain of people that I feel like I need to talk to. And then people who are around those people. And then my goal when I go in is to talk to every single person on the chain. So I’m not getting anything that is hearsay. But, you know, I am not always successful. I’m working on a story right now that’s about a government agency. And so I talked to everybody who was the head of the agency, and then I talked to all of the deputies, and then I’ll hopefully talk to, you know, people that were lower down. Eventually, you get everybody’s perspective on it. The Hunter Biden story has been hard for most journalists, because Hunter has mainly been approached by journalists who were done with their reporting and…just asked [him] to confirm or deny details or facts.
So his experience with journalists has historically been one where people will come to him and they’ve already made up their mind, you know—“The story’s running tomorrow, so you’ve got to comment!” And so I try to avoid that whenever it’s possible. I have an expression: your hands should be soft. If you’re trying to catch a football—you’re not approaching it with a rigid theory. You’re willing to accept coincidences and unexpected twists. I don’t think that those unexpected twists make the story worse. I think they make the story more interesting, as long as it’s true.
In the instance where you’re trying to figure out about this White House visit, and you get on the phone with Archer’s son, who says, “Yeah, I had a White House project” —do you have to call the school and ask if that’s true?
So how deep do you go? Or, maybe, how wide?
I’ll give you a good example. Hunter told me that he sent his kids to this very expensive school. And it is all cut out of the story, but he told me he decided to send his kids to this school because he had met the kindergarten teacher, who remarked that her husband had been pushed in a pram with Joe Biden in Scranton when they were both babies. So I called up Sidwell [Friends School, in Washington, DC]. Nobody can remember the name of the kindergarten teacher. This was 1999 or something. So I tracked down the kindergarten teacher, who remembered and put her husband on the line. So I spoke to everybody to verify this, because I thought it would be actually quite a nice little part of the story. It ended up all getting cut out, but it took me about two weeks to find the kindergarten teacher, who had long since retired. That’s the kind of stuff I do.
And of course in a foreign country like Ukraine it’s not so easy because it’s very hard to speak the language. [Sources] may not speak English, the translation may be screwed up. You lose a lot of the nuances of the translation and then, you know, you don’t really understand, in these particular cases, it’s really complicated—the politics. It’s a really complex thing to try to reconstruct. The job’s not done. We’re still trying to talk to absolutely everybody and to understand why they said what they said, and then keep in mind that a lot of people are lying, for reasons that we don’t really know. And we don’t want them to lie on background. We want them to lie on the record. That’s the system.
Related: How I missed the Ukraine storyLauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.