In early May, House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) claimed in a news release that the FBI had information alleging that President Biden took a bribe while he was serving as vice president. From that date until a week ago Sunday, a period of about five weeks, Fox News mentioned the claim in just over 200 chunks of airtime.

Then, last week, former president Donald Trump was indicted on federal criminal charges. The number of mentions on Fox News topped 210 that week alone, with another 170 or so already this week. In part, that was a function of the FBI allowing every member of the oversight committee to view the document containing the allegation. In part, it was because the allegation against Biden served as a useful rhetorical counterpoint for the allegation against Trump.

It was not, however, an effective legal counterpoint, given the flimsiness of what’s been alleged. And you don’t have to take our word for it: A number of Republicans allied with Trump have similarly noted that the allegations are nothing more than that.

At issue is an interview recorded by the FBI in June 2020. A confidential source who had been working for the FBI for some time told the Bureau about a conversation they’d had with a Ukrainian executive, understood (thanks to interviews news outlets conducted with Republicans who’d seen the document) to be Mykola Zlochevsky, the founder of the energy firm Burisma.

Burisma, you will recall, is the company on whose board President Biden’s son Hunter once sat. After then-Vice President Joe Biden joined with other international leaders in calling for the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, given his failure to address corruption, the ousted prosecutor claimed that he’d been fired because Biden was trying to block an investigation into Burisma — an investigation that didn’t exist. Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani spoke with Shokin; Trump would later try to coerce Ukraine’s president into announcing an investigation into Biden.

The 2020 interview appears to have followed from information Giuliani passed to the Bureau. As we reported earlier this week, Giuliani had reportedly spoken with Zlochevsky in 2019, at which point he was told that the executive never spoke with Joe Biden while Hunter Biden was on the company’s board. But the confidential human source instead reportedly claims to have been told by Zlochevsky that the executive paid bribes of $5 million to each Biden and that he has tape recordings of conversations with them.

You’ll notice that this is very thin gruel. It’s the public understanding of what partisan politicians took away from a confidential FBI form documenting a conversation between the person speaking to the FBI and a third party several years prior. There’s no other evidence — no tapes, no financial transactions, no nothing — and at least one competing secondhand claim from Zlochevsky pointing in the other direction.

Yet, as Rep. Daniel S. Goldman (D-N.Y.) pointed out on Wednesday, this allegation is “the only thing that I hear my Republican friends talk about outside of this room.” Comer in particular has made the rounds amplifying the underlying claim while mostly focusing his investigatory efforts on getting the FBI to simply release the unredacted interview record.

But there have also been a number of occasions on which Republicans — including more Trump-friendly ones — have accurately pointed out the thinness of the allegations.

There was Grassley, for example, who appeared on Fox News earlier this month to discuss the claim that he himself had first helped elevate. The document, a form FD-1023, hadn’t yet been provided to legislators by the FBI, but both Grassley and Comer had already seen it.

Grassley was asked what the document alleged. But, nearly a month after he signed a letter claiming that it “describes an alleged criminal scheme involving then-Vice President Biden … relating to the exchange of money for policy decisions,” Grassley said he was “not going to characterize it.”

“There’s accusations in it,” he added later, “but that’s — it’s not for me to make a judgment about whether these accusations are accurate or not. It’s up to my job to make sure the FBI is doing their job.”

Grassley would later offer more information; he was the source of the public claim that the executive said he had tapes of the Bidens.

In an interview on Newsmax, Comer admitted that he didn’t know if the tapes actually existed.

“I can confirm they were listed in the 1023 that the FBI redacted,” Comer said. “We don’t know if they’re legit or not.”

He added that “we know the foreign national claims he has them,” which itself isn’t quite right: He knows the confidential source said the executive had them at some point before mid-2020. But that Comer wouldn’t attest to the legitimacy of the tapes — including their alleged content — is important.

In a Newsmax interview on Thursday, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was asked about the purported tapes. (That it is right-wing Newsmax that is so energetic about the idea that the tapes exist should probably not come as a surprise.) Did they exist?

“We don’t know,” Johnson replied. “Sen. Grassley’s never said that they exist.” Instead, he continued, Grassley had simply said that the source said he’d heard they exist.

The day before, Johnson appeared on a conservative talk radio show. He reiterated that the tapes might not exist — and that Zlochevsky might not be reliable.

“We don’t know, really, whether the tapes exist. We just don’t know that, whether this was just a bluff on the part of the — you know, whoever the executive was,” Johnson said.

On Tuesday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), not a member of the Oversight Committee, discussed the issue with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.

“I want to be very clear about something: Even what’s on a 1023 is an allegation,” he said on Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. What needs to happen, he said, is “to track down the bank records [and] to look for these 17 audio recordings,” which he said he knew about several months ago.

There are two important parts to this.

The first is that the FBI was wary of sharing the 1023 in part specifically because it was an unproven allegation. The FBI could interview anyone about anything; that doesn’t make the information gleaned from that interview accurate, particularly when being conveyed secondhand.

The second is that Gaetz is right: The committee could and should investigate the claims rather than simply throwing them out on right-wing cable channels. If Gaetz knew about this for months, it’s safe to assume that Comer and Grassley may have as well. Why didn’t Oversight dig up evidence of the alleged bribes as part of its exhaustive consideration of Hunter Biden’s finances, detailed last month?

So far, every claim about Biden and bribery in this context comes down to something someone says was told by this source to the FBI after his discussions with the Ukrainian executive. In Goldman’s summary, it’s “a three-year-old, secondhand, hearsay, uncorroborated rehashing of Rudy Giuliani’s bogus allegations that he got from corrupt Ukrainian officials.”

Even a number of Republicans aren’t willing to vouch for it much more than that.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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