WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has retweeted an audio recording that U.S. intelligence officials have described as being part of a Russian campaign to denigrate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The leaked conversation, purportedly between Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, dates from Feb. 18, 2016. The excerpt of it retweeted by Trump centers on the ouster of Ukraine's chief prosecutor, who had previously investigated the owner of a Ukraine energy company where Biden's son, Hunter, once held a board seat.
By amplifying the recording to his more than 85 million Twitter followers, Trump underscored the ease with which pro-Russian narratives can seep into American public discourse ahead of the 2020 election even after being flagged by intelligence officials as the product of a concerted Russian effort. Russia has also published disinformation under the guise of legitimate news stories, U.S. officials say, reflecting something of a shift in tactics from 2016, when Russia relied on a social media campaign to sow discord and orchestrated the release of stolen Democratic emails to boost Trump's candidacy.
The White House did not immediately return a message seeking comment on Monday. But the Biden campaign accused Trump of having “habitually attacked the sovereignty of American elections," including by “attempting to coerce his Ukrainian counterpart into spreading conclusively-disproved lies.”
That is a reference to a July 2019 phone call in which Trump encouraged his Ukraine counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Biden and his son. The call was at the center of the impeachment case against Trump that ended with his acquittal by the Senate in February.
“Donald Trump is the most hostile president to American democracy in our history,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in the statement.
Andrii Derkach, a member of Ukraine's parliament and a 1993 graduate of a Russian spy academy who long has aired corruption allegations against Biden and his son, released this year what he says are recordings of conversation between Poroshenko and Biden when Biden was vice president during the Obama administration. That effort was flagged in a U.S. intelligence assessment earlier this month that warned of Russian interference in the upcoming election, and specifically efforts to denigrate Biden.
“For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” said the statement from William Evanina, the U.S. government's chief counterintelligence official.
In the conversation retweeted Sunday night by Trump, Poroshenko can be heard telling Biden that he had accepted the resignation of prosecutor Viktor Shokin “despite of the fact that we didn't have any corruption charges, we don't have any information about him doing something wrong.”
The Twitter user whom Trump retweeted posted that the leaked conversation revealed that “Shokin was not corrupt” and that there was no information to suggest he had done anything wrong, or that he had lost the support of powerful figures in Ukraine.
An anti-Biden narrative pushed by Trump and his supporters alleges that Biden, as vice president, pressured Ukraine's government to fire Shokin because Shokin had led an investigation into Burisma, where Hunter Biden had a paid board seat.
But Biden's position on Shokin, who was seen by critics as soft on corruption, reflected the broader position of the U.S. government and was also supported by other Western governments and many in Ukraine. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens, and Hunter Biden has denied using his influence with his father to aid Burisma.
A White House summary of the conversation available online does show that Biden and Poroshenko spoke on Feb. 18, 2016. But Poroshenko has generally rejected the tapes disclosed by Derkach as a fabrication by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP