While Democrats pursue the impeachment of President Donald Trump for pressuring foreign countries to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, they are left making an argument that is at once true and electorally and ethically compromising: What Trump did — and continues to do — was an impeachable abuse of power, and it should be considered separately from the question of what Hunter Biden did.
The problem for Democrats is that a review of Hunter Biden’s career shows clearly that he, along with Joe Biden’s brother James, has been trading on their family name for decades, cashing in on the implication — and sometimes the explicit argument — that giving money to a member of Joe Biden’s family wins the favor of Joe Biden. Democrats have been loath to give any credibility to the wild rantings of Trump or his bagman Rudy Giuliani, leaving them to sidestep the question of Hunter Biden’s ethics or decision-making, and how much responsibility Joe Biden deserves. Republicans, though, have no such qualms, and have made clear that smearing the Bidens as corrupt will be central to Trump’s reelection campaign. The Trump approach is utterly without shame or irony, with attacks even coming from failson Eric Trump.
Hunter Biden "didn't know anything about the industry he was in, he didn't have any discernible duties, and he's getting paid $50,000 a month? And then he gets a billion five from China?
— Trump War Room (@TrumpWarRoom) October 3, 2019
Investigative reporters and GOP operatives have dived deep into the question of whether Joe Biden ever used his official power to do favors for special interests shoveling money to his family and found no proof of this. In the case of Ukraine, it’s likely that Biden’s actions as vice president, in demanding the firing of the country’s top prosecutor, did more to hurt his son’s company than anything else. As far as the impeachment inquiry is concerned, that’s an important point: There was no illegal behavior for Trump to hang his desired corruption investigation into Joe Biden on. His entire goal was to use the power of the American empire to pressure a client state into ginning up bad press for his Democratic rival. Nobody seriously believes that Trump has any serious commitment to eradicating corruption in Ukraine, or any genuine opposition to nepotism. A member of his own family has used the power of the White House to shake down Gulf autocrats for a real-estate bailout, after all.
But that doesn’t mean the Bidens’ behavior isn’t a legitimate problem for Democrats. Indeed, Biden has been taking political hits over of the intersection of his family’s financial dealings and his own political career for some four decades. Yet he has done nothing publicly to inoculate himself from the charge that his career is corruptly enriching his family, and now that is a serious liability. By contrast, one of his opponents in the presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., went so far as to refuse to endorse his son Levi Sanders when he ran for Congress, saying that he does not believe in political dynasties. In defending the Biden’s nepotistic relationship, Democrats would be forced to argue that, to be fair, such soft corruption is common among the families of senior-level politicians. But that’s a risky general-election argument in a political moment when voters are no longer willing to accept business-as-usual. For now, Biden’s opponents in the presidential campaign appear to all hope that somebody else will make the argument, while congressional Democrats don’t want to do anything to undermine their impeachment probe. And so Biden skates.
I asked Warren if Hunter Biden’s position at Burisma was appropriate.
"I know that everyone wants to try to drag in other people. But what happened with Ukraine is about Donald Trump," she said in an interview.
— Josh Jamerson (@joshjame) September 27, 2019
In 2006, Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015, was roped into an investment meeting led by James and Hunter Biden, at the firm Paradigm Global Advisors. The family was considering acquiring the firm, and James Biden told executives there he’d have no problem bringing in people looking for an in with Joe Biden, who was a U.S. senator at the time. “We’ve got people all around the world who want to invest in Joe Biden,” James Biden told officials with the firm, according to a Politico Magazine investigation.
Beau Biden turned red in the face, telling his uncle, “This can never leave this room, and if you ever say it again, I will have nothing to do with this.” Hunter and James Biden denied the account to Politico, but the magazine stood by it, citing multiple sources with similar recollections. “We’ve got investors lined up in a line of 747s filled with cash ready to invest in this company,” a Paradigm executive recalls James Biden saying.
In 2014, the stepson of former Secretary of State John Kerry, Chris Heinz, gave Hunter a similar warning. The pair were partners in an investment firm, Rosemont Seneca, when Hunter Biden and a third partner, Devon Archer, were invited to join the board of the Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma Holdings.
Heinz, through a spokesperson, told the Washington Post that he strongly objected to Hunter Biden and Archer taking the board seats. “Mr. Heinz strongly warned Mr. Archer that working with Burisma was unacceptable. Mr. Archer stated that he and Hunter Biden intended to pursue the opportunity as individuals, not as part of the firm,” the Post reported. “The lack of judgment in this matter was a major catalyst for Mr. Heinz ending his business relationships with Mr. Archer and Mr. Biden.”
Obama administration officials, too, were concerned. Amos Hochstein, the special envoy for energy policy, raised the question with Biden, the New Yorker reported.
In April 2014, Hunter went ahead and accepted the invitation to join the board, along with a fee of at least $50,000 per month.
Beau Biden and Chris Heinz both recognized what was plainly before their eyes: Cashing in on the Biden family name was wrong. Now, Democratic voters are faced with the same quandary. They can see the corruption in front of their eyes, and they have to decide whether that’s the argument they want to have with Trump in 2020 — or whether they want to nominate someone else who will allow the party to make the corruption argument cleanly.
Hunter told the New Yorker he and his dad had a tacit understanding that they would never talk business. The Biden campaign claimed to the magazine that the two never spoke about his work in Ukraine, though Hunter says they did talk about it. “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do,’” Hunter told the New Yorker. (The Biden campaign declined to comment for this story.)
In trading on his father’s name and power to advance his career, Hunter Biden was following in the footsteps of James Biden, Joe’s younger brother. It began small. In 1973, one year after Joe Biden was elected to the Senate at age 29, James Biden opened the nightclub Seasons Change with what Politico, referencing contemporaneous local reporting in Delaware, called “unusually generous bank loans.” When James ran into trouble, Joe, as a senator, later complained that the bank shouldn’t have loaned James the money. “What I’d like to know,” Biden told the News Journal in 1977, “is how the guy in charge of loans let it get this far.” The paper investigated, and sources at the bank said that the loan was made because James was Joe’s brother.
James, in the ’90s, founded Lion Hall Group, which lobbied for Mississippi trial lawyers involved in tobacco litigation. According to Curtis Wilkie’s book “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” the trial lawyers wanted James Biden’s help pushing Joe Biden on tobacco legislation.
That same decade, in 1996, Hunter Biden got in the game. Fresh out of law school, with thousands of options before him, he chose to go work for MBNA, then a dominant issuer of credit cards, while also serving as Biden’s deputy campaign manager. MBNA was one of the most powerful corporations in Delaware, a state with no shortage of major companies thanks to its lax tax and regulatory approach, and has since been absorbed by Bank of America. Biden in the 1990s was known half-jokingly as the senator from MBNA, though he didn’t find it funny. “I’m not the senator from MBNA,” he said in 1999.
He was, however, MBNA’s greatest champion in the Senate. Throughout the 1990s, bankruptcies were on the rise, and MBNA began pushing hard to reform the law to make it harder for people to discharge debt. The controversy brought Elizabeth Warren into politics; a well-known bankruptcy law professor, she was appointed to a commission to review the law, which began her decadeslong clash with Biden.
In 2001, Hunter Biden transitioned full-time to a federal lobbyist, though he stayed on the payroll of MBNA as a consultant until 2005, when President George W. Bush signed Biden’s Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act into law. It was a savage piece of legislation, and Joe Biden even worked to block an amendment that would have offered bankruptcy protection to people with medical debt. The bill also blocked people from discharging private student loan debt under bankruptcy. Total student loan debt was under $400 billion in 2005; it surged in the wake of the law’s passage and is now over $1.5 trillion.
Hunter Biden’s transparent cashing-in on his name was becoming a political liability for his father, so Joe Biden pushed him to find non-lobbying work, Anthony Lotito, a New York financial adviser, said in a complaint he filed in a New York state court. (James and Hunter, in a separate filing, denied that Joe Biden had made the call to Lotito, their prospective partner in the Paradigm purchase.)
That Joe Biden saw Hunter’s work as politically damaging enough to him in 2005 demonstrates that he was entirely aware of the appearance it gave of corruption. His solution was to help Hunter and James into their positions at Paradigm Global Advisors. It was there that James told company officials that clients looking to “invest in Joe Biden” would come knocking, as Politico Magazine reported.
In 2007, James Biden teamed up again with some of the tobacco lawyers from the previous decade, planning to launch a lobbying firm that Hunter would also be involved in. Again, the affair became a political problem for Biden, thanks to a sordid moment in which James Biden’s two prospective partners were caught on an FBI wiretap saying, “We really need to push on the Senate bill,” and “We’re going to meet with the Bidens around noon,” apparently in reference to legislation to compensate black farmers for discrimination. The firm never came to fruition because one of the Bidens’ potential partners was arrested.
That year, Biden launched his second failed presidential bid, but he wound up on the ticket with Barack Obama, serving the next eight years as vice president. Hunter’s relationship with MBNA became a political problem again. A 2008 New York Times story, headlined, “Obama Aides Defend Bank’s Pay to Biden Son,” reads like deja vu: ”Obama aides said he had never lobbied for MBNA and that there was nothing improper about the payments,” which were reported to be $100,000 per year. News that the University of Delaware had paid Biden’s firm millions, and gotten many millions more in earmarks, also caused the vice presidential nominee trouble.
In the meantime, Paradigm Global Advisors fared poorly and shut down in 2010. James quickly found new work, joining a construction firm in November 2010. In June 2011, while Joe Biden was overseeing Iraq policy, the firm won a $1.5 billion contract building homes in Iraq.
The company’s founder, Irvin Richter, told Fox Business Network that having James on board helped. “Listen, his name helps him get in the door, but it doesn’t help him get business,” he said. “People who have important names tend to get in the door easier but it doesn’t mean success. If he had the name Obama, he would get in the door easier.”
Hunter, meanwhile, went into business with Heinz, forming the firm Rosemont Seneca, along with partners Devon Archer and Eric Schwerin. In 2012, Archer and Hunter Biden connected with Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private equity fund, Bohai Capital, and began talks about working together. They did a large real estate deal together in 2013 and began setting up a joint fund. In late 2013, Hunter Biden traveled with his father on official business to China, where he introduced the vice president to his partner, Li.
The new firm, Bohai Harvest RST, as The Intercept reported earlier this year, would go on to invest in facial-recognition technology used to surveil China’s Muslim population as part of its ongoing cultural genocide operation. The firm, according to the Wall Street Journal, planned to raise $1.5 billion in capital. Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani have since contorted that reality into the notion that China simply handed Hunter Biden $1.5 billion. “I wonder where the hell that money is, man, because I’ve got to pay tuitions,” Biden has since responded. “God bless me!”
And then there’s Ukraine. In February 2014, Hunter Biden, less than a year after enlisting in the Navy, was discharged for testing positive for cocaine. But a new opportunity was about to present itself: That same month, protesters in Maidan Square overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, sparked by the government’s unwillingness to sign an association agreement with the European Union.
The new government leaned heavily toward the West and away from Russia, and a jockeying for wealth and power shook the ruling class. Remnants of the old regime became targets, and one of those was Burisma Holdings, owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, an oligarch and former government official tied to Yanukovych. Regulators in London had seized more than $20 million in cash from the firm amid claims by rivals that it had compiled its assets illegally. Zlochevsky needed Western bona fides, and he needed them fast, so Hunter Biden was brought on board.
The New Yorker article details Hunter Biden’s struggles with drugs and alcohol, which included run-ins with the law and stints in rehab. One particularly out-of-control bender, which involved a crack pipe found in a rental car, took place while Biden was making $50,000 a month serving on the board of Burisma. In 2014, he was gracing the front page of the company’s website, according to web archives.
The Republican narrative that has built up around the case since claims that Biden would later go to Ukraine to help Hunter’s company escape the justice of an investigation by the Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin. In fact, Shokin was busy protecting Burisma from the Western investigators and gave the company a letter asserting that he had no evidence they had done anything wrong. That letter helped unfreeze the money in London. So the U.S. vice president’s intervention in Ukraine seems to have gone against the interests of his son, not boosted them. But Hunter Biden’s very presence on the board of the company itself corrupted the process, creating the appearance that the Americans were hypocritical about their talk of corruption and self-dealing. At the time, here’s how Daria Kaleniuk, head of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, put it to the Wall Street Journal: “If an investigator sees the son of the vice president of the United States is part of the management of a company … that investigator will be uncomfortable pushing the case forward.”
That, of course, is simply obvious, and it is the entire reason Hunter Biden was paid so handsomely to do nothing but sell his name to the company. That’s corruption. Enough.