I was expecting a lively exchange when Mike Gallagher invited me to debate the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen on his “No Interruptions” podcast last week. Instead, I was gobsmacked as the former New York Times reporter abruptly hung up the phone after some 15 minutes.
Like the recent viral video showing Washington Post columnist Philip Bump suddenly terminating an interview, Risen’s breaking point came when I questioned his reporting on Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings.
Before we get to that, Risen, who now reports for The Intercept, does deserve some backhanded praise: In the few minutes he spoke on Mike Gallagher’s podcast, Risen delivered a master class in concision, echoing most every major talking point fashioned by Biden’s handlers and the mainstream media to defend the president.
The Loving Father: Risen framed his defense of Joe Biden by asserting that the president’s major fault may be that he loves his son too much. Young Hunter and his brother Beau were in the car that December morning in 1972 when his mother and his baby sister died. This trauma, armchair psychologists suggest, set the stage for Hunter’s later drug abuse and his father’s boundless efforts to support his troubled son – whose problems were deepened by Beau’s death from cancer in 2015. Risen said Joe’s compassion probably led him to be too “permissive” toward his prodigal son, implying that he did what any good parent would.
Perhaps. But who knows? Each of us is driven by a confluence of personal forces that are often a mystery to ourselves – and nearly impossible for anybody else to precisely untangle. Everybody has a reason, but discerning those motives is often beyond our powers. This is especially true of Joe Biden, a congenital fabulist whose public career has been an exercise in grandiose self-mythologizing. Claiming to know what makes him tick is an act of hubris.
Slotting the president, or anybody else, into some archetypal narrative – the man who loved too much – is just blowing smoke. That is why, especially in public life, we assess people by their verifiable actions. You don’t have to be religious to see the apostle Matthew nailed it when he wrote, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”
No Evidence: As to Joe Biden’s actions, Risen repeated the scandalously common claim that there is no evidence the president has done anything “illicit or illegal.” That one is a real head-scratcher. As Miranda Devine of the New York Post recently wrote, such a belief requires one to:
Forget the bank records, shell companies, SEC complaints, sworn testimony, IRS whistleblower statements, FBI informant files, emails, texts, WhatsApp messages, photos, speakerphone calls, voicemails, White House visitor logs, Air Force Two travel logs, Joe’s pseudonymous email addresses and a parade of Hunter’s shady foreign benefactors lining up for handshakes with Joe in Beijing, breakfasts at the VP’s residence and dinners at Café Milano, not to mention millions of dollars in filthy foreign lucre for no discernible product or service other than access to Joe.
Risen and Biden’s other defenders are playing word games. By evidence they really mean proof. Indeed, we don’t have a signed memo by Joe Biden stating he changed a specific policy in exchange for payments to his son. While we have multiple examples of Hunter’s business associates identifying Joe as the “big guy” who would get a cut of the action, we do not, as yet, have a check made out to the president. The evidence clearly shows that Joe personally facilitated Hunter’s efforts to earn money from China, Ukraine, and Romania based on the promise of access to his father. These hard facts cannot be wished away.
The Jared Defense: Risen also worked to normalize Hunter’s shady dealings by suggesting that familial influence-peddling is common in the nation’s capital. Suddenly changing his definition of evidence from proof to conjecture, Risen pointed to the $2 billion the Saudi government “gave” Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner a few months after Trump left office. In fact, the Saudis did not give Kushner $2 billion; they placed that sum with him to be invested – hoping for a fat return on the generous fees they are paying him.
It’s not a good look for the Trump family. But when have two wrongs ever made a right? More importantly, there truly is no evidence that the Saudi investment was payback for action taken during the previous administration. Risen’s comparison is a canard. Foreigners gave money to Hunter in the hopes of currying favor with the government while Joe was serving as Obama’s vice president. Investing money with Kushner in 2021 – as Trump was being reviled for his claims of a stolen election and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol – seems like the last thing one would do to gain influence in Washington.
The Trump Card: In defending Biden, Risen repeatedly brought up Trump, whom he branded a “criminal.” From his Manichean perspective, any effort to hold President Biden to account is aiding and abetting Trump’s return to the White House. He called me a Trump “toady” for supporting the Biden impeachment inquiry. This may be his more dangerous assertion, as it suggests that we should give a free pass to wrongdoing on our side because it might help the other side.
Asked and Answered: The interview ended after Risen cast himself as a fearless journalist whose exoneration of Biden should have special weight because he had written one of the first articles, back in 2015 for the New York Times, addressing Hunter’s dealings in the Ukraine. I’m familiar with his piece and told him it reflected the problem with so much mainstream reporting on Hunter’s position on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma: It noted the company’s shady history but dug no deeper as it regurgitated spin concocted by the company, Hunter, and his team.
While we now know that Hunter was paid the princely sum of $83,000 per month for his service, I reminded Risen that he simply quoted a Burisma spokesperson who said Hunter’s pay was “not out of the ordinary” for similar corporate board positions. I also pointed out that he merely quoted a Burisma spokesperson who suggested Hunter was brought on to help with “strong corporate governance and transparency.” This seems fanciful on its face. As Lee Fang reported this week for RealClearInvestigations, emails from Hunter’s laptop show his employment was connected to lobbying efforts in Washington and access to his father.
In response, Risen said he refused to be “insulted,” and hung up the phone.
I don’t fault Risen for failing to get the whole story from the get-go. Reporters depend on sources, and sometimes they mislead us. What was stunning was that this experience of being used and misled did not seem to stoke much skepticism in him about the false narratives advanced by the Bidens to dismiss the evidence of wrongdoing.
When it comes to the mainstream press, it seems you can fool all of the people all of the time.