FORT MADISON, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg says he “would not have wanted to see” his son serving on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while he was leading anti-corruption efforts in the country, an implicit criticism of the controversy that has ensnared his 2020 Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.
Hunter Biden’s position on the board of the company Burisma has been a rallying point for Republicans as they try to defend President Donald Trump against impeachment charges over Trump asking Ukraine’s new president to investigate the former vice president and his son while also withholding crucial U.S. military aid.
Buttigieg, the childless mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said in an Associated Press interview Monday that his administration would “do everything we can to prevent even the appearance of a conflict. That’s very important because as we see it can create a lot of complications even when there is no wrongdoing.”
Still, he insisted that the issues raised about Hunter Biden and his father by Trump and his defenders are a diversionary tactic.
“So, I would not have wanted to see that happen,” Buttigieg said when asked how he would have handled a situation like Biden’s. “And at the same time, again, I think this is being used to divert attention from what’s really at stake in the impeachment process. There’s been no allegation, let alone finding of any kind of wrongdoing.”
Biden campaign aides reached on Monday declined to comment on Buttigieg’s remarks.
Buttigieg — well organized in Iowa and New Hampshire, drawing large crowds and leading in polls in both first-voting states — has started to aggressively highlight differences with Biden, even on issues of foreign policy that the former vice president considers his strength, as both men compete for the vital middle of the electorate.
With little more than a month before the first votes in the Democratic nominating fight are cast, candidates are drawing sharper contrasts with one another in field where there is no clear leader.
To be sure, Buttigieg has repeatedly stressed that Biden is not a target in the impeachment proceedings.
“I just think it’s the wrong conversation to be having right now, though, given the spectacular misconduct that we have already seen in facts that are not in dispute, where the only argument to be had is over whether it rises to the level of removal” of Trump from office, Buttigieg said.
Still, Buttigieg, facing criticism from rivals for his scant national and foreign policy experience, has been quick to renew his argument that experience and judgment are separate issues.
Asked Sunday about his familiarity with global affairs, Buttigieg called Biden’s vote as a Delaware senator for the 2002 resolution authorizing military force in Iraq part of “the worst foreign policy decision made by the United States in my lifetime.”
In the wide-ranging AP interview, Buttigieg addressed criticisms of his foreign policy experience given the global challenges that would await a new president.
He has recently stressed more directly his record as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2014, pointedly noting the contrast with Trump’s lack of military service. Working to use his service record and local government background to his advantage, he argued that Washington experience on foreign affairs can be remote from the effects on the ground in communities.
“The experience of being on the ground versus experiencing these things through the perspective of official Washington or legislation on Capitol Hill is different,” he said. “And I’d say that on the ground perspective is especially relevant right now at a time when sometimes the political debate and the debate on TV gets more and more decoupled from that on the ground reality.”
Buttigieg, who is openly gay, is often asked by voters how he would handle being attacked as the Democratic nominee for his sexual identity, a question he typically dismisses by noting he has known bullies throughout his life.
And though he referred to Trump on Sunday at a rally in Fort Madison as a “bully who specializes in identifying your vulnerabilities,” Buttigieg, wrapping up a three-day trip through central and eastern Iowa, stopped short in the interview of suggesting he was expecting Trump to make his sexual identity an issue.
“I don’t possess enough imagination to speculate exactly what forms of creative meanness this president will develop toward me or any fellow Democrat,” he told the AP.
A more predictable attack is coming from within the Democratic presidential field, notably from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar: the suggestion that the mayor of a city of 102,000 is ill-equipped for the divisive politics of a polarized Washington controlled in part by hard-liner Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Buttigieg notes that, as the mayor overseeing a workforce of 1,000 people and a budget of $360 million, he has executive experience many of his rivals lack.
But his competitors have suggested that is not sufficient to take on problems on a global scale and politics that are dramatically more complex and bitter. He said a Democratic president would have a mandate for measures to advance health care, curb climate change and enact gun restrictions.
President Barack Obama, who had served as a U.S. senator, soon found that the solid wall of Republican opposition, led by McConnell, made even modest change fundamentally difficult. Buttigieg said he is not daunted by Obama’s experience.
He promises to staff his White House with savvy legislative aides, but more broadly, he is calling for circumventing McConnell to build public pressure for the issues that enjoy broad bipartisan majorities, larger than 10 years ago, he said.
“It’s not that I don’t understand the ways of official Washington,” he said. “It’s that I don’t accept them.”