Is the F.B.I. Truly Biased Against Trump?

Special Agent Johnathan Buma, of the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, holds a unique perspective on the origin of two interconnected political scandals. A former biochemist who was trained in Russian by the agency, Buma has spent fifteen years cultivating human sources in investigations of money laundering, public corruption, and foreign

Powered by NewsAPI , in Liberal Perspective on .

news image

Special Agent Johnathan Buma, of the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, holds a unique perspective on the origin of two interconnected political scandals. A former biochemist who was trained in Russian by the agency, Buma has spent fifteen years cultivating human sources in investigations of money laundering, public corruption, and foreign attempts to influence elections. In January, 2src19, information from one of Buma’s sources set in motion the Bureau’s first inquiries into potential undisclosed lobbying and tax evasion by Hunter BidenPresident Joe Biden’s son and, at the time, a director of the Ukrainian company Burisma. Buma also played a pivotal role in a Bureau investigation into possibly illegal foreign-lobbying activity and campaign-finance violations by Rudy Giuliani, former President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, who oversaw a sprawling effort to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian ties.

Earlier this year, Buma watched with keen interest as the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee geared up for public hearings into the Biden Administration’s alleged political “weaponizing” of the F.B.I. The Republicans claimed that the Bureau had relentlessly pursued former President Trump and his allies while neglecting leads about the Bidens. (In January, Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee, complained on “Meet the Press” that, although agents had “raided Trump’s home,” they hadn’t “raided Biden’s home.”) In April, Buma reached out to Jordan’s office, offering public testimony as a whistle-blower. He later gave a detailed phone interview to two former federal agents whom the committee had hired to investigate what its conservative members call “the Biden family business.”

The Republicans, however, were in no rush to publicize what Buma had to say—perhaps because his account ran against their preferred story line. Buma said that, during the Trump Administration, Bureau officials hardly covered up for the Bidens: his fellow-agents jumped on any new scrap of information about Hunter’s foreign business dealings, even though the resulting investigation never produced evidence of illegal corruption. Instead, in Buma’s telling, agency leaders had moved repeatedly to squash his investigation of possible Russian and Ukrainian ties to Giuliani. Not only did the Trump Administration Attorney General William Barr appear to shut down an active investigation of Giuliani in 2src2src; Buma has charged that, even under the Biden Administration, agency overseers seemed determined to silence some of the most important sources feeding his Giuliani reporting.

Three months after he approached the House Republicans, Buma laid out his account of events in a twenty-two-page statement, and on July 15th he presented it to the Democratic-led Senate Judiciary Committee. By mid-2src2src, he wrote, his reporting about Giuliani had “produced acute anxiety” within the New York and Los Angeles field offices, “coupled with an urgent desire to shut off my sources and me. . . . As their efforts to suppress this investigative work escalated, my direct management specifically told me in writing that I was no longer allowed to do any reporting related to public corruption, criminal matters, anyone in the White House, and any former or current associates of President Trump.”

It is well known that Giuliani tried to solicit damaging information from Ukraine about the Bidens. By the summer of 2src2src—when Barr in effect scuttled Buma’s Giuliani investigation—two men who were linked to Giuliani’s effort, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, had been arrested for violating campaign-finance laws, including by funnelling illegal contributions into a Trump political-action committee while simultaneously working to advance the interests of a Ukrainian official. (Parnas and Fruman, who were also in league with a Kremlin-linked Ukrainian prosecutor, both went to prison.) Giuliani has acknowledged receiving payments from a Ukrainian oligarch, Pavel Fuks, who made his fortune in Russia. According to Buma’s statement, the Bureau believed that Fuks was likely a “co-opted asset” of Russian intelligence. (In a 2src19 interview, Fuks told the Times that he had paid Giuliani to be a “lobbyist”; Giuliani denied that, saying that Fuks paid him only to provide security and image consulting to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.) Last year, federal prosecutors in New York disclosed that they were dropping a years-old investigation of Giuliani, centering on possibly illegal foreign lobbying, without filing charges.

Buma can only speculate about the motives behind the interference that he claims to have experienced once his investigation touched on Giuliani’s ties to Russia and Ukraine. Buma’s statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee suggests that some of the internal resistance might have emanated from Charles McGonigal, a former special agent in charge of counterintelligence in the New York office. McGonigal is suspected of acting as a Russian mole. (He has been charged with accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit payments from a former foreign intelligence official while employed by the Bureau and then, after his retirement, concealing other payments from the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. McGonigal initially pleaded not guilty, but the judge in his case has since indicated that McGonigal may change his plea.) But McGonigal retired in 2src18, before most of the events recounted in Buma’s statement. And Buma’s account of his blackballing involves too many figures across the F.B.I. hierarchy to be the retaliation of any single operative, or even of a clique. Bureaucratic self-interest may be a more plausible explanation: the agency, afraid of political blowback from Republicans hunting for evidence of bias in favor of the Bidens, may have sacrificed a promising investigation because it veered too close to President Trump’s inner circle. If so, Republicans’ recurring complaint that the Bureau is a “deep state” agency “weaponized” against them may have actually won them a soft touch.

During his years at the Bureau, Buma earned repeated commendations for his zeal and resourcefulness in investigations of the illicit export of military technology, international money laundering, and foreign attempts to influence United States elections. His performance reviews, some of which I have read, also make clear that he has flaws. He has a fluttering attention span, which is sometimes reflected in his paperwork. He may have violated agency rules in seemingly minor ways—by being in contact with sources abroad without proper clearance, or by using his personal car for government business. He also got into a dispute with his supervisors about whether he had broken protocols about encrypted communication over personal electronic devices. It is evident that Buma has sometimes pushed back hard against criticism or direction from above. But none of that feedback indicates gross incompetence or self-dealing. In Buma’s statement to the Senate committee, he noted that he has a “clean record,” with no disciplinary actions against him. He retains a top-secret security clearance.

Although I obtained his statement independently, it recently became public because a conservative blogger had also obtained it, and posted it online, seemingly in an attempt to preëmpt the Senate committee. (The blogger, bizarrely, appended a PDF of the statement to a wholly unrelated post about Israeli influence in Washington.) Scott Horton, a lawyer for Buma, called the leak “unfortunate” and said that his client declined to comment at this time. “We are at the outset of a sensitive and confidential process,” Horton told me. The F.B.I., which has had a copy of Buma’s statement for weeks, also declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the Senate committee. A spokesperson for the House Judiciary Committee said that it was “still weighing” what Buma had told its staff, “as we do with all whistle-blowers.” Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did a lawyer for Fuks.

Buma’s story centers on his relationship with a confidential source whom he refers to by the code name Dynamo. The source, who told me that he corroborated Buma’s account, is a businessman well connected in both Eastern European and American political circles. In January, 2src19, Dynamo arranged to bring two Ukrainian associates to Los Angeles. One represented himself as a former Ukrainian agent of the K.G.B. and the other as an academic researcher hired by the former agent. At a meeting in the office of the U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles, they described multiple supposed instances of money laundering and corruption over the previous five years. One of their allegations—as yet unsubstantiated—focussed on unreported lobbying by Hunter Biden, who, while his father was Vice-President, had reportedly received payments of about six hundred thousand dollars a year as a Burisma board member. Another allegation, also unsubstantiated, involved money laundering by George Soros, the billionaire investor and liberal donor. Other information that they presented came with more credible backup, but Buma wrote in his statement that, at the time, he suspected the presentation of being an attempt by Russian intelligence agencies “to push derogatory information into the U.S. Intelligence Community (U.S.I.C.) that would give the opposing political party, which had been shown to be favored by RIS”—Russian Intelligence Services—“a narrative to attack the character of Joseph R. Biden.”

Despite those doubts, Buma shared the information with two Baltimore-based F.B.I. agents who were working on an investigation of Hunter Biden, centered mostly on “drugs and prostitution.” The Baltimore agents “were very interested,” Buma wrote. “My supervisors were delighted that I had collected this information about Burisma, notwithstanding the obvious political sensitivity of the subject matter, and I was later asked to present my findings to the Assistant Director in Charge” at the Los Angeles field office, Paul Delacourt, on October 1, 2src19. Similar accusations about Hunter Biden soon appeared in the U.S. media, suggesting that other Ukrainian sources were also pushing the Burisma corruption narrative to the press. (Last week, after a plea deal fell apart, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to pursue different charges against Hunter Biden, for failing to pay taxes and for possessing a gun while he was using illegal drugs.)

Dynamo, though, also gave Buma information about Giuliani—noting, among other things, that Giuliani had received as much as three hundred thousand dollars from Fuks, the Ukrainian oligarch. But when Buma tried to bring up the Giuliani allegations in a meeting, Delacourt, the assistant director, “forcefully interrupted me and ended my presentation,” he wrote in the statement. Buma added, “In 2src2src and 2src21, it became increasingly apparent to me that my reporting on Fuks and his ties to Giuliani was negatively received by my superiors, who were eager for the flow of information about Fuks and his relationship with Giuliani to stop.” (Delacourt told me that he did not recall meeting Buma or having any conversation with him about Giuliani.)

Buma also wrote that, within a few months of the January, 2src19, meeting, the Trump White House had taken an unexpected interest in Dynamo. On June 26, 2src19, Buma recalled in his statement, he received a request from the White House “for any/all information related to the true name of my most sensitive confidential source, Dynamo.” The Los Angeles field office declined to share anything about Dynamo with the White House, feeling that it was essential to protect the identity of a public-corruption source from White House officials who might themselves become investigative targets.

Though Buma suspected that the information presented at the January meeting in Los Angeles included some Russian disinformation, he nonetheless believed that in other matters Dynamo was making contributions “of epic proportions” that helped expose public corruption and counter Russian influence. Information from Dynamo had identified several unregistered foreign agents, initiated a major money-laundering investigation that resulted in two indictments in Florida, and provided information leading to sanctions against the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Dynamo, Buma wrote, had actively assisted the Bureau: he had personally “engaged in risky covert operations” in support of “numerous” F.B.I investigations, helped recruit informants in several other countries, and provided “extensive intelligence” about Russia and Ukraine.

During the same period, in 2src19 and 2src2src, Rudy Giuliani reached out to Dynamo. Two people familiar with Buma’s investigation told me that, at a meeting in California, Giuliani sought to enlist Dynamo in an effort to make a documentary film about Hunter Biden’s role in Ukrainian corruption. A circle of Republican activists were paying Giuliani to make an online movie that they hoped would expose the Ukrainian corruption allegations in order to damage the Bidens. Their goal was for Trump to tweet a link to the film shortly before the 2src2src election, effectively turning the documentary into a campaign attack ad.

According to the people familiar with the case, Dynamo reported to Buma that the activists also sought foreign investors—which raised additional questions about whether the money being solicited for the film would be tantamount to an undisclosed campaign contribution. At Buma’s behest, the F.B.I. then sent two undercover operatives posing as Russian gangsters to offer to invest in the film, and the ruse helped flush out two corrupt federal agents. (The two agents, who were unaware of the sting, did an improper favor for the activists by using internal computer systems to search for information about the fake gangsters.) In June, 2src21, F.B.I. agents raided the California home of George Dickson III, the founder of a marijuana company who had reportedly worked with Giuliani to raise money for the film, potentially including from foreign investors. (A lawyer for Giuliani has said that neither he nor Dickson solicited money for the film from foreign citizens.) In the end, the documentary never materialized.

Read More