Donald Trump is the first president in modern history to refuse to divest from his business interests upon taking office. As a result, he reportedly took in at least $73 million from foreign sources during his first two years in office, creating an unprecedented tangle of conflicts of interest with countries like the Philippines, India, and Turkey that are home to Trump-branded buildings.
Meanwhile, Trump’s adult sons — who said before his inauguration that they’d stay out of politics to avoid conflicts of interest — serve as key political surrogates for their father while running the family business, which has benefited from Trump’s presidency both directly and indirectly.
Somehow, none of this has stopped the president or his family from making his closing reelection case about corruption. Not his, mind you, but the flimsily supported idea that Joe Biden committed crimes by letting Obama administration foreign policy be influenced by his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings.
Trump, projecting, claims "the Biden family is a criminal enterprise" pic.twitter.com/YQNwj2A43t— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 16, 2020
Various aspects of these allegations have been debunked before (more on that later), but Trump’s attacks have nevertheless been echoed by his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump.
“The Biden family has spent decades in Washington, DC enriching themselves by selling access to Joe Biden’s taxpayer funded office. Hunter Biden is corrupt. Jim Biden is corrupt. Joe Biden is corrupt,” Trump Jr. tweeted last week, with Eric Trump making a similar attack on Tuesday.
The Biden Corruption Scandal Isn’t About Hunter, It’s About Joe— Eric Trump (@EricTrump) October 20, 2020
"The Hunter Biden scandal indicates that Joe Biden, while vice president of the United States, knowingly allowed his son to sell access to the Obama administration, then lied about it."
Of course, the first rule of Trumpism seems to be to never let shame or hypocrisy get in the way of attacking your enemies, so it’s not necessarily surprising that Trump is trying to weaponize one of his weaknesses in a last-ditch effort to turn his flailing reelection campaign around. But it’s still worth devoting some attention to the projection involved in Trump posturing as some sort of anti-corruption crusader.
The thin Hunter Biden “scandal,” briefly explained
Hunter Biden is back in the news following the New York Post’s October 14 piece about unverified emails found on a hard drive of dubious provenance. The story suggests emails found on the drive indicate that while Biden was vice president, his son used his connections to get the vice president to meet with an executive from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company Hunter served on the board of for $50,000 a month.
It’s not clear whether the meeting ever happened (the Biden campaign says no one-on-one time ever did). But the implication, conservatives say, is that the purported meeting led to Joe Biden abusing his office by pressuring the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who had been investigating a company that was paying his son.
While it’s unclear what qualifications Hunter had for that gig beyond having Biden as a last name, the accusation that his role on Burisma’s board somehow compromised the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy has been long debunked.
For one, the prosecutor in question, Viktor Shokin, was widely regarded as corrupt, and his ouster in March 2016 had broad international support. As Parker Molloy recently wrote for Media Matters, “Biden’s role in carrying out that internationally supported action actually made it more likely that Burisma would face increased legal scrutiny, not less.” Secondly, while Shokin had investigated Burisma, his probe was reportedly dormant at the time Biden advocated for his ouster.
In short, there’s no there there. So it tracks that, according to reporting from the New York Times, Post staffers were unwilling to put their names on the October 14 piece. The article was ultimately co-bylined by Emma-Jo Morris, a former staffer for Sean Hannity’s Fox News show who had never bylined a piece for the Post before, and Gabrielle Fonrouge, who reportedly “learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published.”
“Many Post staff members questioned whether the paper had done enough to verify the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents, said five people with knowledge of the tabloid’s inner workings,” the Times wrote. “Staff members also had concerns about the reliability of its sources and its timing, the people said.”
As a result, Trump acolytes who have been pushing the Burisma story — including Rudy Giuliani — have already moved the goalposts from “Biden is guilty of wrongdoing” to “even if the premise of the Post story is false, the American people deserve to see the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop.”
Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani argued that the American public deserved to see reports based off material from Hunter Biden’s laptop “even if it isn’t accurate” https://t.co/d6KD6j5UY7— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) October 20, 2020
Trump and his acolytes have also accused Hunter Biden of selling his name and connections in China.
“He’s like a vacuum cleaner — he follows his father around collecting,” Trump said on October 16. “What a disgrace. It’s a crime family.”
But as the New York Times detailed in a story on Tuesday that, ironically, is about a previously undisclosed bank account Trump has in China, there’s no evidence Hunter did anything wrong here either:
In a misleading claim amplified by surrogates like his son Donald Trump Jr. and his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president has said the younger Mr. Biden “walked out of China” with $1.5 billion after accompanying his father on an official trip in 2013. Numerous news articles and fact-checking sites have explained that the huge figure was actually a fund-raising goal set by an investment firm in which Hunter Biden obtained a 10 percent stake after his father left office. The firm did receive financial backing from a large state-controlled bank, but it is not clear the fund-raising target was ever met, and there is no evidence Hunter Biden received a large personal payout.
Even if Hunter Biden were as shady as the president’s circle is alleging, the Trump family should still probably sit this one out.
From “drain the swamp” to being the swamp
Very few people would argue that there isn’t something unseemly about Hunter Biden seemingly cashing in on his family name while his father was still serving as vice president. But if there’s anybody who should refrain from making that case, it’s the Trump children.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Don Jr. and Eric have been responsible for the Trump Organization, which sprawls across more than 30 countries and about 500 business entities, and, according to Trump, generated about $9.5 billion in revenue annually before he took office. And while Trump and his family insist that they’ve honored the promise Trump made before his inauguration not to do any new foreign deals while he’s in office, the business has still provided the family multiple chances to cash in since January 2017:
- In January 2019, Eric Trump took a business trip to Uruguay to visit a Trump property, and taxpayers ended up spending more than $80,000 on Eric’s Secret Service protection.
- In September 2019, Donald Trump Jr. met in New York City with about 100 purchasers of Trump-branded condos in India, and told an Indian newspaper that “India is a market that we would be very interested post politics.”
- In October 2019, Eric Trump claimed that “when my father became commander in chief of this country, we got out of all international business” — but days later, the Trump Organization refuted Eric’s claim by publicly touting a new deal to expand the Trump Doonbeg project in Ireland.
Thrilled to announce that we have granted planning permission to expand the incredible @TrumpDoonbeg! The development will include a new ballroom, pool, spa, leisure facilities, 235 additional resort rooms, gate house and much more https://t.co/g4g8r4zNwS pic.twitter.com/08cmfQmO6a— Trump Golf (@TrumpGolf) October 30, 2019
As I wrote last February, shortly after the Washington Post broke news about the Secret Service spending more than $500,000 at Trump properties since he took office, the Trump family has become the swamp that Donald Trump once promised to drain:
The irony is that the Trump children have made a fortune from foreign dealings, and not just before their dad took office. In October, Forbes reported that Eric and Donald Jr. have sold more than $100 million of the family’s real estate since the January 2017 inauguration — including a $3.2 million deal in the Dominican Republic in 2018 that is “the clearest violation of their father’s pledge to do no new foreign deals while in office.” Foreign money has also poured into the Trump International Hotel, located just blocks from the White House, which the president’s most recent financial disclosure indicated made him $41 million in 2018 alone.
All of this comes on top of President Trump having visited properties he still owns and profits from more than 500 times while in office, according to a count kept by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which found last month that Trump has racked up 3,403 conflicts of interest while in office.
Not only that, but on numerous occasions Trump has used White House events to promote his businesses, such as the following free ad for Trump National Doral Miami he cut last year during his failed push to hold the G7 there.
"It's a beautiful place. It's been totally rebuilt. It's new" -- here's the President of the United States obliviously using the White House to promote a business he still owns and profits from amid a scandal about him using the presidency to enrich himself. pic.twitter.com/I9UieZuwtb— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 21, 2019
In addition to Ukraine, the Trumps have accused Hunter Biden of cashing in in China. But as the New York Times detailed last year, a $1.7 billion Trump Organization project in Indonesia received a $500 million infusion from a state-owned Chinese construction company. And it’s not just Eric and Don Jr.; Ivanka Trump, despite working in the White House, continues to do business in China as well.
I’m old enough to remember November of 2018 when we learned Ivanka Trump received 16 trademarks from China, including some for voting machines, that she had long sought. She received more in Jan of 2019 as trade negotiations intensified. https://t.co/ecnkD85LOL— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) October 3, 2019
Donald Jr. and Eric may be two of their father’s key campaign surrogates and regularly appear on Fox News to discuss politics (making a mockery of their pre-inauguration promise to stay out of their father’s administration while running the family business), but Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner actually work in the White House. Their most recent financial disclosure indicates that politics has been lucrative for them, as they reported at least $36.2 million in income in 2019. And in 2018, Kushner received a massive cash infusion from Qatar.
As Robert Maguire, research director for CREW, told Vox, “one way to think about this is: Imagine if Hunter Biden passed his time during the Obama administration working to sustain and promote a business that not only he profited from, but Joe Biden did also. Then, on top of that, imagine that Joe Biden himself spent day after day in office openly and single-mindedly promoting that same business, in his official capacity, through glowing statements and hundreds of visits to the business, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money being spent there — along with special-interest and foreign money.”
“If all of that were true, it still wouldn’t be as corrupt as what we’ve seen over four years of the Trump administration,” Maguire added.
Desperate times call for desperate measures
With Trump trailing Biden by a robust margin in the polls and few of his attacks on his challenger landing, it seems his campaign is basically trying to recreate some of the conditions that helped propel him to an unlikely victory in October 2016 — ginning up an email scandal in hopes of tarnishing Biden as corrupt in the eyes of voters.
But one problem with this approach is that there’s even less to the Biden/Burisma “scandal” than there was to Hillary Clinton’s emails. Trump on some level seems to recognize this, as in recent days he’s started berating the media for not covering the Hunter Biden scandal, such as it is, instead of trying to highlight the scandal itself.
Secondly, as Republican Frank Luntz told Fox News this week, in a country being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic in both human and economic terms, voters just don’t seem to care that much about Hunter Biden.
Nonetheless, during a Fox & Friends interview on Tuesday, Trump pleaded with Attorney General Bill Barr to appoint a special prosecutor before the election to investigate Biden. That echoed comments Trump made almost exactly a year ago when he publicly pleaded with the Ukrainian and Chinese governments to investigate the Bidens.
And in another sign of how desperate Trumpworld has become, Trump acolyte Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) went on Fox News last weekend and made baseless insinuations that child pornography was found on Hunter Biden’s computer.
Ron Johnson is on Fox News suggesting there's child pornography on the computer that purportedly belongs to Hunter Biden pic.twitter.com/rwvyL1UH4i— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 18, 2020
Whether there’s merit to serious accusations of this sort is beside the point for Trump and his Republican enablers — what matters is creating the appearance that Biden and/or those close to him are guilty of wrongdoing. After all, if Trump really cared about corruption, he would have done what every other modern president did before taking office and divested from his business before taking office.
Correction, October 23: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount the Trump Organization project in Indonesia received from a Chinese construction company. The amount was $500 million.