At the end of two weeks of impeachment hearings, President Donald Trump’s defenders find themselves at a crossroads. What the president stands accused of doing is, as The Atlantic’s David Frum notes, “simple and straightforward,” summarizable in “a few sentences of plain English.” The attempts of Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee to defend Trump on something that could be called “the merits” all foundered, with the witnesses they had hoped would provide exculpatory testimony instead pushing the matter closer into the danger zone. The finishing blow added on Thursday by Fiona Hill, a former national security adviser—in which she characterized Trump’s actions toward Ukraine as a “domestic political errand”—left Republicans with little else to do but enter their own wan, frustrated monologues into the congressional record in an act of surrender.
Nevertheless, there is a path ahead for Trump’s allies. Rather than attempt to raise legitimate counterclaims, they hope to undercut the clarity of these hearings by spraying squid ink everywhere, continually asserting an array of banned-subreddit-level conspiracy theories into every waiting media maw. This sci-fi tapestry will undoubtedly include speculation about the infamous whistleblower and calls for their big reveal. You’ll hear them speak of Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm employed at this very moment by the National Republican Campaign Committee, as a nefarious foreign agent. And a leading figure in the upcoming fantasy saga will be Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son.
This is not a big surprise, since Hunter Biden is the reason all of this is even happening. In 2014, Hunter joined the board of a scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma. During the impeachment hearings, Republicans demanded explanations and peppered witnesses with suggestive inquiries: What was he doing at Burisma? What qualified him to serve on its board? Did his involvement raise concerns? GOP committee members made constant entreaties for Hunter Biden to appear before the committee under oath.
On Thursday, Senator Lindsey Graham announced that he was “seeking documents related to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s previous work in Ukraine” from the State Department, a move that suggests he and his Republican colleagues are going all in on this particular blind.
This is despite the fact that the original underlying concern about the Bidens—that they jointly acted to thwart anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine so that Hunter could enrich himself further from his perch on Burisma’s board—has been debunked. That is not to say that Hunter Biden’s involvement with the company does not raise red flags. But Republicans might be well served to pause and consider what plumbing the depths of his Ukrainian misadventures might reveal—and how it could backfire.
Republicans have Hunter Biden dead to rights on one matter: His involvement with the board of Burisma—and the $50,000-a-month paycheck he was taking home—creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. That this is a cause for concern was plainly affirmed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent on the very first day of impeachment testimony. “I became aware that Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma,” Kent testified. “Soon after that, in a briefing call with the national security staff of the office of the vice president in February of 2015, I raised my concern that Hunter Biden’s status as a board member could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”
It’s hard to get around this bare fact, and it’s not unreasonable to be put off by the taint of impropriety. As my colleague Libby Watson notes, “‘There’s no direct evidence of a quid pro quo!’ doesn’t do much to reassure voters that the appearance of corruption ... is just an appearance.” There is little doubt that everyone involved would be better off today if Hunter Biden had found some other way of earning his keep. That includes the president. If he hadn’t discovered that Hunter Biden’s foreign entanglements presented an opportunity to run an election-interference caper against the former vice president’s electoral hopes, he would not be facing impeachment.
Still, while the appearance of a conflict of interest is bad, it’s not novel. Washington basically runs on appearances of conflicts of interest and appearances of corruption. The $17,500 that Devin Nunes has taken from McKesson, a pharmaceutical company, during this election cycle creates these appearances. The $250,000 that was shoveled from the Secret Service into Donald Trump’s bank account in the first five months of his term creates these appearances. I’m keen to have a knock-down drag-out over this; I’m fairly sure that Republican interest will stop short of the line where these concerns start to mess with their money.
What were Hunter’s qualifications? What was he doing at Burisma? We don’t need a congressional inquiry to determine the answers. Hunter was qualified to serve on Burisma’s board because he has connections to power. What Hunter was doing at Burisma was leveraging those connections in Burisma’s interests.
Again, this is unseemly but not unusual. Eric Cantor did not become the vice chairman of investment bank Moelis & Company because of his proficiency in giving sage investment advice. Chris Dodd was not named the chairman of the Motion Picture Academy of America because of his facility with filmic mise-en-scène. Billy Tauzin did not become the head of PhRMA because he had innovative ideas on how to run effective double-blind clinical trials. These well-connected politicians received these well-compensated sinecures because they possessed the very same skills that Hunter Biden brought to Burisma and nothing more. The vast majority of House members currently waving their arms and frantically shouting, “How, oh how, did Hunter Biden manage this feat? How did this happen?” fully plan to feather their nests in the exact same way once their careers in electoral politics are over. It’s hard to imagine how deeply Hunter Biden’s situation can be interrogated before everyone runs headlong into the underlying hypocrisy.
Beyond these This Town matters, there’s a more pressing reason why a prolonged exploration of Hunter Biden is not likely to bear fruit: The president’s interest in Burisma has always been a con. Aside from exposing the fact that Hunter had successfully joined the ranks of everyone else playing an angle with their connections to power and influence, at the core of the controversy is only a mad gambit, hatched by the president and his cronies, to bring the likeliest Democratic presidential nominee low. Trump’s defenders have attempted to paint the president as being uniquely interested in fighting foreign corruption, but he’s always lacked a sincere interest in such pursuits. In fact, any cursory examination of Trump’s records will reveal a deep and abiding interest in enabling such corruption, and numerous actions taken to further that interest, both in Ukraine and elsewhere.
There was never going to be a sincere investigation of Hunter Biden’s activities. Trump was never going to seek regular status reports from Ukrainian officials or report findings to the relevant authorities. Trump’s Biden exploit was to extort Volodymyr Zelenskiy into going on camera—the so-called “public box”—to announce an investigation, and then rely on the media to whip themselves into a rabid froth over the matter, exploiting the same crisis of adult newsroom supervision that led to the overwrought coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Were it not for the whistleblower, we might today be living in this alternate reality. Instead, the whistleblower put paid to the extortion of Zelenskiy and ended anything that resembled a sincere interest in rooting out foreign corruption on the part of the president. There’s nothing else to get to the bottom of—what lies at the bottom is an aborted scam. This is literally the only thing that further inquiry will discover.
Which isn’t to say that the staging of such an inquiry won’t be perilous for Hunter Biden or the Democrats. The younger Biden has led something of a troubled life and would likely fare poorly under the kliegs of a congressional inquiry. And the media’s aforementioned crisis of supervisory constancy creates the searing potential for a prolonged shitshow, where even a dedication to debunking dark insinuations might only perpetuate them.
As The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, the trajectory of Republican defenses of Trump—and the strategy they seem to be bent on should there be an impeachment trial in the Senate—looks to be one in which Republicans will attempt “to accomplish some of the very same goals (smearing Joe Biden) that drove the whole corrupt scheme all along.” Instead of Zelenskiy being shoved in the “public box,” it will be Republican electeds serving in that role.
Despite the fact that any further pressing into the Hunter Biden matter is at best going to reveal little more than the way Washington works, and at worst further bolster the case against Trump by putting yet another spotlight on the original con, there can be little doubt that Republicans are up for it. Back in September 2015, then–House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy enthused about his party’s efforts to subject that cycle’s Democratic front-runner to sustained investigation. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee,” McCarthy said. “What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Trump’s defenders will, similarly, gleefully implicate themselves in the furtherance of Trump’s scam. The only real question remaining is whether the media will do a better job telling the truth throughout these upcoming fugazi hearings than they did during the Benghazi hearings.