Former Vice President Joe Biden is facing new questions about his role in the Russia investigation, and even though there is essentially no evidence of his wrongdoing, his seemingly contradictory comments have muddied the waters and prolonged the conversation.
In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has injected a heavy dose of conspiracy theories into the 2020 campaign by linking Biden to his claims of a “deep state” plot against his presidency.
There are literally reams of records — like court filings and sworn testimony — that shed light on the complicated backstory. Here’s a breakdown of Trump’s far-fetched accusations, Biden’s wobbly responses to basic questions, and the facts you need to know.
What are we talking about?
The basic premise of Trump’s baseless conspiracy theory is that former President Barack Obama and his aides took unprecedented steps in 2016 and 2017 to abuse the powers of the FBI and US intelligence agencies to investigate Trump’s campaign, spy on his associates, and hobble his presidency.
Specifically, Trump has claimed these surreptitious efforts targeted Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, and that “Biden knew” about it, which the evidence doesn’t support.
To further link Biden alleged wrongdoing against Flynn, the Trump administration declassified sensitive information about US intelligence reports that mentioned Flynn during the transition. Biden or one of his staffers accessed at least one of these reports, which Trump now says proves his theory.
The FBI investigated Flynn not because of a “deep state” plot, but because of concerns about his unusual phone calls with the Russian ambassador during the transition, and because he and other Trump officials publicly lied about those conversations. In the early stages of the investigation, the FBI was doing counterintelligence work to flesh out Flynn’s ties to the Russian government and understand the scope of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Flynn told several lies to the FBI when they questioned him about the calls, putting himself in serious legal jeopardy, because it’s illegal to lie to the FBI. He pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller.
How has Biden responded?
For his part, Biden has largely avoided addressing the conspiracies around the opaque “Obamagate” narrative crafted by Trump and his allies, calling it a “diversion” and instead hitting Trump on his fumbled US response to coronavirus, and issues like health care and tax cuts.
But Biden was asked about it directly in two television interviews last week. But Biden’s answers — and even the questions themselves — provided more confusion than clarity.
On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” host George Stephanopoulos asked a long-winded question about the Flynn saga. He invoked the Justice Department’s recent decision to dismiss the case, and then asked, “What did you know about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn?”
“I know nothing about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn,” Biden replied.
Moments later, Biden said he misunderstood the earlier question, explaining, “I thought you asked me whether or not I had anything to do with him being prosecuted.” In this context, his denial makes sense, because the “prosecution” of Flynn didn’t happen until December 2017.
That wasn’t the only misstatement during the interview. In a follow-up question, Stephanopoulos inaccurately said that Biden was told at a January 2017 meeting in the Oval Office that the FBI was planning to question Flynn about his suspicious contacts with the Russian ambassador.
“I was aware that there was, that they had asked for an investigation,” Biden responded, apparently referring to the FBI. “But that’s all I know about it. I don’t think anything else.”
Biden’s explanation fits with the voluminous record: At that Oval Office meeting, then-FBI Director James Comey told Obama and Biden that he was concerned about Flynn’s “unusual” communication with the Russian ambassador and that the FBI was looking into it.
Obama said the FBI should proceed “by the book,” but wondered if his aides should reconsider sharing classified information with Flynn, according to a recently declassified email from Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice.
There’s nothing in the public record indicating that Biden knew about the FBI’s plan to question Flynn. The decision was made after Biden left office and the FBI didn’t even inform the Justice Department until the agents were on their way, according to testimony from the key players.
Despite Trump’s claims, there’s no proof Obama or Biden knew beforehand that Flynn would be questioned by the FBI. This is a key point, because Trump claims that the FBI interview of Flynn was an illegal “set-up,” and that Obama and Biden were responsible for laying what Trump and his allies have called a “perjury trap.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment for this story. They declined to answer specific questions about the White House meeting and Biden’s knowledge of the Flynn investigation.
Did Biden later change his story?
Two days after the ABC interview, Biden did a virtual town hall on MSNBC, and was asked, “What was your involvement in the investigation of Michael Flynn and the FBI investigation?”
Biden responded with an adamant denial. “I was never a part or had any knowledge of any criminal investigation into Flynn while I was in office, period,” he said. “Not one single time.”
Trump’s allies pounced and claimed that Biden was caught in a lie. First, he told ABC that he knew about an investigation — but then he told MSNBC that he didn’t know. What gives?
A close reading of Biden’s comments suggests that he has some wiggle room to argue that he has been consistent. In the first comment, he said he knew “they,” presumably the FBI, were looking into Flynn. At that point, there was a counterintelligence investigation to figure out Flynn’s ties to Russia. In the second comment, Biden said he didn’t know about any “criminal” investigation.
It still isn’t clear when the Flynn counterintelligence investigation transformed into a criminal investigation. The Justice Department seized upon this fuzziness in arguing recently that Flynn should have never been interviewed by the FBI in the first place, and his case should be tossed.
The Biden campaign declined multiple requests to clear up the timeline of what Biden knew.
Biden didn’t get his point across in a clear and consistent fashion. And for someone trying to rebut a conspiracy theory, he inadvertently ended up giving more legs to the allegations. But his explanation makes sense when stacked up against the public record. And Trump, who is accusing Biden of gross abuses of power, has a well-established pattern of making false claims, and was himself impeached for abusing his presidential powers.
What has Trump claimed about Biden?
Biden hasn’t factored much into the conversation about the Russia investigation that has been going on since 2017 — his name doesn’t even appear in Mueller’s report. But this spring, Trump and his allies at right-wing news outlets, have tried to connect Biden to the Russia investigation.
“I think Obama and Biden knew about it,” Trump said Monday of the supposed plot to sabotage his presidency. “They were participants, so I’m a little surprised by those statements.”
Last week, Trump said, “President Obama and Vice President Biden, they knew everything.”
This conspiracy theory was quickly picked up in right-wing media, most prominently on Fox News, where “Obamagate” was mentioned more than “coronavirus” for two days last week.
What about unmasking?
Trump also focused on another element of the controversy — something called “unmasking.”
Information about Americans is anonymized in US intelligence reports for privacy reasons. But there are instances when US officials who read these reports need to see the full picture. To make that happen, they need to provide a justification to the agency that produced the report. If the agency grants that request, the information is “unmasked.”
This is a very routine practice — it is done by officials authorized to view these details and requests have ramped up in the Trump administration.
The Trump administration declassified new documents this month naming the Obama-era officials who requested the unmasking of an individual who ended up being Flynn. The Trump administration did not release the justifications that were given for the unmasking requests, and the documents on their own don’t indicate any abuses or wrongdoing — despite Trump’s claims.
The records indicate that Biden or a staffer requested an unmasking on January 12, 2017.
Biden has not commented publicly about this, and his campaign declined explain to CNN why he made the requests or what justification was provided to the National Security Agency. But the Trump-appointed NSA director said these requests were vetted before being approved.
The Biden campaign did release a blistering statement about unmasking last week, from spokesman Andrew Bates, who said Trump was trying to “distract” from coverage of his coronavirus response, and accused Republicans of “abusing” and politicizing US intelligence.
“Importantly, none of these individuals could have known Flynn’s identity beforehand,” Bates said. “These documents have absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation and they confirm that all normal procedures were followed — any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie.”
Despite the evidence that proper protocol was indeed followed, the Biden campaign’s limited rebuttals on this issue have been met with aggressive commentary from Trump, who said last week that Biden “was one of the unmaskers, meaning he knew everything about it.
What happens next?
There are no indications that Trump will back down his conspiracy-filled allegations against Biden. If anything, Trump’s campaign has signaled that it wants to keep this issue in the news.
With Biden unclear in his public comments, and his campaign unwilling to publicly provide a clear timeline of the facts as they see them, it will be easy for Trump to continue dominating the conversation. He has the largest megaphone in the world, and he’s more than happy to use it.