President Biden told Americans to expect an era of unity and normality after four years of disruption. What they got was a chief executive unable to cope with the overlapping crises of the coronavirus pandemic, consumer price inflation, illegal immigration, crime and a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Yet there is one thing that Biden has restored to good working order: the DC gravy train. In Biden’s Washington, well-connected liberal Democrats in the influence industry have no problem enriching themselves. The world is a mess but the Swamp is as fetid as ever.
Not long after taking office, Biden issued an executive order restoring and strengthening the government ethics provisions that had been in force under President Obama. He banned gifts from lobbyists. He prohibited political appointees from working on issues related to their previous employment. He established safeguards to prevent registered foreign agents from entering his administration. And he restricted officials from lobbying and communicating with their former agencies for two years after they leave government. Walter Shaub, a former ethics watchdog under President Obama who became a prominent critic of President Trump, told NPR, ‘I’d say it’s a very good executive order.’
But Shaub wasn’t complimentary for long. In June, the Washington Post reported that at least five children of senior officials had been appointed to government jobs. The nepotism was more than unseemly. It was hypocritical. ‘While it may not be as bad as appointing your son or daughter to a top government post as Trump did with Jared and Ivanka, it is still bad,’ Shaub told the Post. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, didn’t share his concern. ‘We have the highest ethical standards of any administration in history,’ she said.
The administration has a funny way of showing it. Lachlan Markay of Axios, for example, reports that at least 16 Biden-appointed officials received waivers exempting them from various ethics rules. Moreover, the highest levels of Biden’s government are staffed with people who have made careers in leveraging public-sector connections for private-sector paydays.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken co-founded a ‘strategic advisory’ firm, WestExec Advisors, whose website boasts of ‘bringing the Situation Room to the Board Room’. Senior adviser Anita Dunn departed the White House in August without having to disclose the fortune she amassed as a partner in SKDK, the public-relations giant whose clients include Amazon and Pfizer. White House chief of staff Ron Klain alternated between stints in government and a high-powered law practice before running a DC-based venture capital firm for billionaire Steve Case.
Counselor to the president Steve Ricchetti no longer has a stake in Ricchetti Inc., the lobbying firm he co-founded with his brother Jeff in 2001. But Jeff does. By early September, he had signed 12 new clients since Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee last year. His revenues in the first quarter of 2021 were five times larger than in the first quarter of 2020. He told press outlets in July that he doesn’t lobby his brother, ‘nor,’ he added, ‘have I lobbied the White House this quarter’. He just lobbied the NSC for GM in the second quarter of 2021, to the tune of $60,000. Between the NSC and the Commerce Department, GM has paid him at least $100,000 for his trouble.
The President’s family wants a piece of the action. Biden’s brother Frank, a ‘non-attorney senior adviser’ at the Florida-based Berman Law Group, called his sibling a ‘model’ for one of the firm’s class-action lawsuits in a newspaper ad published on Inauguration Day.
In June, Biden’s brother James canceled a clean-energy investment project in the United Kingdom after White House lawyers told him it violated protocol. James has profited off his brother’s career for decades, from his days as a nightclub owner in the Seventies to his purchase of a hedge fund with his nephew Hunter in the early 2000s. Hunter Biden’s exploits are legendary. Make-work payoffs are rarely as audacious or as ridiculous as the $50,000 monthly retainer he received from 2014 to 2019 as a board member for the Ukrainian gas giant Burisma. It was blindingly obvious that Hunter Biden’s only qualification for this position was his biological relationship to Joe Biden. Hunter had no expertise in energy markets and all his businesses have failed. That was why Donald Trump attempted to make Burisma an issue in the 2020 election — only to have things blow up in his face.
Hunter’s latest get-rich scheme is even more outlandish. The President’s 51-year-old son, who has no formal artistic training and is under federal investigation for tax issues, plans to showcase 15 of his overpriced, non-figurative, vaguely psychedelic artworks at the Georges Bergès Gallery in New York City this October. Some of the larger pieces carry price tags of up to $500,000. Hunter Biden told the New York Times that art is ‘something I’ve taken seriously for a long time but hasn’t necessarily been for public consumption’.
Now it is. At the very moment when papa is POTUS. How convenient. In July, the White House scrambled to prevent Hunter’s abstract expressionist phase from becoming an influence-peddling fiasco. Its solution was to have Hunter’s art dealer keep secret all information about buyers and prices. ‘I think it would be challenging for an anonymous person who we don’t know and Hunter Biden doesn’t know to have influence,’ Jen Psaki said on July 9.
True enough. What happens, though, when the White House and Hunter do know? No law prevents Mr Special Interest from displaying his Hunter Biden original at the entrance to his lobbying firm. No White House ethics regulation applies to the foreign government that buys a Biden canvas above the sticker price. Imagine how Hunter might react when he spies one of his paintings adorning an oligarch’s conference room. Maybe he’ll mention it to his parents over Sunday dinner.
The art world is offended by Hunter’s gambit. ‘I have artists who have very real careers who might not sell that much in dollar terms cumulatively over 10 years,’ gallerist Cristin Tierney told the New York Times. Art auctioneer Edward Dolman is skeptical that Hunter’s work will earn high prices: ‘There is some value in celebrity, but at the end of the day, the quality of the art tends to dictate how the market relates to it.’ Not when the market relates to it politically rather than artistically.
The key insight of the Biden family and its courtiers is that proximity to high office is a tradable good. Individuals and institutions are willing to spend big to obtain the favor of the men and women who run a government. The President himself is aware of this truth. Recall that, between 2017 and 2021, Joe Biden served as the Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and as a senior fellow at Penn’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. Biden doesn’t seem to have studied democracy very hard. He taught no classes. He hardly set foot on campus.
When the school newspaper tracked his public appearances at Penn, it found that Biden had sat for three interviews with the university’s president, delivered a book talk, conversed with two former officials from Mexico and the UK, sat on two panels and spoken to a class at the Wharton School of Business. That’s it. The average salary for a Penn professor at the time was $217,411. As of spring 2019, when he left the academy to run for president, Penn had paid Biden more than $900,000.
The Biden crew lives by the motto of Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: ‘I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.’ But these exercises in what Plunkitt called ‘honest graft’ are a growing problem for the administration. On July 14, Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wrote to White House counsel Dana Remus, asking for materials that might help its members ‘understand the extent of the Biden family’s use of its connection to the President to enrich itself and any steps your office is taking to mitigate future self-dealing’.
Since the GOP is the minority party, the congressmen lack subpoena power to collect evidence. Their investigation will be stonewalled. But that could change with next year’s midterm elections. And stories of favor-trading among White House friends and family will only accumulate in the meantime. Washington, after all, is back to business as usual. Joe Biden’s Swamp grows deeper by the day.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2021 World edition.