When the Staff Can’t Tell the Candidate What’s Wrong

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton differ in many ways. But beneath each candidate’s marquee scandal lies the same core defect: insularity.

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton sit on chairs laughing together in front of a red curtain.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

What the Ukraine scandal reveals about Donald Trump is by now well known: He elevated his political interest above the national interest and demanded foreign interference in an American election. What’s received less attention is what the scandal reveals about Joe Biden: He showed poor judgment because his staff shielded him from hard truths. If that sounds faintly familiar, it’s because that same tendency underlay Hillary Clinton’s email woes in 2016. Clinton and Biden differ in many ways. But beneath each candidate’s marquee scandal lies the same core defect: insularity.

The Biden campaign would have you believe that only people who wear MAGA hats think it’s a problem that Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, while his father led the Obama administration’s effort to fight corruption in the Ukrainian energy industry. That’s not true. The Obama officials who handled Ukraine thought it was a problem, too. As Glenn Thrush and Kenneth P. Vogel of The New York Times recently reported, “Hunter Biden’s activities struck many of the officials working on Ukraine policy as an unnecessary distraction, or worse.” One of those officials was Obama’s ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt. Another was Amos J. Hochstein, who coordinated international energy affairs at the State Department. Thrush and Vogel write that “Hochstein, reflecting the concerns of State Department officials, including Mr. Pyatt, tried to get several of Mr. Biden’s aides to broach the subject” of Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma with the vice president. Last month, The Washington Post revealed another State Department official’s attempt to get Biden staffers to intervene with their boss. The Post reported that George Kent, then a deputy assistant secretary of state, “raised concerns [with Biden aides] in early 2015 about then–Vice President Joe Biden’s son serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.”

But Biden’s aides wouldn’t confront their boss. Kent, notes the Post, “was turned away by a Biden staffer.” When Hochstein “tried to get several of Mr. Biden’s aides to broach the subject” of Hunter Biden’s activities, “they declined.” (Hochstein later went to Biden directly). Biden’s aides knew Hunter’s role at Burisma was a problem. In fact, they “were so worried about the optics,” write Thrush and Vogel, that “they enlisted State Department officials to gather facts to determine how to handle the story.” Nonetheless, “few” Biden aides, “if any, had raised the issue with Mr. Biden directly when it first arose.”

What explains the reticence? In part, staffers feared the vice president’s wrath. According to Thrush and Vogel, they didn’t see Hunter’s work at Burisma as “worth risking a scolding from Mr. Biden, who had reacted angrily when Mr. Obama’s aides raised the issue of his son’s lobbying during the 2008 campaign.” In his investigation of Hunter Biden this summer, The New Yorker’s Adam Entous uncovered the same fear. “When I asked members of Biden’s staff whether they discussed their concerns with the Vice-President,” Entous wrote, “several of them said that they had been too intimidated to do so.” A former Biden adviser told Entous, “Everyone who works for him has been screamed at.”

Biden’s aides also worried that the vice president, whose other son, Beau, died in 2015, was too fragile to handle upsetting news about Hunter. Thrush and Vogel report that “former administration officials” cited the “vice president’s shaky emotional state over Beau’s illness and death” as a reason “for backing off.” In The New Yorker, Entous suggests that aides “were wary of hurting his feelings.” A former Biden associate told Entous that painful family conversations “hurt him terribly.”

What’s striking about this dynamic is that it parallels the tug-of-war between career officials and top Hillary Clinton aides over her use of personal email for State Department business. When Clinton began using her private BlackBerry for official communication soon after becoming secretary of state, according to The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr., “State Department security officials were distressed about the possibility that Clinton’s BlackBerry could be compromised and used for eavesdropping.” At a February 2009 meeting, the Post reported,“department security, intelligence and technology specialists, along with five officials from the National Security Agency … explained the risks to Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff.” But Mills and other top aides did not forcefully convey those concerns to Clinton. To the contrary, they “focused intently on accommodating the secretary’s desire to use her private email account” and “neglected repeated warnings about the security of the BlackBerry.”

The reasons Clinton’s aides didn’t challenge her private-email use may not be the same as the reasons Biden’s aides didn’t challenge him over Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma. There’s no suggestion in the reporting that Clinton’s staff feared her anger or viewed her as too brittle to hear upsetting news. But Clinton watchers have long noted her habit of walling herself off from contrary points of view. In his 2007 biography, A Woman in Charge, Carl Bernstein quotes Mark Fabiani, who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House, as suggesting that “the kind of people that were around her were yes people. She had never surrounded herself with people who could stand up to her, who were of a different mind.” In her 2007 book, For Love of Politics: Inside the Clinton White House, Sally Bedell Smith notes, “Her subordinates were all true believers, so she seldom heard a dissenting view.”

One possibility is that Biden’s and Clinton’s stature—as older, long-serving, world-famous politicians—left their younger aides too intimidated to challenge them on sensitive topics. In June, an unnamed Biden campaign staffer complained to the Washington Examiner that, as the publication put it, the former vice president “lacks senior figures inside his campaign who have the authority to tell him what to do.”

This insularity doesn’t make Biden and Clinton corrupt or criminal. But each has paid a heavy political price for failing to create a culture where aides could challenge their blind spots. And while Republicans have inflated that price by exaggerating how dastardly the email and Burisma scandals are, nonpartisan career government officials found them disturbing enough.

Biden’s staffers have spent recent months berating journalists for digging into the Burisma story. That’s a mistake. His aides don’t need to prove that they can stand up to the press. They need to prove that they can stand up to their boss.