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Biden Releases Government Ethics Plan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Former Vice President Joe Biden is pushing back against the president's attacks on his son Hunter in the most clear terms yet. Today, Biden is rolling out an ethics plan that takes aim at President Trump, accusing him of leading, quote, "the most corrupt administration in modern history."

NPR's Asma Khalid has been looking into Biden's plan. She covers the 2020 campaign for NPR. Hi there, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: I want to start with this plan. What are the details of it?

KHALID: Well, it attempts to limit conflict of interest and prevent the White House from interfering in federal investigations. It also attempts to create a stricter firewall between the White House and the Department of Justice and make sure that anyone who runs for federal office releases the last 10 years of their tax returns. You might recall President Trump did not release his tax returns in 2016, which was, you know, a fairly unusual move in modern politics.

And so, you know, as I'm describing what's in this plan, you might be thinking that this is all directly responding to President Trump and his administration, and you're probably right. You know, he calls out Trump by name in his plan and says that the president has abused his office to enrich himself, spending countless tax dollars at his own properties. And Biden pledges that if he were elected, he would enact a wholesale ethics reform that would essentially prevent any future president from abusing the presidency for personal gain.

CORNISH: At the same time, is this, essentially, a response to President Trump's attacks on Biden and his son in the course of this Ukraine controversy?

KHALID: So, Audie, let's quickly backtrack and just explain President Trump's unsubstantiated accusations against Biden. He's been saying that when Biden was the VP, he pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor to shield his son, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. It's a really long story, but in a nutshell, there has been no evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden or his son. Still, that has not stopped Trump from doubling down on this debunked story.

And really - so, Audie, to me, this entire plan was the strongest indication yet of how Biden is defending himself. I mean, he's trying to refocus this entire ethics debate back on Trump, back on his administration. You know, some Democrats have been pointing out how much money Trump's own children are making overseas while he's been in office. But notably, Biden didn't go there - not at all - in his plan.

CORNISH: Could it be that this plan is also part of an effort to, essentially, reassure Democratic primary voters?

KHALID: I would say definitely. I mean, it comes a day after Biden's son Hunter announced that he was stepping down from the board of a Chinese-backed private equity firm. But in this plan, you see that Biden specifically notes that he will bar lobbying from foreign governments - by any foreign governments. And he also intends to support publicly financing federal elections. This is actually something that Biden sponsored decades ago in the Senate in the 1970s.

But to me, what was interesting - it also comes at a time when he's been facing criticism from some progressive voters for his high-dollar fundraisers this campaign cycle. And some of his rivals, you know, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - they're not doing those big-donor fundraisers.

CORNISH: All right. Speaking of those rivals, we're on the eve of the next Democratic debate when his big plan is landing. But how is all of this affecting the primary campaign?

KHALID: Well, I would say this is really - I mean, to me, that's such a wild card. You know, the most recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that a plurality of Americans think Trump's accusations, even if they are false, are hurting Biden's prospects of becoming the Democratic nominee.

But the thing is, you know, what Trump has accused Biden of is not true. And so the other Democrats in this race have been really hesitant to even engage in questions about a perceived conflict of interest on the part of the Bidens because, essentially, Audie, they don't want to be seen to be playing on Trump's turf.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks for your reporting.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.