From Billygate to Bidengate

Undeterred by their slender majority, House Republicans are prepared to unleash a series of investigations into President Biden’s administration and family. The rapidly unfolding classified document scandal offers them a heaven-sent opportunity.

But even before these recent revelations, the Oversight and Accountability Committee requested information from the Treasury designed to probe the first family’s “foreign business practices and international influence peddling schemes.” The clear target here is Hunter Biden.

The Trump appointed U.S. attorney for Delaware is considering charges against the president’s son arising from his 2016 and 2017 tax returns and his failure to disclose illegal drug use in a 2018 handgun application. But Republicans are interested in much more.

One focus will be Hunter’s admission in a 2021 memoir that his family name was a “coveted credential” that led in 2014 to a $80,000 per-month directorship at Burisma — the Ukrainian energy firm that has been implicated in conspiracy, money laundering and tax evasion schemes.

Another will be his employment of then-Vice President Biden in business development efforts. In 2013 in Beijing, Hunter introduced the VP to a Chinese business partner, and in 2014 accompanied his father on a White House tour for two prospects for a venture in Mexico.

The committee will also scrutinize the contents of a laptop that Hunter Biden somehow discarded at a Delaware repair shop in 2019. This bizarre discovery has to date raised more eyebrows regarding progressive media outlets that suppressed the story than it has smoking guns regarding Hunter.

Defenders of the Bidens will point out that any impropriety on the part of the family would pale in comparison to the way the Trump clan and its commercial interests leveraged his presidency. But perhaps the most interesting comparison is with the travails of another Democratic clan five decades ago. 

Jimmy Carter came to Washington from Georgia hoping to restore public confidence in a government tarnished by President Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the debacle of Vietnam.

But Carter’s image of down home rectitude contrasted with a drama-filled family life, with his brother a main player.

Twelve years younger than Jimmy, Billy Carter was a reporter’s delight. “My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was sixty-eight,” he was fond of noting. “My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I’m the only sane one in the family.” 

Billy’s attempts to profit from his brother’s fame were initially harmless. In 1977 he became the namesake and spokesperson for Billy Beer, a venture with the Falls City Brewing Company that lasted only a year (he made it clear he preferred Pabst). He earned income from personal appearances and speeches that played off his bad boy image.

But fueled by a serious alcohol problem, Billy’s behavior soon embroiled him and his brother in a more serious escapade, recreated in excruciating detail by a 1980 Senate committee report.

On Sept. 25, 1978, one week after President Carter announced the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Accords, Billy traveled to Tripoli at the invitation of the Libyan government. The trip was organized by a group of Atlanta real estate brokers at the urging of the Italian founder of the “Sicilian-Arab Association.” The president was not informed until Billy’s plane was in the air.

The radical regime of Muammar Qaddafi was bitterly opposed to Israel and Camp David. Libyan exports of oil to the U.S. were permitted but diplomatic relations were strained, and American arms sales had been curtailed. Billy represented a potential back channel to the president.

The initial visit proved harmless, but when Billy welcomed a Libyan trade delegation to Georgia early in 1979, the Justice Department requested that he register as a foreign agent. He was unresponsive. He made statements widely construed as anti-Semitic, from which President Carter was compelled to dissociate himself.

Then, as his financial and health status deteriorated, Billy arranged a broker’s deal for himself with a Florida oil company, hoping to source Libyan crude, and requested from the regime a loan of $500,000. In August he made a second visit to Tripoli, where he was photographed in the company of known terrorist leaders.

The reflection on the president of Billy’s scheming was bad, but things would get even worse after Nov. 4, when the hostages were taken at the U.S. embassy in Iran. Desperate to do anything possible to free 52 Americans, the president permitted Billy to arrange a meeting between National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Libya’s top diplomat in Washington — hoping the regime might have leverage with the mullahs in Teheran. 

“I recognized there was a risk of criticism in asking Billy to help,” Carter later said, “but I decided to take the risk.” The futility of the approach was evident a week later when the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was ransacked by a mob of student demonstrators.

At that point, the FBI and CIA had begun monitoring Billy’s activities. 

In April 1980 he received a $200,000 loan drawn from the account of the Libyan Washington embassy. (Adjusted for inflation, the sum approached Hunter Biden’s Burisma earnings.) He used it to pay off debts and IRS tax liens, with the understanding that he would pay it back from commissions earned from the oil brokerage deal — a deal and payback that never transpired.

Under pressure from the Justice Department, and his brother, he signed a consent decree and registered as a foreign agent on July 14, acknowledging the monies received from Libya. When the details, including the November 1979 hostage overture, hit the press, it was quickly dubbed “Billygate.”

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee concluded in October 1980 that at some point “the President should have either issued a public statement or sent a private message to the Libyan Government, or both, that Billy Carter did not represent the United States.” The investigation made clear the president had numerous opportunities to rein his brother in, but demurred.

Carter’s reelection prospects were already doomed by the hostage crisis and a misery index (the sum of inflation and unemployment rates) running well over 20 percent. Members of his own party were questioning his renomination. In the end, Billy’s influence peddling proved more embarrassing than harmful, but the affair reinforced the impression across the electorate that Jimmy Carter was in over his head.

Like Jimmy Carter in 1980, Joe Biden in 2024 will be facing calls to stand down from renomination. He risks his indulgence of a troubled family member being seen as a failure of judgment, reinforcing doubts regarding the mental stamina of a man who will be 81 when his party’s convention unfolds.

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