Trump Defends Conversation With Ukraine Leader

President calls for Kiev to investigate Biden as whistleblower complaint prompts congressional probe

WASHINGTON—President Trump defended a conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart as “totally appropriate” and reiterated his call for Kiev to investigate his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, as lawmakers look into the president’s and his lawyer’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to undertake such a probe.

Mr. Trump declined to say whether in a July conversation he had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to have his government investigate Mr. Biden, the former vice president and now Democratic presidential candidate. But, Mr. Trump told reporters Friday: “Somebody ought to look into that,” referring to Mr. Biden.

Any probe of Mr. Biden centers on the then-vice president’s efforts to seek the ouster of former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, who had investigated a private Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Group, of which Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was a board member.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has accused Mr. Biden of acting to protect his son, even though Mr. Shokin had already completed his investigation of Burisma Group before he left office. Mr. Biden has said he sought Mr. Shokin’s ouster because he wasn’t doing enough to investigate corruption.

Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s current prosecutor general, told Bloomberg News in May he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr. Biden or his son.

Mr. Trump, during an event at the White House with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said he didn’t know the identity of the whistleblower. But he also accused the whistleblower of partisan motivations and said his conversation with Mr. Zelensky “couldn’t have been better.”

Asked whether the whistleblower complaint involved the July call with Mr. Zelensky, the president said: “I really don’t know.”

Michael Atkinson, the Trump-appointed inspector general of the intelligence community, met Thursday morning with the House Intelligence Committee in a closed-session. Mr. Atkinson declined to tell lawmakers the substance of the complaint or if it involves the president, but he did say it involves more than one episode and is based on a series of events, according to multiple people who attended or were briefed on the meeting.

Joe Biden Is Problematic

No amount of growth or good intentions will change this fact.

All five of these things are simultaneously true:

  1. Joe Biden is the Democratic front-runner and may well be the nominee.
  2. He is by far the favorite candidate among black voters.
  3. He was a loyal vice president to Barack Obama, and the two men seem to have shared a deep and true friendship.
  4. He, like the other Democratic candidates, would be a vast improvement over Donald Trump.
  5. And, Biden’s positioning on racial issues has been problematic.

This issue exposed itself again Thursday during the presidential debate in Houston. Moderator Linsey Davis put a question to Biden:

“Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, ‘I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.’

You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”

Biden could have taken responsibility for his comments and addressed the question directly, but he didn’t. Instead, he gave a rambling, nonsensical answer that included a reference to a record player. But, the response ended in yet another racial offense in which he seemed to suggest that black people lack the natural capacity to be good parents:

We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear four million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

His language belies a particular mind-set, one of a liberal of a particular vintage. On the issue of race, it is paternalistic and it pities, it sees deficiency in much the same way that the conservative does, but it responds as savior rather than with savagery. Better the former than the latter, surely, but the sensibility underlying the two positions is shockingly similar. It underscores that liberalism does not perfectly align with racial egalitarianism, regardless of rhetoric to the contrary.

On Sunday, Biden made a speech on race in Birmingham commemorating the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, in which he said on the issue of how racism and racial hatred affect black people:

“We know we’re not there yet. No one knows it better. My mom used to have an expression, ‘You want to understand me, walk in my shoes a mile.’ Those of us who are white try, but we can never fully, fully understand. No matter how hard we try. We’re almost, we’re almost at this next phase of progress in my view.”

Progress. That is the wall behind which white America hides, including white liberals. (Even many black leaders have absorbed and regurgitate the progress narrative.) It expects black people to swell and applaud at their effort. But, how is that a fair and legitimate expectation? Slavery, white supremacy and racism, are horrid, man-made constructs that should never have existed in the first place. Am I supposed to cheer the slow, creeping, centuries-long undoing of a thing that should never have been done?

Malcolm X was once asked if he felt that we were making progress in the country. He responded: “No. I will never say that progress is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”

I don’t even think that’s progress. That just returns the situation to a common baseline before the crime was committed.

Furthermore, it’s not what Biden says in prepared remarks that’s problematic, it’s what he says off the cuff and under pressure that to me reveal an antiquated view on racial matters and racial sensitivities.

It was the way he advocated for the 1994 crime bill, a bill that contributed to America’s surging mass incarceration, which disproportionately affected black and brown people in this country.

The bill did some good, but the harm it did cannot be overlooked or understated. Rather than fully owning up to to the disastrous aspects of the bill, Biden has over the years bragged about it and defended it.

It was in the way he described then-candidate Barack Obama in 2007 as an African-American who was “articulate and bright and clean.” Clean? As opposed to what?

This critique of Biden isn’t personal. I bear no ill will for the man. But, a fact is a fact, and no amount of growth, change or well-intentioned good-heartedness has the ability to erase it.

Biden Wants to Work With ‘the Other Side.’ This Supreme Court Battle Explains Why.

In the clash over Robert H. Bork’s nomination, Joe Biden’s moderate instincts defined a winning strategy.

Joseph R. Biden Jr. was on the brink of victory, but he was unsatisfied.

Mr. Biden, the 44-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was poised to watch his colleagues reject President Ronald Reagan’s formidable nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert H. Bork. The vote was unlikely to be close. Yet Mr. Biden was hovering in the Senate chamber, plying Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a Republican of modestly conservative politics and regal bearing, with arguments about Bork’s record.

Rejecting a Supreme Court nominee was an extraordinary act of defiance, and Mr. Biden did not want a narrow vote that could look like an act of raw partisan politics.

“We already had Bork beat,” said Mark Gitenstein, who was then chief counsel to Mr. Biden’s committee. “But Biden really wanted to get Warner because he had such stature.”

Mr. Biden’s entreaties prevailed: Mr. Warner became one of 58 senators to vote against Bork, and one of six Republicans.

The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons. The vote ensured that the court’s swing seat would not go to a man with a long history of criticizing rulings on the rights of African-Americans and women. It also enraged a generation of conservatives and transformed the judge’s name into an ominous verb: Fearful of getting “Borked,” no nominee would ever again speak so freely about his views as Bork did.

The Senate’s resounding rejection of Judge Robert H. Bork in the fall of 1987 was a turning point, the first time it spurned a nominee to the high court for primarily ideological reasons.

It was also a personal turning point for Mr. Biden. In the Bork debate, Mr. Biden’s political ethos found its most vivid and successful expression.

A review of Mr. Biden’s conduct in the debate — including interviews with 16 people directly involved in the nomination fight, and a review of the hearings and Mr. Biden’s speeches — yielded a portrait of Mr. Biden as an ambitious young senator determined to achieve a vital liberal goal by decidedly unradical means.

The strategy Chairman Biden deployed then is the same one he is now proposing to bring to the White House as President Biden.

In the 1980s, as today, he saw bipartisan compromise not as a version of surrender, but as a vital tool for achieving Democratic goals.

Then, as now, Mr. Biden saw the culture and traditions of the Senate not as crippling obstacles, but as instruments that could be bent to his advantage.

And in both defining moments — his leadership of the Bork hearings and his third presidential campaign — Mr. Biden made persuading moderates, rather than exciting liberals, his guiding objective.

Mr. Biden, whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview, has strained to defend this approach in the 2020 presidential primary, offering only a halting rationale for a political worldview that other Democrats see as out of date. His rivals have branded him as a timid and even reactionary figure — a creature of the Senate cloakroom who partnered with former segregationists to pass draconian anti-crime legislation and joined with the business lobby to tighten bankruptcy laws.

And Mr. Biden’s opponents point not to the Bork hearings but a different confirmation battle as proof that his instincts are flawed. Four years after Bork was defeated, Mr. Biden would again take an accommodating approach to his Republican colleagues during Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, allowing harsh and invasive questioning of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused the nominee of sexual harassment. Mr. Biden would later express “regret” for the treatment she endured.

But he has never regretted the conciliatory style that led him to triumph against Bork. In that process, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans — men like Mr. Warner.

Now 92, Mr. Warner said in an interview that his memories of the Bork hearings had grown foggy over the years. But two impressions were indelible, he said. The first concerned Reagan’s nominee: “I never encountered a man with a shorter temper,” Mr. Warner said.

The second concerned the caliber of the Senate’s deliberations.

It was a real, solid, good debate, led by Biden,” Mr. Warner said. “He showed extraordinary leadership.”

The outcome was not foreordained, for either Bork or Mr. Biden. The debate unfolded at a moment of humiliation for Mr. Biden, whose first campaign for president unraveled as the Bork hearings approached their climax. And the judge was no timid adversary, as the journalist Ethan Bronner wrote in a book on the nomination.

Robert Bork,” Mr. Bronner wrote, “was a man of war.”

Mr. Biden was seated behind a desk in a spacious living room adjoining his study at his Wilmington, Del., home. A few aides sat or stood around the room, where pizza was in generous supply. Squared off against Mr. Biden was Robert H. Bork — or rather, a convincing simulacrum played by the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe.

Mr. Tribe and Mr. Biden would spar for hours in a series of sessions that August, joined occasionally by other legal experts who would help Mr. Biden hone his queries on subjects from antitrust regulation to sexual privacy.

Biden’s questions were really smart, and they also needed some sharpening,” Mr. Tribe said in an interview, citing Mr. Biden’s tendency to “ask one thing and mean something slightly different.”

Mr. Biden came to those training sessions by a jagged path, shaped by pressure from progressive activists and the delicate politics of the Judiciary Committee. He was arming himself to oppose Bork, but not with the methods of the left.

On the day Bork was nominated, liberals viewed Mr. Biden with suspicion. Taking over one of the Senate’s great committees at a boyish — for the Senate — age of 44, Mr. Biden had already split with progressives on the issue of busing as a means of desegregating schools. Until Bork, the authors Michael Pertschuk and Wendy Schaetzel would write, Mr. Biden “had been reluctant to challenge Reagan’s transformation of the federal judiciary.”

The previous November, the soon-to-be chairman had given liberals new reason for concern, suggesting to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he might one day vote to put Bork on the Supreme Court, should he be Reagan’s next nominee.

“I’m not Teddy Kennedy,” he told the newspaper.

When Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a flexible conservative, resigned from the court in late June, Mr. Biden found himself in the shadow of Kennedy, the party’s leading liberal, and laboring to reconcile his own moderate instincts with a mood of alarm on the left. When the White House announced Bork’s nomination on the first day of July, Kennedy delivered a thunderous warning from the Senate floor: In “Robert Bork’s America,” Kennedy said,

  • women would be forced into back-alley abortions,
  • blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”

The scathing address was a call to arms for the left, and it helped animate a coalition of progressives — led by feminists, civil rights activists and labor unions — that applied pressure to undecided senators throughout the summer.

His record was so extensive, and it touched almost every issue of importance to American life,” said Nan Aron, a leading anti-Bork activist. “It wasn’t simply a single issue that caused people to be alarmed.”

Another purpose of Kennedy’s speech, his allies have said, was to ensure Mr. Biden would not cave.

One of the reasons for ‘Robert Bork’s America’ was to freeze Biden,” Jeffrey Blattner, a Kennedy aide, would say decades later, in an oral history for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. “He’s running for president. We didn’t want to leave him any choice.”

Mr. Biden quickly aligned himself with Kennedy, and, at his liberal colleague’s urging, secured an agreement from Senator Strom Thurmond — the 84-year-old former segregationist who was the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican — to delay Bork’s hearings until September.

Biden was under a lot of pressure, particularly from the liberal senators,” said former Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, a centrist Democrat who said he began the confirmation process favorably disposed toward Bork. “At first, I was leaning strongly to vote for him.”

Even as he pledged to oppose Bork, Mr. Biden made clear to progressive leaders in a private meeting that he saw his role as sharply distinct from theirs. He would play an inside game aimed at swaying Senate moderates, starting with the four undecided members of his committee:

  1. Mr. DeConcini and two other Democrats,
  2. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and
  3. Howell Heflin of Alabama, and a Republican,
  4. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Ralph Neas, a civil rights activist who joined the liberals’ initial meeting with Mr. Biden, said the chairman conveyed “that he would take the lead and we would try to put together a bipartisan coalition.”

Biden’s street cred with a lot of the centrists was quite high,” Mr. Neas said.

Mr. Biden was blunter with his aides: He would not adopt Kennedy’s rhetoric or make abortion his central cause. According to a book Mr. Gitenstein published in 1992 about the confirmation fight, Mr. Biden feared Bork would overturn Roe v. Wade but told aides he did not see the case as “great constitutional law.” More disturbing to him — and, he believed, more likely to sway undecided voters — was a Connecticut case on contraception that revealed Bork’s doubts about a broader right to privacy.

“It really concerns me more than abortion,” Mr. Biden is quoted as saying in the book.

In their sessions, Mr. Tribe said, the future vice president wrestled not just with Bork’s record but also with the idea of disqualifying nominees based on individual issues.

“I remember pushing back on Biden, saying, ‘If you think Roe v. Wade really ought to be the law of the land, shouldn’t that count?’” Mr. Tribe recalled. “He said, ‘Yes, it should count a lot, but I still don’t want to have a flat litmus test.’”

Mr. Tribe remembered thinking: “This guy’s a little bit more cautious than I am. But that’s fine, he’s playing a different role.”

Mr. Biden’s self-assigned role was readily apparent as the Bork hearings began in mid-September. Beaming down at the judge from a crowded dais, Mr. Biden praised him as man of towering achievement and “provocative” views. Flanked by Kennedy at one elbow and Thurmond at the other, Mr. Biden said the hearings should not be “clouded by strident rhetoric from the far left or the far right.”

Anytime you feel you want to expand on an answer, you are not bound by time,” Mr. Biden encouraged Bork, adding in a tone of levity, “Go ahead and bog us down.”

In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.
In the Bork hearings, every important decision Mr. Biden made was aimed at winning over conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.CreditJose

The judge, bearded and broad shouldered, did not recognize the trap.

Few men could have been more prepared to face a constitutional interrogation. A former Yale Law School professor who served as the country’s solicitor general and, amid the maelstrom of Watergate, as acting attorney general, Bork brought to the hearings a reputation for quick eloquence and utter mastery of the law.

Mr. Biden had no such reputation, and the columnist George F. Will spoke for much of Washington when he predicted Bork would be “more than a match for Biden.”

The chairman gave his colleagues wide latitude to question Bork, whose testimony consumed five days. It culminated in an unusual Saturday hearing that was dominated by an hourslong debate between Bork and Specter, a former district attorney who frequently rode the Amtrak rails with Mr. Biden, about the meaning of constitutional intent. Mr. Biden had offered Specter half an hour for his questions; when Specter balked at the time limit, Mr. Biden relented and opened the way for a crucial exchange.

“His debate with my father on constitutional law did reveal him to be not sufficiently respectful of precedent, which pushed my father against him, and pushed other swing senators against him,” said Shanin Specter, the senator’s son and a Philadelphia lawyer. “It would not have happened if Biden, as chair, hadn’t permitted the hearings to go exactly as long as they needed to go.”

Mr. Biden sought, too, to quash attacks on Bork that he saw as risking political backlash. He shot down a plan to ambush Bork with a recording of a speech he gave in 1985, insisting on sharing it with the judge before airing it in the committee. And Mr. Biden and his aides refused a request from a number of prominent activists, including Ralph Nader, to testify in opposition to Bork. The left was applying powerful pressure from outside the Senate, but Mr. Biden preferred that its leaders stay there — on the outside.

Ms. Aron, who would later clash with Mr. Biden over the nomination of Justice Thomas in 1991, said the combination of popular pressure on the Senate and Mr. Biden’s high-minded hearings doomed the nominee.

What defeated Robert Bork was public pressure,” Ms. Aron said. “But what allowed the public to engage was a review of Bork’s record.”

And Bork did himself few favors: While he assured senators, in his rumbling voice, that he would not overturn rulings capriciously, he struggled to explain away past comments decrying “dozens” of shoddy Supreme Court decisions or deriding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or ridiculing the concept of a constitutional right to privacy. He startled even some allies by describing as “troublesome” the reasoning behind a 1954 case desegregating public schools in the nation’s capital.

In his questions, Mr. Biden posed as a mere mortal grappling with the ideas of a giant.

“Clearly, I do not want to get into a debate with a professor,” Mr. Biden stressed, prodding Mr. Bork about the Griswold v. Connecticut case that ended a state prohibition on birth control: “As I hear you, you do not believe there is a general right of privacy that is in the Constitution.”

“Not one derived in that fashion,” Bork said of the popular decision. “There may be other arguments, and I do not want to pass upon those.”

Watching Bork’s testimony, his political backers knew he was losing. He was articulate, but he was also argumentative. His knowledge of the law was powerful, his political antennae were not.

“I can’t blame Biden,” reflected Tom Korologos, the Republican lobbyist tasked with ushering Bork onto the court. “I blame Bork and Specter, and the other senators, for going on and on.”

Every swing vote on Mr. Biden’s committee swung against Bork, sending him to the floor with a negative recommendation by a vote of 9 to 5. The White House offered Bork the chance to withdraw; he chose martyrdom instead.

His supporters gave him that much, accusing Bork’s opponents of bowing to activists like Mr. Neas and Ms. Aron. “The man’s been trashed in our house,” Senator John Danforth, Republican of Missouri, lamented on the Senate floor. “Some of us helped generate the trashing. Others of us yielded to it.”

Mr. Biden called Mr. Danforth’s complaint an insult to the Senate.

“I have a higher opinion of the ability of my colleagues to do what’s right than, apparently, the senator from Missouri does,” he said.

Mr. Biden’s approach to the Bork nomination was a legislative and political success, one he experienced as personal redemption after his presidential candidacy crumbled. It brought to maturity the strategic instincts that defined him in subsequent battles — including his contested stewardship of the Thomas hearings — and that shape his candidacy today.

The fate of Mr. Biden’s campaign, and perhaps a future presidency, may hinge on whether that version of leadership, defined by collegiality and adherence to procedure, can inspire Democrats and coax cooperation from Republicans. In the presidential race, there is no Ted Kennedy to sound a trumpet for the left while Mr. Biden plays a methodical inside game. And there are no Republicans to be found in the Senate like Specter, who eventually, at Mr. Biden’s urging, quit the G.O.P. to become a Democrat before his death in 2012.

Still, Mr. Gitenstein said he had encouraged the former vice president to draw public attention to his role in the 1987 court fight. The defeat of Robert Bork averted a solidly conservative majority, handing the court’s decisive seat to the more pliant Anthony M. Kennedy, who became a decisive figure in a generation’s worth of eclectic rulings on subjects from campaign finance and union rights to abortion and the legal definition of marriage.

“I don’t think he or anyone else makes enough of the fact that, but for Biden, Roe would be dead 30 years ago, and, but for Biden, we wouldn’t have the gay marriage decision,” Mr. Gitenstein said. “I’ve talked to him about it. He’s got so much on his platter.”

Mr. DeConcini, who at 82 is a supporter of Mr. Biden’s campaign, said he hoped a strategy of moderation could prevail again.

But he admitted to having doubts.

“I’d like to think so, I really would,” Mr. DeConcini said. “I’m just not sure.”

Joe Biden Used Tax-Code Loophole Obama Tried to Plug

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden used a tax loophole that the Obama administration tried and failed to close, substantially lowering his tax bill.

Mr. Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, routed their book and speech income through S corporations, according to tax returns the couple released this week. They paid income taxes on those profits, but the strategy let the couple avoid the 3.8% self-employment tax they would have paid had they been compensated directly instead of through the S corporations.

The tax savings were as much as $500,000, compared to what the Bidens would have owed if paid directly or if the Obama proposal had become law.

There’s no reason for these to be in an S corp—none, other than to save on self-employment tax,” said Tony Nitti, an accountant at RubinBrown LLP who reviewed the returns.

“As demonstrated by their effective federal tax rate in 2017 and 2018—which exceeded 33%—the Bidens are committed to ensuring that all Americans pay their fair share,” the Biden campaign said in a statement Wednesday.

The technique is known in tax circles as the Gingrich-Edwards loophole—for former presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and John Edwards, a Democrat—whose tax strategies were scrutinized and drew calls for policy changes years ago. Other prominent politicians, including former President Barack Obama and fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, as well as current contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, received their book or speech income differently and paid self-employment taxes.

Some tax experts have pointed to pieces of President Trump’s financial disclosures and leaked tax returns to suggest that he has used a similar tax-avoidance strategy.

Unlike his Democratic rivals and predecessors in both parties, Mr. Trump has refused to release his tax returns, and his administration is fighting House Democrats’ attempt to use their statutory authority to obtain them. Democratic presidential candidates have released their tax returns and welcomed criticism to draw a contrast with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden, who was vice president from 2009 to 2017, has led the Democratic field in polls since entering the race. He is campaigning on making high-income Americans pay more in taxes and on closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy.

Mr. Biden has decried the proliferation of such loopholes since Ronald Reagan’s presidency and said the tax revenue could be used, in part, to help pay for initiatives to provide free community-college tuition or to fight climate change.

We don’t have to punish anybody, including the rich. But everybody should start paying their fair share a little bit. When I’m president, we’re going to have a fairer tax code,” Mr. Biden said last month during a speech in Davenport, Iowa.

The U.S. imposes a 3.8% tax on high-income households—defined as individuals making above $200,000 and married couples making above $250,000. Wage earners have part of the tax taken out of their paychecks and pay part of it on their returns. Self-employed business owners have to pay it, too. People with investment earnings pay a 3.8% tax as well.

But people with profits from their active involvement in businesses can declare those earnings to be neither compensation nor investment income. The Obama administration proposed closing that gap by requiring all such income to be subject to a 3.8% tax, and it was the largest item on a list of “loophole closers” in a plan Mr. Obama released during his last year in office. The administration estimated that proposal, which didn’t advance in Congress, would have raised $272 billion from 2017 through 2026.

Under current law, S-corporation owners can legally avoid paying the 3.8% tax on their profits as long as they pay themselves “reasonable compensation” that is subject to regular payroll taxes. S corporations are a commonly used form for closely held businesses in which the profits flow through to the owners’ individual tax returns and are taxed there instead of at the business level.

The difficulty is in defining reasonable compensation, and the IRS has had mixed success in challenging business owners on the issue. The Bidens’ S corporations—CelticCapri Corp. and Giacoppa Corp.—reported more than $13 million in combined profits in 2017 and 2018 that weren’t subject to the self-employment tax, while those companies paid them less than $800,000 in salary.

If the entire amount were considered compensation, the Bidens could owe about $500,000. An IRS inquiry might reach a conclusion somewhat short of that.

“The salaries earned by the Bidens are reasonable and were determined in good faith, considering the nature of the entities and the services they performed,” the Biden campaign statement said.

For businesses that generate money from capital investments or from a large workforce, less of the profits stem from the owner’s work, and thus reasonable compensation can be lower. For businesses whose profits are largely attributable to the owner’s work, the case for reasonable compensation that is far below profits is harder to make.

To the extent that the Bidens’ profits came directly from the couple’s consulting and public speaking, “to treat those as other than compensation is pretty aggressive,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, a research group run by a former Obama administration official.

Mr. Nitti said he uses a “call in sick” rule for his clients trying to navigate the reasonable-compensation question: If the owner called in sick, how much money could the company still make?

“The reasonable comp standard is a nebulous one,” Mr. Nitti said. “This is pretty cut and dried. If you’re speaking or writing a book, it’s all attributable to your efforts.”

The IRS puts more energy into cases where the business owners pay so little reasonable compensation that they owe the full Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes of 15.3%, Mr. Nitti said.

In a statement released Tuesday along with the candidate’s tax returns, the Biden campaign noted that the couple employs others through its S corporation and calls the companies a “common method for taxpayers who have outside sources of income to consolidate their earnings and expenses.”