Duncan Hunter Is the Latest in a Long Line of Politicians to Attempt a “Women Be Shopping” Defense

SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 23: Congressman Duncan Hunter walks out of the San Diego Federal Courthouse after an arraignment hearing on Thursday, August 23, 2018 in San Diego, CA.  Hunter and his wife Margaret, who pled 'not guilty', are accused of using more than 250,000 in campaign funds for personal use. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
Congressman Duncan Hunter.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

California congressman Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted this week on multiple corruption charges based on their misuse of $250,000 of campaign money. In a 47-page indictment, the Justice Department charged Duncan, a Republican from San Diego, and Margaret with spending campaign funds on personal items including groceries, private school tuition, medical bills, trips to Las Vegas and Hawaii, and a family member’s entrance fee in a dance competition.

Don’t worry, though, Duncan Hunter totally has an excuse: His wife made him do it! In an interview with Fox News on Thursday, Hunter said that he gave his wife of 20 years power of attorney and control over the family finances when he went to Iraq with the Marines in 2003, and that she continued to handle the family’s money upon his return. “Whatever she did, that will be looked at too, I’m sure,” he said, noting that she was also his campaign manager. “But I didn’t do it. I didn’t spend any money illegally.”

Does Hunter’s Lady Macbeth defense sounds familiar? In March, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson got into a jam when it turned out he had ordered a $31,000 dining-room set for his office. He told a House subcommittee that it wasn’t actually his fault:

I was told the dining room set needed to be changed. … I asked my wife, also, to help me with that. They showed us some catalogues. The prices were beyond what I wanted to pay. I made it clear that that just didn’t seem right to me. And I left it with my wife, I said, “help choose something,” but I said, “the money that is gonna be used, we need to take care of the deputy secretary’s office, and whatever is left over, take care of the dining room furniture.” … The next thing that I, quite frankly, heard about it, was that this $31,000 table had been bought.

The trend is complicated by the fact that political spouses spending beyond their means is not an unheard-of phenomenon. Politico reported last summer, for example, that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s wife joined many of his official trips, and frustrated staffers by making special requests for travel and events. There are other variations on this theme, like the male politician who bows out of a race by explaining that his wife didn’t want him to run. As Libby Copeland wrote in Slate back in 2011, it’s a move that lets a politician save face without conceding any diminution of his own macho ambitions, like “the swaggering guy who threatens to take a swing at another guy in a bar, but manages to avoid the fight by bellowing ‘Hold me back!’”

To be fair, Hunter’s claim that his wife made the problematic spending decisions isn’t totally implausible. His campaign committee paid her $116,000 as a consultant between 2010 and 2017, and it’s perfectly possible that she had control over the family finances, too. But Hunter’s claim that this would somehow absolve him from all responsibility is a notable stretch, not entirely unlike Trump’s attempts to distance himself from Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Margaret Hunter was not randomly assigned to Hunter’s life. He married her, hired her, and allowed her to take control over his financial life. At best, “I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with the finances in any area of my life” is not exactly a flattering self-description from a sitting congressperson.

The really striking thing about Hunter blaming his wife for his campaign’s (alleged) misdeeds is that he has previously taken such pains to present himself as a paragon of self-reliant, chest-thumping manliness. Hunter is a combat veteran who refers often to his status as a Marine; he has vocally opposed the inclusion of women in combat roles. A Fox News profile of Hunter last year called him “the war fighter’s congressman,” and depicted him as a badass unafraid to vape in committee meetings, or to remove a Capitol Hill painting he found offensive without asking for permission. The segment reported that the “Hunter doctrine” is: “You kick ass and you leave.” This week, the bold “war fighter” slunk onto TV and effectively announced that his wife of 20 years belongs in jail. Then again, I suppose it does take a strong man to throw a grown woman under the bus.