The Hunter Biden investigation.

Plus, can a member of Congress be impeached?
Isaac Saul Dec 14, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

What we know about the Hunter Biden investigation, a question about impeaching a member of Congress and an important story about our soldiers.

Attorney General William Barr is overseeing an investigation into the president-elect’s son. Photo by: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Marshals

Change of heart.

Last week, I answered a reader question about why Trump didn’t buy more of the Pfizer vaccine. You can read my response to that question in full here, but the general tone and gist was defensive of Trump — that he faced a difficult and risky decision and that I ultimately felt like investing in several vaccines across the board was the right thing to do. He hedged his bet, which I called a smart move.

Since writing that response, though, new information has emerged — including reporting from The New York Times about the negotiations between the Trump administration and Pfizer. In that reporting, one detail floored me: Pfizer had actually offered to provide an additional 100 million doses of the vaccine at no upfront cost to the federal government. They were offering to commit to additional doses but we would only have had to pay for them if the vaccine worked and was approved.

If these new details are confirmed, it changes my position. Most of my defense of the administration centered around the idea that there was a cost risk to buying up vaccines before knowing their efficacy — money that we’d need down the road and which, if we had spent, would’ve required more Congressional approval to replace. That risk clearly evaporates if the purchase is contingent on the vaccines working. I often preach in this newsletter about how changing your mind on an issue when presented with new evidence should be celebrated, not scorned as “flip-flopping” or whatever else. I’d be a hypocrite to dig in my heels when presented with new information now, so I wanted to set the record straight.


Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court slammed the door on President Trump’s latest election challenge Friday, rejecting a perplexing lawsuit from the state of Texas asking the court to throw out certified results from four battleground states that the president lost in November.
  2. Electoral College delegates will meet separately today in the states and cast their votes, formalizing one of the final steps in the process to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the election.
  3. Multiple people were stabbed in Washington D.C. this weekend after attendees of a pro-Trump rally clashed with counterprotesters after dark. It’s still not clear which groups the attackers or the injured were affiliated with.
  4. An audit of the Iowa caucuses during the Democratic primary says “Democratic National Committee meddling” combined with missteps by the state party were the primary drivers of the chaos that delayed the announcement of a winner.
  5. Intruders believed to be Russian hackers have been monitoring internal emails at the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, according to a Reuters report.

What D.C. is talking about.

Hunter Biden. Last week, the president-elect’s son confirmed that he was under federal investigation in Delaware over his “tax affairs” and claimed that he had acted legally and appropriately. The investigation became public after a subpoena was filed seeking detailed information on Biden’s financials.

Separate probes in Pittsburgh and Manhattan have also been ongoing, according to reports in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, with federal authorities looking into potential international financial issues. In Pittsburgh, Attorney General William Barr is said to have asked a top prosecutor to analyze information Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani turned over about the Biden family. So far, there is no indication that President-elect Biden is the subject of any investigation. Last week, Biden released a statement saying he is “proud of his son, who has fought through difficult challenges, including the vicious personal attacks of recent months, only to emerge stronger.”

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Barr has known about the investigations since at least this spring, and worked to keep them from becoming public knowledge during the heated campaign. President Trump responded by criticizing Barr and the Justice Department and insisting a special counsel be appointed to investigate the Biden family.

In October, The New York Post reported on emails stored on a laptop the paper said belonged to Hunter Biden, including emails that showed Biden trying to arrange business deals in China and Ukraine both during and shortly after his father served as vice president. The Daily Beast reported that inside the trove of documents the Post uploaded was a previously unnoticed document that included a case number and a code associated with an ongoing federal money-laundering investigation in Delaware, according to law enforcement officials who reviewed the document. At the time, U.S. officials refused to confirm or deny to The Daily Beast the existence of such a probe.

The Post’s initial story on the emails was blocked by Twitter and stifled on Facebook, two decisions that caused controversy across the media space. Twitter ultimately reversed its position, though The New York Post was locked out of its Twitter account for violating the platform’s policy on leaked personal material. We’ve previously covered Hunter Biden and the New York Post stories here and here.


What the right is saying.

The right is alarmed by the existence of the investigations, calling for a special prosecutor to take over the case and critical of the left and mainstream media for ignoring the story during the election.

“So Hunter Biden’s business is news after all. Who knew?” The Wall Street Journal editorial board asked incredulously. “Well, the New York Post did, and so did we and a few others. But in October when the Post broke the story of an email, allegedly from Hunter Biden’s laptop, referring to a meeting he’d arranged between his father and an executive from a Ukrainian energy company, Democrats and most of the press told Americans it was Russian disinformation. The story was banned on Twitter… That is itself a scandal.

“When the younger Mr. Biden’s business relationships first surfaced—e.g., his highly paid position on the Burisma corporate board, despite no background in Ukraine or energy—it should have provoked serious reporting,” the board added. “Instead, the people who spent years claiming Donald Trump was a Russian agent ignored much stronger evidence that the younger Mr. Biden had been getting rich on his father’s name. He sometimes traveled to business meetings as a tag-along with his Vice President dad on Air Force II.”

In The National Review, Jim Geraghty wrote that Hunter Biden is “a deeply troubled man whose worst habits and instincts veered into criminal behavior, and who has been largely protected from the full consequences of his actions by his connection to his famous and powerful father.

“The evidence for this is abundant and longstanding,” he said. “But if you said that too loudly before Election Day, you were accused of attacking the vice president’s family, being callous to the problems of addiction, and making ‘personal attacks on a candidate’s child.’ (Hunter Biden turned 50 earlier this year.) When Joe Biden insisted his son was hired at Burisma because he was a ‘smart guy,’ we were expected to simply accept and nod along…

“After the role Jim Comey and the FBI played in the 2016 election, it’s easy to see why law enforcement would want to avoid taking actions that could influence the outcome of an election,” he added. “But learning after the election that a candidate’s family is under serious investigation for criminal acts does not feel like a significant improvement.”

In The New York Post, Michael Goodwin said it’s time to call in a special counsel — and excoriated the media for how it’s handled the Biden story.

“Trust in the media was at a historic low before so many outlets betrayed their public duty during the campaign, complete with suppression polls,” he wrote. “The supposed cream of the Washington press corps not only showed zero curiosity about the Biden family’s lucrative business schemes, they actively tried to debunk The Post’s stories as ‘Russian disinformation’ or a smear… To this day, neither Hunter nor Joe Biden has disputed any of the e-mails, messages and lurid pictures found on the device.”

“The confederacy against Trump gives rise to another reality: The only way to protect the probe into the Biden family money-grubbing is through the appointment of a special counsel,” he wrote. “The need for protection was the logic behind the Mueller appointment, and it applies now in spades. Not only must the probe be protected from Joe Biden’s White House but also from FBI Director Christopher Wray. Biden indicated he wants Wray to stay on, so the lackluster chief starts with an enormous conflict of interest, as will the eventual attorney general.”


What the left is saying.

The left is happy that, unlike when James Comey announced an investigation into Hillary Clinton days before the 2016 election, this probe was kept under wraps. They’re also insistent that Donald Trump accusing the Biden family of corruption is the worst kind of political hypocrisy.

In The New York Times, Peter Baker said that it “is not clear whether the newly disclosed federal investigation has substantiated the Republican claims.

“Mr. Trump, who has himself engaged in dubious schemes to avoid paying taxes, including instances of outright fraud, seized on the issue to claim that journalists and even his own administration should have revealed the Hunter Biden investigation in time to help him win the election,” Baker said. “The inquiry originally focused on possible money laundering but did not gather enough evidence for a prosecution, according to people close to the case. Instead, it turned to tax matters. The federal government and the city of Washington, D.C., issued liens against Hunter Biden for unpaid taxes but have since released them.”

“Either way, the matter now appears likely to hang over Mr. Biden even as he takes office,” Baker added. “If he refuses to appoint a special counsel and his Justice Department opts not to prosecute his son, many will invariably suspect favoritism. If it does prosecute, then the president will face the prospect of seeing his own son threatened with criminal prosecution.”

In CNN, Ed McCaffery argued that Biden was already light years ahead of Trump in terms of letting justice run its course.

“We have today a President who fights all accountability and transparency, stonewalling on disclosing his taxes, even to government investigators. Who surrounds himself with family in a sea of conflicts of interest. Who hires advisers repeatedly indicted in or found guilty of crimes, and who stays in touch with them afterward. Who dangles and grants pardons to his own associates and who reportedly considers using pardons preemptively for himself and his family. Who has fired one acting attorney general and constantly threatens to fire the current attorney general, always for failure to do the President's bidding,” McCaffery said.

“[By contrast] President-elect Biden has shown no inclination to meddle as the investigations [into Hunter Biden] play out. ‘It's not my Justice Department. It's the people's Justice Department,’ he told CNN. How pleasant that sounds.”

In Jacobin Magazine, Ross Barkan wrote about the threat of left-leaning news outlets making it easy on Biden and not holding him to the same standard they hold Trump to.

“There is a real danger of slipping into a new normal, in which liberal-leaning newspapers and websites fail to report as aggressively on the Biden White House as they did on its predecessors,” Barkan wrote. “Aaron Rupar, a prominent Vox editor, recently dismissed an investigative report into the lucrative private-sector careers of Biden’s wealthy foreign policy team. ‘Blinken participated in society. The horror,’ Rupar tweeted, referring to Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken…

“Apparently, to some journalists, founding a high-dollar consulting firm with clients in the defense industry, Silicon Valley, and various hedge funds while also being a partner in a private equity firm can now be equated to the mere act of ‘participating in society,’ as if this were an unavoidable part of everyday life,” Barkan said. “Had a Trump cabinet pick boasted a similar background, it’s unlikely Rupar would have been so blasé. The danger is that in the post-Trump era, Democratic corruption will be seen as acceptable because it’s not Republican corruption.”


My take.

This story is getting worse.

When The New York Post first published Hunter Biden’s emails, and the business dealings they pointed to, I wrote about it in Tangle — twice. Many readers were upset I “gave the story oxygen,” and accused me of elevating “Russian disinformation” with no evidence that’s what it was. I believe I did what an independent and adversarial press should do: asked questions and looked for answers. And looking back on what I wrote then, I’m happy with how it has aged since.

Most of it still holds up:

The chain of custody on Biden’s computer points to a political hit job. A carnival of partisan hacks intentionally and willfully misrepresented what was in the emails to make it seem as if Joe Biden was profiting off his time in office, something we still have little or no evidence for (besides one or two vague email references of him potentially joining Hunter for a single meeting). But that doesn’t make the contents of the emails any less real or important, and it certainly doesn’t make it “Russian misinformation,” as so many outlets smeared it. NPR, a news outlet I have listened to since I was a child, dismayed me by boasting about how it would ignore the story altogether, though NPR journalist David Folkenflik raised some good questions about why the story didn’t smell right.

I also criticized Twitter for blocking the URL link to the story, an unthinkable decision that was a clear escalation of its moderation policies and unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Days later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey apologized for the decision and corrected course — and I cheered him for changing his mind.

The New York Post also deserves to be hammered for publishing compromising photos of Hunter in various states of undress, one in which he appears to be passed out with some kind of pipe in his mouth. Hunter’s well-known addiction issues do not need to be plastered on front pages in the form of photographs, especially when those intimate and private photos were obtained without his consent. In a nation being devastated by drug addiction, anxiety and depression, The Post’s decision to go that route sullied their own reputation and undermined the actual news they had in their laps. The Post only has itself to blame for those ugly mistakes.

It’s also worth remembering that Giuliani refused to turn the source material over to any other news outlets, and law enforcement refused to comment on any potential investigations, so — despite how poorly I think Twitter and some newspapers handled the story — they also had little to work with since it was planted in such a political fashion.

But now we have confirmation of investigations into Biden’s taxes. This does not mean the speculative op-eds or The New York Post headlines are accurate, but it does confirm the legitimacy of the hot water Hunter is in. Perhaps it will be nothing more than tax evasion charges — which would be closer to a regular Tuesday afternoon than a bombshell story, given what we’ve witnessed in the last four years. But we still don’t know how deep this runs. What we do know is that Joe Biden is currently in the process of picking his attorney general, who would oversee such an investigation if it doesn’t end soon, and that creates an enormously dangerous conflict of interest.

Biden has campaigned on a promise to reverse four years of self-dealing, political favors and all the troubling ways Trump has used his office to coerce various branches of government into doing what he wants — including the judiciary and the Department of Justice. Barr deserves credit for keeping a lid on this investigation, per DOJ policies, until after the election. That’s an impressive feat, especially at a time when leaks seem to fall from trees like ripe fruit. Now, Biden should honor that work by appointing a special prosecutor and staying out of whatever his son has gotten into — let the cards fall where they may. Anything less than total independence will only implicate him further, even if he truly is innocent of any wrongdoing, and it could doom the Biden presidency before his first term even begins.


Your questions, answered.

Q: My question concerns the reports of Senator Feinstein’s declining mental state. Is it possible for Congress members to “impeach” one of their own in case of mental decline or other severe misconduct? Is there anything that the President or Supreme Court could do? What about state governors?

— Dial, Garden Grove, California

Tangle: The short answer is no — it’s not possible to “impeach” a member of Congress. The process for impeachment is put forth in the Constitution and it refers only to a president, vice president or civil officer. Though it has been tried. I didn’t know this, but in researching this question I learned that Congress tried to impeach Sen. William Blount in 1797, but the Senate rejected the move, noting that he was not a “civil officer” and that he had already been expelled, so the impeachment was moot.

In order to expel a member of Congress, though, you only need the approval of the chamber of Congress where that member serves. So in Dianne Feinstein’s case, the Senate would need a two-thirds vote to remove her from office. 15 senators and five members of the House have been expelled in the history of the U.S., the most recent being Ohio Rep. James Traficant, who was expelled in 2002 after being convicted of bribery, tax evasion and racketeering. Most of the other expulsions were related to Civil War infractions, according to USA Today.

Anyway, all this is moot when it comes to Feinstein: Congress would never expel her. She’s generally beloved and respected, and reports about her declining cognitive ability may be concerning but they have seldom stopped members of Congress from remaining in office. There’s a legitimate camaraderie in the Senate, even with today’s bitterly partisan divide (recall that after Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Feinstein were seen hugging), and historically speaking we know of several members who served well past the point that they probably should have.

If voters wanted to remove Feinstein, they could have done it in 2018. But she was re-elected easily, and is now set to serve until 2025, when her term expires, if she wishes. CNN reported this week that she declined to commit to serving the rest of her term, which she would complete at age 92 (she’s 87 now, making her the oldest member of the Senate). If she serves until November 5th, 2022, she’ll become the longest-serving woman in U.S. Senate history.

Reminder: You can ask a question too. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in.


A story that matters.

This week, I was sent an article from last July that I had never read before. It was about President Trump’s pardon of a soldier who had been convicted of ordering the killing of three Afghan civilians who posed no threat to American soldiers. The story, which was published in The Washington Post, was particularly hard for me to read because it included a friend from college as a witness who testified against 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, and described what life has been like for him since he and the other members of his platoon tried to do the right thing.

14 of Lorance’s men testified against him, including my friend, and not a single soldier from his command testified in his defense. The Army sentenced him to 19 years in prison, but six years into his sentence he was pardoned after Trump saw an appeal for him to be set free on Fox News. Now, Lorance is treated as a hero and is frequently a guest on Fox News and conservative radio. But the pardon, the killings, and Lorance’s newfound fame have rocked the men in his unit — many of whom suffer from PTSD, anxiety and depression, and who now question the value system of the Army they pledged their lives to.

Since returning home from Afghanistan in 2013, five of the platoon’s three dozen soldiers have died — by suicide, drinking, cancer, or complications from battle wounds. Most are struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, and trying to reconcile the fact that their careers in the Army have been destroyed for doing the right thing. I encourage everyone to read this gut wrenching, infuriating story. It’s an important look into both how we treat our soldiers when they come home and how the power of the pardon can do real harm.


Numbers.

  • 3 million. The number of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine UPS and FedEx are delivering to 145 distribution centers across the US. today.
  • 60. The percentage of Americans who said they would get the vaccine, according to a November Gallup poll.
  • 48. The percentage of nonwhite Americans who said they would get the vaccine, according to a November Gallup poll.
  • 291,017. The number of people who have died from COVID-19, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
  • 109,331. The number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the most ever, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
  • 186,884. The number of new cases of COVID-19 recorded yesterday, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
  • 67%. The percentage of Americans who are satisfied with the cost of their health care, the highest since 2001, according to a new Gallup poll.

Electoral college.

On Friday, I released the most asked-for Tangle edition yet: a deep dive on the arguments and history surrounding the Electoral College. The edition went to paying subscribers only — and broke down the case for and against the Electoral College. If you want to read it, you can check it out by clicking here.

Last week, I also launched a Tangle merchandise store on Cotton Bureau — a Pittsburgh-based apparel store. Right now, the merch store has t-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, pullovers, and baby onesies with the Tangle logo. Mugs and stickers are coming soon. I’ve tried to limit how much I mark up the price, and for every piece of merch sold, Tangle makes $5. To check out the swag, you can click here.


Have a nice day.

The first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the U.S. this morning — including a dose to an intensive care nurse in Queens, New York. Shipments of the vaccine are happening all across the country right now. Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse who is the first known person in the U.S. to receive the vaccine, said she has been treating patients throughout the pandemic. “I feel like healing is coming,” she said. “I hope this marks the beginning of the end of a very painful time in our history.”

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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