Opinion - Politics

Hunter Biden's Ukraine and China deals were probably legal, and that's the problem

Key Points
  • The last few weeks of non-stop coverage of the Trump impeachment inquiry has been shining a light on a disturbing practice that's been in place since long before this president ever took office.
  • That is, we're learning just how common it is for the children and other family members of leading U.S. politicians to get lucrative jobs and other positions from foreign state-owned enterprises.
  • It may all be legal, but it certainly seems like a brilliant way to get around U.S. campaign finance laws that prohibit donations from foreigners and foreign governments.
Hunter Biden speaks during the World Food Program USA's 2016 McGovern-Dole Leadership Award Ceremony at the Organization of American States on April 12, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Kris Connor | WireImage | Getty Images

Whether the politicians in Washington like it or not, the last few weeks of non-stop coverage of the Trump impeachment inquiry has been shining a light on a disturbing practice that's been in place since long before this president ever took office.

That is, we're learning just how common it is for the children and other family members of leading U.S. politicians to get lucrative jobs and other positions from foreign state-owned enterprises. It may all be legal, but it certainly seems like a brilliant way to get around U.S. campaign finance laws that prohibit donations from foreigners and foreign governments.

It's important to emphasize that in this Ukraine scandal, there isn't any evidence that Hunter Biden or former Vice President Joe Biden broke any laws as the younger Biden received his lucrative state-owned Ukrainian natural gas company board post. But let's be clear: the fact that getting these high-paying jobs and positions is often 100 percent legal isn't a reason to be less concerned. It's a reason to be more outraged.

But let's be even more clear. It's not just foreign company boards of foreign-owned investment funds at play. Children of elected officials from both parties have received lucrative jobs from U.S. companies, regardless of their experience or comparable salaries for the same positions.

There's also the neat trick of getting all those legal American-made campaign donations into the pockets of the candidates' family members. The easy way to do that is for a candidate to simply hire his or her family members as official staffers on the campaign and pay them whatever salary they like. That's a long running practice several elected officials from both parties have employed for years.

So many ways to win favor

There are many other ways to at least try to win favor with our top elected officials via their family members that don't involve actual cash and salaries.

For example, the admission rates for Stanford University (4.8 percent), Yale University (6.3 percent), Harvard University (5.4 percent), and Georgetown Law School (24 percent), are all extremely low. But for each of our last four presidents, the acceptance rate for their children at these schools has been a head-scratching 100 percent.

Either each one of these presidential kids was coincidentally a genius, or someone in academia knows how to use influence to keep those huge endowments untaxed.

Once again, to those journalists and all the legal eagles correctly pointing out that no laws are being broken by any of this, the public has one thing to say:

Big deal.

Yeah, so it's likely no laws are technically being broken. But the spirit of campaign finance and bribery laws is being trashed thoroughly. Of course the voters are not alone in knowing this has been the case for some time.

Back in 2014, many of the same Democrats who are now defending the Bidens now were decrying the indirect influence lobbyists and corporations were gaining by paying off politicians' relatives. It would be great if they had the intellectual honesty to be just as outraged by the very appearance of impropriety in the Biden case as they appear to be in response to everything they don't like about President Trump.

There should be plenty of room for outrage over the deals, legal or not, that Hunter Biden made with foreign-owned companies and whatever President Trump and his aides have done to bring this story into the spotlight. In other words, there's plenty of room to be angry at both the Bidens and President Trump over this entire matter.

Uncharted territory

And, there's plenty of bipartisan reasons to highlight this issue. They include the fact that President Trump's children continue to run his many businesses while he's in office. The opportunities to curry undue influence via those business connections are infinite and uncharted territory in U.S. history.

But partisan political hacks are making sure to couch it in an "us vs. them" lens alone.

The pressure to show only selective outrage is abundantly clear on the Democratic campaign trail. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren would seem to be in the perfect position to make a persuasive argument for herself based on this story.

She even has an anti-corruption plan she began pushing just as this Ukraine corruption story began to break. But when asked whether that very anti-corruption would allow a vice president's son to make the business deals Hunter Biden did,

Really? Warren's campaign handlers should know that any plan that doesn't forbid what Hunter Biden was doing isn't worth implementing. They should also know that any candidate who can't be sure if his or her plan bans it doesn't have the assertiveness to win a tough primary fight or a general election. Outrage works in elections, just ask 2016 Trump campaign staffers how much outrage over illegal immigration helped them win the GOP primaries.

But the Biden story brings up an even more enduring question that transcends the Trump presidency and goes right to the heart of government itself. If the existing federal campaign finance and lobbying laws have only encouraged our current more insidious forms of buying influence, what more can new laws be expected to do? The unintended consequences and clever workarounds people can find to find new and inventive ways to get their cash into the politicians' hands will likely never end.

So once again, this is really a job for the fairest journalists out there who can find a way to shine a light on these cozy arrangements on both sides of the political aisle. The avalanche of money falling into American politics to gain influence and power is nothing new, and this is not the time to ignore it just because many of us may not like the messenger.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.