Hunter Biden's alleged WhatsApp message fuels GOP assertions of corruption, even after plea
His plea deal with a Trump-appointed prosecutor has animated GOP claims.
The Justice Department's five-year probe into Hunter Biden lurched toward a conclusion this week with the announcement of a plea deal that will likely allow President Joe Biden's 53-year-old son to avoid prison. But that hasn't stopped congressional Republicans from levelling fresh accusations of corruption against the president and his family.
GOP lawmakers on Thursday released transcripts from two IRS whistleblowers who together complained in April that the Justice Department sabotaged investigators' efforts to level harsher penalties against the younger Biden -- an accusation at odds with statements made by the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.
The latest whistleblower allegations follow a string of investigative efforts by the GOP-led House Oversight Committee and its chairman, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., that have thus far yielded few meaningful results.
The White House has repeatedly downplayed Republican accusations as unfounded innuendo intended to harm President Biden's political standing. And the Justice Department on Thursday dismissed the claims by the IRS whistleblowers.
Rather than assuaging Republicans' longstanding focus on Hunter Biden, the plea deal his lawyers brokered with federal prosecutors this week appears to have only further animated lawmakers' efforts to target the Biden family. Republican leaders called the agreement, which still requires approval from a federal judge, a "sweetheart" deal that would undermine faith in the criminal justice system.
Here are some of the most recent Republican claims, what's known about them, and what's not.
'Sitting here with my father'
As part of their rollout on Thursday of allegations that senior Justice Department officials stymied the probe into Hunter Biden's taxes, congressional Republicans have seized on a July 2017 WhatsApp message in which the younger Biden purportedly threatened a Chinese business associate by invoking his father's political connections.
"I am sitting here with my father and we would like to understand why the commitment made has not been fulfilled," Hunter Biden allegedly wrote. "Tell the director that I would like to resolve this now before it gets out of hand, and now means tonight."
"And, Z, if I get a call or text from anyone involved in this other than you, Zhang, or the chairman, I will make certain that between the man sitting next to me and every person he knows and my ability to forever hold a grudge that you will regret not following my direction," the message continued. "I am sitting here waiting for the call with my father."
ABC News could not immediately verify the WhatsApp message. But Republicans say it undercuts President Biden's claim that he never discussed overseas business endeavors with his son. Ian Sams, a White House spokesperson, reiterated Friday that "the president was not in business with his son."
In July 2017, Joe Biden's term as vice president had already ended and he held no political office, despite what some Republicans incorrectly suggested on Thursday. At the time, Hunter Biden, by his own admission, was in the throes of his crack addiction.
Chris Clark, the lead attorney for Hunter Biden, condemned the GOP's "biased and politically-motivated leaks" in a statement on Friday afternoon, and sought to distance Hunter Biden's alleged words from President Biden.
"Any verifiable words or actions of my client, in the midst of a horrible addiction, are solely his own and have no connection to anyone in his family," Clark said.
Clark also cast doubt on the authenticity of the message: "A close examination of the document released publicly yesterday by a very biased individual raises serious questions over whether it is what he claims it to be."
If the message is in fact real and its contents taken at face value, it would certainly raise political and ethical questions for the White House. Hunter Biden and his uncles, James and Frank, have a lengthy record of invoking the family name to secure business deals without Joe Biden's knowledge, which could have been the case in this circumstance. But if Joe Biden wasn't in office at the time, it would not necessarily amount to evidence of a crime.
Other records released Thursday by the committee appear to conflict with their broader claim that President Biden was an active participant in Hunter Biden's business endeavors.
In his interview with the committee, for example, one of the IRS whistleblowers recounted an interview with one of Hunter Biden's business associates, Rob Walker, during which Walker said: "I certainly never was thinking at any time the VP was a part of anything we were doing."
The unproven Biden bribery claim
After months of hearings, Republicans in the House and Senate more recently turned their focus on an alleged "criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Biden and a foreign national relating to the exchange of money for policy decisions," as a May 3 press release from Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley framed it.
The FBI received the tip in June 2020, the lawmakers said, during former President Donald Trump's tenure. According to Republicans who reviewed the FBI document in question, known as an FD-1023, a foreign national who brokered the alleged $10 million bribe had made 17 audio recordings of his discussions with the Bidens.
On Tuesday, after weeks of contentious negotiations that culminated in the committee's threat to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress, Comer was given access the redacted FD-1023. He told reporters afterward that the exercise was "a total waste of my time," as more than half of the document, he said, was redacted.
"All I know is it mentioned Hunter Biden, Burisma, and there was some type of investigation with respect to fraud taking place," Comer told reporters, referring to the Ukrainian oil firm on whose board Hunter Biden once served. "But there was so much redacted that you couldn't really tell anything."
As a presidential candidate in September 2019, the elder Biden told reporters, "I've never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings." The White House has since reaffirmed that statement.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight panel, also had an opportunity to review the FD-1023 earlier this month and accused Comer of "recycling stale and debunked Burisma conspiracy theories." Raskin said the Trump-era Justice Department investigated the claims and, "in August 2020, Attorney General [William] Barr and his hand-picked U.S. Attorney signed off on closing the assessment."
Sams, the Biden White House spokesperson, called Republicans' bribery claims "yet another fact-free stunt staged by Chairman Comer not to conduct legitimate oversight, but to spread thin innuendo to try to damage the President politically and get himself media attention."
Investigating the investigators
Several high-ranking Republicans responded angrily this week when details of Hunter Biden's plea deal became public, directing their ire toward an unexpected target: the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney who brokered the deal, David Weiss. Under the plea agreement, which still requires a federal judge's approval, Hunter Biden will plead guilty to a pair of tax-related misdemeanors and avoid prosecution on a felony gun charge so long as he adheres to the terms of a pretrial diversion program.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy called the agreement a "sweetheart deal." Former President Trump called it a "mere traffic ticket." Several Republicans said it demonstrated a two-tiered criminal justice system that favors Democrats.
In response to the plea deal, Comer and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, signaled their interest in calling Weiss to testify before Congress.
Weiss had previously rebuffed Republicans' efforts to learn more about his investigation. In a June 7 letter to Jordan, Weiss said that he "must respectfully decline the Committee's request for documents and information at this time to protect confidential law enforcement information from disclosure," citing the fact that his investigative work was "ongoing."
Weiss also stated unequivocally in the letter that he had been "granted ultimate authority over this matter, including responsibility for deciding where, when, and whether to file charges."
Republicans have since seized on Weiss' statement -- made in his announcement of the plea deal -- that his "investigation is ongoing," which seems to contradict a statement from Hunter Biden's attorney, who said Tuesday, "It is my understanding that the five-year investigation into Hunter is resolved."
Comer told Axios he will request clarity from Weiss about "what he means when he says this is an ongoing investigation," as the ongoing nature of the probe could complicate lawmakers' efforts to learn more about the investigative underpinnings of the plea deal.
On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland told ABC News that he "would support Mr. Weiss explaining or testifying on these matters when he deems it appropriate."
"I certainly understand that some have chosen to attack the integrity of the Justice Department and its components and its employees by claiming that we do not treat like cases alike," Garland said. "This constitutes an attack on an institution that is essential to American democracy, and essential to the safety of the American people. Nothing could be further from the truth."