In the waning years of the Obama administration, Hunter Biden, whose life was in a downward spiral, took a job with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which was transparently attempting to gain influence with Hunter’s father. The maneuver was unsuccessful for Burisma (which received no favorable treatment from the vice-president), fairly successful for Hunter (who received a hefty paycheck for minimal work), and has left a residue of low-grade sleaze that Joe Biden’s campaign has proven unable to scrape away. The dilemma this poses for Biden, and his party, is what — if anything — they can do about this problem.
So far, Biden’s responses to questioning on his son’s role, which range from challenging his interlocutor to a push-up contest to trailing off awkwardly, have hardly allayed the concern. But it’s difficult to think of a better response, since a true answer is extremely difficult for a politician to communicate. And the true answer is: Yeah, I screwed up, but it’s actually not that big of a deal.
Biden’s error is that he created what used to be called “the appearance of impropriety,” a phrase that was common back before actual impropriety rendered it into a quaint anachronism. The appearance of impropriety is that Hunter Biden made money from Burisma, a Ukrainian firm, at a time when Joe Biden was directing the administration’s Ukraine policy, creating the appearance that Burisma bought Joe Biden’s favor. Indeed, President Trump has relentlessly charged that Burisma did in fact buy Biden’s favor. This is false. Biden demanded the firing of notoriously ineffectual prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who, at the time, was not investigating Burisma.
Firing Shokin was a unified demand of the pro-democratic world, and if anything, increased the legal jeopardy faced by Burisma. It would have been suspicious and potentially corrupt if Biden had not endorsed Shokin’s firing. His error was allowing his son to cash in on the false perception that he could sell access to his father. And by all accounts, Biden was too distracted by his job and distraught by the death of his other son to intervene in Hunter’s actions. It’s not nothing, but it is a small thing.
Democrats have bitter experience with this sort of flaw. Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State is an eerily similar precursor. It was a small error borne of neglect — Clinton was a technophobe in search of an easy way to keep track of her work-related devices, and ignored proper security protocol for handling State Department email by using a private server. And Trump turned the small error into a gigantic scandal, accusing her of heinous crimes and ludicrously insisting she ought to be imprisoned over them.
The email scandal was not just a Fox News narrative. It dominated mainstream news coverage of Clinton’s campaign, because it was a real issue, albeit a small one. Mainstream reporters made a historic blunder by devoting far more attention to the email issue than it deserved, but this is an inevitable result of the incentive system in the mainstream press, which prioritizes critical coverage over passive transmission of a candidate’s chosen message. The email issue was the “toughest” subject reporters could cover, so they focused a lot of attention on it. The bizarre result of this coverage choice was that voters came away concluding Clinton’s mishandling of email protocol was a crime on roughly the same scale as Trump’s endless array of massively unethical and illegal acts. Clinton, by the way, apologized for using the private server, but the apology did not stop reporters from highlighting the issue.
Indeed, one of the retrospective ironies of the email scandal is that even by the narrow standards of handling government information security, ignoring every other avenue of potential misconduct, Clinton was the superior candidate. Members of Trump’s administration are responsible for numerous security breaches. As Philip Bump noted in March, the ranks of Trump officials who used private email to conduct official business include Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Stephen Miller, Gary Cohn, Steve Bannon, K.T. McFarland, and Reince Priebus. Since then, Nikki Haley has been found to have done the same.
And of course, Trump’s most blatant security breaches make the use of a private server look trivial. Trump has routinely used a cell phone to communicate and opened himself up to private espionage — like in the now-famous case in which he talked via cell phone to Gordon Sondland, who was in Kiev, in a call almost certainly intercepted by Russia. Most of Trump’s lax security protocol is both far more serious than Clinton’s snafu, and still not on anybody’s list of the 100 worst things Trump has done in office. For that reason, reporters obviously aren’t going to give it anywhere near Clinton-email levels of attention. Nobody who voted against Clinton because they thought her emails were a major scandal is going to realize Trump’s information-security record has been worse.
Here is another parallel to Biden’s Burisma problem. While he allowed the appearance of impropriety, Trump has allowed actual impropriety. Not only are Trump’s children making money off their relationship — Ivanka received a lucrative patent deal in China; Don Jr. got bulk party purchases of his book — President Trump himself is collecting payments from foreign and domestic sources who have government business. The ethical impropriety involved in Trump running a large business concern while serving as president is so enormous it defies all the applicable laws and terms. The structure built to insulate the president from conflicts of interest never anticipated conflicts on this scale. The idea that Trump’s opponent has a liability on this issue is an absurdity. It would be like electing Ted Bundy president because his opponent once kicked a dog.
And yet, such an absurdity is not just a possible outcome: the incentives of the news media turn it into a likely one. Reporters aren’t going to stop asking Biden tough questions about a legitimate ethical shortcoming just because his opponent’s sins dwarf Biden’s a thousandfold. Clinton’s example suggests that an apology wouldn’t do Biden much good. Maybe the solution is not to nominate Biden at all — though that strategy assumes Democrats can find somebody so pure nothing in their past can be turned into a Clinton email– or Burisma-level story. What if, instead of Biden, the nominee is Elizabeth Warren answering endless recursive questions about her decision to list her ancestry as Native American?
Opinion journalists are supposed to have snappy solutions to the problems we raise, but no easy answer presents itself. We are hurtling toward a recurrence of the 2016 nightmare.