Making the click-through worthwhile: Trump talks about the Bidens and China, mangling what ought to be a clear and compelling argument; a diagnosis of the reporters covering the Democratic primary and which candidate reminds them the most of themselves; and David Brooks’s “Flyover Man” tells the New York Times readership things that they don’t want to hear.
Mr. President, Why Would China Want to Investigate Hunter Biden?
President Trump, speaking to reporters yesterday:
REPORTER: Mr. President, what exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call? Exactly.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I would think that, if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens, because how does a company that’s newly formed — and all these companies, if you look at — And, by the way, likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with — with Ukraine
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think Biden is going down. And I think his whole situation — because now you may very well find that there are many other countries that they scammed, just like they scammed China and Ukraine. And basically, who are they really scamming? The USA. And it’s not good.
Q: He said he was carrying out the official policy —
THE PRESIDENT: And that’s probably why China, for so many years, has had a sweetheart deal where China rips off the USA — because they deal like people with Biden, where they give their son a billion and a half dollars. And that’s probably why China has such a sweetheart deal that, for so many years, they’ve been ripping off our country.
“What happened in China” was that Hunter Biden, after forming the investment consulting firm Rosemont Seneca, met with two top executives of China’s sovereign wealth fund, social security fund, and largest banks. It is not an exaggeration to say these were some of the biggest and most powerful investors in the world; in 2011, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund had more than $800 billion in assets. In 2012, the Chinese social security fund had $137.9 billion in assets.
Let’s be clear: top executives at institutions like that don’t meet with Americans unless the Chinese government is absolutely fine with that meeting. Biden then had meetings with Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund, Bohai Capital, and Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, whose company, CEFC China Energy, “aligned itself so closely with the Chinese government that it was often hard to distinguish between the two,” according to CNN Again, all of these figures are men who have risen to the top of the Communist-turned-authoritarian-capitalist system. They are not in the business of antagonizing the leadership in Beijing, other than making enough money to stir jealousy.
In other words, everything Hunter Biden was doing was hunky-dory with the Chinese government. Why on earth would the Chinese government want to investigate that?
Trump may come closest to alleging a crime when he contends “they scammed China and Ukraine,” because the Chinese investors may have felt that by investing with Hunter Biden, they were getting influence at the highest level of the Obama administration.
It’s fair to wonder just what Rosemont Seneca had to offer huge institutional investors beyond the stepson of a top Democratic senator-turned-Secretary of State (John Kerry) and the son of the vice president. It certainly wasn’t a big firm, one with an enormously experienced staff, or one with enormous financial resources, and it was new, it had almost no track record.
Trump and Giuliani keep insisting that the Chinese paid or gave Hunter Biden $1.5 billion, and that’s not quite accurate. Hunter Biden, Devon Archer, Jonathan Li, and some other business partners formed BHR Partners in June 2013. Under the terms of the deal, Hunter Biden was an unpaid member of BHR’s board and received his share of the money after his father leaves the White House. According to Hunter Biden’s lawyer, In October 2017, he bought 10 percent of the BHR; as of July, that was worth $430,000. Defenders of the Bidens and critics of Trump will focus on what’s false about the accusation to obscure what’s true about the accusation: institutions that were closely tied to the Chinese government were happy to set up an investment fund that everyone involved hoped would, at some point down the road, turn into a lucrative fortune for everyone — including Hunter Biden.
The argument from Trump and Giuliani would be stronger if they could point to a particular decision by Biden that steered Obama administration policy in a direction friendlier to Beijing’s priorities. There’s mixed evidence here. Some foreign policy analysts argue that when Obama left office, the “U.S.-Chinese security relationship and the Asia-Pacific region in general [were] far tenser than they were at the start of 2009.” From the perspective of the Chinese, Obama attempted to talk a lot, but they didn’t like his “pivot to Asia.” You could argue that the Obama administration was consistently slow, sluggish and nonconfrontational in response to Chinese aggression, but the administration had the same approach to the rise of ISIS, the Iranian regime, and North Korean saber-rattling. Yes, Joe Biden’s perspective about China has been characterized as naïve — “they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us” — but Biden had that perspective long before Hunter Biden started striking deals with Chinese investors.
Team Trump keeps insisting that the meeting with Zelensky didn’t include a specific quid pro quo. (That’s a bit of a stretch; right after Zelensky mentions the Javelin missiles, Trump says, “I want you to do me a favor.”) But we can turn around and apply the same standard to the Bidens: what was the quid pro quo in the deal with China? What did China specifically get from this arrangement that it would not have gotten anyway?
As I tried to lay out in the timeline, the problem with Hunter Biden wasn’t that what he was doing was illegal. The problem is that it was legal! The United States has no law that bars the family of members of Congress or the president or vice president from working as lobbyists, setting up hedge funds, setting up investment funds, or sitting on the boards of foreign entities. Maybe we ought to have some laws; maybe there’s just too much opportunity to “buy friendship” and create a backdoor way of making a payment to a politician’s closest relatives. If you want to have enormous power over shaping government policy, you and those close to you will have to sacrifice some financial opportunities.
Lots of powerful political figures have children that turn out… not so great. It’s tough living in the shadow of a powerful and beloved father. The Kennedys would be exhibit A. George W. Bush’s life until his late 30s would be exhibit B. Drinking, drug abuse, messy divorces, run-ins with the law . . . There’s a long bipartisan tradition of politicians getting their kids minimal-responsibility, well-compensated jobs on campaigns, in offices, with lobbying firms, consulting firms, companies run by big donors, appointed to boards and commissions and so on. What happened here was a gradual escalation of this common practice.
Warren Can Rally Her Base and Meet with Reporters at the Same Time!
Over in the Washington Post, David Byler offers a sharp assessment that will irritate two groups: members of the national media and fans of Elizabeth Warren. His contention is that they are one and the same, really.
Warren also matches an upscale cultural image of who the president should be. Many in the media followed a specific academic and professional path: We did our homework, took tough classes, competed on the high school speech and debate team, maybe went to an elite college, got a white-collar job and earned institutional validation all along the way. Warren and Buttigieg are the real-life images of that version of success, in which ambitious, academically accomplished, culturally refined people work extremely hard within institutions to achieve “meritocratic” recognition. Other Democrats fit the bill, too: Cory Booker was a Rhodes scholar, as well; Amy Klobuchar is a Yale- and University of Chicago-educated lawyer; and Julián Castro interned in the Clinton White House while at Stanford University. But they haven’t targeted the demographic many members of the media happen to fall into as clearly as Warren and Buttigieg have.
If you ask someone to describe the traits their ideal president would have, they will often describe someone like themselves, or at least someone with the traits they want to believe that they themselves have. (Whether people really see themselves clearly is debatable and a topic for another time.) Many outspoken people believe that being outspoken is a good trait to have and an advantage in life. Many highly educated people believe this is the single best measurement of a person’s ability to do a job well. People who are methodical and deliberate are usually wary about leaders who are impulsive and trust their guts. Veterans may often prefer a candidate who’s worn the uniform, gun owners would prefer a candidate who is one of them, and members of various faiths gravitate to candidates who share the same beliefs.
What do members of the media do well? Hopefully, write and speak clearly. (I know, I know, a lot of days the Three Martini Lunch and pop culture podcasts are festivals of “um” and “you know” and other verbal placeholders, and this newsletter has been mixing up “addenda” (plural) and “addendum” (singular) from the start.) Sure, members of the national political media will generally be left-of-center and prefer Democratic candidates. But they’ll really swoon over eloquent speeches and polished essays, op-eds, and occasionally the autobiographies and campaign books. (Those are usually ghostwritten anyway.)
‘Flyover Man’ Has a Point
Continuing the theme of columnists telling their colleagues and readers something they don’t want to hear, David Brooks channels “Flyover Man”, the Trump supporter who lives away from the coast: “The media fixates on scandals because they’re easier to talk about than complex issues like why urban and rural America are drifting further apart. You wasted billions of hours speculating about the Mueller report, and now news about Adam Schiff overshadows everything else while my world burns. Let’s face it: Bashing Trump is the media’s business model. That’s what drives eyeballs and profit.”
ADDENDA: Elsewhere in the New York Times, Spencer Bokat-Lindell reexamines whether Facebook should be broken up into smaller companies . . .
You can enjoy my late-afternoon chat with Ed Morrissey from yesterday.