Politics

Why Is Duncan Hunter Still in Congress?

When the delayed resignation of a felon counts as good news.

Duncan Hunter.
Duncan Hunter, United States representative and felon, at the U.S. Capitol in January 2017 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The big news on the minds of Americans this week is impeachment. Behind it is a larger national conversation about accountability: whether holding a person in power responsible for what they do is possible, desirable, or instead—to hear many defenders of the president tell it—abusive. Even the process for holding the highest office accountable for misdeeds has come under attack, and so it seems both coincidental and yet thematically appropriate that this week also saw a U.S. representative plead guilty to corruption on Tuesday. Duncan Hunter, a 43-year-old congressman for California’s 50th District, committed crimes. After spending more than a year calling the charges against him “fake news,” a “witch hunt,” and a “deep conspiracy,” and trying to pin sole responsibility on his wife, Margaret (who was not blameless—she submitted a guilty plea in June), Hunter finally copped to a federal charge of conspiracy to steal campaign funds and now faces up to five years in prison. The 47-page indictment issued last year cited bank fraud and filing false campaign finance records, and alleged that some $250,000 from donors was spent on personal purchases, including a vacation to Italy, tickets to Riverdance, and a $600 flight for a pet rabbit. Also—and this is key—it took him three days to announce his resignation, which he said would take place “after the holidays.” It wasn’t entirely certain he was going to resign at all. Hunter is a small fish in politics, but if the devil is in the details, then the saga of Duncan Hunter is a study of the apparent impunity that has spread through our politics. It’s hard to think of anything, anymore, as an isolated incident.

Despite his “plans” to resign, it’s puzzling that he hasn’t yet—and distressing that this was ever in doubt. The House Ethics Committee told him Thursday to stop voting, citing House Rule XXIII, which says members “convicted of a crime that may carry a sentence of two or more years’ imprisonment” should not participate in the business of committees on which they sit or vote. Still he seemed disinclined to leave, per Politico. Hunter’s fellow Republican congressman Chris Collins, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud and lying to federal investigators in September, resigned before entering his guilty plea. Hunter resisted. A now-public record of corruption from 2010 to 2016 may not have struck him as disqualifying; even after pleading guilty, he tried to minimize the gradual disappearance of a quarter-million dollars as a series of “mistakes.”

The details alone are remarkable. An investigation into Hunter’s activities began when Morgan Cook, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, reported that the congressman who was among the first to endorse Donald Trump’s candidacy had used campaign funds to pay for video games on 68 occasions. (When this was discovered, Hunter’s camp blamed his teenage son.) As further defalcations were successively exposed, he blamed others—including those closest to him.

Hunter was once thought to have a bright future in conservative politics. Widely characterized as a staunch advocate for veterans, Hunter—a Marine veteran and the son of a Republican congressman who served for three decades—distinguished himself as a pro-military public servant by bragging about posing with an enemy combatant’s corpse, in apparent violation of the United States’ rules of warfare; siding with an accused war criminal and against Navy leadership; using the Marine Corps insignia in his campaign mailings without authorization until they reprimanded him; and passing off personal purchases as “gifts” for wounded warriors. He allegedly started using campaign funds to pay for his extramarital affairs—one of them with a staffer—shortly after taking office in 2009. He took a lobbyist he was sleeping with to Lake Tahoe and, according to prosecutors, “spent the weekend skiing, ordering room service and enjoying the amenities of the full service resort.” He charged the campaign for Uber rides to and from the homes of his various lovers. (He did occasionally use his campaign funds for his actual campaign; in 2018, for instance, he ran a campaign ad suggesting his opponent was a terrorist sympathizer and a threat to national security.)

Dramatically unpleasant and morally repugnant though it is to watch someone cling to power like this, it’s not altogether surprising, particularly for a member of the “bros caucus” known for hard partying in Washington, and someone who was once hailed as a “Trump before Trump.” It may be unorthodox for a felon to remain in the House, but Hunter may have been wise to test the limits of what the Republican Party would tolerate and even champion in this era. There’s not a lot of evidence that Republican voters are thirsting for moral accountability in their leadership; Hunter ran for reelection and won last year even after being indicted—as did his now ex-colleague, Chris Collins.

Seen this way, it was perhaps predictable that a Trump ally would at least entertain the idea of sticking around in the shadow of the impeachment hearings. A Trump resignation feels laughably far-fetched, no matter how much evidence stacks up. His entire defense rests on a theory of complete presidential impunity (one can imagine Hunter finding this attractive). The president’s alleged campaign finance violations through hush payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal have gone unpunished. It’s not even an open secret that, in violation of the emoluments clause, foreign governments are paying Trump hotels in order to curry political favor with the president; it’s simply open. And from his perch atop a pyramid of malfeasance, Trump has proved to be a staunch defender of men who refuse to be held accountable by any system at all. Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio was an early indicator of this tendency, and it’s no coincidence that both Trump and Hunter have done everything in their power to protect alleged war criminal Eddie Gallagher from any punishment, small or big. Hunter may be hoping himself to benefit from that largesse.

So here we are: a brief moment of reprieve, perhaps, from the creeping metastasis of unaccountability. For a few days there was genuine doubt as to whether a politician who criminally stole from his own campaign would resign. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will yet rally in some form around the congressman. Many of his major special interest donors did, donating thousands to his legal defense fund even after the donations they made to this campaign were shown to have been misused. After hearing about the allegations, former Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher called him a “heroic Marine.” Other Republican reactions have betrayed a slightly different political calculus, though: After Hunter pleaded guilty, for instance, former Rep. Darrell Issa expressed a hope that Trump would commute the disgraced congressman’s sentence. He did not, however, request a pardon—perhaps because he’s coming out of retirement to make a bid for Hunter’s seat himself.