Finally, the Trump administration is taking seriously the pervasive problem of children of the powerful and politically connected trading on their family names for money and access.
Too bad they’re not turning the lens on themselves.
In a move that is stunningly insincere and hypocritical even by President Donald Trump’s standards, the latest strategy to deflect from the impeachment inquiry against him seems to be to point a finger at Hunter Biden. Biden spoke with ABC over the weekend and conceded “poor judgment” in sitting on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, a position for which he seems to have had few qualifications and for which he was paid $50,000 a month. Ronna McDaniel, the GOP chairwoman who is Mitt Romney’s niece, accused Biden of “obvious nepotism,” tweeting, without irony, “If that’s not the swamp, I don’t know what is!”
Donald Trump Jr. had the audacity to tweet a quote from the interview, when Biden said that he of course had to disclose his ties to the then-Vice President. As Trump Jr. inelegantly rendered the quote, “I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happen in my life that if my name wasn’t Biden.”
Again, this was tweeted as something of a gotcha from … Donald Trump Jr.
By all reasonable and reliable accounts, Hunter Biden did not break the law. The obsession on the right and among the Trump family over Biden’s role in Ukraine has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with targeting a political opponent and attempting to redirect scrutiny from the president himself. We should all be spending far less time on Biden and far more time on the man who currently sits in the Oval Office, flanked by his incompetent and unqualified children.
But that doesn’t mean we should shrug off the background story here, which is that family members of politicians, and politicians themselves, have too much latitude to trade on their names and connections. Hunter Biden didn’t break the law, but his story is an opportune moment to point out that the law is too loose on this question. Ethics rules should absolutely be tightened so that family members of politicians cannot profit from those connections. And in a saner society, we would make it harder for politicians themselves to profit.
The President is an egregious and unusual example. He refuses to financially extricate himself from his private ventures while he holds office, he profits as foreign dignitaries stay in his hotels, and he golfs at his own resorts on the federal government’s dime. He won’t even release his tax returns.
But far less flagrant and extreme profiting should also be curtailed “among politicians” — for example, going from Congress into a plum private sector job, where it’s implied that one’s political connections will be commercially advantageous. An astonishing number of former federal government employees and staffers get hired to lobby in the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, among others (there are more than 7,000 congressional staffers in what Open Secrets calls the “revolving door”).
Trump is right about one thing: There is a Washington swamp. What’s shocking is the degree to which his family has jumped in with both feet. The Trump clan has gone far beyond even normal self-dealing — that is, you get rich after you leave office — and are explicitly profiting during his presidency, while having the nerve to accuse others of nepotism.
The entire Trump presidency is an ethical wasteland. It’s far beyond time that there were consequences — and they should certainly come for the Trump children and the president himself before they’re visited on Hunter Biden.
Just a few of the many examples:
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a special adviser to the president, retains millions in various investments and holdings. A company he co-founded has allegedly profited handsomely from secretive foreign funding.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, is the subject of an ethics complaint that she violated federal conflicts of interest laws. She managed to secure 16 new trademarks for her products from China, while her father was engaged in trade talks with the nation. The list of ethical violations and conflicts of interest goes on and on.
There are worrying signs that Trump’s business interests, not the country’s, are dictating his foreign policy decisions: Trump has pulled US troops from northern Syria at the request of Turkey — a nation where he stands to make as much as $1 million a year from the Trump Tower Istanbul.
Plus, there is the simple fact that Ivanka and Jared, who have absolutely no qualifications for their adviser roles and no previous political experience, are in the White House at all. There is no more obvious example of nepotism than the fact that the Trump administration defends their hiring by claiming that federal anti-nepotism laws just don’t apply to them.
The one potential upside to the Trump style of slash-and-burn politics is that it threatens to expose the whole elite scam of using political access for personal enrichment. Right now, impeachment is the word of the day. But once this absolute abomination of a presidency is over, we need to recalibrate our ethics rules and enshrine stricter ones into law.
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Children of elected officials should not be able to profit from their names. Elected officials themselves shouldn’t be able to profit, as the president is, from their private businesses while in office. We should even consider a several-year bar after leaving office to employment in private sector jobs with potential conflicts of interest for civil servants.
This administration is the swampiest in living memory. But getting Trump out of office won’t clean it up nor will making an inapt example of Hunter Biden fix the fundamental and widespread problem. Only the boring, tedious and necessary work of implementing and enforcing stricter ethical rules for politicians will do that.