At last night’s Democratic Presidential Debate — the third in a round of what seems like a million — Anderson Cooper quickly brought up the Hunter Biden scandal that’s been looming over former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign, asking: “If it’s not okay for a President’s family to be involved in foreign businesses, why was it okay for your son when you were Vice President?” Biden responded by skirting the question, saying “Look, my son did nothing wrong. I did nothing wrong… My son’s statement speaks for itself.” With this response, Biden acted like a parent during a teacher conference who chooses to be willfully ignorant of the idea that his child could never, ever do anything wrong.
To recap: Hunter Biden worked for an oil and gas company in Ukraine, making egregious sums of money while his father was Vice President. That employment was investigated by Ukrainian anti-corruption officials and there was found to be no wrongdoing. Still, President Trump urged Ukrainian officials to open up another investigation into Hunter — or else he would not administer aid to the country, a quid pro quo of sorts, leveraging international funds to benefit him in the national election. This is at the heart of the current ongoing impeachment inquiry into the President that’s lighting up our phones with notifications.
Biden’s response wasn’t wrong. It was just that he was right in the way that any parent who says that, well, they didn’t see their kid shove another kid on a playground so it must not have happened is right. While Ukrainian anti-corruption officials did open an investigation into Hunter’s employment and found that there was no criminal illegal activity, that doesn’t mean that Hunter trading on his father’s name is morally good. There’s a difference between ‘legal’ and ‘right’ and Biden seems to be skirting the line of those two concepts when he says that Hunter did nothing wrong.
Hunter did the wrong, immoral thing that harms our democracy: he utilized the currency of his father, who was at the time the second in command to the most powerful man in the free world, to get a cushy position at a Ukrainian company to the tune of $50,000 a month. That the Ukrainian officials found no wrongdoing in those actions is probably because the former Vice President is not a dumb-dumb. What likely amounted to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy at home has shielded both Hunter and his father from criminal activity and ensures that there was no illegality. But profiting off the office of the president, however legal it may be, is certainly not a moral good.
What Hunter Biden did, it should be noted, is typical. He didn’t do anything that kids of other famous politicians or even actors and performers haven’t benefited from. Hunter, like the Trump kiddos, was born on third base — privy to wealth, access, and a family name that bought him influence. That is the Washington, D.C., way, after all. When elected officials leave office, they go through a revolving door into the lobbying industry and use their name and access to important people to help influence policy.
Their kids often do the same. This is to say nothing of Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric, and Jared Kushner, who court international business deals and licenses as their father shapes foreign policy. The difference between Hunter and Don Jr., however, is that while Hunter and his dad probably didn’t talk about his work, it’s hard to imagine that the Trump kids don’t talk business with their dear old dad. It’s also extremely hard to believe that Trump doesn’t use such considerations when he shapes his own foreign policy, as has been suggested by the Turkey and Syria debacle. (Trump Tower Istanbul, the only business property of Trump’s in Europe, is said to be a major factor in his decision to pull back troops from Syria and allow our long-standing allies, the Kurds, to be slaughtered by Turkey. Few can forget the call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he said: “Actually, the last time I traveled to the United States I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower.”)
But still, Hunter working for a foreign company while his dad helped shape foreign policy is, while maybe not as brazenly illegal as the Trump clan’s actions, more nefarious than, say, Jenna Bush Hager’s morning spot on Hoda and Jenna or Meghan McCain’s tenure on The View. Would those two descendants of political titans have gotten their jobs without their parents? No, not likely. Nepotism lives on. But even if Hunter did nothing illegal, the fact that the children of elected officials can use their names to get them jobs, money, and influence, should give one pause. After all, political office today is a powerhouse for profit.
And this is the problem, really: Joe Biden needs to admit that maybe what Hunter did was not that great. That it might have been legal, but it certainly wasn’t good for the world. That the rules of play that allow sons and daughters of major politicians to profit off their names and use them for foreign influence might not actually be good rules. That even though it happened under his Vice Presidency, he would change the rules if elected, to not allow it to happen again. He could say his son’s actions were legal, and that’s actually the problem in in D.C., and condemn Trump in the same breath, who surely has done much worse and more.
But Joe Biden, instead, is refusing to cede any ground. Even as his son says that perhaps his decision to work for the company was “regrettable,” Biden refuses to say the same. Hunter can admit that perhaps the norms should change now that his dad is back in the political spotlight. Biden should admit that the rules of play that he and his child benefited from don’t make sense anymore. He’d at least be making more of a stand than Trump, who cares more about the profits of his businesses around the world than the world itself. It’s not that hard to do.