He who must not be named: How Hunter Biden became a conversation-stopper
Hunter Biden: The mere mention of his name seemingly triggers the vapors among cable TV hosts and their guests.
When President Trump turned to the Bidens and Ukraine in a speech, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace cut off the coverage, declaring she had to protect the listeners: “We hate to do this, really, but the president isn’t telling the truth.” When Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) tried to answer a question about the Ukraine scandal by referencing the Bidens, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd angrily told him not to “gaslight” the nation.
The Bidens, simply, are not what well-bred people discuss in polite company, apparently. Indeed, many journalists seem to be channeling not Edward R. Murrow, the fabled CBS newscaster, but Florence Hartley, the author of “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness” in 1872. Hartley warned her readers to “avoid, at all times, mentioning subjects or incidents that can in any way disgust your hearers.”
For news shows on MSNBC, CNN and other cable networks, nothing is more disgusting than the mention of what Hunter Biden actually was doing in Ukraine.
For those brave enough to read on, I wish to dispense with one threshold issue: I was critical of claims over the last three years of “proven” crimes and impeachable offenses in the Russia investigation. However, the first day that Trump’s Ukraine call was disclosed, I stated that — if a quid pro quo were proved — the alleged self-dealing with military aid would be an impeachable offense. My point: Raising concerns over Hunter Biden does not mean you are excusing Trump’s actions.
What is most remarkable about the paucity of coverage of Hunter Biden’s dealings is the conclusory mantra that “this has all been investigated.” Many TV hosts prefer to focus on President Trump’s dubious claim that former Vice President Joe Biden forced the firing of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor to protect his son. I, too, fail to see compelling evidence to support Trump’s charge.
There is, however, that other problem of Hunter Biden landing a windfall contract with one of Ukraine’s most corrupt figures after his father took charge of potentially billions in U.S. loans and aid for Ukraine. That is what no one seems to want to discuss.
Indeed, the Biden campaign has been remarkably open in demanding that news organizations stop airing interviews or publishing articles about the allegations. Instead of calling it “fake news” (which is virtually copyrighted by Trump), the Biden campaign calls such coverage “conspiracy theories.”
Thus, the campaign wrote to various networks, demanding that they stop airing interviews on the scandal with figures such as Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. Kate Bedingfield, deputy manager of the Biden campaign, also denounced The New York Times for publishing an op-ed by author Peter Schweizer on the controversy. The campaign apparently expected the Times and the networks to fall in line and bar others from even expressing a view.
Most recently, the campaign fired off letters to Facebook, Twitter and Google, demanding that they take down Trump ads referencing the Hunter Biden contracts. This normally would be viewed as unbridled hubris and arrogance — except that many TV news hosts are doing precisely what the campaign has demanded.
When Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) raised the issue on CNN, host Erin Burnett cut him off: “There is no evidence of Joe Biden doing anything wrong, and this is something that has been looked into, and I think — I want to make a point here — I think what we need to talk about right now is what did the president right now do or not do.” Other CNN hosts have repeated the line of “no evidence of wrongdoing” like a virtual incantation.
Whether the energy company involved with Hunter Biden was fully investigated by Ukraine is hardly a measure of culpability. Ukraine is widely considered one of the more corrupt places on Earth, where paying the children and spouses of powerful people is routine. Indeed, it is quite common in this country, too — and I’ve criticized that practice for more than 30 years in Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
Yet Ukraine was a virtual gold rush for Washington’s elite. Paul Manafort made millions working for Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s corrupt former president. Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig and his law firm tapped into Yanukovych, too. Tony Podesta, Democratic powerbroker and brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman, were implicated in Ukraine dealings.
Hunter Biden’s quest for Ukrainian gold took him to one of Yanukovych’s most controversial and corrupt associates, Mykola Zlochevsky, who leveraged his post as minister of ecology and natural resources to build a fortune. Before fleeing Ukraine, Zlochevsky paid Hunter Biden and several other Americans to be directors of his energy company, Burisma Holdings. Hunter Biden had no experience in the field — but he did have a notable connection to the vice president, who publicly has bragged about making clear to the Ukrainians that he alone controlled U.S. aid to the country. A stepson of former Secretary of State John Kerry also was asked to serve as a director but reportedly declined and warned Hunter Biden not to do it; Biden didn’t listen. He later told The New Yorker that “the decisions that I made were the right decisions for my family and for me.”
His decisions certainly were profitable, but they were not “right” as an ethical matter for himself or his father.
Joe Biden has insisted he never spoke with his son about his foreign dealings — an incredible but categorical statement. The then-vice president flew with his son on Air Force Two on an official trip to China but suggests they never discussed his son’s deal seeking $1.5 billion in investments with the state-backed Bank of China. During the trip, Hunter reportedly introduced his father to Chinese private equity executive Jonathan Li, who was part of that deal. Yet Biden insists he was never told of any business linkage or dealings.
If true, Biden was, at a minimum, willfully blind not to ask his son about potential conflicts or controversies. But it does not appear to be true, at least in part — because Hunter Biden has said he informed his father about the Ukraine deal.
All of this should be of some interest to the media, which has exhaustively — and rightfully — pursued foreign deals by the Trump family. And there is no reason why the media cannot pursue allegations against both the Trumps and the Bidens.
That, however, would counter the narrative that there’s “nothing wrong” with Hunter Biden’s dealings and that it’s all a “lie” that’s best to ignore. As Hartley explained in 1872, good manners dictate that you “never attempt to disparage an absent friend. It is the height of meanness.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and previously represented the House of Representatives and also served as the last lead defense counsel in a Senate impeachment trial. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.