U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter is either a believer in the scattershot approach to dealing with politically deadly allegations, or is squirming like a fish on a hook. When a federal grand jury delivered a 47-page document charging him and his wife with conspiring to make roughly 200 illegal personal-use payments from a campaign account, Hunter at first just denied everything, as he has throughout the long investigation that led to this moment. Perhaps becoming aware of just how many flagrant and even hilarious examples of misuse of campaign dollars the Feds had come up with, Hunter soon shifted to what might be called the Trump Defense — alleging that the whole thing was a Democratic conspiracy by deep state operatives in the U.S. Attorney’s office (run, unfortunately for his argument, by a Trump appointee).
Now after his first court appearance and not guilty plea, Hunter is trying another gambit: blaming his wife, who was indeed the person making most of the unauthorized purchases on a campaign credit card he insisted she be given as his campaign manager, over the objections of his Campaign Treasurer. Here’s what he told Fox News:
When I went to Iraq in 2003, the first time, I gave her power of attorney and she handled my finances throughout my whole military career and she continued that when I got to Congress,” he told [Martha] MacCallum. “Whatever she did, that will be looked at too, I’m sure. But I didn’t do it. I didn’t spend any money illegally.”
This isn’t the first time Hunter has tried this “my wife deals with my money” defense. Way back in April of 2016, when the story of his misuse of campaign funds first broke, the conservative site Red State had this sardonic report:
Shortly after endorsing Trump, it came to light that Hunter had put a seemingly endless list of personal expenses on his campaign’s credit card, including over $1,000 in video game purchases, personal travel, tuition to his kids’ school, plastic surgery, etc.
Using campaign funds for personal expenses is of course illegal, and the FEC is not amused. The hot water has gotten so deep that Hunter was forced to cut short a trip to Israel and fly back home to deal with the crisis.
The classiest thing about this whole episode is how Hunter is not-very-subtly throwing his wife under the bus …
Red State went on to quote a news story in which Hunter said he had taken his wife off the campaign credit card account. That didn’t happen though — the indictment cites purchases made by her that occurred through the end of that year.
More importantly, the charging document goes to great lengths to establish that Hunter kept his wife on that credit card account despite complaints from his campaign treasurer, and that Hunter himself on more than one occasion supplied a fake official rationale for clearly personal expenses. Here’s the most famous example:
On or about November 23, 2015, in an attempt to justify the use of Campaign funds to pay for the family’s trip to Italy, DUNCAN HUNTER attempted to set up a day tour of a U.S. naval facility in Italy. After Navy officials responded that they could only provide a tour on a particular date, DUNCAN HUNTER said he would discuss, the proposed date with MARGARET HUNTER, then subsequently told his Chief of Staff, “tell the navy to go f*** themselves [no alteration in original],” and no tour occurred.
Throughout the saga, Hunter keeps mentioning that he paid the campaign back for roughly $60,000 of the $250,000 the Hunters were alleged to have misappropriated. But the Feds have made it clear that this happened only when the Federal Election Commission — which the Hunters rather incompetently tried to fool — or the media were sniffing around.
It also strains credulity more than a bit to believe that Hunter didn’t know anything about the disastrous state of the couple’s finances, which is clearly cited in the charging document as the motive for the Hunters’ illegal use of campaign money. We’re talking about personal checking accounts that rang up $37,000 in insufficient funds fees thanks to over 1,100 overdrafts. I’m sure Hunter was a busy man and all, but how do you not know you’re insanely broke? Prosecutors clearly aren’t buying it, and argue that Duncan and Margaret knew exactly what they — or in most occasions she — were doing.
None of this is going to look good in court, or in the court of public opinion. But perhaps the most politically inept part of Hunter’s self-defense is this tidbit, also from the McCallum interview on Fox News:
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has pleaded not guilty to charges of misusing campaign money to pay for personal items, said Thursday his $174,000 annual salary does not provide him with enough money to live in his Southern California congressional district.
“I mean, $174,000 per year is what a member of Congress makes. Do you think they should make more than that, is it not enough to live on?” Fox News host Martha MacCallum asked Hunter in his first TV interview since charges were filed Tuesday.
“It depends where you live. It’s difficult to live in a place like San Francisco or San Diego or New York or D.C.,” said Hunter, whose district includes part of San Diego. “It’s probably easier to live in Kansas or Missouri, so it’s all relative.”
Indeed, it is expensive to be a congressman from California given expectations that you will maintain a home in your district, and I’m sure members swap all sorts of stories about personal financial issues in their privileged congressional sanctuary. But you don’t, don’t whine about it in public when a large majority of voters don’t and will never pull down $174,000 a year (not to mention the perks). And it’s not like anybody forced Duncan Hunter to run for Congress (where, speaking of privilege, he succeeded his daddy).
More and more, Hunter is looking like someone who could definitely lose his very Republican district to an opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who appears to have come up the hard way and has very likely never paid airfare for a pet rabbit (one of the things Hunter’s campaign paid for). The congressman needs to get his story straight, and that probably doesn’t involve protesting that he’s oblivious to the family finances his constituents have to deal with, or establishing that he’s a terrible husband.