Hunter Biden (left) with Joe Biden and Jill Biden at Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural parade. Photo by Ben Stanfield.
If anyone wants to understand the context of President Donald Trump’s interest in Hunter Biden’s Ukraine business dealings, a good place to start would be a courtroom in Batesville, Arkansas where Biden is being sued for child support.
While most major American news outlets have paid scant attention to the case, Britain’s Daily Mail reported last week that Biden sought to seal his financial records, citing fears that the media would use such information “maliciously” if it were publicly disclosed. Meanwhile, Biden reportedly told Circuit Judge Don McSpadden that he is “unemployed and [has] had no monthly income since May 2019.” This is exactly when Biden left the board of Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company that had paid him a reported $50,000 per month for five years. His tenure began while his father, Joe Biden, was the U.S. vice president and closely involved in American policy toward Ukraine, and ended after the senior Biden announced his bid for the presidency.
Hunter Biden also told the court that he has incurred “significant debts” that his accountants were still calculating, and that for this reason he was unable to provide a statement of financial means at a hearing that was scheduled for Monday.
That hearing never happened. Just before it was to begin, Biden’s attorneys filed a motion seeking to withdraw, citing an “irreconcilable conflict” with their client. They then disclosed that, through another attorney, Biden had advised them that they were being discharged. McSpadden set a new hearing for Jan. 7, allowing Biden that much time to find a new legal team. The same order specified that both parties must file completed financial records with the court no later than Dec. 12.
The lawsuit was brought by Lunden Alexis Roberts, who was reportedly working as a dancer at a Washington club when she met Hunter Biden in 2017. At the time, Biden was in a relationship with the widow of his late brother and had just been divorced from his wife, Kathleen. He initially denied paternity of Roberts’ child, born in August 2018, but court documents reported by the Daily Mail show that a DNA test confirmed Biden is the father. Last May, a month after he and his brother’s widow confirmed that they had ended their relationship, Biden married Melissa Cohen. Biden had met Cohen, a native of South Africa (now a U.S. citizen), about one week earlier.
Hunter Biden has acknowledged a history of substance abuse. His professional career as a banker, lawyer and lobbyist has always been associated with his father’s rise to prominence in the nation’s political power structure. A charitable way of looking at his convoluted business dealings is that some of them – notably including the Burisma post – amounted to a financial bailout of a troubled man and his family. A somewhat less charitable, though perhaps more realistic, view is that when your father is a senior senator, a U.S. vice president or a potential future president, a lot of people want to buy their way into your family’s favor.
This brings us to the propriety – or, to many of the president’s critics, the impropriety – of Trump’s interest in having Ukraine’s new government investigate the former Biden business links in that country, and the juxtaposition of that interest with Trump’s delay in releasing congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. The House Intelligence Committee this week classified that interest as an abuse of power by the president, intended to benefit his potential 2020 campaign against Joe Biden (or a presumably weaker Democratic opponent if Biden’s campaign was compromised) at the expense of the national interest. The committee portrayed involving a foreign government in such an effort as a further abuse of presidential power, and potential grounds for impeachment.
Let’s try to decipher which piece is improper, and why. To begin, imagine that instead of Joe Biden’s adult child, Burisma has instead hired the child of Hillary Clinton or John Kerry, both of whom served as secretary of state in the Obama administration. Ordinarily, it is the State Department’s job to represent the United States to foreign governments, although – as I have recently written – presidents often choose other emissaries. Neither Clinton nor Kerry are running (so far, anyway) for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination. Would it have been wrong for Trump to ask a foreign government to investigate the propriety of financial dealings between one of its companies and the family of a former high-ranking U.S. official if that official were not running for president? How else would he be able to probe a foreign entity that is outside the reach of U.S. subpoenas and grand juries?
If that sort of request would not have been improper, then are we saying that by declaring his own candidacy, Joe Biden put the past financial dealings of his son and the implications for his family off-limits for the Trump administration to question? Would we get a different answer if Trump had asked the U.S. Justice Department (run by an attorney general Trump appointed) to investigate, rather than the Ukrainian administration?
None of this necessarily means that Joe Biden, or his son for that matter, did anything illegal. The younger Biden’s decision to take a lucrative yet undemanding position is not inherently improper, even if it now seems evident that Hunter Biden has very little commercial value other than his family name, at home or abroad. Yet something that is perfectly legal can still look bad. Even the Obama administration seems to have recognized this at the time, although it did not intervene. It would have been a simple matter for Joe Biden to recuse himself from any dealings with Ukraine due to his son’s activities; a vice president has no constitutional responsibility regarding foreign policy anyway. That he did not do so either shows his devotion to his son’s welfare or his lack of concern about the appearance of influence buying, or quite possibly both.
Biden is not responsible for the independent activities of his adult family members. And he is far from alone in having some relatives engage in lucrative yet questionable transactions. Bill Clinton gave speeches to foreign groups, for which he was well-paid, while his wife was secretary of state. It is not clear that either Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton actually had very much influence over foreign policy in the Obama administration. Absent a showing of improper influence, their relatives’ financial dealings do not necessarily break any laws, or even compromise any American interests. It is only in recent times that most of the American press has begun to treat (usually leaked) news of an investigation itself as evidence of wrongdoing.
Any decent parent in Joe Biden’s place would have been concerned about the welfare of an adult child with Hunter Biden’s history. There are plenty of people, at home and abroad, who would seek to exploit such concern for their own ends. This is not Joe Biden’s fault, but it is his responsibility to recognize it. A politically connected foreign company gave his son a financial bailout while Biden was a senior official in the U.S. government. The circumstances surrounding that bailout are fair game for inquiry, regardless of Joe Biden’s status as a candidate.