Of the many disputes that followed the leaking of Hunter Biden’s laptop contents, one of the thorniest has been the case of the April 2015 dinner at Cafe Milano.
Emails from the cache suggested that Hunter Biden hosted a dinner in a private room at the Tony Washington restaurant that included both his father and an executive from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which had appointed Hunter Biden to its board. An email from the executive, dated immediately following the dinner, thanked Hunter Biden for the chance to meet his father.
As the media litigated the controversy, the White House insisted, in increasingly forceful terms, that no meeting between Biden and the executive had occurred.
In October 2021, a year after the dinner became a matter of national controversy, a POLITICO article mentioning it prompted an email response from a White House spokesperson reiterating and extending denials that Biden had met the Ukrainian executive, Vadym Pozharskyi.
While some statements from Biden representatives could be construed as only ruling out that a formal meeting took place between Biden and the executive, the White House maintained its denial was more sweeping.
“Does this rule out any informal encounter with Pozharskyi in April 2015?” POLITICO asked.
“Yes,” the White House spokesman wrote back.
Then, this July, a former Hunter Biden business partner who was present at the dinner testified before the House Oversight Committee. Under penalty of perjury, Devon Archer said that the Ukrainian executive did dine with Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and several others at Cafe Milano in April 2015.
Asked to reconcile this discrepancy, the White House did not address the question of whether Biden and the executive met at the dinner. Instead, a second spokesperson responded, “As we have said many times before, the President was not in business with his son or anyone else in the family, and House Republicans’ own witnesses, including Devon Archer, have testified that the President never even discussed business with his son.”
The explicit White House denial of even an informal encounter, reported here for the first time, was not the only time that statements made by Biden and his camp about Hunter Biden’s dealings have been contradicted by others.
Joe Biden and his representatives have repeatedly defended him from criticism related to his relatives, his son in particular, by issuing blanket denials of misconduct and disclaiming contact with their business affairs.
But, in recent months, as congressional Republicans have opened an impeachment inquiry and controversies related to Hunter Biden continue to be litigated in the courts and in the public square, a steady trickle of revelations have contradicted the president’s denials.
A POLITICO review of recent congressional testimony and exhibits, along with court filings and media reports, casts doubt on several statements made by Biden and his representatives.
They include the president’s claim that he has never discussed his relatives’ business dealings with anyone and his suggestion that the appearance of emails apparently belonging to his son was the result of a Russian plot, as well as Biden’s denials that his son made money from China and that his relatives have profited off of the Biden name.
Republicans, meanwhile, have turned up no proof for the claims of Biden’s most zealous detractors: that he took official actions on account of his relatives’ business dealings. And as for the Cafe Milano dinner, there is no indication that Joe Biden discussed business or offered favors to the energy executive that night.
But, as with so much else related to the Hunter Biden affair, the president’s reliance on sweeping denials that end up being called into question by others has allowed the controversy to fester for years.
A Russian plot
Questions about the Cafe Milano dinner have persisted in part because of the doubt Joe Biden cast over the authenticity of emails describing the event.
In October 2020, the New York Post began publishing emails provided by Donald Trump’s ally and sometimes-personal attorney Rudy Giuliani that were purportedly taken from devices Hunter Biden had left at a computer repair shop in Delaware. In the wake of their publication, Joe Biden endorsed an alternative theory about the documents: “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plant” or “Russian plan” (his intended wording is unclear, and news organizations have quoted it both ways), he said at the final presidential debate that month.
The letter cited by Biden stated that “the arrival on the US political scene of emails purportedly belonging to Vice President Biden’s son Hunter … has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation,” while asserting that the signers had no direct knowledge of Russian involvement.
Since then, the nature of the files has been a matter of ongoing controversy.
U.S. intelligence had indeed warned earlier in the campaign that Moscow was seeking to harm Biden’s candidacy by pushing unsubstantiated corruption claims related to the Ukrainian energy company, Burisma. But subsequent reporting has steadily accumulated to support the authenticity of the files, which a Delaware repair shop owner named John Paul Mac Isaac presented to Giuliani and which Giuliani passed on to the Post.
Mac Isaac sued POLITICO, CNN, Hunter Biden, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the Biden presidential campaign committee for defamation and civil conspiracy in 2022. The case remains pending in Sussex County, Del.
In September 2021, a book by a POLITICO reporter authenticated several emails from the laptop, including two at the center of the original New York Post articles, based in part on interviews with people with independent knowledge of the correspondence.
In March of last year, The New York Times reported that a combination of people involved in the federal investigation of Hunter Biden and people familiar with his business dealings had authenticated an unspecified number of emails from the cache. Later that month, The Washington Post reported that two forensic experts it commissioned had verified thousands more emails.
During the initial firestorm over the release of the files, Mac Isaac told news outlets that he had handed them over to the FBI a year earlier in late 2019.
Last November, CBS News reported that a forensic analysis it commissioned of a copy of the material turned over to the FBI “shows no evidence of tampering or fabrication.”
In March, Hunter Biden sued Mac Isaac for invasion of privacy, stating that “at least some of” the electronic files obtained by Mac Isaac belonged to Hunter Biden. A footnote in that filing specifies that Hunter Biden was not conceding Mac Isaac’s account of how he came into possession of those files.
But in June, House Republicans published interviews with two IRS agents who alleged mishandling of the Hunter Biden case. One of the whistleblowers, Gary Shapley, furnished notes of an October 2020, meeting he held with FBI agents to discuss the devices provided to the Bureau by Mac Isaac.
The notes show that the FBI found further support for the claim that Hunter Biden had left the devices at the repair shop: They include financial records showing that Hunter Biden shopped at a nearby cigar shop around the time the devices were dropped off and phone records showing calls between Hunter Biden and the repair shop.
The White House did not respond to questions about the computer files.
The Cafe Milano dinner
The question of whether Joe Biden met a Burisma executive at a dinner at Cafe Milano has been a subject of controversy since his son’s emails leaked three years ago.
Emails in the cache show that Hunter Biden and Archer, his then-business partner, arranged for a dinner with roughly a dozen other people at Cafe Milano on April 16, 2015. A tentative guest list Hunter Biden sent to Archer included a “Vadym” at the time the pair was working closely with Burisma executive Vadym Pozharskyi.
Other email traffic shows Hunter Biden informing an attendee “Dad will be there but keep that between us for now.” And an email from Pozharskyi to Hunter Biden from the morning after the event says, “thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent some time together.”
That email and the guest list email were among a set from the cache that were authenticated for POLITICO by two digital forensics experts granted anonymity to share their findings. One expert cited a fear of retaliation for weighing in on a political controversy, and the other said contractual obligations limited the matters about which he could speak publicly.
In addition to being verified by forensics experts, the thank you email’s authenticity was further attested to in an affidavit produced by an IRS investigator on the case, which was released by House Republicans in September.
“This email was received by the investigative team via an Electronic Search Warrant served on Google related to [Hunter Biden’s] Google email account,” the IRS agent, Joseph Zeigler, wrote.
At the time of the dinner, Joe Biden was heading U.S. anti-corruption initiatives in Ukraine. They included efforts by the State Department to recover assets allegedly obtained corruptly by Burisma’s owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had granted the company lucrative resource licenses while serving as the country’s ecology minister. Zlochevsky has denied wrongdoing.
While attendees of the Cafe Milano dinner agree that Joe Biden was present, his representatives issued repeated denials of any meeting between the then-vice president and Pozharskyi.
And some attendees of the dinner had made public statements that bolstered the notion that, despite the emails suggesting a Biden-Pozharskyi encounter, the two men had never met.
One attendee, Rick Leach, who served as president of the non-profit World Food Program USA at the time of the dinner, told POLITICO he did not believe Pozharskyi had been present. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t remember that name. I don’t remember that person at all.”
In October 2021, a White House spokesperson emailed POLITICO to request that an article be updated to reflect that the president’s representatives denied not only a formal meeting, but any meeting whatsoever. The official cited a statement from campaign spokesman Andrew Bates to USA Today that Biden and Vadym Pozharskyi “never had a meeting.”
While a previous Biden camp denial made reference to “official schedules” — language that potentially left open the possibility of an off-the-books encounter at a dinner — the White House spokesperson assured POLITICO that Biden had not even had an informal encounter with Pozharskyi.
But in July, Archer, who pursued a range of ventures with Hunter Biden during the Obama era, testified to the House Oversight Committee about their dealings. Archer, who was convicted in 2018 of defrauding a Native American tribe as part of a scheme in which Hunter Biden was not implicated, had attended the Cafe Milano dinner.
Archer testified that both Pozharskyi and Joe Biden also attended the dinner, an account that is consistent with Hunter Biden’s leaked emails.
Archer’s testimony specifically contradicted claims relayed in a Washington Post fact-check that Biden had not even sat down at the dinner and had only spoken to one other attendee: Alex Karloutsos, a Greek Orthodox cleric.
“That’s not correct reporting,” Archer testified.
Archer said the then-vice president ate dinner along with the group. “I remember just a regular dinner where there was a table of conversation,” he told House investigators.
Biden’s alleged contact with a Burisma executive is a sensitive matter in part because of claims, promoted by Trump’s allies during the last presidential campaign, that Joe Biden demanded the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor who had been investigating Burisma on account of his son’s position with the company.
But subsequent investigations failed to bear out that claim: Officials familiar with U.S. policy on Ukraine testified to Congress that the firing of the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was consistent with that policy, and Senate Republicans found no clear evidence that Hunter Biden’s board position led to changes in U.S. policy.
Questions about Biden’s alleged contacts with Pozharskyi have resurfaced, though, with the publication of an unverified allegation made by an unnamed FBI informant that echoed the initial claims of Trump’s allies.
The informant claimed that Burisma’s owner said privately that he was pressured by Joe and Hunter Biden into bribing them for help resolving Burisma’s legal issues, including Shokin’s firing. The informant first mentioned Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma in a 2017 conversation with the FBI, according to an agency form recording his allegations, which was obtained by congressional Republicans and made public in July. The bureau re-interviewed the informant, whose identity remains secret, in 2020, after the Trump Justice Department began scrutinizing claims about Shokin’s ouster.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr, who served under Trump,