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Information used by the GOP in its impeachment inquiry of Biden may have been lies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

An informant named Alexander Smirnov told the FBI four years ago that Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, engaged in a bribery scheme to take millions of dollars from a Ukrainian energy company. Republicans on Capitol Hill pointed to it as evidence of criminal wrongdoing in their ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Biden. Turns out it was all a lie. That is according to an indictment against Smirnov brought yesterday by special counsel David Weiss. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis joins us now for more on this and what it means for a possible impeachment. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Sue, tell us. Who exactly is Smirnov, and what's he charged with?

DAVIS: So according to court papers, Smirnov has been a long-time FBI informant dating back to 2010. And he's charged on two counts - making false statements and creating a false and fictitious record. Now, Smirnov allegedly told the FBI back in 2020 that when Joe Biden was vice president, he and his son Hunter took millions of dollars from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company and used their influence to shield this company from investigators. Prosecutors say Smirnov made that all up. They say he also suggested he had a political bias, that he had made repeated negative remarks to his FBI handler about Joe Biden, even saying at one point in a text message that Biden was going to end up in jail - important to note, as you noted, Juana, this indictment was brought by David Weiss. He was a Trump appointed attorney, and he's also been leading a years-long investigation into Hunter Biden that has separately resulted in criminal charges for tax and gun crimes against the president's son.

SUMMERS: And so help us if you can understand how exactly Alexander Smirnov fit into the impeachment inquiry in the House.

DAVIS: Yeah. So he's been involved in one of the more high-profile allegations in the inquiry. House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer last year released a public letter to the FBI saying that they had received credible information from a whistleblower, which we now know to be Smirnov, that there was evidence of a criminal scheme involving Biden. The committee spent months publicly pressuring the FBI to release this information to the committee. At one point, Comer even threatened to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt over it. It was also cited by Speaker Kevin McCarthy last fall when he announced the House would move forward with its formal impeachment inquiry and why it was justified.

SUMMERS: Right. So then how much does this indictment undermine Republicans' case for impeachment against President Biden?

DAVIS: You know, it makes a weak case a bit weaker. Republicans have found a lot of damning things about the president's son, but they haven't offered clear evidence to date of impeachable offenses by the president. And you don't have to take my word for that, Juana. This is a point that has been raised by many Republican senators who would ultimately hold a trial if House Republicans were to pass articles of impeachment.

But Republicans are under a lot of pressure. They're under pressure from Donald Trump. They're under pressure from their base to impeach Biden. And House Republicans didn't really seem to blink at this indictment. In a statement, Comer criticized the FBI's handling of the investigation and pointed out that their inquiry is not reliant on this piece of information alone. The committee has been looking at other bank records and have other witness testimony that have made allegations about the president. But, again, no exact official act or crime I could point you to. But Comer did reiterate today impeachment still on the table.

SUMMERS: Sue, what have you heard from Democrats? How have they been responding?

DAVIS: You know, President Biden was asked about this today at the White House. He said it was reason for the inquiry to end. He said it's been an outrageous effort from the start. In a statement, Hunter Biden's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said it proves their longstanding defense that the impeachment inquiry has been built on a number of conspiracy theories. And there is some skepticism among House Republicans that the party hasn't made a strong enough case to sell impeachment to the public. This is clearly a setback in that regard.

SUMMERS: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.