Elections

Why Hunter?

Hunter Biden speaks during the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis., August 20, 2020. (DNC/Reuters)
An ineffectual spotlight on Hunter Biden is what you get from a campaign that is informed only by its id.

Hunter Biden, Joe’s younger son, has become a fixture of the 2020 race. Since August 27, 2019, Donald Trump has tweeted about Hunter 59 separate times, making his colorful past one of the Trump campaign’s most important attacks on his rival.

For many years, Hunter struggled with serious drug and alcohol addictions — dependencies that have had a great many deleterious downstream effects on his own life and the lives of those around him. In 2013, at the age of 43, for example, he was accepted into the U.S. Navy Reserve as a direct commission officer. To get in, he was given age- and drug-related waivers. On his very first day on base in Norfolk, Virginia, he submitted a urine sample that showed cocaine in his system. Instead of taking responsibility, Hunter claimed that a bummed cigarette must have been laced with it.

In couples therapy with his first wife, Kathleen, Hunter agreed that if he started drinking again he would need to move out. In 2015, shortly after his brother Beau’s death, and a day after his and Kathleen’s anniversary, he walked out of a session and promptly purchased and downed a bottle of vodka. In the fall of 2016, Hunter began dating Beau’s widow, Hallie after she came to visit him at a spa just two weeks after Hunter went on a crack-cocaine- and alcohol-fueled bender in Los Angeles. The two broke up in 2018, and in August of that year a stripper named Lunden Alexis Roberts gave birth to a son that Hunter Biden initially denied having fathered. But he eventually reached a settlement with Roberts earlier this year.

Of greater interest to the Trump campaign and public are the details of Hunter’s career, during which he has coasted from one cushy corporate consultant job to another on the strength of his father’s political success and connections. Most famously, in 2014 Hunter accepted an offer to join the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, despite the fact that Vice President Biden was the point man for the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. Burisma not only hired the younger Biden, but allegedly paid him and an associate over $4 million over the course of his five years there. At the same time, Joe Biden was pressuring the Ukrainian government to fire Viktor Shokin, the country’s prosecutor general, which they eventually did. Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and the rest of his backers have tried to argue that Biden did so to get the Ukrainian government to stop investigating Burisma. Those who can remember all the way back to last December will recall that Trump’s asking Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky to gather more information on the Biden-Burisma imbroglio last July got him impeached. Ironically, it was for being notoriously slow-footed in pursuing investigations such as the one into Burisma that Shokin was kicked to the curb.

Over the past week, Hunter has again catapulted back into the spotlight after emails from his time at Burisma were published in the New York Post. Perhaps even more notable were emails between Hunter and Chinese energy executive Ye Jianming, who offered the prodigal son $10 million per year. There have been questions about the provenance and authenticity of these emails, but the Biden campaign’s failure to deny outright the credibility of the Post’s reporting suggests that they are real. On first pass, the emails seem to confirm what we already know: Hunter Biden has profited from his last name and his father’s influence for the entirety of his professional career. They don’t appear to implicate the Democratic nominee in any concrete way, but I’ll leave the in-depth analysis of the Bidens’ behavior to the experts.

In any case, it is worth discussing the president’s insistence on making Hunter Biden a key part of his reelection effort. Trump is famous for being both merciless and undiscerning when he goes negative on his political opponents — remember the Rafael Cruz grassy-knoll theory — but perhaps his most effective attack was his moniker for his 2016 general-election foe, whom he deemed “Crooked Hillary” and sometimes even just “Crooked.” After decades of Clinton family scandals, the nickname stuck. When then FBI director James Comey announced, just ten days before the election, that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, the moniker became even more potent.

At his 2016 rallies, entreaties for Trump to “drain the swamp!” were outnumbered only by calls for him to “build the wall!” After upsetting Clinton largely on the strength of that message, Trump can hardly be blamed for hoping that his opponent would have a chief vulnerability similar to Clinton’s. But it was unwise for him to try to manufacture one out of Hunter Biden’s mishaps. It seems that in the rush to ask, “Where’s Hunter?” the campaign forgot to ask, “Why Hunter?”

That the misbehaviors Trump has been able to point belong not to his opponent but rather his opponent’s child (albeit one who is nearly 50) is the most obvious difference between the Hunter and Clinton sagas. But that’s only the most superficial distinction. Biden’s enormous personal losses have also lessened this attack’s potency for Trump. Beau’s and Hunter’s mother and sister died in a 1973 car crash that made Biden a widower. That loss was compounded when Beau, a veteran of the Iraq War and former Delaware attorney general, passed away in 2015 of brain cancer. Hunter is the only member of Biden’s original nuclear family who remains. While that is no excuse for Hunter’s abhorrent behavior, it does render both him and his father more sympathetic figures.

Think back to how you felt reading the first two paragraphs of this piece. If it was anything like I did typing them, you were likely overwhelmed more by a sense of grief and discomfort than by anger. Reading about Hunter and his family’s pain is unpleasant and evokes feelings of pity, despite its self-inflicted nature. Moreover, his cashing in on his father’s political career is unsavory to be sure, but the lack of evidence implicating his father and the dearth of a history of committing serious crimes related to deceit and national security differentiate Hunter Biden’s exploits from those of Hillary Clinton.

The Trump campaign’s decision to make Hunter a centerpiece also took away valuable oxygen that could have been used in far more productive ways. Trump’s path to victory is an issues-oriented election, not one based on the character of the two major-party candidates. The American people have already decided what they think about these two men; Biden will win the empathy gap every single time. Trump’s strength lies in his record: a string of foreign policy successes, a booming pre-coronavirus economy, a sane energy policy, a promise to continue to treat China as the geopolitical rival that it is. A campaign that made the Andy McCarthy case for the president would have been far more successful than the one that has relied upon Rudy Giuliani and a wayward soul like Hunter Biden.

The president’s use of Hunter Biden as a foil can be understood as a consequence of his successful effort in 2016 to define Hillary Clinton as a swamp creature. Unfortunately for Trump’s campaign, Joe Biden’s lack of direct involvement in Hunter’s affairs and the accumulated ClintonWorld stink have made it far more difficult to make the allegations of corruption stick. Biden’s history of personal loss and the obvious toll that addiction has taken on Hunter have further immunized Biden from attacks by a man many already see as needlessly cruel. This has played right into the Biden campaign’s hands by reinforcing its contention that this election is about character and empathy. A more disciplined candidate and campaign would have considered all of this. But an ineffectual spotlight on Hunter Biden is what you get from a campaign that is informed only by its id.

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