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Bret Stephens: Joe Biden’s ethically challenged presidency

It’s worse coming from the man who campaigned for office by insisting that he stood ‘for honor and telling the truth.’

(Doug Mills | The New York Times) President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the White House in Washington, on Aug. 31, 2021. We can no longer accept his "word as a Biden," New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

There should be little doubt that President Joe Biden was not being truthful when, days after the Taliban’s victory, he told ABC News that his senior military advisers had not urged him to keep some 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. The president’s claim was flatly contradicted last week in sworn testimony from Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command.

During the generals’ testimony, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, sought to defend her boss by pointing to a line in Biden’s interview in which he appeared to suggest that the military’s advice “was split.”

Another whopper. What split? As The Times’ Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and David Sanger reported in April, right after Lloyd Austin was sworn in as secretary of defense in January, he and his top generals “were in lock step in recommending that about 3,000 to 4,500 troops stay in Afghanistan.” Asked whether there were top military advisers who argued otherwise, Psaki evaded the question.

Biden’s dissembling, regarding the worst-executed major foreign policy decision in years, would be a scandal in any presidency. It’s worse coming from the man who campaigned for office by insisting that he stood “for honor and telling the truth.”

A week earlier, Politico’s Ben Schreckinger published a scrupulously reported book on the Biden family. It makes a compelling case that some of the most explosive emails from Hunter Biden’s purported laptop were entirely genuine — a claim that Schreckinger confirmed with multiple sources, including a Swedish government agency, and that was never explicitly denied by Hunter himself.

That includes a 2017 email in which one of Hunter’s potential business partners proposed a “provisional agreement” with the now-defunct company CEFC China Energy to share equity percentages in a new venture, with “10 Jim” and “10 held by H for the big guy?” Jim Biden is the president’s brother. “The big guy,” according to Tony Bobulinski, a recipient of the email, is Hunter’s father.

This does not mean the president received, or even expected to receive, money from this supposed venture, or even knew about it.

But it provides good reason to believe that the news media gave far too much credence to his assertion that the leaked emails were “a Russian plant,” as he put it in his second debate with Donald Trump. It makes it more difficult to ignore Bobulinski’s claim that he met with Joe, Jim and Hunter Biden in May 2017 to discuss the overall terms of the deal. And it is worth questioning whether the president may have been willing to make himself useful to his family, even if he didn’t profit personally or directly from their deals.

“The Bidens pride themselves on integrity, and are fond of pledging ‘my word as a Biden’ when they really mean something,” Schreckinger writes. “The evidence marshaled in the closing weeks of the campaign built on a picture in which Joe’s relatives trade regularly on their connections to him, while the separation between their private dealings and his public duties is not as far and wide as he has claimed.”

All this would be bad enough if it were just history. But what are we to make of Hunter’s recent venture as a visual artist — a field in which he has no formal training and no commercial track record?

In case you missed this: A SoHo gallerist intends to sell 15 of Hunter’s works at prices of up to $500,000 apiece. To safeguard the propriety of these transactions, the White House has issued “ethics guidelines” that are supposed to keep things aboveboard by hiding the identity of the buyers from both Hunter and the White House. And it falls to the gallerist — that is, the person who stands to gain from the commissions — to police the guidelines by rejecting suspiciously lucrative offers.

It screams of a scam. “The Treasury Department warned last year that the anonymity of high-value art transactions could make the market attractive to those engaging in illegal financial activities or people subject to U.S. sanctions,” The Times’ Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported in July.

In another report of dubious activities, Mattathias Schwartz wrote in Business Insider about emails that indicated that in 2015, while his dad was vice president, Hunter was allegedly exploring a $2 million-plus “success fees” deal with two Democratic donors to help recover Libyan assets that had been frozen as a result of U.S. sanctions. The effort came to nothing — Hunter’s reputation for hard living didn’t help — but at least one of the donors was attracted to Hunter’s offer because he is “son of #2 who has Libya file.”

“When it comes to opening doors in Washington,” Schwartz notes, “the illusion of access can be as valuable as hard currency.”

Some readers may be inclined to dismiss this as merely an indictment of a troubled son. They might ask themselves what conclusions they would draw if this were about, say, Eric Trump. Some readers will also think it isn’t the president’s job to police his adult son. But it is his job to ensure that Hunter and other relatives don’t profit by trading on his position in government.

That would be corruption. The president will have to do better than give us his “word as a Biden” that he’ll put an end to it.

Bret Stephens | The New York Times, (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.

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