Impeachment stokes questions about Biden and Trump family finances
In 2005, then-Sen. Joe Biden voted for a bankruptcy law overhaul that benefited a major banking firm that was paying his son Hunter as a consultant.
More recently, President Donald Trump has seen everyone from foreign dignitaries to U.S. military personnel stay at his name-branded hotels – bolstering his family business income in what some see as a not-so-veiled attempt to curry favor with the president.
Two political families. Two situations that have drawn criticism or at least questions.
They’re part of a larger pattern, according to experts on government ethics. Real or potential conflicts of interest arise in Washington far too often, they say. Now, thanks to the impeachment trial and the 2020 election campaign, the issue is receiving new scrutiny.
Although Mr. Trump is the focal point of Democrat-led impeachment efforts, his insinuation of financial wrongdoing on the part of the Bidens persists as a thread in the drama – and indeed is key to the president’s defense strategy. Senate Republicans have been weighing whether the trial should include witnesses, and if so, whether to call Hunter Biden to testify about his position at a Ukrainian gas company during his father’s tenure as U.S. vice president.
Yet as Republicans cast stones at the Bidens, they also live in a glass house. Political attacks about alleged financial self-dealing are likely to persist for both the Trump and Biden campaigns in 2020, whatever happens with impeachment. And on the substance of the issue, Mr. Trump appears far more vulnerable.
“What Hunter [Biden] was doing was not atypical for Washington – and also not good,” says Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen in Washington. “That said, it is orders of magnitude less problematic and less corrupting than the everyday business of the Trump administration, including what the Trump family is doing to profit off of his presidency.”
Hunter Biden’s role on the board of gas company Burisma may have been inappropriate, Mr. Weissman adds. But that doesn’t justify President Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Democrats are arguing that seeking foreign help in an election is illegal, and the Government Accountability Office said the Trump administration violated the law by putting a hold on Congress-approved aid to Ukraine. The Trump defense team is arguing that there was no quid pro quo, and that even if there was it would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
While Senate Democrats are eager to call witnesses, they are wary of any deal with Republicans that would allow Hunter Biden to be among them.
“The whole impeachment trial for Trump is just a political hit job to try to smear me,” former Vice President Biden said at a Tuesday event in Iowa.
Still, it’s not just Republicans who have raised questions about possible conflicts within the Biden family. Press reports, including one headlined “Biden Inc.” by Politico, have cited cases over the years of Mr. Biden’s brother James or son Hunter getting jobs or opportunities that appear to tap into their perceived clout as relatives of a powerful politician. The Wall Street Journal has drawn attention to Hunter Biden’s business involvement in China, as well as Ukraine.
Largely missing so far is any evidence that Joe Biden acted to provide favors to his family, including when he took the 2005 vote on the bankruptcy law while Hunter was earning fees from MBNA, a credit card firm in the family’s home state of Delaware.
Also of note: In a chamber of many millionaires, Mr. Biden for decades ranked as one of the least wealthy senators (although speaking fees have pushed up his income in the past few years).
By contrast, the Trump family’s combination of massive and ever-evolving real estate interests with the political power of the presidency has no precedent in modern U.S. history. And a number of lawsuits and subpoenas suggest that some of those entanglements may be crossing lines of legality.
President Trump has officially removed himself from personal involvement in his businesses while in office, has been passing profits to the U.S. Treasury when representatives of foreign governments stay at his company’s hotels, and is moving to sell that hotel. Still, many ethicists say such steps fall short of truly avoiding conflicts of interest, since Mr. Trump can’t “unknow” the properties he owns and upon which his future wealth depends.
Yet, even as Democrats decry Trump family behavior and Republicans call out the Bidens’ “corrupt family business practices,” it’s not clear how much questions of financial impropriety will weigh on voters.
“The vulnerabilities are actually less than people are thinking” for both political families, says Gregory Weiner, a political scientist at Assumption College in Massachusetts, and a scholar affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“I don’t think what’s going on in the Trump family surprises anyone, and I think his outlandishness in everything he does provides him a form of protection,” he says. “I’m not saying it should, but I think it does.”
If Joe Biden becomes the Democratic nominee, Dr. Weiner adds, Republicans are “probably doing him a favor by getting this [issue] out of the way early.”
Still, he says politicians ultimately risk ballot-box accountability if their actions become overly troublesome to voters.
And experts say public officials’ financial ethics are deeply important to the health of a democratic republic like the U.S.
It’s probably not realistic to expect politicians to police all the professional activities of adult family members – other than to make plain that no political favors will be granted, says Richard Painter, a former ethics official in the White House of George W. Bush.
But he sees the Trump family entanglements as a different animal.
“This is a very serious danger, if the president himself has a lot of [business] exposure all over the world,” says Mr. Painter, now vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“What if Franklin Roosevelt during the World War II period had had all sort of real estate, the Roosevelt Tower in Berlin and in Rome?” he asks. America is “doggone lucky” that was not the case, given that many rich Americans at the time had money in Germany and were isolationists, Mr. Painter says.
From Saudi Arabia to Southeast Asia, Trump business interests overseas are considerable.
“Trump continued to hold more than $130 million in foreign assets in a revocable trust at the end of 2018,” and has reported “more than $100 million in income during his first two years in office generated by these foreign assets,” writes Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, in an email.
Both Mr. Painter and Dr. Weiner, among others, argue that President Trump should have put his assets into a blind trust, under which he would have exited from the business of name-branded hotels and resorts. It’s a step that has been taken by past presidents, but none who had business enterprises on the scale of the Trump Organization (now led by the president’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric).
Where some legal experts say it’s unrealistic to expect an entrepreneur-turned-president to take such a drastic step, the rejoinder from others is that someone unwilling to do that doesn’t need to run for president.
As it stands, while President Trump may have pledged to avoid conflicts of interest, he has left little scope for Congress, the press, or the public to assess his compliance:
- In pending litigation, he hasn’t complied with what many say is an ironclad obligation to provide his tax returns when asked by Congress.
- He has said he isn’t benefiting personally from signing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 into law. Many experts say the opposite is likely true, due to business- and investment-related provisions in the law.
- He faces lawsuits over whether activities such as Trump hotel visits by officials from other nations amount to “foreign emoluments,” banned under the Constitution to prevent bribery or improper influence.
- In another lawsuit, the attorney general for the District of Columbia alleges the Trump inaugural committee “coordinated with the Trump family to grossly overpay for event space in the Trump International Hotel.”
- Frequent presidential visits amount to free publicity and stepped-up revenue for Trump properties. The Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland has seen an estimated $184,000 in business from U.S. military personnel using it as a stopover on international flights.
- While pledging that his companies will avoid striking new deals abroad during his presidency, residential developments in India are among a list of blurry-line activities under the Trump presidency, Ms. Massoglia writes.
Whether for the Trump family’s situation or for other presidents, solutions aren’t easy. Corruption can be tricky to define, for one thing.
Mr. Biden has called for, among other things, a new federal commission on ethics, with a bipartisan structure and subpoena power. And many experts call for greater financial transparency in politics.
“Sunlight can’t work when there’s nothing for it to shine on,” says Dr. Weiner of the American Enterprise Institute.