Sorry, Joe Biden, but you did do something wrong

In a campaign event for Joe Biden, a man, citing Biden's son Hunter's lucrative position with a Ukrainian company, Burisma, at a time when Biden oversaw U.S. anti-corruption policy in that nation, accused Biden of "selling access" to his office.

"You're a damn liar, man," Biden responded.  "That's not true.  No one has said my son has done anything wrong..."

Neither did the man (since identified as an 83-year-old retired farmer).  He wasn't accusing Biden's son; he was accusing Biden.  Nevertheless, later in the exchange, the farmer himself denied that he was accusing Biden of doing anything wrong.  So apparently, no one is saying that, with regard to Ukraine, Biden did anything wrong. 

Permit this writer to politely challenge that consensus.  This is not to argue that, when Biden got Viktor Shokin, a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, fired, Biden did something wrong.  Biden claims that there was good reason for doing that, which had nothing to do with Hunter.  And he and others will claim that everyone else, all the European allies, everyone except the Ukrainians, thought Shokin should be fired.  Whether the allies even have presence in Ukraine, and whether they were simply relying on information provided by the Obama administration, and whether they were pandering to that administration, and whether they really had any such position at all, are all other questions — questions that not one American in ten thousand has the time, resources, and interest to answer.  Under the circumstances that are presented to us, all we can do is accept Biden's word, or not.

Biden assures us that Hunter's position in Burisma did not affect his decision at all, because he and Hunter made a point of not discussing Hunter's business involvements, precisely so that they could avoid any conflict of interest — the thinking, apparently, being that if Biden didn't know about the business interest, then it could not affect his decision. 

That may be good enough for Biden, but what about the rest of us?  How do we know Biden was ignorant of Hunter's involvements?  Because he tells us?  If we believe that, then why does Biden need to impose ignorance on himself at all?  Why could he not be fully informed of Hunter's involvements, yet not allow them to influence his decision, and simply tell us that they didn't influence it?  In short, if we can simply trust what Biden tells us, why do not we need to be concerned about conflicts of interest at all? 

The whole point underlying the concern about conflicts of interest is that we cannot trust what interested parties say, and we should not have to.  Biden's word — his assertion of self-imposed ignorance — does not suffice.  To the public, a conflict of interest will exist whether the interested parties are aware of it or not.  That is why any public official must not seek to shelter himself from any potential conflicts, but must discover them and, when discovered, eliminate them, one way or another.

Joe Biden, so he would not be faced with having to take any such step — so he would not have to eliminate either his own position or Hunter's — did precisely the opposite.  That is what he did that was wrong.  All the rest — the firing of Shokin, for reasons only Biden will ever know — is a footnote, a red herring.

Image: Marc Nozell via Flickr.

In a campaign event for Joe Biden, a man, citing Biden's son Hunter's lucrative position with a Ukrainian company, Burisma, at a time when Biden oversaw U.S. anti-corruption policy in that nation, accused Biden of "selling access" to his office.

"You're a damn liar, man," Biden responded.  "That's not true.  No one has said my son has done anything wrong..."

Neither did the man (since identified as an 83-year-old retired farmer).  He wasn't accusing Biden's son; he was accusing Biden.  Nevertheless, later in the exchange, the farmer himself denied that he was accusing Biden of doing anything wrong.  So apparently, no one is saying that, with regard to Ukraine, Biden did anything wrong. 

Permit this writer to politely challenge that consensus.  This is not to argue that, when Biden got Viktor Shokin, a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, fired, Biden did something wrong.  Biden claims that there was good reason for doing that, which had nothing to do with Hunter.  And he and others will claim that everyone else, all the European allies, everyone except the Ukrainians, thought Shokin should be fired.  Whether the allies even have presence in Ukraine, and whether they were simply relying on information provided by the Obama administration, and whether they were pandering to that administration, and whether they really had any such position at all, are all other questions — questions that not one American in ten thousand has the time, resources, and interest to answer.  Under the circumstances that are presented to us, all we can do is accept Biden's word, or not.

Biden assures us that Hunter's position in Burisma did not affect his decision at all, because he and Hunter made a point of not discussing Hunter's business involvements, precisely so that they could avoid any conflict of interest — the thinking, apparently, being that if Biden didn't know about the business interest, then it could not affect his decision. 

That may be good enough for Biden, but what about the rest of us?  How do we know Biden was ignorant of Hunter's involvements?  Because he tells us?  If we believe that, then why does Biden need to impose ignorance on himself at all?  Why could he not be fully informed of Hunter's involvements, yet not allow them to influence his decision, and simply tell us that they didn't influence it?  In short, if we can simply trust what Biden tells us, why do not we need to be concerned about conflicts of interest at all? 

The whole point underlying the concern about conflicts of interest is that we cannot trust what interested parties say, and we should not have to.  Biden's word — his assertion of self-imposed ignorance — does not suffice.  To the public, a conflict of interest will exist whether the interested parties are aware of it or not.  That is why any public official must not seek to shelter himself from any potential conflicts, but must discover them and, when discovered, eliminate them, one way or another.

Joe Biden, so he would not be faced with having to take any such step — so he would not have to eliminate either his own position or Hunter's — did precisely the opposite.  That is what he did that was wrong.  All the rest — the firing of Shokin, for reasons only Biden will ever know — is a footnote, a red herring.

Image: Marc Nozell via Flickr.