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Trump’s shadiness doesn't mean it was OK to give Hunter Biden a pass

The need for a serious inquiry into the president's son should be self-evident in a country governed by the rule of law. 
Hunter Biden attends the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House
Hunter Biden at the White House on July 7. Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

Reports that Hunter Biden may be on the cusp of criminal charges related to his taxes and statements he has given about a gun purchase prove at least one thing: The myriad controversies involving the president’s son were a legitimate news story deserving of serious journalistic investigation, even though they weren’t treated that way when they first arose.

As part of a broader examination of Biden’s business practices, federal agents have been looking into whether the younger Biden improperly reported income from his business dealings, many of them overseas, according to The Washington Post’s sources. The Post also reported that he was alleged to have falsely answered no to a question on a federal form about whether he used or was addicted to drugs when he purchased a handgun in 2018. 

Would media outlets have been more curious about what looks at first glance like it could be influence peddling if his name were Hunter Trump?

According to The Washington Post, federal agents now believe they have sufficient evidence to sustain a successful criminal prosecution on at least these charges, according to people familiar with the case. Ultimately, however, it is up to prosecutors at the Justice Department to decide whether to file charges.

Biden has denied any wrongdoing. “I take this matter very seriously but I am confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately,” he said in a statement when the tax investigation was made public in late 2020. 

In response to the Post’s reporting, Biden attorney Chris Clark said, “We believe the prosecutors in this case are diligently and thoroughly weighing not just evidence provided by agents but also all the other witnesses in this case, including witnesses for the defense” and urged that they not be pressured.

Before becoming president, Joe Biden staunchly defended his son. “There’s nobody that’s indicated there’s a single solitary thing that he did that was inappropriate, wrong … or anything other than the appearance,” he said in early 2020. (Since he became president, the White House has largely refused to answer questions about Hunter Biden.) 

But the appearances matter and need investigation. Only real inquiries into the younger Biden’s manifestly suspect activities can ever separate fact from fiction. The press needs to be willing to seriously scrutinize his ventures and carefully cover any legal or congressional investigations that occur in the future. 

Even if all this probing eventually finds that the elder Biden had nothing to do with what his son was up to, and that the much more serious allegations against Hunter Biden don’t stand up, there is a legitimate public interest in understanding what occurred. Indeed, the need for a serious inquiry to establish those facts should be self-evident in a country governed by the rule of law. 

But too many people didn’t agree when questions around Hunter Biden arose in the last campaign. While Democrats might have been expected to rally around the family of their presidential nominee, the initial reaction of much of the press and the biggest social media companies was to shut down that discussion. They did a great disservice to the voting public and the principle of accountability, an error that should not be repeated as new facts from the ongoing investigation come to light.

“We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions,” Terence Samuels, NPR’s managing editor for news, said by way of dismissing coverage of Hunter Biden in October 2020.

Samuels’ colleagues agreed there wasn’t much to see despite the New York Post obtaining emails from what was purportedly Hunter Biden’s laptop, which the paper reported contained information about his business dealings in Ukraine and an alleged meeting he’d arranged between his father, then the vice president, and an adviser to the Ukrainian oil company Burisma, while serving on its board. (The Biden campaign denied the meeting happened.) “The biggest reason you haven’t heard much on NPR about the Post story is that the assertions don’t amount to much,” explained NPR managing editor Kelly McBride.

The New York Times characterized the Post story as a last-ditch effort by former President Donald Trump and his campaign to save a doomed re-election bid. The Wall Street Journal, the Times noted, passed on covering the laptop and its contents. In the article’s subhead, the Times described the affair as “the return of the media gatekeepers.”

To others, this was worse than a nonstory: It was likely Russian disinformation designed to repeat the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, but this time at the expense of the elder Biden.

Politico published a story about a letter that more than 50 former senior intelligence officials signed pointing to the factors that made them suspect Russian involvement in the emails obtained by the New York Post. “If we are right, this is Russia trying to influence how Americans vote in this election, and we believe strongly that Americans need to be aware of this,” the letter read.

Yet Politico acknowledged the “signatories presented no new evidence” for their Russian disinformation claims. And the writers themselves stated: “We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement.”

Major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter then suppressed distribution of stories about the emails, with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg later saying Facebook acted in accordance with broader disinformation warnings from the FBI. However, the emails were later at least partially authenticated by multiple major news organizations

Some media hesitancy was well warranted. The origins of the emails were suspicious, supposedly coming from a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden. The data was obtained by Giuliani, and Trump confidant Steve Bannon played a role in providing it to the New York Post. Many other news organizations, including NBC News, were denied access to the documents. And one of the few that wasn’t, The Wall Street Journal, declined to publish them in the form the Trump team desired. 

Furthermore, the supposedly damning information pertained to business dealings that Trump was particularly eager to publicize. It’s understandable that reporters who believed they’d made too much of Hillary Clinton’s emails in their coverage four years prior did not want their attention to another batch of emails to become a factor in another presidential campaign. 

But Hunter Biden’s business activities didn’t need forensic computing to examine. They should have aroused at least as much suspicion as the laptop. He famously joined the board of the allegedly corrupt Ukrainian energy company Burisma, receiving compensation for his service, while his father was vice president and the U.S. point man on anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. 

If anything, the rush to dismiss the early Hunter Biden coverage left rumors to fester.

Hunter Biden was also paid by a bank that benefited from his father’s work on personal bankruptcy legislation in the Senate. He had dealings in foreign countries, some of them with governments hostile to the United States. A lawyer for Hunter Biden said in a statement following his client’s resignation from the board of a Chinese firm in 2019 that his client would “not serve on boards of, or work on behalf of, foreign owned companies” with his dad as president.

But after his father entered the White House, Hunter Biden began selling his paintings at prices as high as $500,000 per item. That’s a lot of money for a first-time artist with no formal training

In many of these cases, the younger Biden’s qualifications were not obvious beyond his connection to a powerful father. Would he have gotten these jobs if his name was Hunter Jones? And would media outlets have been more curious about what looks at first glance like it could be influence peddling if his name were Hunter Trump?

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If anything, the rush to dismiss the early Hunter Biden coverage left rumors to fester. Many important “gatekeepers” allowed the shadiness of Trump, the Russians and various right-wing characters to miss Hunter Biden’s own obvious shadiness, or at least to dismiss its importance. It’s a transgression that at least some media outlets have begun to acknowledge, but more is needed.

Tax and gun offenses don’t add up to the most serious allegations made against Hunter Biden. Neither do these charges implicate the president. But it’s still worth getting to the bottom of the Hunter Biden drama. Perhaps now we finally will.