A big part of the recent impeachment brouhaha was concern about corruption. Allegedly, President Trump’s call asking the Ukrainians to look into the Bidens and their shady business dealings was corrupt, because it had the potential to benefit Trump politically. The chattering classes, including those on the Left and the NeverTrump Republicans, have been remarkably incurious about Ukraine and the surprisingly extensive dealings of American political figures and their children in that country.
In Senator Mitt Romney’s pious speech justifying his impeachment vote, he addressed the Bidens’ underlying behavior in a cursory fashion:
With regards to Hunter Biden, taking excessive advantage of his father’s name is unsavory but also not a crime. Given that in neither the case of the father nor the son was any evidence presented by the president’s counsel that a crime had been committed, the president’s insistence that they be investigated by the Ukrainians is hard to explain other than as a political pursuit. There is no question in my mind that were their names not Biden, the president would never have done what he did.
Whether what Joe and Hunter Biden did was a crime is somewhat irrelevant. It is undeniably corrupt. It is part and parcel of a broader pattern of corruption among the elite. Their corruption influenced American policy in the region. And the fact that this is all just “business as usual” is the problem.
The Elite Cash In At Home and Abroad
Hunter Biden was not alone in Ukraine. It seems a lot of politically connected Americans have cashed in there since the American-supported coup in the region. These include Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, former CIA officer and Bush State Department official Cofer Black, former national security advisor John Bolton, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), among others.
This is part of a pattern.
In a general sense, the elite looks out for itself and has pulled up the ladders from outsider aspirants to wealth and power. The old American ideals of meritocracy and mobility have given way to significant barriers to entry and self-perpetuating schemes, where the children, wives, and close associates of political and financial elites are able to obtain significant wealth simply because of the good fortune in their connections at birth. This is not only “unsavory,” as Romney would say; it’s un-American. Moreover, it’s demoralizing for a country that purports to be the land of opportunity for all citizens.
In Ukraine—where regulators own the businesses that are supposed to be regulated—corruption simply occurs on a bigger and more tawdry scale than we are used to seeing domestically. The dramatic “we fight Russia there rather than over here” language and anti-Russian hysteria of the American press have enabled this corruption, by dispatching aid with few conditions and little oversight starting in 2014, up to $1.8 billion of which went missing under Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s watch. With all the money sloshing around, some of these funds made their way into the pockets of American political advisors and the scions of American politicians supposedly looking to defend Ukraine.
Both in Ukraine and the United States, elites have abdicated their duty to the common good and enriched themselves and their families while purporting to serve the public. This is happening because it’s all so normalized and now a settled part of the habits and expectations of elites in both countries. Like the Soviet elite that preached equality while benefiting from special stores, preferential treatment in housing, and various other perquisites of office, the American elite is increasingly separate, privileged, and contemptuous of those over whom it rules. Such hypocrisy is a dangerous and volatile thing.
Conflicts of Interest
Hunter Biden’s self-enrichment in Ukraine, far from being a “conspiracy theory” or “discredited allegation,” is, in fact, textbook corruption.
Biden was making money from a shady Ukrainian natural gas company, and his father was pressuring the Ukrainians to fire the prosecutor looking into it. The sleight of hand dismissal from the Bidens’ defenders arises because they have demanded a higher burden of proof to show wrongdoing here than we do in other contexts.
The proper evidence is not a “quid pro quo” or an admission of wrongful intent, but a violation of fiduciary duty.
In business partnerships, boards of directors, and other positions of trust, people are expected to treat those whom they are serving as well as they would treat themselves. They are to disclose any conflicts and recuse themselves from decisions when those conflicts exist. When other considerations arise—helping oneself, helping a family member, or trying to serve the interests of two opposing entities—we assume that wrongdoing is afoot.
Consider the bankruptcy law principle of “fraudulent transfer.” Paying off certain debts—such as those owed to family members—or transferring assets to insiders below market value is presumed to be unfair to other creditors, and these transactions may be reversed. Timing and relationships are the keys for proof, not the much higher burden of a statement of wrongful intent that has been created to protect the Bidens.
Because of difficulties with proof and the possibility of “wink and a nod” conspiracies, the law uses common sense and asks “Who benefits?” to determine wrongdoing when transactions benefiting insiders are involved. The same principles apply to self-dealing by corporate officers and insider trading.
If there is not already a law against the Biden family’s self-dealing, there should be. It isn’t unique, and the fact that it’s met with a shrug by many of our lawmakers suggests a much bigger problem in their attitude about public service. We are not a banana republic. Public service is not there for people to get rich indirectly by shepherding money, contracts, access, and the like to family members, whether domestically, in Ukraine, or anywhere else.
This is not entirely a partisan problem. Certain Republicans are on the list above. And President Trump rightly has been criticized for the prominent role given to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a low-talent guy from a disgraced family. Most of Kushner’s signature initiatives have been politically obtuse, naïve, or otherwise suspect.
But this is a little bit different. Jared is not apparently enriching himself, so far as we know. He and the whole Trump gang showed up in the White House already rich, which somewhat reduces incentives for money-grubbing corruption. And, as the FBI scandal and other forms of bureaucratic revolt have shown, Trump can’t always rely on the professionalism of the career government workers to the same degree as his predecessors.
So the president prized loyalty over competence, which is different from self-enrichment. This should be contrasted with the sudden interest of Hunter Biden in Ukrainian natural gas or the dozens of other family members and spouses who suddenly decide their life’s dream is to be a lobbyist when a family member obtains high elected office.
That all said, Trump would be better off if he kept Jared and Ivanka far away from his official work as president.
Who Is America to Lecture Other Nations About Corruption?
America is frequently critical of other nations for their corruption. Trump has been criticized for his fixation on the Bidens’ role in Ukraine because he supposedly did not care about other aspects of Ukrainian corruption. But is the United States really in a position to lecture other nations about their corruption?
The Bidens’ self-enrichment in Ukraine is just one example among many.
Fugitive Marc Rich obtained a pardon from Bill Clinton after massive transfers of wealth by Rich’s allies to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Michelle Obama’s salary at the University of Chicago hospitals went from $121,000 a year to over $300,000 when her husband was elected to the U.S. Senate. As soon as he became president and the family moved to Washington, the “critical” job was eliminated. When the Democrats are in power, they don’t look into any of this. Now they aim to eliminate scrutiny Republicans might bring to these subjects when they are in power through the deterrent effect of the recent impeachment.
The principles underlying the Democrats’ failed impeachment scheme would shield anyone in the Democratic Party from scrutiny when a Republican is president. Presumably, investigations and prosecutions of such corruption would confer some political advantage on the president ultimately in charge of such efforts. The proposed principles of neutrality and technocratic government would be unable to respond to concerns for self-dealing and wrongdoing by one’s predecessors.
At most, any such investigations would have to be led and controlled by the permanent staff of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other government agencies, as if these groups had no political agendas and other conflicts of interest.
Trump promised he would “drain the swamp.” This was a popular position and a central part of his campaign. As part of draining the swamp, there should be more recognition and outrage of the ways the political class enriches itself at the country’s expense. This is not hidden corruption, it’s insultingly brazen. It is furthered by an incurious media and also by how widespread it is. It’s the family business for many of these people, and includes lobbying by family members, insider trading, cushy “make work” jobs for family members, and other obvious conflicts of interest. The Bidens were some of the worst, but they’re hardly alone.
The middling position on the recent impeachment is that Trump had done some wrong in seeking Ukraine’s cooperation in uncovering the fishy actions of the Biden family, but that it did not rise to the level of impeachment. For anyone concerned about corruption, this is not correct. His call really was “perfect,” and the sort of thing we should applaud from a president elected to “drain the Swamp.”