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Hunter v. Jared and what counts for corruption


We now have new evidence to help us determine if it’s true what they say about perception being more real than reality.  The data arrived in a case involving how conflicts-of-interest and allegations of corruption are adjudicated in the court of public opinion.  

Specifically, which is worse:

Hunter Biden, private citizen, son of then-Vice President Joe Biden, getting a sweetheart job from a company in a country where his father in an unrelated case a year later threatened to withhold $1 billion in foreign aid unless a corrupt prosecutor was removed – the same prosecutor who’d investigated Hunter’s employer a year before the younger Biden was hired?

Or, Jared Kushner, special assistant to President Trump, instrumental in making sure the US did not follow the rest of the civilized world in condemning Saudi Arabia’s future leader on murder charges, receiving $2 billion from the same Crown Prince suspected of ordering the killing of a US resident and Washington Post writer?  

It’s worth remembering that Kushner, as a senior presidential advisor, was in a position to steer US foreign policy in ways favorable to Saudi Arabia. And that included abstaining on the question of guilt or innocence of someone US intelligence had already determined was guilty as sin.  Jared’s appeals for strict neutrality arguably created obligations a future sovereign might feel duty-bound to repay in kind.  And now he’s done so.

Which of these bad seeds American voters ultimately determine are worse, could very well determine who sits in the Oval Office come January 20, 2025.  I fear for my country that the answer to that question is not a no-brainer – at least not to those who take self-dealing corruption seriously, as I like to think I do.  

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts must have thought I was more high-ranking than I really was when it required I attend a refresher course every other year on conflicts-of-interest —  how to identify them, how to avoid them and how to find a new job if you commit one.  The key takeaway was always the Big Beware: Be aware and extra careful in your official transactions because an actual conflict-of-interest is often less perilous to your reputation and career than the perception of one.

I was put in that position only once.  As senior communications manager for a large public agency, I learned a close relative had been hired as a subcontractor by the contractor we’d hired for a one-time project we’d put out to bid.  I say “we,” but the hiring was done by another division using a selection process in which I played no part, had no vote, and was unaware of its existence until it’s work was done.  

If I were to describe my involvement in this decision-making process in terms used to map blood relationships on a family tree, the connection would resemble a third or fourth cousin – once removed.

Still, colleagues who are paid to worry about appearances, advised that I write for the file a CYA letter detailing my non-involvement in a process that produced consultant work for a kinsman. I was told this was insurance against the off chance some mischief-maker down the road might try to conflate this convoluted arrangement with evidence of corruption. With an abundance of caution — that is how smart organizations avoid conflicts-of-interest.

It’s possible to defend oneself against an actual allegation of corruption. Those are rooted in actual facts that can be contested.  The same cannot be said of perceptions of corruption.  These exist in the minds of beholders,  They are a substitute for reality itself, one shaped by lies and innuendo even more so than by facts.  That makes them virtually impervious to rebuttals, no matter how well-sourced or presented.  You don’t even need to commit a crime to be ruined.  You only need to appear to have done so.  

But thanks to Corrupt Jared, we now have new data to test this “perception is reality” proposition.

Last April, we learned that just six months after Jared Kushner left his father-in-law’s White House, this relative put in charge of US policy in the Middle East received $2 billion for the private equity fund he’d just created.  The investment came courtesy of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund – which happened to be controlled by the future king whose guardian angel Jared had just recently been —  Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka “MBS.”

This 40 percent stake in a firm lacking a track record, was made over the strong objections of Saudi fund directors who thought Kushner was a bad risk.   But MBS had other things on his mind besides ROI – return on investment.  

All that mattered to MBS was that Kushner and Donald Trump had his back when the rest of the world was at the front gates, America’s spy agencies included, who’d identified MBS as the brains behind the grizzly murder and dismemberment of Washington Post writer, and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi, by a Saudi hit squad operating inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.

While the rest of the civilized world was condemning the Saudi monarchs, Trump was earning chits with the royals with his typically Trumpian and dishonest public utterances.  

He repeated Saudi charges that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” for his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.  Having repeated these blame-the-victim slurs, Trump then dismissed them as irrelevant, claiming they did not factor into his decision to side with the Saudis by keeping the US neutral on assigning blame for this “unacceptable and horrible crime” which the Saudis “vigorously deny” ever committing. But if the discrediting Saudi slanders against Khashoggi don’t matter, then why repeat them?  Exactly.  

“Maybe the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” wrote Trump, predictably sowing doubt and confusion where a clear consensus already existed.  

Covering for MBS with his hand-waving distractions can now be added to the setlist of Trump’s greatest 45-rpm, A-side recordings, which include:

“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

“It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK? You don’t know who broke in to DNC.”

It’s the same old story.  Ever since Joe Biden announced he would challenge Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020, American voters have been subjected to weapons-grade innuendo.  In the election two years ago, like the election two years from now, Republicans did campaign, and will likely campaign once more, against the appearance of conflicts-of-interest and the perceptions of corruption by the Bidens.

Using Fox News as their bull-horn, literally, MAGA Republicans just last week mocked Hunter again, this time about his legal troubles with the Department of Justice.  If the Bidens really were as corrupt as Sean Hannity and others say they are, you’d think Hunter’s dad would have done a better job getting his son’s parking tickets fixed.  

I don’t deny the optics are terrible.  When the son of a Vice President gets a job in an industry he knows nothing about, in a country where his Old Man wields great influence, and for the preposterously inflated salary of $50,000 per month, the cheap shots are certain to outnumber the legitimate criticisms —  especially when the attacks are baseless, or provide an effective diversion from the critics’ own, authentic corruption.

If Joe Biden is to be faulted for anything, it’s for not heeding the good advice of confidants who pleaded with him to move heaven and earth to keep Hunter from accepting the offer to sit on the board of Barisma, Ukraine’s largest energy company, no matter how lucrative.

I’m with Matt Yglesias on this one when he wrote the Hunter controversy “reeks of the kind of cozy cronyism” that makes people detest politics.  

But cozy cronyism is not corruption.  It might be ugly but it’s not illegal. For bad judgment to become corruption you need one specific ingredient.  You need a quid pro quo.  You need a public official to misuse their public office for personal gain—and not only that, but gain that is a loss for the people they serve.  You need a public official to threaten financial, political or some other form of retribution against a shakedown target unless certain demands are met.  But that’s not Joe Biden.  

Whatever pressure Biden applied to Ukraine using $1 billion as leverage, it wasn’t over some pissant job for a son who’s likely to appear half-naked every other day between now and 2024 in the New York Post because he was stupid enough to leave his personal computers in the hands of people he did not know and could not trust.

It’s true. Joe Biden as VP did threaten Ukraine’s president with an ultimatum: Either the corrupt prosecutor goes or Biden does, and takes a billion dollars in aid with him.  But it is not true Biden issued that ultimatum on his own or for himself.  The threats Biden made to the Ukrainian leadership were on behalf of President Obama’s foreign policy objectives.  Biden was also acting as spokesman for the member-states of the Western Alliance eager for Ukraine to clean up its act so that it might join NATO as a self-governing democracy.  That was a much better fate than to be cast aside by the West, abandoned as a dictatorship ruled by a corrupt junta.    

Before deciding whether Hunter Biden deserves to be painted with the same broad brush of infamy and corruption used for Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, consider these facts:

FIRST, an election-year investigation by Senate Republicans led by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and released five weeks before the 2020 election, found no evidence of improper influence or wrongdoing by either Joe Biden or son Hunter.

The best Republicans could do was characterize Biden’s lucrative work in Ukraine while his father was vice-president as “awkward” and “problematic,” where problematic means the perception of a corrupt bargain where none exists in the real world.

Republicans also claimed Hunter’s job “hindered the efforts of dedicated career-service individuals who were fighting for anticorruption measures in Ukraine.”

One wonders if America’s dedicated foreign service staff in Ukraine felt they were helped or “hindered” in their anti-corruption efforts when Donald Trump had their anti-corruption crusading ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, summarily recalled for failing to show Trump Zod-worthy loyalty when she didn’t hang up his picture in the Ukraine’s US Embassy,  Truly, that’s what Trump told Fox News was the reason.  That, and the fact she said “mean things” about him.

The more likely reason for the ambassador’s recall was the one she told Congress during Trump’s first impeachment hearing:  Her anti-corruption crusade “had incurred the ire of influential Ukrainians who sought to remove her.”

SECOND, when the New York Times published an unflattering, 1,700-word progress update of the Department of Justice’s investigation into Hunter Biden’s numerous legal exposures, Fox News and others accused the Times of covering up for the Bidens.  Their charge?  The paper tried to bury the laptop story by waiting until Word #1,006 to report DOJ investigators had determined the Hunter laptops were “real,” meaning they belonged to Biden.  I’ve been both a reporter and a party spokesman and I can assure you there are better ways of burying a story than having in printed in the New York Times.

THIRD, despite ample resources and unlimited access to sift through Hunter’s purloined laptops for evidence of crimes and corruption, the best the New York Post could come up with for its front-page exposé was what got published underneath this headline:

“BIDEN SECRET E-MAILS REVEALED: UKRANIAN EXEC THANKED HUNTER BIDEN FOR ‘OPPORTUNITY TO MEET’ VEEP DAD.”

It doesn’t make it anymore stop-the-presses-newsworthy that the subversive hand-shake took place “less than a year” before then-VP Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to crack down on government corruption.  Nor would many be outraged, I suggest, to learn the venue for this exchange of cordialities wasn’t some smoke-filled back room but the ballroom of a big DC hotel the Democratic Party had rented out for a Biden “meet-and-greet” fundraiser.  No out of sight, secret back-room deal-making here.

Maybe the New York Post would have made a bigger splash if, rather than shake hands, Joe Biden had given Hunter’s bosses a fist-bump instead.

FOURTH, unable to produce concrete evidence against Hunter, the right- wing media resorted to innuendo and resentment-mongering.  “What if Hunter’s Name was Trump?” asked Sean Hannity. “Why can’t you, and me, and everyone get a deal like that?”  “Why were these wealthy foreigners sending a prostitute-loving crackhead so much money?”  You get the picture.

FIFTH, to accept that Vice President Biden would actually blackmail the leaders of a foreign nation in such a flagrantly conspicuous way as the cornerstone of a corrupt bargain to guarantee his son’s job was safe, you’d  have to believe Joe Biden would throw away his last chance to be President of the United States. And for what?  To protect a job his son couldn’t hold on his own?  A job he would lose the instant his father disqualified himself as a future president?  If this was about money corruptly earned, there was no reason for Joe Biden to commit political suicide.  If Donald Trump taught us anything, it’s that there are lots of ways to make money corruptly that require reporters to do at least a little digging for their expose.

SIXTH, despite all that’s been said and written about Hunter Biden’s laptop and incriminating emails, one thing’s gone missing.  The emails themselves.  And I think I know why.  

The reason we’re not hearing about “smoking guns” is that there aren’t any.  The emails stolen from Hunter’s private laptop don’t reveal evidence of Biden family corruption.  They do the reverse. So, naturally we’re hearing far more about containers than contents, and the contents we know about consist mostly of humiliating photos of Hunter in various stages of debauchery that the New York Post appears only too gleeful to print.

But as I read them, Hunter’s emails reveal a young man genuinely trying to negotiate the perilous terrain that awaits the offspring of powerful parents.  It’s a place where potential conflicts-of-interest are everywhere and opportunities for corruption tantalize like low-hanging fruit, tempting the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful with wrong paths when they set out to make a living or live a normal life.

It’s a fine line that separates the legal leveraging of a family name with the unethical, and even criminal, exploitation of close family ties to make corrupt bargains where profits are gained the American people must ultimately pay for.  

But one email in particular stood out as indicative of Hunter’s mindset.  It’s the one where Hunter tells others in the company he must “temper expectations” about what a Vice-President’s son can — and cannot – be expected to deliver.  His Burisma higher ups, writes Hunter, “need to know in no uncertain terms that we will not and cannot intervene directly with domestic policymakers, and that we need to abide by FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act), and any other US laws in the strictest sense across the board.”  

FINALLY, for the record, Corrupt Jared’s conflicts-of-interest are the real deal while Hunter’s are not. Jared’s corruptions are the poisoned fruit from a cacophony of quid pro quos Jared was either too arrogant, or ignorant, to care about.  Hunter’s corruptions are, instead, mostly the concoctions of the self-interested motivations of his critics. The only thing keeping us from seeing things as they really are, are the optics.  It’s the optics make the Hunter and Joe Biden’s corruption narrative so difficult to defeat — virtually unassailable, I might say, impregnable, until they can be displaced by an even bigger scandal, a more egregious corruption narrative that comes with facts included, and so offer a case where reality is reality, not perception.

Let’s hope this latest Trump corruption narrative is the one that does it.





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