When conflict of interest allegations first surfaced about Hunter Biden five years ago, in 2014, Melanie Sloan with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said, “It can’t be that because your dad is the vice president, you can’t do anything. The most important thing is for Biden not to be speaking about these issues with his dad, and for them to try and draw the lines.”
Those distinctions haven’t stopped President Trump from making the younger Biden the butt of his campaign appearances, and his son, Eric Trump, from leading the “Lock him up!” chant for Hunter.
With the realization that Trump’s charges of corruption—as false as they might be—could sink the vice president’s campaign, the Biden family finally pushed back. As the Tuesday evening debate loomed, Hunter Biden sat down with ABC anchor Amy Robach at his home in Los Angeles for an interview to air the morning of the debate, easing the burden, he hopes, on his father at a crucial point in the campaign.
Sloan has since left the watchdog group after years as the go-to source for stories about public corruption. Curious if she still stands by those words, I reached out to her now that questions about the younger Biden’s role on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, have become part of the 2020 presidential campaign.
She didn’t back off. In fact, she doubled down, telling the Daily Beast, “There’s never been any suggestion that either Biden did anything (pro-actively) to benefit the other. His last name is Biden, it’s not anything his father did.”
Indeed, it appears as though Hunter Biden acted as she would have advised, not speaking to his dad about these issues. In a July 2019 New Yorker profile, Hunter recalled his father discussing Burisma with him just once: “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do.’”
President Trump mocks that assertion as an obvious falsehood, and at a rally last week in Minneapolis, excoriated Hunter as “a loser,” plugging the sale of T-shirts that ask “Where’s Hunter?” as the crowd roared its approval.
“It’s possible that Trump may find it inconceivable that Joe Biden isn’t using his ties for the financial benefit of his son—because that’s what he (Trump) does,” says Sloan, pointing out that Trump didn’t divest from his multiple businesses when he became president and instead put everything into the control of his adult children. “And he said the children wouldn’t talk to him about it,” she continues.
“He doesn’t believe Joe Biden hasn’t been talking to his son, which suggests he’s been talking to his children all along,” she concludes. “He projects his own amoral value system onto them (the Bidens).”
“Joe Biden has been a public figure for 40 years, and there has never been even an intimation of corruption in a 40-year career,” says Sloan. “The president is making up smoke. I find it appalling.”
She does concede the obvious, that the Ukrainian gas company hired Hunter Biden for his last name. “That’s not unusual,” she says. “A lot of people get jobs because of their last name. A lot of politicians have benefited—if their last name is Bush, for example,” she says with a wry laugh. “Of course there’s an opening here—Hunter seems to have largely benefited from his name throughout his career, and he’s stumbled a bit.”
The New Yorker profile documented years of alcohol and drug abuse, along with multiple attempts at rehabilitation. The death of his brother, Beau, from brain cancer in 2015, is another layer of complexity in a life that began with the death of his mother and infant sister in a car crash that almost took his and Beau’s life. And things got even stranger when, after Beau’s death, he started dating his brother’s widow Hallie in a relationship that lasted about two years.
“For him, [his name] is a blessing and a curse, a mixed bag. It opens doors, but there’s always questions about whether he’s just there for his name,” says Sloan.
The focus on his son has been a major disruption for the Biden campaign, and over the weekend Hunter Biden said he would step down from a Chinese company’s board later this month, and that if his father is elected, he will not serve on boards or work on behalf of foreign-owned companies.
The senior Biden then pledged that if he’s elected, no member of his family would have an office in the White House, or sit in on Cabinet meetings as if a member of the Cabinet, or engage in business relationships with foreign companies or countries that could pose a conflict.
“All of these actions are designed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, which stands in stark contrast to the Trump family’s clear and present conflicts,” Sloan told the Daily Beast in a follow-up call on Monday after the Bidens’ damage control.
“Why is it that Trump supporters are so quick to denounce Hunter Biden and see this as a serious problem yet remain unconcerned about the president and his family’s conflicts,” she said, calling it “a false equivalency,” and noting that there is “no suggestion the gas company ever benefited in any way, though they would have liked to.”
She lamented in our initial phone conversation that so few of Biden’s Senate colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, have stepped forward to defend him after all his years of bipartisanship and the personal trust that he built up across the aisle. In 2016, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham got teary-eyed when he talked about Biden, saying “He’s as good a man as God has ever created.”
When The Wall Street Journal broke the story of Hunter’s lucrative board seat in 2014, it garnered little interest. The Washington Post called it “a problem of U.S. soft power,” suggesting it could hurt U.S. credibility in Ukraine. Then-White House press secretary Jay Carney effectively squelched the story, saying, "Hunter Biden and other members of the Biden family are obviously private citizens, and where they work does not reflect an endorsement by the administration or by the vice president or president."
That changed when former Vice President Biden became a presidential candidate and polls showed him as the best positioned in a crowded field to defeat Trump. Asked about the lack of push back from Democrats over Trump’s attack on the Bidens, Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland said: “It’s tough for everybody. I’ve spoken out about it—it’s an absolute smear, it did not involve any illegality. His son didn’t engage in any crime, but he took a position on a board for which he had no qualifications other than his last name. That’s why people don’t want to get too close to it—it has a swampy feel to it. That delicate political position is why people haven’t been more forthright getting out there and defending the Bidens.”
How Biden navigates the personal and the political could well determine the fate of his candidacy. For perspective, I turned to Bob Shrum, who advised Democrat John Kerry in 2004 when the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth challenged Kerry’s war record.
Kerry’s service in Vietnam was seen as his strong suit against an incumbent president who had secured a safe spot in the Texas National Guard. The audacity of targeting your opponent’s perceived strength is mirrored in Trump’s attack on Biden and his son as “stone-cold corrupt” while the Trump family cashes in on the presidency. It hits Biden’s strength as “Middle-Class Joe,” the guy who left the Senate in 2008 after 35 years with $800,000 net worth plus his house.
In Kerry’s case, “It was a lie,” says Shrum, and the campaign didn’t hit back soon enough. Kerry lost the election. “The difference, Hunter Biden did nothing wrong, but he did serve on a board,” says Shrum. “The fact is true, the allegation is false.” None of Kerry’s critics were on his swift boat in Vietnam, so didn’t have standing to denigrate his service. What they opposed was his later anti-war activism.
Affirming a fact and countering an allegation is complicated for a father who’s already lost two children and is torn between protecting his surviving son and protecting his last chance for the presidency. “There’s always a moment of pause in these things where people look around and say maybe this person, maybe that person,” says Shrum. “This could be a dangerous moment for him, [voters] could decide to move—but that hasn’t happened.”
What voters do after Tuesday night’s debate could well hinge on how Biden answers the question he knows is coming: Do you think it was right for your son to get up to $50,000 a month for a board position he didn’t have any obvious qualifications for except for his last name? Biden’s near-term fate may well hinge on his answer.