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By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and co-founder of Bank Whistleblowers United. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives
Michelle Goldberg published an excellent column on September 30, 2019 “Trump’s Claims About Biden Aren’t ‘Unsupported.’ They’re Lies.” It accurately describes Trump’s lies and his unlawful and unethical acts of trying to use the power of our government to induce Ukrainian and Chinese officials to smear his political opponents. The House should cite those Trump lies as part of the basis for impeaching him.
Rule No. 1: No Freebies
I am not a politician or political tactician. A campaign for the presidency (nomination or ‘general’) is above my pay grade. Nevertheless, I know Rule No. 1 – Never give your political opponents freebies to use against you. That was my rule during the savings and loan debacle when we blew the whistle on the Speaker of the House, the five Senators who became known as the “Keating Five,” the White House, Vice President Bush’s office, and the head of our own agency for his cowardice in surrendering to the political extortion. Our goal was to end our leaders’ corrupt and cowardly surrender to Charles Keating, the nation’s most corrupt banker. We know that Keating hired private detectives at least twice to investigate me.
Serious whistleblowers inevitably suffer vicious retaliation. We know that Roger Martin, one President Reagan’s appointees running our federal regulatory agency purported to have conducted an investigation of me. We know that Keating presented to the leaders of our agency a Rudy Giuliani style smear package (known at the agency as ‘the secret file’) that supposedly had dirt on me. Keating sued me for $400 million. We knew that we were in a decisive fight for the agency’s soul and honor and protecting our fellow American’s from Keating’s frauds and acts of predation and that he would use anything against us. Any affair, overstated resume, intemperate statement, drug use, or anything remotely scandalous was certain to be ammunition Keating and the leaders of our agency would use against us.
Joe Selby exemplifies the valid exception to my rule. Joe should be a revered national hero. Ed Gray personally recruited Joe to restore the rule of law to the nation’s most criminogenic region during the savings and loan debacle – Texas. Gray personally recruited Mike Patriarca to purge the second-most corrupted region, which included California and Arizona. Gray’s system was simple, he asked everyone he respected who the nation’s two best supervisors were. Ed, Joe, and Mike saved the nation from suffering a Great Financial Crisis, avoiding trillions of dollars in losses and millions of lost jobs.
Joe was the world’s most respected bank supervisor. He could not follow the ‘no freebies’ rule because in that era Speaker Wright’s attack on Selby on the ‘grounds’ that he was gay qualified as a lethal attack. Joe could not, of course, cease being gay. Danny Wall, the head of our agency, publicly took ‘credit’ for forcing Joe’s resignation in order to placate Speaker Wright and the Keatings of the industry. Speaker Wright was a Democrat. Danny Wall was a Republican. Sleaze, greed, bigotry, and cowardice were common in both parties.
Joe and Hunter Biden Handed Trumps Dual Freebies
Goldberg’s column is unusually honest for a Democrat like Goldberg. It includes two important admissions about Joe and Hunter Biden’s poor judgment in dealing with Ukrainian matters.
As all this was happening, Biden’s son, Hunter, sat on the board of Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company that Zlochevsky co-founded, at some points earning $50,000 a month. Zlochevsky might have thought he could ingratiate himself with the Obama administration by buying an association with the vice president. All available evidence suggests he was wrong.
We need to put Hunter Biden’s $50,000 per meeting in perspective, he began receiving it in 2014, when the purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita GDP figure for Ukraine was slightly over $8,500. In a single month, Hunter Biden received fees over six times what a typical Ukrainian received in a year. Hunter Biden had no relevant expertise to be on the Ukrainian firm’s board of directors. The only disagreement I have with Goldberg’s description is her use of the word “earning” instead of “received.” Hunter Biden does not “earn” his money. He makes money off those who seek to get in good with his dad. The Trump children, of course, have super-charged this sleaze.
Hunter’s one real job miraculously led to his ludicrously rapid promotion to EVP of a major bank. The bank, of course, was a major contributor to his dad. Hunter’s miraculous advancement to EVP is a typical sleazy payoff to elite politicians’ kids. Both parties do it. The sole reason Zlochevsky hired Hunter was to try to influence favorably his dad and the Obama administration. This too is typical elite sleaze. Yes, we should remember that Trump’s spouse, children, and their spouses, make Hunter look like a highly competent saint when it comes to cashing in on their tawdry Trump ties.
Goldberg correctly notes the modest nature of the sleaze in the Bidens’ case. There is no evidence that hiring Hunter Biden ingratiated the Ukrainian firm with the Obama administration. There is no evidence that hiring Hunter Biden ingratiated the Ukrainian firm with Joe Biden. Joe Biden’s successful effort to fire the corrupt non-prosecutor increased the chances that the Ukrainian government would sanction the firm. Trump’s claim that the fired prosecutor was an anti-corruption hero investigating Hunter’s purported corruption is a double lie. Trump’s attacks on Joe and Hunter Biden are lies. This should not surprise us. First, Trump always lies. Second, Joe and Hunter Biden’s sketchy actions are not crimes or ethical violations. They may be ‘corrupt’ in the broad sense of that word in everyday usage, but not in the legal sense of statutes against corruption. Trump, therefore, has substituted lies for the nuanced reality.
Sadly, the fact that Trump’s attacks on both Bidens are lies does not mean that either acted at the minimum level of integrity we should demand. Goldberg implicitly admits Joe Biden’s fundamental failure through her effort to excuse it.
It’s not hard to imagine why Biden didn’t press Hunter. The Biden boys and their father had been through hell together. Hunter has said his first memory was waking up in the hospital next to his older brother, Beau, after the car crash that killed their mother and baby sister. He grew up to be a troubled man, his life pockmarked by addiction and failure.
Beau died of brain cancer a few months before Biden traveled to Ukraine to push the government to crack down on corruption. It’s not shocking that, at a moment when his family was consumed by grief, Biden wasn’t inclined to confront his surviving son.
We can agree with Goldberg’s sympathy for Joe Biden while recognizing that he displayed terrible judgment. He put himself in an obvious apparent conflict of interest when he chose to take the lead in the Obama administration’s effort to replace Ukraine’s corrupt prosecutor. Biden volunteered to take that role. There was no need to do so. The Obama administration and the various European and international organizations that agreed with the need to fire him had a host of effective leaders with the leverage to get him fired.
Joe Biden’s Problems Dealing with Hunter Biden’s Demons
The sympathetic accounts stressing Joe Biden’s concerns with protecting Hunter Biden miss three related point. The common denominator is that Joe has acted in a manner sure to harm Hunter. The first point is the nature of Joe’s special concerns about Hunter.
Mr. Biden nearly did not run for president because of the effect it would have on his family — and particularly on Hunter Biden and his children, according to multiple advisers to the former vice president. Hunter Biden has struggled for years with substance addiction and had recently gone through a very public divorce from his first wife.
As parents and humans, it is easy to sympathize with Hunter and Joe Biden. We also have to discuss how an immensely powerful father who desperately wishes to be President needs to address his surviving son’s demons. We can start with the fact that Joe had no good answer available. Sometimes, all the available options range from bad to terrible. Hunter is an alcoholic. He repeatedly abuses hard drugs. He cheated on the women he professed to love. That pattern of abuse had a number of obvious, deeply harmful implications. He lied, probably hundreds of times, to the people who loved him most. That pattern is inherent to abusing alcohol and drugs and cheating on the women you say you love. The pattern of lies means that no one close to Hunter could believe him without being repeatedly deceived.
The decades-long pattern of alcoholism and hard drug abuse meant that Hunter was frequently unable to meet his family and business responsibilities. He washed out of the National Guard because he continued using drugs even when he knew the Guard would test him for drug use. Yes, like millions of Americans he ‘struggled’ with addiction – without success. The odds that he has put his loved ones’ lives in danger by driving or providing child care while impaired approach certainty. Given the tragic history of the Bidens that began with the fatal car crash, this must have terrified the entire family. Hunter is not in control of his life. Drugs and alcohol control his life. He was not loyal to the central member of his family – his spouse. Joe knew from repeated, bitter experience that he could not rely on Hunter’s word, judgment, restraint, or moral compass.
These facts were essential for Joe to take into account when considering what to do about Ukrainian events. He knew he could not trust whatever Hunter told him about his Ukrainian business deal. Again, the key is to understand that Hunter’s demons meant that Joe had no good choices. Even if Joe recused himself from all Ukrainian matters, Hunter was likely to embarrass him. Joe has stated publicly that he did not discuss Hunter’s business involvements with Hunter, which is a strategy that invites apparent conflicts of interest and scandal. Joe knew that no company of integrity would put Hunter on its board of directors and pay him $50,000 a meeting. Hunter had no meaningful expertise, no knowledge of Ukrainian matters, a history of sketchy hires and promotions by those hoping to buy influence with his politically powerful and ambitious dad, and a history of screwing up royally.
Hunter, of course, has a Yale law degree and is an adult. He knew better than to take the Ukrainian position and cash. Throughout his adult life, however, Hunter has been willing to take advantage of his dad’s name and contacts. We can be sympathetic with Hunter’s demons, but we also need to hold him accountable for his record of terrible decisions.
Joe knew that the Ukrainian company hired Hunter for one reason – he was Joe’s son. Joe knew that was a terrible reason to hire Hunter. Joe knew that hiring Hunter indicated that the Ukrainian firm lacked integrity. Joe chose to take the administration’s lead on Ukrainian events in circumstances he knew created an apparent conflict of interest with Hunter and his Ukrainian firm. Joe knew that there was no reason why Hunter needed to accept the sketchy Ukrainian firm’s over-the-top largess and no reason why Joe had to take the Obama administration’s lead in implementing its Ukrainian policies.
Joe knew that the apparent conflict of interest would expose Hunter and Joe to attack by Joe’s political enemies – and that Hunter’s addictions and record put Joe and Hunter in a position where they could not effectively fight back. Joe knew Hunter was particularly vulnerable to political attack and humiliation.
Summing it Up: Both Bidens Gifted Trump Freebies
Joe knew the action he could take that guaranteed venomous partisan attacks on Hunter was running for president. No one has ever doubted Joe’s ambition to be President. What we do not understand is what Joe’s policy passion is. His statement of why he is running cannot be true. No one rational believes that electing Joe as President would turn Moscow Mitch into a bipartisan legislator eager to pass Biden’s legislative agenda. It is fine to yearn for a ‘Kumbaya’ bipartisan fantasy world. Even in that fantasy, few of us have any sense what legislation Biden thinks McConnell would support that Democrats would not find odious.
Joe knew that the Democratic Party was rich in talent. He did not have to run for President to save the Party or the Nation. Joe knew that he and Hunter had each gifted Trump Ukrainian freebies. Joe knew that his infamous ‘electability’ mantra ignored both freebies that Trump was sure to exploit.
The next to last thing Joe should have done was add to the incentive to attack Hunter by creating gratuitously an apparent conflict of interest by taking the lead role in firing the corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor. The absolute last thing Joe should have done if he wanted to protect Hunter from attack was to run for president. Joe’s decision to run made it a certainty that Trump would concentrate his attacks on Hunter – and Joe’s apparent conflict of interest in gratuitously taking the administration’s lead on firing the Ukrainian prosecutor given Hunter’s cashing in on the Ukrainian firm’s desire to buy influence. Joe’s ambition trumped Joe’s desire to protect Hunter.
Even more bizarre, while it has been clear for months that Trump was setting up to attack Joe and Hunter Biden’s far from excellent Ukrainian adventures, Joe’s response to those attacks has been feeble. Joe’s ‘electability’ trope has died – and Joe is the one that killed it. If Joe cannot manage an effective response to Trump lies he has known are coming for months, imagine what will happen in a debate when Trump hits him with unexpected smears. Trump’s smears will be lies, but few believe that Biden will prove agile and tough in counterpunching against novel Trumpian lies.
It is Impossible to Compete with Trump or the Democrats’ Unintentional Self-Parody
We need to step back for a moment and stress the unbelievable chutzpah of Trump claiming that his passion for ending corruption explains his obscene perversion of the powers of government to extort other nations to create – not reveal – dirt on his political opponents. The Trump administration is the most corrupt in U.S. history. Relatives of the corrupt cabinet members that made the Harding and Grant administrations infamous can rejoice that their forbearers have become relatively less infamous. Trump is profoundly corrupt and he loves his fellow corrupt autocrats like Putin. The willingness of Republican enablers to repeat his corruption excuse for urging other nations to investigate his political opponents is simply another in the long line of examples proving that they have betrayed America and their oath of office.
The Obama administration, however, had its own geyser of hypocrisy when it came to the way it phrased its demands that Ukrainian officials fire their top anti-corruption prosecutor. The hypocrisy is not that they unjustly insisted that Ukrainian leaders fire the prosecutor. The evidence is conclusive that the prosecutor was, at best, a coward who refused to prosecute elite corrupt officials and CEOs. The hypocrisy is that at the same time the Obama administration was (correctly) pointing out the need to fire prosecutors who refuse to prosecute the most elite business fraudsters, the Obama administration’s top prosecutor was refusing to prosecute our elite fraudsters.
The key character we should be talking about is Eric Holder, President Obama’s Attorney General. No one has commented on the chutzpah of the Obama administration demanding Ukraine fire Viktor Shokin, its top prosecutor, for failing to prosecute Ukraine’s most elite criminals that had corrupted the entire system. Goldberg explains:
“Shokin was seen as a single point of failure clogging up the system and blocking corruption cases,” a former official in Barack Obama’s administration told me. Vice President Joe Biden eventually took the lead in calling for Shokin’s ouster.
The Wall Street Journal provided a similar explanation.
“We weren’t pressing Ukraine to get rid of a tough prosecutor, we were pursuing Ukraine to replace a weak prosecutor who wouldn’t do his job,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. Volker in his deposition defended Mr. Biden’s work in Ukraine and pointed out that the prosecutor was corrupt and worked to shield favored people from prosecution, rather than go after wrongdoers, according to the person familiar with his testimony.
USA Today’s account agreed.
The international effort to remove Shokin, who became prosecutor general in February 2015, began months before Biden stepped into the spotlight, said Mike Carpenter, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Biden and a deputy assistant secretary of defense, with a focus on Ukraine, Russia, Eurasia, the Balkans, and conventional arms control.
As European and U.S. officials pressed Ukraine to clean up Ukraine’s corruption, they focused on Shokin’s leadership of the Prosecutor General’s Office.
“Shokin played the role of protecting the vested interest in the Ukrainian system,” said Carpenter, who traveled with Biden to Ukraine in 2015. “He never went after any corrupt individuals at all, never prosecuted any high-profile cases of corruption.”
That demonstrated that Poroshenko’s administration was not sincere about tackling corruption and building strong, independent law enforcement agencies, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank.
I have not found any article that points out the obvious hypocrisy of the Obama administration demanding that a nation’s top prosecutor be fired for failing to prosecute the nation’s most powerful, corrupt, and destructive elite financial criminals. The hypocrisy of Obama praising Holder while demanding Shokin’s ‘head’ was epic. To fix a problem one must first admit it and resolve to fix it. Instead, Holder and Obama went with the preposterous lie that there were no fraudulent elite bankers, so they brought no prosecutions of the elite bankers whose frauds drove the GFC.
President Obama and Vice President Biden ignored that hypocrisy. The media continue to ignore the hypocrisy. Trump and the Republicans ignore the hypocrisy. We need to emphasize that in addition to refusing to prosecute elite banksters, the Trump administration has reduced white-collar prosecutions even below Obama’s pathetic record. Worse, Barr and Trump are making it clear that while their elite contributors can loot with impunity, the Department of Justice now threatens to prosecute corporations that oppose Trump on obviously pretextual grounds.
If Holder had prosecuted the elite banksters, Trump would have been defeated in the election. The refusal to prosecute the banksters who gained immense wealth by leading frauds and predation, along with the massive bank bailout, was a critical contributor to the public rage that gave Trump his Electoral College victory.
Hillary Clinton’s gratuitous decision to enrich herself through secret speeches to two of the world’s most fraudulent banks – Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank – gifted freebies essential to Trump’s election. Clinton advisers repeatedly warned her that the Republicans would use the secret paid speeches as a mace to attack her. She and Bill Clinton were, through tens of millions of dollars in speech fees, already wealthy. She had no financial need to take money from two of the world’s most destructive criminal enterprises. Her greed trumped her ambition, so she ignored her advisers’ warnings and did the secret speeches. Those freebies gifted the election to Trump.
Why, given that bitter failure by the 2016 Democratic candidate who won her Party’s nomination based on her purported ‘electability’ would Biden gift Trump a freebie? From the beginning of this campaign, Biden’s paramount claim has not been policies, but his purportedly unique ‘electability.’ The highly electable do not give the Trumps of the world freebies to bash them during the election contest. The highly electable do not stare like a deer mesmerized by a car’s headlights when Trump lies about them and their children on a daily basis. They do not simply counterpunch – they unleash a devastating assault on the lies and smears, Trump’s corruption, and Trump’s hypocrisy.