Hunter Biden’s Socially Acceptable Corruption
The real crime is what's legal.
Sarah Chayes, author of Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens National Security, offers a devastating look at a troubling phenomenon highlighted by the corruption scandal that has sparked an impeachment inquiry regarding the sitting President.
The whistle-blower scandal that has prompted the fourth presidential impeachment process in American history has put a spectacle from earlier this decade back on display: the jaw-smacking feast of scavengers who circled around Ukraine as Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow-linked kleptocrat, was driven from power. Ukraine’s crisis was the latest to energize a club whose culture has come to be treated as normal—a culture in which top-tier lawyers, former U.S. public officials, and policy experts (and their progeny) cash in by trading on their connections and their access to insider policy information—usually by providing services to kleptocrats like Yanukovych.—The Atlantic, “Hunter Biden’s Perfectly Legal, Socially Acceptable Corruption”
Chayes eschews the “false equivalency” notion, stating forthrightly that what Trump has done is criminal and impeachable and what Hunter Biden has done is all perfectly legal. She merely questions whether it ought to be.
All too often, the scandal isn’t that the conduct in question is forbidden by federal law, but rather, how much scandalous conduct is perfectly legal—and broadly accepted.
Let’s start with Hunter Biden. In April 2014, he became a director of Burisma, the largest natural-gas producer in Ukraine. He had no prior experience in the gas industry, nor with Ukrainian regulatory affairs, his ostensible purview at Burisma. He did have one priceless qualification: his unique position as the son of the vice president of the United States, newborn Ukraine’s most crucial ally. Weeks before Biden came on, Ukraine’s government had collapsed amid a popular revolution, giving its gas a newly strategic importance as an alternative to Russia’s, housed in a potentially democratic country. Hunter’s father was comfortably into his second term as vice president—and was a prospective future president himself.
Again, the point isn’t Hunter Biden. Or even Joe Biden.
There are no indications that Hunter’s activities swayed any decision his father made as vice president. Joe Biden did pressure Ukraine’s fledgling post-Yanukovych president to remove a public prosecutor—as part of concerted U.S. policy. So did every other Western government and dozens of Ukrainian and international pro-democracy activists. The problem was not that the prosecutor was too aggressive with corrupt businessman-politicians like Hunter Biden’s boss; it was that he was too lenient.
So, the “scandal” that Trump and his enablers are peddling is a nothing-burger. The prosecutor would have been fired without Joe Biden’s lobbying and, if anything, that lobbying worked against his son’s interests.
The real scandal, as they say, is what’s legal. And it’s a system that’s exploited on a bipartisan basis.
Hunter Biden was hardly the only prominent American who did well for himself during Ukraine’s transition. Another Burisma director was Cofer Black,
Those with more prominent positions play the game at an even higher level.
When prominent Americans leverage their global reputations for financial gain, they attract almost no attention today. How many of us who consider ourselves well versed in U.S. politics and international relations know that alongside her consulting firm, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright started an emerging-markets hedge fund, run by her son-in-law? In 2011, Albright Capital took a voting stake in APR Energy, specializing in pop-up electricity plants for developing countries. APR promotes itself to the mining industry in Africa, where resource extraction enriches a handful of kleptocratic elites and leaves locals mired in pollution and conflict. Some of APR’s business comes via the U.S. Agency for International Development, which works closely with the State Department once led by Albright.
Scratch into the bios of many former U.S. officials who were in charge of foreign or security policy in administrations of either party, and you will find “consulting” firms and hedge-fund gigs monetizing their names and connections.
Some of these gigs require more ethical compromises than others. When allegations of ethical lapses or wrongdoing surface against people on one side of the aisle, they can always claim that someone on the other side has done far worse. But taken together, all of these examples have contributed to a toxic norm. Joe Biden is the man who, as a senator, walked out of a dinner with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Biden was one of the most vocal champions of anticorruption efforts in the Obama administration. So when this same Biden takes his son with him to China aboard Air Force Two, and within days Hunter joins the board of an investment advisory firm with stakes in China, it does not matter what father and son discussed. Joe Biden has enabled this brand of practice, made it bipartisan orthodoxy. And the ethical standard in these cases—people’s basic understanding of right and wrong—becomes whatever federal law allows. Which is a lot.
Absent substantial evidence to the contrary, I presume the timing of Hunter Biden’s joining the advisory board and his accompanying of his father on the trip was coincidental. If anything, the sheer prominence of the imagery makes it incredibly unlikely either Biden thought anything untoward was going on.
Was the younger Biden qualified to serve on these boards in his own right? Maybe. He was, after all, a Yale-educated lawyer with years of experience in investment banking and service in the Clinton Administration. But, obviously, his father’s lofty perch made him very attractive.
The appearance of impropriety here is genuine. But it’s not obvious how one would go about regulating it. While we can demand that those in public service file financial disclosures and divest themselves of various entanglements, there’s only so much we can do for their grown children.
More troubling than the Biden saga is the proliferation of “consulting” firms headed up by former secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, national security advisors, four-star generals and admirals, and other extremely senior people. While they’re entitled to make a living and cash in on their careers of service, they’re often being paid for access and influence. They have networks of people who used to work for and still feel beholden to them.
I’m uncomfortable with any of those people joining corporate boards, much less advising foreign governments. Certainly, at least without a substantial interval between doing so and leaving their posts.
There have been various reforms over the years aimed at this problem. But they’ve been modest, to say the least.