The Real Backstory of the Disgraced “Whistleblower” at the Heart of the Biden Impeachment Case

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A little less than a year ago, Republicans in Congress were proclaiming that the testimony of a mysterious unnamed FBI informant implicated Joe Biden in a scheme to oust a Ukrainian official in exchange for a bribe. On Monday, that informant—who we now know is named Alexander Smirnov—was in handcuffs before a judge, charged with feeding the Justice Department false information, potentially on behalf of the Russian government. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

For Biden supporters, this twist could be almost comically satisfying—if it weren’t for permanent damage Smirnov’s testimony has already done in creating the public perception of a “Biden crime family.”

Smirnov, a 43-year-old dual American-Israeli citizen, seems like a character straight out of a bad spy thriller. He was arrested in Las Vegas last week as he was getting off an international flight and, according to prosecutors, preparing for another “monthslong, multicountry foreign trip.” Photos of him leaving detention after news of his arrest broke showed Smirnov in a leather jacket, his face entirely covered by a hat, mask, and scarf. Sketches from Monday’s court hearing show Smirnov to be an inconspicuous-enough bearded man in glasses with short-cropped brown hair. Reporters at the courthouse noted that Smirnov, who speaks Russian, made his plea in heavily accented English.

At the hearing, the government painted a picture of Smirnov as a wealthy, jet-setting serial liar with sketchy foreign connections. According to the government, Smirnov lived in Israel from 1992 to 2006 before moving to Southern California. Two years ago, he moved to Las Vegas with his partner, and the two live in a $980,000 condominium. He has more than $6 million in cash—something that makes him a flight risk, the government argued—and had, in recent months, transferred hundreds of thousands out of his accounts. He has been an FBI informant for more than a decade and spoken to his informant nearly every day, the Justice Department said. (The government has not said how Smirnov first became an informant.)

In a dramatic turn, the government said that they decided to re-arrest Smirnov just a couple of days after he was released in Las Vegas as the judge became concerned that Smirnov was plotting to leave the country. DOJ officials tracked Smirnov’s ankle monitor to his attorney’s office, where they took him into custody. They considered it less risky than arresting him at his home, since he had nine handguns at the condo where he lives.

It seems clear that Smirnov doesn’t like Joe Biden. In the indictment, the government claimed Smirnov expressed “bias” against the president, with accompanying screenshots of Smirnov’s texts with his handler in which he expressed enthusiasm for finding evidence against Biden. Biden, he texted, was “going to jail.”

Smirnov also seems to be a chronic liar. The DOJ has said that he lied about his own wealth, for example, and has been fabricating allegations about the Biden family since 2020—and as recently as September. (Smirnov’s attorney has attributed some of the discrepancies to miscommunications related to Smirnov’s limitations in English. He also highlighted Smirnov’s lack of a criminal background, his ties to a cousin in Florida, and a serious eye condition as factors that made him less likely to flee.) The prosecutors also said he claimed to have a “security business” in California but could not find evidence of that business from bank records. Instead, they found “large wire transfers from what appear to be venture capital firms and individuals.”

The FBI relies on informants to get connections to shady people and networks. So it’s not surprising that someone like Smirnov, who would provide intel on oligarchs and potentially corrupt foreign entities, would not be the most reliable person. The FBI tried to make that clear by emphasizing the unreliability of Smirnov’s testimony even as Republicans latched onto it. But while both parties are liable to make similar mistakes in service of smearing their own enemies—there were, after all, unverified accounts in the Steele dossier—Republicans may have hitched their corruption claims not just to a politically motivated fabulist but to an actual tool for Russia’s foreign aims.

The prosecution’s detention memo says that Smirnov had “admitted that officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing a story about [Hunter Biden].”  And, the memo noted, he has often claimed to have close ties to Russian intelligence officials and said that he planned to meet with Russian intelligence again. “He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November,” prosecutors said in the filing that successfully sought to revoke Smirnov’s bail. “Smirnov’s contacts with Russian officials who are affiliated with Russian intelligence services are not benign.”