The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Biden family doesn’t need to be investigated. The Trump family does.

Calls to investigate Burisma are just a partisan smear

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks with Jill Biden at his side in Philadelphia on March 10. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

As bipartisan experts on government ethics, we are appalled to see that President Trump and his GOP Senate enablers are reviving the canard that there are conflict issues that merit investigation relating to the Bidens and Ukraine. Once again, as with his fabricated allegations against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Trump’s election-year “alternative facts” misinformation machine is swinging into high gear. This time it’s Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and the majority on his Homeland Security Committee that are taking the lead by threatening a subpoena (though Johnson abruptly backed off those plans Wednesday afternoon).

In fact, it is the Trump family that has ethics issues that should be urgently investigated — not the Bidens.

Trump’s sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are traveling the country and the world at substantial cost to taxpayers while managing the president’s businesses — enterprises that have racked up a stunning 3,000-plus conflicts of interest for Trump. That includes unconstitutional emoluments from the Chinese, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Malaysian, Philippine and many other governments. The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who as government officials are bound by federal ethics laws, have come in for criticism of their own on the conflicts front. Now Kushner is divesting his holding in Cadre, a real estate investment venture that profited handsomely from opportunity zones, a feature of the 2017 tax law that he and his wife worked on. Indeed, Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s very presence in the White House is presumptively illegal: Federal anti-nepotism law likely forbade their appointments from the outset.

Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, did not have any conflict of interest in taking up his position with Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm, in 2014, when Joe Biden was in government. Unlike Ivanka Trump and her husband, Hunter Biden was not a government employee at any time during the Obama administration. As for Joe Biden, there is no requirement that executive branch officials recuse from foreign policy matters simply because those matters might have a financial impact on a business that has hired the official’s grown child. On the contrary, adult children are allowed to live their own separate lives outside of government under the ethics rules. Their independent career decisions are not imputed to their parent who works in the government. But for the entanglement of the Trump children with their father’s ethics issues (for example, if the president had fully divested his conflicted businesses and avoided nepotism), we would have no cavil with them.

We have made a policy choice as a nation that our ethics statutes and regulations should allow adult children of senior government officials to have their own careers. As White House ethics lawyers in the Obama and George W. Bush White Houses, respectively, we would not have required the vice president to recuse from matters involving Ukraine simply because his son was on the board of a Ukrainian company. Under similar reasoning, anyone working in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration would have had to recuse from involvement with Britain in the years leading up to U.S. entry into World War II if any of their children had business dealings in the United Kingdom — as a great many financially successful Americans did at the time.

Joe Biden's rise is the last thing Volodymyr Zelensky needs right now

It’s true that Hunter Biden’s situation might have been handled differently, including to avoid these kinds of smears. But regretting exploitation should not be confused with any underlying misconduct. President Barack Obama asked Joe Biden to coordinate important aspects of U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine, and Biden did it. He never once got involved in any particular party matter involving Burisma. All of the vice president’s actions were fully consistent with the policy of the State Department, Britain and the European Union, our allies on Ukraine matters.

There is no conflict here. There is not even the appearance of a conflict. In fact, there is zero evidence of any wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden — and that’s after a lot of digging by Republicans in Congress, the right-wing media, the president’s attorney and Trump himself. Their wild charges just don’t hold up in the light of day. (One of us, Eisen, just served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee for the impeachment and trial of the president, which addressed some of these issues.)

What is more, the baseless Biden charges are long over with. The atrocious Trump family conduct is happening now and is ongoing. Urged on by Trump, Senate Republicans are investigating the wrong White House offspring. They should be looking at the Trump kids and Kushner, not Hunter Biden. And at Donald Trump, not Joe Biden.

Trump and his GOP allies brazenly admit this renewed inquiry is political. Trump has said that he intends to make a major electoral issue of it, and Johnson, whose Homeland Security Committee is initiating the investigation, said Democratic primary voters ought to want to look into Burisma. Can there be any doubt about why this investigation is being pursued now, six years after Hunter Biden took up his board seat and more than three years after his father completed his Ukraine work? This is another of Trump’s more than 16,000 false or misleading claims — but this one is being deployed to cling to power.

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” lawyer Joseph Welch famously asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) during his smear campaign in 1954. Today’s GOP has made clear that when it comes to these allegations, it has none. We must all forcefully reject that. Even in an election year — especially then — we should expect better of our highest officials.

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