The Morning Jolt

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What Trump’s Interloping with Ukraine Means for the Future of the Presidency

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. August 20, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A lot of Trump fans will hate the first part of today’s newsletter; Joe Biden fans will hate the second. That doesn’t make what’s in it any less true.

Every Unprecedented Move Sets a New Precedent

Just picture what happens next if the American people decide that it is legal and ethical for an American president to urge foreign leaders to investigate his political opponents, as it appears Donald Trump encouraged Ukrainian leaders to do in Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Someday, there will be another Democratic president. The country could see another Democratic president as soon as January 20, 2021, or it could be sometime many years after that. But someday, there will be one, and this future Democratic president could use this exact same tactic against his or her potential Republican challengers.

This future Democratic president could urge Iraq or Afghanistan to investigate Dan Crenshaw’s units to see if they violated any rules of engagement.

This future Democratic president could urge Germany to investigate whether Nikki Haley and the South Carolina state government ever did anything unethical or cut any corners in their agreements to bring BMW production plants to the Palmetto State.

This future Democratic president could urge any of the countries that Mike Pence visited as governor on trade missions — China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada — to claim that some sort of “shadowy backroom deal” was proposed.

And of course, a future Democratic president could tell just about any foreign government where there is a Trump property — two dozen countries around the world — to announce an investigation to see if there was anything unethical or shady about any Trump organization dealings, just to have more allegations to throw at Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka, etc. if they ever express political ambitions.

The point, of course, would not be whether any of those GOP lawmakers ever did anything wrong. There’s no evidence that any of them did anything wrong. The point would be to create a cloud of scandal over a potential GOP presidential candidate, to generate the headline “[FOREIGN GOVERNMENT X] INVESTIGATING [POLITICAL FIGURE Y] OVER CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONS.” And the odds are good that some foreign official somewhere would be willing to leak something along these lines in order to ingratiate himself with a Democratic president seeking a second term.

When a president does something “unprecedented,” that action creates a new precedent. Every move you use against your opponents can be used against you, too. But in today’s politics, nobody wants to think that far ahead — or they conclude that their opponents are so irredeemably devious and unethical, that any devious and unethical move of their own is pre-justified. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” to quote the cliché that has become the universal excuse for everyone willing to cheat in pursuit of victory.

Trump’s claim Sunday that he merely wanted to fight corruption in Ukraine is pretty rich coming from the guy who hired Paul Manafort, but even if that was the motive, we have institutions of law that are supposed to investigate and prosecute allegations of corruption at home and abroad: the FBI, the Department of Justice, Interpol. If a president wants a foreign country to investigate corruption, he doesn’t tell them to work with his personal lawyer.

You’re Not off the Hook So Quickly, Bidens

The irony is that there is indeed an odor coming off of Joe Biden’s efforts to get Ukraine to replace a state prosecutor, and Hunter Biden’s foreign business partners in general.

Go back to Friday’s Jolt. You don’t have to look hard to find Obama administration officials who were uncomfortable with Hunter Biden’s deals, not because they saw any ipso facto corruption but because it was nearly inevitable that at some point, some Obama administration policy change would end up being beneficial to the interests of Hunter Biden’s clients, leading to accusations of the vice president steering policy in a way to help out his son. While no one has proven Biden acted out of a conflict of interest, there’s no denying that the father and son’s situations created a perception of a conflict of interest, and neither Biden seemed to care.

In the coming week, you’ll see a lot of people acting like only one party has an issue with executive branch relatives trying to make money off their powerful connections.

The State Department’s EB-5 visas are perfectly legal (which is a separate question from whether they’re a good idea). Foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a U.S. business and plan “to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs” in the U.S. are eligible to apply for the program and get a visa.

But when Jared Kushner’s family held an event in a Beijing ballroom for wealthy Chinese investors in 2017 with brochures that declared, “invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,” people understandably perceived a conflict of interest. The family appeared to be cashing in on Kushner’s closeness to the president and role in the White House to convince Chinese investors that they have a better shot of getting a visa by investing in the family’s projects. The SEC announced an investigation (although nothing’s come of it so far), and a few changes have been made to the EB-5 program, increasing in the required minimum investment amounts and clarifying the definition of a “targeted employment area” under the law. (Hey, some of us were reporting about worries that the EB-5 program amounting to a visa-selling scheme way back in 2013 when Terry McAuliffe was running for governor. But did anyone listen? No.)

Go back to the big New Yorker article about Hunter Biden. It is full of Hunter Biden and his former associates insisting there was never any conflict of interest and other people who are less close to the Bidens not being quite so sure. We’re told that there’s been a “decades-old” rule between father and son to never talk business. In 2000, Hunter Biden joins a lobbying firm, the National Group.

[Firm co-founder Vincent] Versage told me that the National Group had a strict rule: “Hunter didn’t do anything that involved his dad, didn’t do anything that involved any help from his dad.”

An informal arrangement was established: Biden wouldn’t ask Hunter about his lobbying clients, and Hunter wouldn’t tell his father about them. “It wasn’t like we all sat down and agreed on it,” Hunter told me. “It came naturally.”

Then when Biden becomes vice president:

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, said that the State Department was not concerned about perceived conflicts of interest, because Hunter was a “private citizen.” Hunter told Burisma’s management and other board members that he would not be involved in any matters that were connected to the U.S. government or to his father.

We’re constantly being reassured by Joe Biden and Hunter Biden that the son’s lobbying work, consulting work, corporate or foreign clients never influenced the father’s thinking, decision-making, or policy choices. Joe Biden thinks his son is a swell and ethical guy; Hunter Biden thinks his father is a swell and ethical guy, and they assure the world that nothing wrong . . . and I guess we’re all just supposed to take them at their word.

Except the rest of the New Yorker article is full of folks who aren’t quite as convinced.

Timothy Lannon, the university’s president, who offered Hunter the contract, described Hunter to me as “like his dad: great personally, very engaging, very curious about things and hardworking,” adding that he had “a very strong last name that really paid off in terms of our lobbying efforts.”

. . . Hunter had heard that, during the primaries, some of Obama’s advisers had criticized him to reporters for his earmarking work. Hunter said that he wasn’t told by members of the Obama campaign to end his lobbying activities, but that he knew “the writing was on the wall.”

. . . Hunter’s meeting with Li and his relationship with BHR attracted little attention at the time, but some of Biden’s advisers were worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit, would expose the vice president to criticism. The former senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he “was leveraging access for his benefit, which just wasn’t done in that White House. Optics really mattered, and that seemed to be cutting it pretty close, even if nothing nefarious was going on.”

. . . As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

In the article, Hunter Biden describes a 2.8-carat diamond that became an issue in his divorce, worth anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000. In 2018, he had “been given the diamond by the Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, who was trying to make connections in Washington among prominent Democrats and Republicans, and whom he had met in the middle of the divorce.”

Maybe it’s legal, but Americans are entitled to be unnerved hearing that a Chinese tycoon gave the son of the former vice president and front-running likely presidential candidate a giant diamond as a gift. Hunter told the New Yorker that the gift couldn’t possibly be a bribe: “What would they be bribing me for? My dad wasn’t in office.” Er, because everybody thought that there was a good chance Joe Biden would run for president again and a decent chance he could be president someday?

There’s this willful obliviousness that keeps cropping up with Hunter Biden:

Hunter began negotiating a deal for CEFC to invest forty million dollars in a liquefied-natural-gas project on Monkey Island, in Louisiana, which, he said, was projected to create thousands of jobs. “I was more proud of it than you can imagine,” he told me. In the summer of 2017, Ye talked with Hunter about his concern that U.S. law-enforcement agencies were investigating one of his associates, Patrick Ho. Hunter, who sometimes works as a private lawyer, agreed to represent Ho, and tried to figure out whether Ho was in legal jeopardy in the U.S. That November, just after Ye and Hunter agreed on the Monkey Island deal, U.S. authorities detained Ho at the airport. He was later sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe top government officials in Chad and Uganda in exchange for business advantages for CEFC. In February, 2018, Ye was detained by Chinese authorities, reportedly as part of an anti-corruption investigation, and the deal with Hunter fell through. Hunter said that he did not consider Ye to be a “shady character at all,” and characterized the outcome as “bad luck.”

These arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears. A lot of Republican voters are invested in President Trump, a lot of Democrats are invested in Joe Biden, and even his primary rivals don’t want to suggest that the Obama administration was steering its policies in foreign countries to benefit the business interests of family members. A lot of people are willing to forgive a little corruption from their preferred political leaders.

ADDENDA: Two great NRO pieces worth reading: first, Jay Nordlinger on the excellent newly expanded International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., and Robert VerBruggen analyzing a new study about Harvard University’s admissions for legacy students (those whose parents attended), athletes, and children of faculty and staff:

The argument against affirmative action has always been that we should judge people as individuals, and the work of Arcidiacono et al. shows that these other preferences do immense damage at the individual level. They let in hundreds of students each year simply because of who their parents are or how well they can throw a ball (or whatever one does to score in lacrosse) — and every preferred student who’s admitted excludes someone more qualified. Worse, these preferences exist not as an attempt, however misguided, to redress America’s reprehensible racial sins but merely to heap more donations on top of Harvard’s $37 billion endowment and to cultivate an amorphous sense of community based around sports teams and family members who attended the school decades ago.

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