I have been writing about Donald Trump’s dictatorial personality and political authoritarianism for over three years now. The list of crimes against democracy, high and low, legal and merely political, is too long and too obvious to require recitation. Everyone in the broad political elite — politicians, journalists and pundits, corporate leaders — knows it. Republicans lie about it. Democrats fecklessly denounce it while doing little to stop it. And the list grows longer each day.
Do the recent revelations by investigative journalists at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most notably the Wall Street Journal represent an “inflection point,” exposing a level of malfeasance and criminality that can no longer be ignored? Perhaps. It is too early to tell. But the record of the past seems pretty clear: no act by Trump, however obscene, despicable, illegal, or dangerous, seems sufficient to generate any effective political response by Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate. And while I long argued for impeachment, I seriously doubt that this is any longer a viable political strategy of opposition, both because the true “moment” for that — the too-long period between the release of the Mueller Report and Mueller’s testimony — has passed, and because Democratic leaders in Congress are simply too timid, and Republican leaders are brazenly hostile to constitutional democracy.
I fear that the only hope for both Democrats and for democracy — and make no mistake, the Democratic party is now the only democratic party in U.S. politics — is to defeat Trump, and hopefully the Republicans, decisively in 2020.
And it is in this light that the current “Whistleblower” scandal is so dangerous, in ways obvious and less obvious.
The obvious must receive pride of place, and we must never allow it to be obscured by the lies of Trump and his enablers: the situation makes very clear that Trump will go to any lengths to remain in office. He will collude with or blackmail foreign governments to obtain their assistance. He will instrumentalize and pervert every office of the federal government, especially the so-called Justice Department and the intelligence agencies, to suit his personal-partisan political goals. He will refuse any legally required Congressional mandate, even when it relates to whistleblowers whose allegations are considered serious and “urgent” by his own appointed officials in the Directorate of National Intelligence. And he will gaslight and lie to assert that all questioners are “enemies of the people,” by virtue of being members of a “deep state” or participants in the “fake news media” or, heaven forfend, socialists.
Trump will do anything to destroy opposition, to steal an election, and to remain in office.
And so he is using his power as commander in chief and head of state not to deal seriously with global affairs but to dig up dirt on and to slander Joe Biden. And he is attempting to turn all discussion of this corrupt use of power into a discussion about the supposed corruption of Biden.
Trump is not simply abusing power and evading constitutional accountability. He is doing so to ensure a second term in office, democracy be damned.
This must be vigorously opposed. Period.
It simply adds to the cynical irony of the situation that whatever might be true about Joe Biden’s son Hunter pales in significance in comparison to what is known about Ivanka, Don, Jr., and Eric Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner (two of whom have actually been brought by their Big Daddy into the White House itself!).
Trump must be defeated in 2020. The “whistleblower scandal” makes this clear.
But it also makes clear how difficult this will be.
One source of difficulty has already been named: Trump honors none of the “democratic rules of the game,” he will do anything to “win,” and we cannot even be certain he will voluntarily leave office in the event that he loses the election.
But there is a second source of difficulty: the very real internal divisions within the Democratic party, divisions symbolized by the Biden candidacy itself. Biden is “safe” candidate for the centrist elites who have long-dominated the Democratic party. He is also a weak candidate whose weaknesses are more and more exposed with the passage of time. The current “whistleblower scandal” accentuates this weakness and indeed potentially brings it to a new level.
Trump’s Tweet from yesterday helps us to see why.
To be clear, Trump’s central claim against Biden has no basis in fact and has been called into question by all serious commentators: there is no evidence that Biden’s used his office as Vice President to assist his son Hunter in the latter’s business dealings.
But to be equally clear, Biden’s statements about this situation have been less than truthful, and arguably false. And the speed with which Trump jumped on this is simply a sign of the way Trump will be able to weaponize the issue. The video that Trump tweeted makes clear that Biden is being at least disingenuous when he declares that “not one single credible outlet has given any credibility to his [Trump’s] assertion.” It is true that no credible source verifies the claim that Biden himself misuses power. But it is also clear that a great many very credible sources have run stories about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine, China, and the U.S., that raise questions about at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Here is the New York Times in December 2015, in a piece entitled “Joe Biden, His Son, and The Case Against a Ukrainian Oligarch”:
. . . the credibility of the vice president’s anticorruption message may have been undermined by the association of his son, Hunter Biden, with one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas companies, Burisma Holdings, and with its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, who was Ukraine’s ecology minister under former President Viktor F. Yanukovych before he was forced into exile. Hunter Biden, 45, a former Washington lobbyist, joined the Burisma board in April 2014. That month, as part of an investigation into money laundering, British officials froze London bank accounts containing $23 million that allegedly belonged to Mr. Zlochevsky . . .
Edward C. Chow, who follows Ukrainian policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the involvement of the vice president’s son with Mr. Zlochevsky’s firm undermined the Obama administration’s anticorruption message in Ukraine. “Now you look at the Hunter Biden situation, and on the one hand you can credit the father for sending the anticorruption message,” Mr. Chow said. “But I think unfortunately it sends the message that a lot of foreign countries want to believe about America, that we are hypocritical about these issues.”
In May of this year the Times ran another story, bearing the headline “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies.” While much of the story focused on the efforts of Trump to exaggerate the role of Joe Biden in his son’s business dealings, it also made clear that there were real conflict of interest questions at stake here:
new details about Hunter Biden’s involvement, and a decision this year by the current Ukrainian prosecutor general to reverse himself and reopen an investigation into Burisma, have pushed the issue back into the spotlight just as the senior Mr. Biden is beginning his 2020 presidential campaign.
They show how Hunter Biden and his American business partners were part of a broad effort by Burisma to bring in well-connected Democrats during a period when the company was facing investigations backed not just by domestic Ukrainian forces but by officials in the Obama administration. Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma prompted concerns among State Department officials at the time that the connection could complicate Vice President Biden’s diplomacy in Ukraine, former officials said.
The best and the most careful discussion of these issues can be found in a long piece published this past July in New Yorker in July by Adam Entous, “Will Hunter Biden Jeopardize His Father’s Campaign? Biden’s son is under scrutiny for his business dealings and tumultuous personal life.” Entous presents a rich and quite fascinating profile of Hunter Biden and his role/non-role in the mythology that Joe Biden has constructed around himself and his sons, which focuses largely on the virtues of Hunter’s brother Beau, who apparently followed the straight-and-narrow, was deployed as an Army officer in Iraq, served as Delaware Attorney General, seemed to be his father’s heir apparent, and then sadly died of a brain tumor.
Entous furnishes a detailed account of all of Hunter’s business dealings, and also presents an exceptionally strong case that Joe Biden’s role in promoting anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine was entirely proper:
There is little question that Hunter’s proximity to power shaped the arc of his career, and that, as the former aide told me, “Hunter is super rich terrain.” But Donald J. Trump and some of his allies, in their eagerness to undermine Biden’s candidacy, and possibly to deflect attention from their own ethical lapses, have gone to extreme lengths, promoting, without evidence, the dubious narrative that Biden used the office of the Vice-President to advance and protect his son’s interests.
At the same time, he makes clear that Hunter’s proximity to power was an important resource that he sought consistently to leverage, in Ukraine, in China, and elsewhere.
This was not simply a proximity to the power of his father. Hunter Biden’s partner in some of his ventures was Christopher Heinz, John Kerry’s stepson and an heir to the Heinz food company fortune. And, as last May’s Times indicates, Hunter Biden’s Ukrainean business dealings also involved Blue Star Strategies, “a consulting firm run by Clinton administration veterans that had done substantial work in Ukraine,” and included John D. Buretta, who served as a high-level official in the Obama Justice Department.
There is no reason to imagine that there is anything particularly unique or nefarious about any of these dealings. And they are a far cry from the blatant schemes of self-enrichment currently being pursued by Trump and his family.
At the same time, they represent the kind of political insider trading that has long been endemic to the establishment of both the Republican and the Democratic parties. It is unseemly. It is of a piece with the many ways that Joe Biden is a Beltway insider pure and simple, and has been an insider for almost fifty years. It strains credulity to believe that Biden knew nothing about Hunter’s business dealings or about the extent to which they placed Hunter within a broader network of Democratic party influence-peddling. (Here it is also important to note the long-time involvement of the Podesta Group in Ukrainian affairs, and the role of Tony Podesta as a major Democratic fundraiser.)
I am not suggesting that there is merit to Trump’s allegations of Biden direct involvement in corruption.
I am suggesting that there is a real story here, and it exposes some of the most “swampy” and disturbing features of establishment Democratic politicking.
Biden’s complex linkages to these things, including but not limited to his son, is a serious weakness of his candidacy, and in two ways. On the one hand, it makes him vulnerable to the kinds of attacks that Trump has already commenced. (And while Trump is certain to viciously attack any and all Democratic opponents with slanders and lies, these attacks are made easier when their object actually does have some questionable ties and is also inept at explaining them.) On the other hand, it makes him questionable to a great many Democratic voters and potential voters, especially young voters, who have every reason to want a candidate who is forward-looking and not hampered by a long history of political insider trading. Barack Obama’s “change we can believe in” might have been more slogan than substance, but it articulated something real: that the Democratic candidate was a new and young person who it was possible to believe represented something new. Even in 2008, at the high point of this “messaging,” Biden was on the ticket as a form of compensation and reassurance: Obama might be young, and new, and Black, but Biden was old, and had been around forever, and was white. That was 2008. How ironic, and also revolting, that now, in 2019, Biden hearkens back to that.
Biden is much older now, and he has been around much longer. He is no Trump. He appears to be a decent man. He is a devoted father who seems to really care about his children (and his fierce loyalty to his sons might in this case be a real liability). He has compiled an honorable record of public service, and in public office he has done some real good as well as some real harm. But he is a very vulnerable candidate, and the current brouhaha over his son’s business ties and apparent influence peddling makes this clear.
Precisely because Trump is such a danger, and his defeat is so important, it is so very important that the Democratic candidate be someone for whom “change we can believe in” is more than an old slogan from the past. It is hard to take seriously the idea that this person is Joe Biden.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. From 2009-2017 he served as Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, which he branded “A Political Science Public Sphere.” In 2017 he was awarded the American Political Science Association’s Frank J. Goodnow Award for “public service” in the profession for the work he did on the journal along with his excellent staff and editorial board.