Lack of Ethics Kills Democracies
by Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON — A strong democracy is predicated upon high ethical standards upheld by at least most citizens and elected officials. The investigation on Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings is one recent example –sadly only one of many–showing us that ethical standards have vanished in our America. And an unethical republic cannot thrive. If those who enjoy special positions as stewards of the commonwealth, and others connected to them, abuse it for petty personal gain, treating public office or proximity to it as a cow to be milked, I do not see a great future for the United States.
Corruption in ancient Rome
According to the Roman historian Sallust, young king Jugurtha, after staying in Rome for a while, reached the conclusion that “[…] omnia Romae venalia esse”. “Everything [and everybody] in Rome was for sale”. There was rampant corruption in Rome and it was on open display. And corruption is the mother of moral and eventually political decay. Is everything for sale in Washington? Maybe not everything. But we are getting close.
Monetizing public office
Monetizing past public service for personal gain is so common these days that nobody pays any attention to this rampant disease. But now we have also the monetization of current public service. We have Jared Kushner deals in the Middle East and, on a smaller scale, but politically more noxious, Hunter Biden and his selling of the family connection to drum up business consulting fees in Ukraine and China. This bad story was kept under raps during the 2020 campaign by most US media sympathetic to Joe Biden because he is a Democrat. But, whatever was tried, it was impossible to prevent an investigation.
However, now the politics have shifted somewhat. Indeed, right after the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, they started using their statutory investigative powers to shine a huge light and drill into the whole “Hunter Biden Affair”. Hunter Biden, the President’s son, is already under judicial investigation by US Attorney David Weiss for possible wrongdoing in various past business deals with foreign entities that he got into by leveraging his family relationship with his father, then the Vice President of the United States. In other words, Hunter Biden decided to turn the fact that he is the son of the then Vice president of the United States into a lucrative business.
Foreign clients obviously believed that by getting the young Biden involved in their business deals they were gaining extra leverage, given his father’s position. Now, there seems to be a possibility that, while engaged in these dealings, Hunter Biden may have violated US laws. The matter has been under investigation by the Department of Justice. Some Republican law makers have publicly asked that US Attorney General Merrick Garland would elevate US Attorney David Weiss, charged with this investigation on Hunter Biden, to the independent position of special counsel, to make sure that his inquiry will be shielded from any possible possible interference by the Justice Department or any other components of the Biden administration.
Trump falsely accused of collusion with Russia
All this makes good politics. Of course, when they could, the Democrats did similar things. For years then President Donald Trump was followed by the dark cloud of the Muller investigation into an alleged “Russia collusion” between his campaign for president back in 2016 and the Russian state. We now know that the initial FBI investigation focused on Trump was based on flimsy and highly questionable allegations that in the end proved to be groundless. Hence the “witch hunt” claim by Trump and his supporters that, in hindsight, looks quite appropriate. The whole thing was an effort to discredit Trump by painting him as some sort of Russian agent.
The Hunter Biden affair
Now it is the GOP turn. Taking full advantage of the investigative powers residing within the House of Representatives that they control as a result of the 2022 midterm elections, they are digging into the alleged crimes committed by the current President’s son. The goal is obviously political. The Republicans want to paint the Biden family as a bunch of corrupt people, enriching themselves with illegal activities they could get involved in just by capitalizing on the prestige and position of the then Vice President Joe Biden. Simply stated: “Slimy Biden family members made money in questionable or illegal ways by selling their connections with then Vice President Joe Biden”. While the political smear intent is obvious, the GOP has been given plenty of ammunition by young Biden’s actions. This is not a made up story.
Is he guilty?
Is Biden Junior guilty? And, if so, is there any way to prove that Biden Senior was complicit in all this? Who knows. At some point the investigation will be over with, and we shall see if any indictments will follow. My hunch is that probably Hunter Biden could be guilty of tax norms violations. We have all this money coming to various members of the Biden family, from different channels, via various shell companies that seem to have been created with the deliberate goal of obfuscating who was paying whom, when, and how much. This alone looks already very bad. It seems that Hunter Biden and his associates were trying to hide something. That said, were all these financial transactions properly tracked by Hunter Biden’s accountants and duly declared as income by all recipients, in the manner required by the IRS? I would bet that at least some of them were not. Maybe intentionally, (to avoid paying taxes on them), or maybe by mistake, given the number of transactions and the complex compliance requirements imposed by the law. Hunter Biden maybe guilty of tax evasion and maybe something else; or maybe we shall discover that after all, there is not enough evidence to indict him. And so, he is innocent.
Selling your father’s name
However, possible criminal culpability is not the real issue here. What is on full display here is the brazenly open effort by Hunter Biden to capitalize on his Biden family name in order to sell services to foreign entities on issues he knew practically nothing about. Guilty or innocent of tax evasion or other crimes as he may be, this is an open display of complete lack of ethics. Given his position at the top of the US Government, your dad’s name becomes your trough and you become a metaphorical pig. And the foreign entities, Ukrainian and Chinese, paid willingly good money to Hunter Biden in return for non existing services, with full knowledge that what they were buying was not valuable professional advice but Washington access and some form of political insurance, should their business venture fall into some kind of trouble.
President Biden does not shine
And what about President Biden reactions to all this? He publicly affirmed total confidence in his son’s innocence. He also stated, multiple times, that he knew absolutely nothing about Hunter Biden’s foreign business ventures. Father and son never discussed any of this. Now, here we have two major issues that call into question President Biden’s ethical standards.
First of all, it is most inappropriate for the President of the United States, the office holder whose main responsibility is to uphold the rule of law, to declare preemptively the innocence of a close family member who is under investigation for potentially serious crimes. Declaring his son to be innocent, while an official investigation is under way, may look like an effort to steer the investigation led by Mr. Weiss towards a predetermined goal. “I say that my son is innocent. Therefore, I expect this to be the finding of the investigation”. So much for the obligation to safeguard America’s independent judiciary.
The second issue, Biden’s statements that he knew nothing about his son’s business dealings, looks false and frankly ridiculous. You were the Vice President, and now President of the United States. Your son was involved in highly paid business dealings with foreign partners, and you know nothing about what he was doing and with whom? Really? No concerns about any possible problems for US foreign policies with these countries? No concern about possible repercussions on you as Vice President? None whatsoever? Never talked about any of this with him, your son? And we are supposed to believe this?
With that, I am not supporting any theory of criminal culpability. As I said above, may be in the end no evidence of laws broken will be found. It is quite possible that Hunter Biden, as he and his father claim, is totally innocent. Maybe.
Legal activities may be immoral
Still, there is behavior that, while possibly not illegal, is unethical and therefore morally unacceptable. This brazen lack of ethics displayed by Biden Junior and somehow endorsed by his father, now the President of the United States, is not and should not be accepted as “normal”. No, it is not normal to sell the name of your father, a most powerful US policy maker, to make money; knowing full well that you are hired as a consultant, or on any other capacity, purely and solely on account of your family connection to him. Guilty or innocent of tax fraud or any other crimes, Hunter Biden is a profoundly unethical person. And his father also fails the test because he did nothing to stop his son from engaging in unethical business dealings.
The Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC
Sadly, this is not an isolated case. When Donald Trump was President, his Trump Organization owned and operated the Trump International Hotel, a luxury establishment located on Pennsylvania Avenue, only walking distance from the White House. We know that several foreign delegations repeatedly booked rooms there while Trump was President. The monetary gain for Trump’s business was significant but not incredibly substantial. But what is clear is that these countries chose to send their representatives to this hotel that had Trump’s name on it because they thought that these goodwill gestures towards the Trump brand would earn them points with the Trump administration.
But think of this for a moment. The President of the United States’ business owns a big luxury hotel, with his name on it, in the heart of Washington, DC. Doesn’t this bizarre situation scream “conflict of interest”? While it is true that the Trump Organization created the hotel before Trump became president, another president-elect would have immediately sold it in order to avoid any perception of the President of the United States enriching himself from a business bearing his name, located literally steps away from the White House. But not Mr. Trump. He decided to hide behind a loophole in the law that does not force a president to liquidate assets while in office. Since it is not illegal, then it must be fine.
And what about everybody else in Washington? Was there any outrage? Did senior Republicans go to the White House with the mission of convincing the new president to do away with a clear source of embarrassment for their party and the US government? No. Not much noise about any of this. The Trump International Hotel bizarre anomaly, and the obvious conflict of interest perception were set aside. This unprecedented situation somehow became the new normal. Technically speaking, there was nothing illegal about the Trump Organization running this business in Washington. But it looked bad. And nobody really cared that much. Maybe the secret cynical thinking was: “It is a good thing that we lost any sense of shame in Washington. So, let Trump do his business, in the meantime we do ours“.
And these are only a few examples of abandoned ethics. There are so many others. What about former President Bill Clinton delivering well paid speeches in Russia, while his wife Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State? Were the Russians buying favors by offering a rich honorarium to the former US president, husband of the Secretary of State? No wrong doing has been proven in this regard. But it looked bad.
Lobbying is Washington’s preeminent industry
And then we have lobbying, the real, thriving industry of Washington, DC and the debilitating cancer slowly killing our republic. Formally, there is nothing illegal or wrong with advocating for or against certain policies via a dialogue with law makers and/or members of the administration carried out by duly registered professional. But in practice the whole –and now enormously vast– lobbying industry is about former policy makers and former law makers selling their contacts and networks, in short their ability to influence policy, to willing buyers, so that in return for high fees they will push for or against new laws or regulations that would favor or damage the vested interests of their clients. In other words, some individuals are only too happy to sell their names and valuable connections to anybody, as long as they pay well for their services that consist in pushing for or against policies that can harm or benefit their clients.
Some lobbying may have a legitimate place in a democracy. Let’s stipulate that. But how do we explain the explosion of this quintessentially Washington industry in the last twenty or thirty years? All of a sudden, scores of former law makers, and former government officials discovered that they had a new, deeply felt advocacy mission? No, they discovered that selling their connections and insiders knowledge of the workings of government is a very lucrative business. And so they started advocating for this or against that with their former colleagues. And this advocacy has nothing to do with what they believe in. This has much to do with how much money can be made. Somehow, the just cause often is the one that pays the most.
Lack of ethics kills republics
So, here we are. This is America today. This is not a story of daily scandals and widespread corruption, with officials caught receiving bags full of cash. This is a story of extremely relaxed morality as the now accepted standard. Public office is coveted not because of a genuine drive to serve. No, it is coveted because later on it can be monetized. Maybe in most cases no laws are broken. However, mere formal adherence to legality is a very low bar. A republic can thrive only if the values of integrity and service it is founded on are sincerely believed in and practiced by most. There is no such thing as an unethical, yet vibrant republic.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.