Op-ed: Peter Schweizer and the gaming of the Times

Peter Schweizer at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

There’s always a suspicion that public officials feather their nests—including via their families. Eyebrows rise  whenever money is followed and relatives are seen to cash in on power. After all, in 2019, public-mindedness seems a fusty joke and nepotism and cronyism the common coin. 

Readers of the New York Times’s op-ed page October 9 were accordingly drawn to an enticing headline: “What Hunter Biden Did Was Legal — And That’s the Problem.” 

The author, Peter Schweizer, began promisingly by noting an asymmetry in American law. Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—a product of the reformist ’70s—the children of foreign officials are prohibited from holding positions in American-run companies. But no equivalent law bars foreign companies and governments from hiring family members of American officials.  

There followed five paragraphs about father Joe and son Hunter Biden, centering on Hunter’s business arrangements in Ukraine and China. No evidence has surfaced of any intervention from Joe in those arrangements. But because of the family connection between the then-vice president and his feckless, business-unqualified son, the author, along with Fox News and virtually every Republican official, considered financial payments to Hunter corrupt.  

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“The Bidens are hardly alone,” this section concluded with a sort of tease. “Consider two Washington power families.”

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Stand by for an evenhandedness show. The breathless reader might now expect mention of business operations on the part of the Trump family. As Noah Bierman and Chris Megerian wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Eric and Donald Trump, Jr., run

the Trump Organization, which conducts business — and takes in tens of millions of dollars annually — around the globe and is still owned by the president. The company is forging ahead with projects in Ireland, India, Indonesia and Uruguay, and is licensing the Trump name in such turbulent areas as Turkey and the Philippines. Their sister Ivanka is a senior advisor to the president. She kept her international fashion business going for 18 months after she was given a loosely defined White House portfolio that includes interacting with heads of state and working with domestic and international corporate chiefs on economic programs.

Meanwhile, Ivanka and Jared Kushner between them reported 2018 income in the range of $29 million to $135 million. How much came from licensing and other financial arrangements abroad is not clear, but the New York Times’s Jesse Drucker and Agustin Armendariz  noted that “Ms. Trump earned just under $4 million from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which has become a magnet for visiting executives and foreign officials with interests before the federal government.” But Trump family hustles are dogs biting men—they’re not “a story” because there are so many. 

So it was not altogether surprising that in Schweizer’s 1,186 words about corrupt family arrangements with foreign nations, the name “Trump” appeared exactly once: strictly to introduce the family of Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation in Trump’s cabinet. Chao’s father founded a Chinese shipping business that “has thrived in large part because of its close ties with the Chinese government.” Meanwhile, Ms. Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are said to have boosted their net worth between 2004 and 2008 by a factor somewhere between 2.5 and ten, after “Ms. Chao’s father, James Chao, gave the couple a ‘gift’ of $5 million to $25 million.” 

Schweizer was identified by the Times as “an investigative journalist” and “the author, most recently, of ‘Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends.’” To those who follow the ins and outs of right-wing funding networks, he has other credentials. He is a senior contributor to Breitbart. He wrote speeches for George W. Bush and advised Sarah Palin. He presides over the Florida-based Governmental Accountability Institute (GAI), which is funded by the family foundation of hedge-fund tycoon and major Trump 2016 funder Robert Mercer. (As of 2017, the chairman of the GAI board was Mercer’s daughter Rebekah.) Schweizer’s earlier books include Do As I Say (Not as I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy (2005); Makers and Takers: Why Conservatives Work Harder, Feel Happier, Have Closer Families, Take Fewer Drugs, Give More Generously, Value Honesty More, Are Less Materialistic and Envious, Whine Less…and Even Hug Their Children More than Liberals (2008); and, most consequentially, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich (2015).

The Times had previously aired Schweizer’s worldview in its news pages. In 2015, his Clinton Cash was offered for previews to The New York Times, the Washington Post, and Fox News. Times editor Matt Purdy later said that the Times declined an offer of exclusive rights to Schweizer’s material, but later asked his permission to use one of his story lines, which in turn built on Times reporting dating back to 2008. The Times investigated further, and took to Page 1 in a state of alarm:  “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal.” 

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This story, by Jo Becker and Mike McIntire, made waves and sold books. The article credited Schweizer and called him “right-leaning,” but failed to mention that Schweizer’s work was funded by a man who would become one of Donald Trump’s chief donors. As Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker, 

The story insinuated that, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had risked national security by facilitating the sale of American uranium mines to Russia in exchange for more than two million dollars in contributions to the Clinton Foundation from the businessmen behind the deal, who worked for a company called Uranium One. The story enabled Clinton’s opponents to frame her as greedy and corrupt. Even a year after she had lost the race, the Fox News host Sean Hannity was still invoking it on air, calling it “the biggest scandal ever involving Russia.

But there was neither a here nor a there there. Hannity, Schweizer’s conduit, alleged that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had given “to Vladimir Putin and Russia twenty percent of America’s uranium, which is the foundational material to make nuclear weapons”— purportedly in return for huge payments to the Clinton Foundation. But in fact, the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States had signed off on the uranium deal, which involved nothing like Hannity’s “twenty percent.” There was no evidence that Hillary Clinton had ever spoken about or otherwise intervened in approving the deal, or even attended the meeting at which it was approved. A noncontroversial deal had been spun into a national security threat. A story about donations to the Clinton Foundation had morphed into an insinuation that Hillary Clinton was party to quid-pro-quo corruption.

In their tenth paragraph, Becker and McIntire entered a caveat: “Whether the donations [to the Clinton Foundation] played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation.” Thus did a high-drama claim beginning with “Vladimir Putin’s goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain” devolve into a story of “special ethical challenges.” The Times bent over so far backwards to show that it was not “liberal,” it fell over.

 

THE CHAO FAMILY’S shipping fortune is certainly a good story. So is McConnell’s apparently warming view toward the Chinese government since his father-in-law bestowed his benison upon the household. But in the big political landscape, the Chaos are a sideshow, as both the Times and Schweizer know. Given Schweizer’s deep political ties, and his imperfect reporting, why does the Times op-ed page consider his notion of evenhandedness worthy? How, at this late date, can they publish a piece about lucrative family businesses without citing the Trumps?  When the president’s pet hates are news organizations, the Times is fearful, taking refuge behind the equivocal slogan, “The Truth is Hard.” But a show of routine evenhandedness can coexist with naivete verging on gullibility.

Now, thanks to a whistleblower and an avalanche of subsequent testimony from civil servants, Trump’s request for a “favor” from Ukrainian President Zelensky has soared to the top of the impeachability list. As Trump, under scrutiny, goes down and dirty, we can expect to hear plenty more insinuations from Trump’s defenders about the iniquity of the Bidens. These will play handsomely to the Hannitys and Dobbses, and through them to Trump’s base, which consists largely of Americans who not only hate today’s Democrats but hate the United States government in principle. For them, except for the armed forces, the government is a demonic excrescence that ushers in infestations of dark-skinned immigrants, cultivates ISIS, cripples entrepreneurs, bans prayer, allows abortion, and stifles church freedom. At the operational heart of this extraterrestrial force is a Deep State. His voters invested their hopes and fantasies in Trump as a presumably untainted outsider who would cleanse the ill-defined swamp on their behalf.

Times, if you’re listening, stop pretending. The truth is indeed hard. One of the hard,  surrounding truths of our time is that you loom large in a world where, in the name of fairness, mightily funded, unscrupulous right-wing propagandists are looking to game you.

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.