Share story

When officials at the University of Utah invited Joe Biden to speak there in December, Biden’s representatives listed a number of requirements for the appearance. His booking firm, Creative Artists Agency, said the school would need to fly Biden and his aides to Salt Lake City by private plane. It would have to buy 1,000 copies of his recent memoir for distribution to the audience. There would be no insertion of the word “former” before “vice president” in social media promotions. And the speaking fee would be $100,000 — “a reduced rate,” it was explained, for colleges and universities.

But three days before the event, Biden’s aides learned that the public university would be using state funds to pay his fee. They already had a policy against taking tuition dollars, and decided that accepting taxpayer dollars for such a windfall might appear just as politically distasteful. Biden made the trip anyway but declined to take a check.

That costly last-minute reversal exposes the complicated balance Biden has attempted since leaving the vice presidency two years ago: between earning substantial wealth for the first time and maintaining viability as a potential 2020 presidential contender.

He has done so while building a network of nonprofits and academic centers that are staffed by his closest strategists and advisers, many making six figures while working on the issues most closely identified with him. It has effectively become a campaign-in-waiting, poised to metamorphose if 76-year-old Biden announces his third bid for the presidency.

Biden is expected to reveal his plans early this year, after consulting with his family over the holidays. Having skipped the 2016 race after the grueling death of his elder son, Beau, from brain cancer, he would enter the coming Democratic contest as an early front-runner. With his political self-branding as “Middle-Class Joe,” he is seen by Democratic strategists as well-equipped to make inroads into President Donald Trump’s base of blue-collar white voters.

So long as a campaign remains possible, Biden has appeared mindful of the political backlash against the last Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, for earning millions by speaking to private interests in the run-up to 2016, and for her family foundation’s acceptance of huge sums from corporate and foreign donors.

He has imposed telling restrictions on his moneymaking and fundraising activities: Biden does not speak for pay to corporate, advocacy or foreign groups and does not consult or sit on boards, said Bill Russo, his spokesman. His nonprofits do not accept contributions from abroad, and the Biden Cancer Initiative does not take money from drug companies, he said.

Yet Biden, whose blue-collar roots have been central to his political persona through six terms in the Senate and two as vice president, has accumulated millions of dollars through a lucrative book deal and selective paid speaking.

He also has helped to start three foundations, a political action committee and academic centers at the Universities of Delaware and Pennsylvania. At least 49 staff or board members of the various Biden entities worked previously as aides or advisers to Biden, or held other positions in the Obama-Biden administration or campaigns. Their salaries and stipends consume a substantial share of the budgets of the six groups, including the philanthropic ones.

The list includes Biden’s sister and longtime campaign manager, Valerie Biden Owens, who is vice chairwoman of both the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware and the Biden Foundation, as well as a paid consultant to the institute; Mike Donilon, his strategist across four decades and now managing director of the institute and a consultant for Biden’s PAC; and Steve Ricchetti, his vice-presidential chief of staff and now managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. Another longtime Biden operative, Joshua Alcorn, has been paid by Biden’s PAC while serving as an executive at the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children.

The top compensation, as far as can be determined from Internal Revenue Service records, belongs to Gregory C. Simon, who was projected in a tax exemption application to receive $552,500 a year to run the cancer initiative. Biden selected Simon in the final year of the Obama administration to lead the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force for less than 40 percent of that amount.

Biden declined through his spokesman to be interviewed about his post-vice-presidency. But several people close to him emphasized that he had built his mini-empire not to prepare for 2020 but to make a continuing contribution on matters of long-standing concern.

“They planned a lot of this under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States,” said Sarah Bianchi, a former Biden policy aide who is now a paid senior adviser to the institute.

That said, some top staff members will undoubtedly decamp for a campaign if there is one, several advisers said. Whether all the groups could sustain operations is unclear, given that Biden could face pressure to suspend fundraising to avoid improper influence.

During the 2018 cycle, Biden maintained visibility with campaign visits to 24 states and at least 135 other speaking engagements, giving him a platform whenever he wanted. At a book-related talk in Missoula, Montana, in early December, he fueled coast-to-coast speculation about his plans by declaring himself “the most qualified person in the country to be president.”

— Sources of Wealth

Biden has long been self-deprecating about his relative lack of wealth, compared with some politicians. He and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, left office with assets worth between $277,000 and $955,000 (not including their house near Wilmington, Delaware), as well as a mortgage of $500,000 to $1 million and other smaller loans, according to a 2015 federal disclosure. The report gives values in ranges.

But they have very likely earned more in the two years since leaving office than in the prior two decades, thanks largely to a three-book deal with Flatiron Books reported to be worth $8 million (a figure unconfirmed by the publisher).

Two months after the contract was announced, they bought a six-bedroom vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware — off the water — for $2.7 million. No mortgage was recorded.

Joe Biden’s only salaried work, according to Russo, is a University of Pennsylvania professorship that occupies about one day a week. Jill Biden — who is writing one of the three books — earns $99,398 as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, state records show.

Joe Biden, who earned $230,700 a year as vice president, receives a hefty federal pension after 44 years of public service. The couple also receive about $66,000 a year in Social Security benefits and in other pension benefits paid to Jill Biden, according to their last public tax return, from 2015.

Russo said Biden would be transparent about his finances if he ran. “He will make available his tax returns, financial interests and other information that used to be — and should once again become — commonplace,” he said, referring to Trump’s defiance of a four-decade tradition of voluntary disclosure by presidents and many candidates.

Biden has restricted his paid speeches to about 40 ticketed shows and campus appearances, according to Russo. Most of have been shaped around a yearlong tour to promote his 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad,” a plain-spoken account of the final year of Beau Biden’s life. It spent 11 weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list and has sold more than 300,000 copies, according to NPD PubTrack Digital.

Biden did make at least two corporate speeches, to conferences held by a financial services company and by the hedge fund led by Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s brief-tenured communications director. But he donated the fees to charity and passed on future corporate events, said a person close to him who was not authorized to speak by name.

Biden has spoken subsequently at events for advocacy and partisan groups or underwritten by corporations — health care conferences; a banquet for the Charleston, South Carolina, branch of the NAACP; the Human Rights Campaign’s national dinner — but not for pay, Russo said.

Open records requests to public universities revealed that Biden had appeared at some without charge — Rutgers in October 2017 and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last month. The Nevada school paid $225,000 to the Clinton Foundation for a speech by Hillary Clinton in 2014.

Russo and Biden’s representatives at Creative Artists declined to disclose his usual fees. But his contract with the University of Utah, obtained through the state’s Freedom of Information Act, was for $100,000, plus $10,000 for the private plane. In an October email between university officials, one told the other that an agent for Biden had described that as a discount.

The book events feature Biden being interviewed for an hour by another prominent figure, like screenwriter Aaron Sorkin or philanthropist Melinda Gates. Tickets for a recent appearance, in Burlington, Vermont, cost $45 to $90, with a meet-and-greet package going for $375.

The Bidens pay a staff of five to handle scheduling, media and advance work through a Delaware firm they incorporated called CelticCapri, after his and her Secret Service code names.

— Staffs of Allies

Nearly all of the former vice president’s closest advisers are attached to one of his centers, full or part time.

Ricchetti, who has been gauging donor support for a Biden candidacy, is at the Penn Biden Center, a foreign policy think tank intended to give the university a higher profile in Washington. Others on the staff include Antony J. Blinken, who was Biden’s national security adviser, and several regional policy experts.

At the Biden Institute at Biden’s alma mater, the focus is on domestic issues including strengthening the middle class, gay and civil rights, and violence against women. It is housed within the School of Public Policy, which was recently renamed for him as well.

Administrators at both universities declined to provide budgets or salaries. Their presidents called Biden’s contributions invaluable, particularly in luring dignitaries to their campuses. “Among our strategic priorities is bringing Penn to the world and the world to Penn, and who better to do that?” said Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president.

Biden’s PAC, American Possibilities, is led by Greg Schultz, a political operative who served as his senior White House adviser. The committee paid him $225,000 over 18 months, records show.

The PAC raised $2.5 million during the 2018 midterm cycle from contributors who included technology entrepreneur Sean Parker and Hollywood producers Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. But only 21 percent of its spending was distributed to Democratic candidates and committees — more than 120 in all — while the rest went to salaries and expenses like Biden’s travel.

There is modest overlap between Biden’s political donors and the benefactors of the Biden Foundation, the only one of his nonprofits that has voluntarily disclosed its donors. Notable is Tim Gill, a Colorado software entrepreneur and influential gay-rights activist, who, with his husband, is listed as giving at least $1 million to the foundation, as well as the maximum $10,000 each to the PAC.

The foundation is chaired by Ted Kaufman, Biden’s chief of staff in the Senate and appointed successor after the 2008 election. With Biden’s help, it raised $6.6 million in its first two years, including seven gifts of at least $500,000. The Bidens pitched in $100,000, according to Kaufman.

Staff compensation accounted for 42 percent of the foundation’s $2.6 million in spending in 2017. That included $256,000 for the executive director, Louisa Terrell, who was deputy chief of Biden’s Senate staff. The foundation’s website now lists 16 staff members, including policy experts in areas like military families and violence against women.

“These are people who have been with him doing these kinds of things throughout his career,” Russo said.

The Biden nonprofits are not traditional grant-makers, and the only one made by the Biden Foundation was nearly $500,000 to spin off the cancer initiative. That group took in $3.9 million in 2017, including three gifts from undisclosed donors worth at least $1 million, according to tax filings.

It spent $1.8 million, more than three-fourths of it on salaries and other compensation. That included Simon’s package and a projected $292,500 for the vice president, Danielle Carnival, who had worked on cancer policy in the Obama White House.

At the Beau Biden Foundation, based in Wilmington, Delaware, salaries accounted for 45 percent of spending in 2016 and 2017, while grants accounted for less than 1 percent.

Those around Biden would not speculate about what might happen to the groups if he entered the 2020 race. But at least one set of plans has already been shelved.

When the Biden Foundation applied to the IRS for tax-exempt status in February 2016, it stated that one mission would be to “educate the public regarding Vice President Biden’s career in public service” by building “a first-of-its-kind vice-presidential library and museum for the study of the vice presidency.”

Then Trump was elected, perversely reviving Biden’s three-decade dream of winning the presidency, a job that comes with its own library. “Since that time,” said Mark Gitenstein, the foundation’s president, “the board of the Biden Foundation determined that was no longer a relevant objective.”