When Joe Biden was America’s point man for Ukraine policy, an allegedly corrupt Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, started paying his son Hunter $50,000 a month to sit on its board. By Hunter’s own account — and that of another board member — Hunter would never have been offered this lucrative gig had he not been the son of the U.S. vice-president.
There is no evidence that Hunter ever lobbied his father on Burisma’s behalf, and the elder Biden reportedly made life harder for his son’s employer by helping to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor who’d taken a hands-off approach to corruption. But this much is beyond dispute: By taking the job at Burisma, Hunter exploited his father’s public power for private gain in a manner that undermined U.S. interests, according to several Obama-administration officials. The State Department’s George Kent testified last month that Hunter’s role at Burisma risked creating “the perception of a conflict of interest” that could undermine America’s standing when it pushed for anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. Kent says he raised this concern with the vice-president’s staff in 2015. Another Obama-administration official, Amos Hochstein, says he raised the issue with Joe Biden himself that same year.
Whether Hunter’s influence peddling actually did undermine U.S. interests is unclear. But his work in Ukraine is unquestionably undermining his father’s campaign. President Trump sees Burisma as the “emails” of 2020: A story of mundane impropriety around which right-wing media can build an elaborate, incendiary conspiracy theory that energizes the GOP base and conveys a vague impression of Democratic corruption to low-information swing voters. Thus Trump tried to strong-arm Ukraine into investigating the Bidens, which led administration officials to blow the whistle on him, which led to Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry, which has made Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine a fixture of Republican messaging and headline news.
For all these reasons, if Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee in 2020, he will be confronted with questions about his son’s role at Burisma on a near-daily basis. That much has been clear for months now. Yet Biden has not bothered to prepare credible, coherent answers to those questions. In fact, the Democratic front-runner can’t even respond to the most predictable queries on the issue without flying into a barely concealed rage.
This became apparent at a campaign event in Iowa last week, where a voter suggested Biden had “sold access to the presidency” by sending his son to work for Burisma, just as Trump has done. The voter’s narrative was inaccurate in multiple respects. There is no evidence that Joe Biden actively helped his son get a job in Ukraine and no equivalence between the Biden and Trump families on the matter of profiting off the presidency. But the voter’s perspective was an eminently reasonable one given America’s media environment. He is surely far from alone in failing to mind the distinctions between Biden’s tolerance for Hunter’s influence peddling and Trump’s direct use of official powers to enrich himself and his family. Biden cut the man off before he could turn his comments into a question, but the query implicit in the voter’s remarks was straightforward and should not have been difficult for a competent presidential candidate to answer: How are you any different from Trump on the issue of personal corruption?
But it was difficult for Biden. The Democratic front-runner did not politely tell the man that — while his concerns about corruption were valid — he had actually been badly misinformed. Biden did not patiently explain how Hunter’s conduct differs from that of the Trump children or how he would differ from Trump in his handling of potential conflicts of interest as president. Instead, Biden called the voter a “damn liar,” challenged him to a push-up contest, and appeared to implicitly mock his potential constituent for being overweight. In between these Trump-esque displays of strained machismo, Biden made the patently false claim that “no one has said my son did anything wrong.” In truth, not only have many, many people said Hunter Biden was wrong to take the job at Burisma, Hunter is himself one of those people.
His father held up no better in an interview with “Axios on HBO” on Sunday night. Mike Allen asked, “What’s your understanding of what your son was doing [for Burisma] for an extraordinary amount of money?”
Biden replied, “I don’t know what he was doing. I know he was on the board. I found out he was on the board after he was on the board, and that was it.”
“You’ve had a lot of time. Isn’t this something you want to get to the bottom of?,” Allen countered.
“No,” Biden said, “because I trust my son.”
In other words, Biden’s message on Burisma boils down to “I don’t know what Hunter did, but I know he did nothing wrong because I have personal trust in my son. Ergo, if Hunter does something, it is by definition not wrong because a trustworthy person did it.”
Pressed further, Biden attempted to pivot away from the subject, saying, “If you want to talk about problems, ya know, let’s talk about Trump’s family.” This would have been a sound enough diversionary tactic, but Biden did not proceed with a litany of the first family’s indiscretions. Instead, he simply stopped speaking — having ostensibly failed to prepare any talking points on the subject — and then, after a pause, said merely, “I mean, c’mon.” Biden began saying something else but once again found himself bereft of words and thus pretended to laugh while saying contemptuously of the media, “You guys are amazing.”
One might describe this exchange as Trump-like. But then Trump is actually more eloquent than this. The president will say a lot of dishonest and ridiculous things when asked hard questions in interviews, but when Trump tries to derail an interrogation with “whataboutism,” he does not typically have trouble generating more than one sentence on the subject he’d prefer to discuss.
By itself, Biden’s tolerance for his son’s garden-variety influence peddling may be forgivable. And the fact that Hunter’s activities provide Trump with a potent attack line may not indict Joe’s “electability”; given that Trump is not constrained by reality, he should have little trouble engineering defamatory attacks against any of the Democratic candidates.
But the fact that Biden still can’t answer reasonable questions about his candidacy’s chief liability is completely disqualifying. To nominate him despite that fact would be akin to employing a waiter who takes offense at being asked, “What are tonight’s dinner specials?” As the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, reciting polite, polished talking points about Hunter and Burisma will be a core responsibility of Biden’s job. And by all appearances, he is unable or unwilling to do that.