If you want insight into how challenging life has become for reporters in the Trump era, take a glance at the author’s note for The Bidens, the controversial new book about the president and his family by Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger.
No journalism is apolitical, but Schreckinger’s approach to investigating the first family is as close as you’ll find in the “moral clarity” era to old-school aspirations to objectivity. This book initially won love from the conservative press because Schreckinger brought the mainstream imprimatur of Politico to confirmation of some of the key emails in the infamous Hunter Biden laptop story. But that enthusiasm may have tailed off when reporters for those outlets read the book, which is also brutal in its treatment of figures like Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Donald Trump; Schreckinger is an equal-opportunity offender.
In the author’s note, however, it’s clear Schreckinger is concerned about how the mere act of publishing damaging information about Joe Biden and his family members will be received. “We live in an age of distrust and of coordinated campaigns to manipulate public opinion,” he writes, adding: “Readers have every right to wonder whether an extended inquiry into the Biden family, emphasizing its finances, is just some instrument of a broader effort to create a political narrative.”
He goes on to reassure readers that that’s not what he’s up to, that he just believes “the best way to understand people in power, and subjects of international controversy, is to attempt a thorough, timely examination.” He then adds, in a note that reads like he’s saying, “You may be more receptive to these disquieting facts in a few years”:
Too often people interpret the news of the day through the lens of their own political sympathies, and a more nuanced understanding of our leaders emerges only much later, when political pressures have eased.
For these reasons, he has hope the reader can accept his “holistic” telling of the Bidens’ story, which turns out to be a far darker and freakier tale than conventional wisdom has yet conceded.
Schreckinger is young, and The Bidens was clearly written in a bit of a hurry, but he’s a skilled storyteller. The initial framing is clever, with a first first chapter titled, “Chekhov’s Laptop,” a reference to Russian playwright’s famous dictum that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
Having primed the reader to look for that metaphorical gun on the wall, he opens with a scene that’s bananas even by the outré standards of first son Hunter Biden’s “tumultuous” life. Hunter in October of 2018 had gotten in an argument with his then-girlfriend, Hallie, who according to the funhouse physics of the first family was of course the widow of his late brother Beau. In the course of that dispute, Hallie had taken his .38 revolver and thrown it out of Hunter’s pickup truck (a pickup truck?) into a trash can outside “Janssen’s, a high-end grocery store near Wilmington the family had long frequented.”
When Hunter found out the gun was gone, he chivalrously sent Hallie back into the trash to get it. This turns out to be the first of many moments in The Bidens where despite a seemingly tireless instinct for indulgent selfishness, and a maximally unattractive profile as the coddled scion of political privilege, one somehow feels bad for Hunter Biden. He’s not just a wreck, but a wreck with spectacularly bad luck. In this case, not only has his dead brother’s widow taken advantage of his trusting nature and thrown away his pistol (the one a person with his recreational leanings probably shouldn’t have anyway, but does, and moreover has left unattended), she picked the one bin that’s both across the street from a high school and in a spot where an old man hunting for recyclables somehow finds it.
Now the thing is missing and poor Hunter, who if nothing else has a keen sense of his own potential for disaster, must be imagining the worst, which in his family is likely a headline: Boy, 13, Uses Gun Registered to Dickhead Senator’s Son to Kill Parents, Neighbor, Dog, Self. The Delaware State Police are called, the FBI for some instantly suspicious reason also shows up, the Secret Service also reportedly appears at the store where Hunter bought the gun (I say reportedly because the Secret Service denies this, the first of many details in The Bidens that ends up receding in a fog of conflicting accounts), and the ATF even makes an appearance.
The gun was eventually found after a few days, when the old man turned it in. By that point Hunter had already skipped town and begun setting in motion a preposterous chain of events that have ramifications in national politics to the present day. Again as would be expected in the hallucinogenic tabloid logic that seems to govern all events in the Biden family, Hunter follows up the gun mess by going up to Newburyport, Massachusetts to clean himself up in the care of Keith Ablow, a Fox News personality who is “recognizable by his clean-shaven head” and had once accused Joe Biden of being drunk during a vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan.
This turns out to be a home rehab job with all the respectability of the Dr. Sonderborg’s Bay City dopehouse in Farewell My Lovely. Hunter goes skiing at Wachusett Mountain, practices yoga, gets IV vitamin infusions, and, no joke at all, goes to see a play called Crippled Inside about a middle-aged man who reflects on teenage years when his father, a powerful Justice Department official, “bailed him out of scrapes while playing politics in Washington.” Moved, Hunter ends up deciding to try to pull his life back together, resolving to spend more time at his daughter’s lacrosse games, get Lasik surgery, and get his finances under control (Schreckinger doesn’t specify the order of these resolutions). However, there’s a problem:
He had something on the order of twenty bank accounts, but his life was in such disarray that he did not have the log-in credentials to access many of them…
Hunter Biden’s life is one long accident, and he’s constantly leaving the scene of it. In one episode recounted later on, he follows up a crack rampage in L.A. by falling asleep at the wheel while driving east on I-10, leading him to jump a median strip at 80 m.p.h. and come to a halt facing oncoming traffic from the other direction. A tow truck leads him to a rental car, which he drives straight to Prescott, Arizona, leaving behind in the other vehicle a “crack pipe, a Delaware attorney general’s badge, and a Secret Service calling card.”
Similarly, Hunter ended up leaving Ablow’s care in such a rush that he left a laptop behind. It wasn’t that laptop, but this other laptop also ends up having a history, when the DEA raids Ablow a year later (people in Hunter Biden’s orbit end up arrested by federal agents with such uncanny predictability that his arrival in anyone’s life must be treated as divine warning). The feds seize that computer, only to turn it back over to Hunter “after a few weeks of haggling.” Schreckinger is careful to note the irony that a Donald Trump-controlled federal agency at one point both collected and surrendered one of Hunter’s laptops, unbeknownst to Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani and the other Trump agents who at the time were engaged in a ruthless private treasure-hunt for a different Hunter computer.
That latter story came about because, after leaving Newburyport, Hunter went on an “extended crack binge in Connecticut, holed up in seedy motels along I-95, in the company of prostitutes and drug dealers.” After this relapse, Hunter “briefly materialized” in Delaware, where in another Biden fog job he reportedly leaves three laptops with a man named John Paul Mac Isaac, and abandons those, too. It’s a few weeks after that, in May, 2019, that Joe Biden holds a kickoff rally for his presidential campaign in Philadelphia. Schreckinger writes: “Among the gathered Bidens, where Hunter should have been, sat a single, empty chair.”
That empty chair is the real Chekhovian gun. Hunter Biden’s absence, conspicuous enough that it’s mentioned in an ominous New Yorker article wonders in deadpan if the armed, cracksmoking Spaulding Smails of the Biden family might “jeopardize” his father’s run to the White House, ends up hanging over the campaign like a loaded weapon. According to literary convention, the gun must go off by the final chapter of The Bidens, and it does. As Schreckinger goes on to detail, the Hunter story isn’t an irrelevant subplot, either, but central to an important and deeply disturbing question America should be asking about who Joe Biden is.
Schreckinger does an excellent job using the old show-don’t-tell method of revealing through the Biden tale the bipartisan nature of corruption and favoritism in America. For instance, it turns out even Joe Biden’s most fanatical enemy after Trump, Giuliani, had once done a favor for Joe, giving Biden’s niece Missy a job as a legislative affairs staffer in Giuliani’s administration. This happened at the same time Biden was ripping Giuliani’s own presidential campaign rhetoric as limited to “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”
More to the point, Giuliani ended up in his post-mayoral life supporting himself by doing what many American ex-politicians stoop to: whoring himself out to wealthy foreigners with legal problems or lobbying needs. Giuliani in this respect has proved virtually without boundaries when it comes to his willingness to serve the most disreputable clients around the world, but as Schreckinger notes, he was not alone in this. In fact, he and Hunter Biden ended up feeding from the same trough:
Hunter, meanwhile, had grown into something of a competitor with Giuliani in the lucrative market of well-connected Americans selling their legal services and political help to deep-pocketed foreigners. In one instance, the men were more like indirect collaborators.
In 2015, a fabulously wealthy Romanian businessman had hired Hunter to help fend off corruption charges in his home country. Hunter then pulled Louis Freeh, a former FBI director, into the effort to defend the businessman, who was eventually convicted. Freeh later brought on Giuliani to work for the same oligarch as they pressured Romanian authorities to ease up on the man.
The Bidens grew out of plan by Schreckinger to do a single profile of Hunter Biden for Politico, but it evolved into a book-length account of an epic chase tale, in which Donald Trump’s dirty lawyers and dirty lobbyists set off in pursuit of a remarkably similar set of characters in Joe Biden’s orbit.
The Biden half of this story isn’t merely about one wayward son with a drug problem. Schreckinger correctly identifies family and Catholicism as primary bonding agents in this political dynasty, and while the Biden clan is incredibly tightly knit, so much so that voters can sense it and relate to Biden because of it, the family also has a schismatic, Jeykyll/Hyde character. On the side symbolized by Joe and prodigal son Beau, they appear modest, down-to-earth, perhaps even ethical. On the other side, symbolized by son Hunter, the entrepreneurial brothers Jim and Frank, and others, they appear almost fanatical in their efforts to take financial advantage of the Biden name, while also cursed by horrific luck and a propensity for decisions that are almost mathematically perfect in their disastrousness, all of which became more and more problematic as Joe Biden heads up the ranks of power.
Modern Washington is Rome, and once you have a figure with a hold on high office — the White House is the ultimate, but a House or Senate committee will do very nicely too thankyou — it’s common for satellites to set up “consultancies” where petitioners to the King may empty their purses. As Schreckinger notes, the modern template was “Black, Stone, Manafort and Kelly—as in Roger Stone and Paul Manafort,” which had “mainstreamed the business of peddling influence in Washington on behalf of foreign clients.” Manafort and Stone’s firm made headlines in the late eighties, when a Philippine political party paid them a $950,000 retainer the day after George H.W. Bush beat Mike Dukakis, and when Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels in Angola signed them as Washington representatives, joining a list of clients from places like Peru, Kenya, and Somalia. Domestically, Manafort earned a spot in the New York Times “Quotations of the Day” in 1989, when he testified to the House, after he and some partners in a New Jersey real estate deal received $31 million in federal housing money, that “I would stipulate that for the purposes of today, you could characterize this as influence peddling.”
Everyone in Washington knows this game, and the basic premise is the same on both sides of the aisle. Companies with ties to big-time politicians exist to be paid, and what “services” they offer in return is more of a TBD-type thing. Schreckinger details how Jim Biden, Joe’s brother, labored repeatedly to set up just such an operation, hoping to be “a sort of Democratic answer” to Black, Stone, Manafort and Kelly. At one point he teamed up with former Mississippi State auditor Steve Patterson, who’d worked for Joe’s first presidential campaign, along with famed tobacco lawyer Dickie Scruggs and another attorney, Timothy Balducci. Although Jim wasn’t a lawyer, his wife Sara was, and, as The Bidens notes, she was to be a partner in the new enterprise.
As it happened, the firm never got off the ground because Patterson, Balducci, and Scruggs ended up convicted in a scheme to bribe a judge in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees over Hurricane Katrina litigation. They, too, were hit by the Biden Curse, an inerrant phenomenon that uses a gravity-like force to pull would-be Biden partners into federal custody.
The thing about this kind of business, however, is that it’s highly portable, and following the trail of the various efforts to open a cash register in front of Joe Biden’s political career is where Schreckinger does his best work. The Bidens earned early press mainly for a few passages about the Hunter Biden laptop story, but for my money its biggest score comes at the outset of a chapter called “The Bidens Go Global,” describing a scene involving another attempted family enterprise, a hedge fund called “Paradigm Global Advisors.”
Schreckinger quotes a former chief compliance officer for the firm, which had been sold to the Bidens by James Park, who naturally is the son of a former bigwig in the Unification Church of billionaire Sun Myung Moon. The officer recounts a day in 2006 when Jim and Hunter Biden showed up and began beating their chests about the future:
Jim had a plan. “Don’t worry about investors,” he told the executive that day. “We’ve got people all around the world who want to invest in Joe Biden.” In case the chief compliance officer did not get the picture, Jim painted it more vividly for him: “We’ve got investors lined up in a line of 747s filled with cash ready to invest in this company.”
This compliance officer also detailed declining offers of cocaine parties with Hunter and Park (“I figured that wasn’t right for a compliance officer to be doing”) and recounted an incident in which a “succession of firefighters” entered the office announcing, in a scene that sounds straight out of The Sopranos, “We’re friends of Joe, and we want to invest in the fund.” Schreckinger got a similar comment on the record from Chuck Provini, a more experienced investment professional the family reportedly wanted to bring in to serve as the non-Biden face of the firm.
“Joe Biden needs to distance himself from this,” Provini says Jim and Hunter told him, adding that, “I was told because of his relationships with the unions that they felt as though it would be favorably looked upon to invest in the fund.”
There’s also a scene in there when the compliance officer describes how, after balking when Hunter tries to take $21,000 out of the company’s coffers to make a mortgage payment, Hunter pleads, “But I’m going to lose my home.” Here again the Biden fog rolls in, however, as a lawyer representing Jim and Hunter Biden denies that this scene and some of the compliance officer’s other stories ever happened. Even the on-the-record source Provini ended up first suing, then settling with the Bidens over an allegation that he was stiffed out of salary, so that has to be taken into account. But a pattern over time emerges, and it’s hard to ignore, especially when it comes to the later, more successful family business, beginning with Rosemont Seneca Partners.
Rosemont Seneca was the brainchild of Hunter, John Kerry’s stepson Chris Heinz, and James Bulger, son of Billy Bulger, better known to Massholes like Schreckinger and myself as the Bulger Brother who wasn’t the Winter Hill Gang leader that inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed. (The more faithful screen depiction of the Bulger family saga is the set-in-Providence drama Brotherhood starring Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke, but I digress). By the time you reach the part of the story where Hunter is trying to get into business with a Bulger, the humor factor has already gone past 11, as Biden’s son’s list of professional partners reads like an exhibit list for Madame Tussaud’s old “Chamber of Horrors.”
Hunter not only goes into business with a famed mobster’s namesake (Whitey’s given name was also James) and buys into a hedge fund whose chief investors are Moonies, he registers a new fund with the SEC with Allen Stanford, better known as the second most famous Ponzi schemer in modern American history. He also seeks out a partnership with financier John Burnham, because Hunter and pal Devon Archer had a dream — no joke — of resurrecting Burnham and Company, the remnant of the Drexel Burnham Lambert investment bank made infamous by junk bond king Mike Milken.
Archer, incidentally, will also end up nabbed by the Biden Curse, arrested after he and a financier named Jason Galanis cooked up a Jack Abramoff-esque scheme to finance the Drexel dream using bonds issued by the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe. “This is pure genius a la Mikey Milken! The native American bonds!” one participant in the affair wrote to Galanis, copying Archer on the email.
The pair ended up accused of defrauding the tribe out of $60 million. Archer was convicted, then had his conviction overturned by a judge named Ronnie Abrams, whom Schreckinger describes as “an Obama nominee and a trustee at Dalton, one of the nation’s most prestigious private schools.” Archer getting off prompted peeved prosecutors to take a second look at the whole case. They began then to be interested in some of Hunter Biden’s transactions, particularly “unrelated foreign payments” that looked like money laundering, only to learn that numerous authorities, from the IRS criminal division to the FBI, were already digging into Hunter for everything from the aforementioned “potential money laundering” to “FARA violations, tax violations, and counterintelligence concerns,” the latter among other things involving payments made to “eastern European women.”
Jim and Hunter’s dreams of a windfall from Chinese oil connections began to wilt when another would-be partner, Ye’s right-hand man Patrick Ho, was Biden-cursed, arrested under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, allegedly for passing bribes to officials in Chad and Uganda in exchange for oil rights. Ye’s first call after arrest was to Jim, his lawyer, and Hunter’s law firm, Owasco, was wired $1 million for Ho’s representation. Meanwhile, Ye vanished, reportedly detained by Chinese authorities, among other things after the Financial Times reported that his company, CEFC, had ties to Chinese military intelligence. As Schreckinger put it, “Hunter’s big Chinese score had gone up in smoke.”
Hunter around this time was also fathering a child with a former Arkansas State basketball player named Alexis Lunden Roberts, who naturally was paying her way through grad school at George Washington University working as a stripper. By that time, he had also reached the stage of crack addiction where, to head off the possibility of supply ever running out, it becomes necessary to move in with one’s dealer, in this case a homeless woman named “Bicycles.”
Hunter at one point was trying to make payments on a $1.6 million home and fighting one of the most ravenous addictions in the history of crack while his father was Vice President, which admittedly can’t be easy. (Again, Schreckinger manages to tell Hunter Biden’s story in way that’s remorseless while also eliciting a curious sympathy). Where it gets weird is the question of how all of this intersects with Joe Biden. In a key section of the book, Schreckinger details the flirtation between the Bidens and a Chinese businessman named Ye Jianming and his CEFC oil conglomerate. Joe Biden is in Los Angeles to give a speech about his cancer initiative to the Milken conference, the creation of sort-of-rehabilitated Mike Milken:
The night before his appearance, Joe met with Hunter, Jim, and Tony Bobulinski, another partner in [a] planned LNG venture, according to Bobulinksi, who said that in the course of their conversation, Joe showed familiarity with his relatives’ business plans…
On May 13, another partner in the venture emailed Hunter, Bobulinski, and a fourth partner, outlining their plans for compensation. The partner wrote of “a provisional agreement that the equity will be distributed as follows.” The breakdown indicated that “H” and the three other partners would get 20 percent each, along with 10 for “Jim” and, finally, “10 held by H for the big guy?”
Schreckinger says “a person with independent access” to this email confirmed its authenticity to him, making it one of several ways he verified material in Hunter’s infamous laptop. In another portion of the book, Schreckinger discusses Hunter’s offices in Washington’s House of Sweden, which is owned by the Swedish government. “Hunter instructed the building manager to have keys to the office made up for both of his parents, for Jim, and for Gongwen Dong, an associate of Ye’s,” Schreckinger writes.
He explains that he verified the House of Sweden correspondence using the Swedish version of the Freedom of Information law, good thinking that leads to another good get. The correspondence yielded head-slapping exchanges showing the House of Sweden complaining about Roberts and a woman fitting the description of Bicycles bypassing security by using a back entrance, reminding Hunter that the building contains both the Swedish and Icelandic embassies.
Hunter somewhat hilariously responds both by playing the race card — “if [a Sweden House employee] has an issue with the race or dress of my visitors I think we should all sit down and discuss with an attorney present” — and by name-dropping, noting that Roberts “worked out with Maisy and Sasha Obama when they played in rec league together.” Of course, when Roberts sued Hunter Biden for paternity, he at first denied ever having sex with her, but lost the case after paternity was established. Moreover, the relevant House of Sweden correspondence came in September of 2017, and the child was born the following August. This demonstrates, as Schreckinger notes, that Hunter Biden’s story suggesting a single, forgotten meeting — “I had no recollection of our encounter” — can’t be correct, as the relationship had to have gone on for a few months at least.
None of this is particularly relevant to anything, except that Schreckinger’s success in landing the Swedish emails end up as important confirmation of emails on the infamous laptop. As noted in an interview on Useful Idiots, Schreckinger also never tried to verify a Hunter Biden email and got a negative response, though of course this is not proof that all of the laptop material is genuine.
When the laptop story first broke in the New York Post before the election last year, it was almost universally dismissed by credentialed mainstream reporters as Russian disinformation, including by Politico in a story by Natasha Bertrand. This continues to be underrated as was one of the more infamous episodes in the recent history of both the news media and the tech industry (both Facebook and Twitter initially blocked access to the story). The Biden White House continues, with impressive brazenness, to stick to last year’s narrative. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki recently offered a classically Ron Ziegleresque non-denial denial — “I think it’s broadly known and widely known that there was a broad range of Russian disinformation back in 2020” — in response to a question prompted by Schreckinger’s book about the laptop story’s accuracy.
However, other mainstream outlets have now mostly dropped the pretense that the emails are fake, and that’s in large part down to this one writer’s efforts to move the story forward, an accomplishment that may at some point prove important in helping restore some credibility for the press.
Schreckinger doesn’t try to punch above his evidence, and concedes in multiple places that he hasn’t produced smoking-gun evidence tying “the big guy” to Hunter’s myriad cash flows. However, he’s also sensitive enough to the weird rhythms of the Biden family to grasp that the overall circumstantial picture is damning.
In particular, Biden’s insistence that “I have never discussed, with my son or my brother or with anyone else, anything having to do with their businesses,” is simply not believable after reading this book, not just because there is witness and documentary evidence directly contradicting him, but because the family does appear to be just as close as it claims. The fact that Biden participated, and continues to participate, in a shameless scheme to deflect attention and squelch inquiry by characterizing these true stories as Russian disinformation adds to the pile of evidence against him.
At minimum, Jim and Hunter Biden spent years setting up companies to be receptacles of “747s filled with cash” from people around the world they believed would be anxious to invest in the Biden name. The possibilities from there for Joe Biden range from merely dishonest acceptance of his family’s influence-peddling to things far worse. In a normal media environment, there would be dozens of journalists lining up to build on Schreckinger’s good start, to try to flesh out the part of this story that’s still lost in fog. However, there’s a cost of writing this sort of book now that comes in the form of not being invited to the usual Manhattan green-room publicity tour, and being frozen out of other opportunities. Will other reporters be willing to pay it?
I asked Schreckinger about these and other questions on Useful Idiots with Katie Halper. A few excerpts:
Matt Taibbi: How long did the book take to write, and what were you trying to accomplish?
Ben Schreckinger: As I put in the Author’s Note, this is not the end of the Biden story. This is not the Robert Caro treatment of Lyndon Baines Johnson. A lot of these episodes are ambiguous, there’s conflicting evidence. I’m expecting our understanding of a lot of these episodes, especially the more recent ones having to do with Hunter Biden to continue to evolve. That’s definitely a tricky and a treacherous thing to be doing, trying to write a book-length treatment of something as events are still unfolding. I wanted it to come out in a timely way, and I think that it has.
MT: The “747s full of cash” line is amazing. What was going through your head during that interview?
Ben Schreckinger: In the process of reporting out the Paradigm episode for the first time, for that first Politico story, one of the first people I was able to reach was an executive, the former chief compliance officer of the firm who’s cited at length. He said, “You know, yeah, Jimmy Biden showed up on the first day and said, ‘Don’t worry about investments. We got people around the world who want to put money behind Joe Biden.’” Joe Biden was then the ranking member on Senate Foreign Relations and the idea was, well, if you’re a deep-pocketed foreign interest, you can’t give money legally to a Joe Biden Senate or presidential campaign, but you could invest in this firm.
By all appearances, that didn’t end up working out. They don’t seem to actually succeed in landing these sorts of investments, but that was striking. To not have a deep understanding of the family’s business dealings and for one of the first people you reach to be an executive who says, “Oh yeah, this is what happened. This is what Jimmy Biden said on the first day.” It was like, wow.
MT: And this was one of the first people you’d called, correct?
Ben Schreckinger: At the outset of the reporting, it’s like, “What am I to make of this?” This is not some random crank who’s coming to me. It’s not someone who’s being shopped to me by some political operative. This is, let me look up who was at this firm 10 years ago, start calling the top executives, reaching out to them, and this was one of the first people I reached. You’d be much more wary of that if someone were approaching you with that information. When you approach someone else and that’s what they say, it puts you back on your back heels a little bit… Then having reported out 10 or so other episodes since that, it makes more sense.
MT: You have a chapter called the “Delaware Way.” What is the “Delaware Way”?
Ben Schreckinger: It’s sort of this double edged sword where Joe Biden and his aides are saying, “Yeah, the Delaware Way is what Joe Biden is offering to this country. It’s bipartisan, it’s less acrimonious. We’re all going to sit around a table and make a deal, and that’s what’s best for the country.”
But in Delaware for a lot of people, the Delaware Way has a very negative connotation, and essentially means cronyism. There’s a prosecutor, who happens to be the prosecutor who’s investigating Hunter Biden right now, who in a different case where he’s putting away a Biden campaign bumbler for making illegal straw man donations, he defines the Delaware Way as a form of soft corruption. It’s like a Rorschach, Rashomon thing: is the Delaware Way good or bad? I think it’s fascinating.