Biden Famously Lied About Being Arrested in South Africa. His Use of Taxpayer Dollars on the Trip Also Brought Scrutiny, Documents Show.

Henry Kissinger spent his last day as secretary of state looking into Joe and Frank Biden’s taxpayer-funded Africa junket

(Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
April 29, 2024

Today, Joe Biden’s 1976 Africa junket is best remembered as the scene for the president’s discredited claim that he was arrested "on the streets of Soweto" in apartheid South Africa when trying to see civil rights leader Nelson Mandela.

At the time, though, the trip generated scrutiny for another reason—Biden’s use of federal funds, and the decision to have his brother tag along in lieu of staff. Biden’s political rivals claimed the trip highlighted the senator’s corrupt tendencies. The trip even drew the eyes of the State Department, where Henry Kissinger spent his last day as secretary combing over Biden’s receipts, previously unreported State Department cables show.

"Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. Traveled with [Congressional delegation Rep. Charles Diggs (D., Mich.)] ... Would appreciate embassy cabling amounts returned and pouching xeroxed copies of recipients," Kissinger wrote to the U.S. embassies in Dakar, Freetown, Nairobi, and the American consulate in Cape Town on Jan. 19, 1977.

This report is based on State Department cables obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and records from the time of Biden’s trip. Together, they show that Biden has long drawn scrutiny for using the perks of elected office to benefit family members.

Biden’s brother, Frank, was a senior at San Francisco State University in November 1976. Biden himself was halfway through his first Senate term and was scheduled to join a congressional junket to Africa. The trip, cosponsored by The African Institute, brought Biden and other lawmakers to three countries to bolster ties between the United States and African governments.

Biden treated the trip more like a vacation. He opted not to bring any members of his staff, as is common for congressional junkets, and instead arranged for Frank to join. Biden obtained special permission from the State Department to bring him. Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Frank Biden did not have a passport before the trip, and a State Department cable indicates he was issued one three days before his departure.

"I didn’t take my staff, so he was my staff, and for company," Biden said in 1978. "I wasn’t married then."

Years later, Biden would say that this trip brought him to the heart of apartheid South Africa. After his arrest story was discredited, Biden claimed he was "detained" and "separated" by South African officials in Johannesburg at the airport. But there is no evidence Biden was ever in Johannesburg, the Washington Examiner reported.

The Biden brothers stayed at hotels paid for by the State Department, which also afforded Sen. Biden a $75 per diem, for which Kissinger requested receipts. Kissinger died in November 2023. Biden said at the time of Kissinger’s death that, although the two "often disagreed," he will miss Kissinger’s "fierce intellect and profound strategic focus."

The trip also became a central issue in Biden’s first reelection campaign in 1978.

"When my senator makes at least five trips abroad at taxpayer’s expense, when he claims one stop was a plane refueling stop, and I find out he went on a wildlife photo safari, when he uses his position to take a relative along on a foreign junket without reimbursing the person’s airplane expenses—that’s an issue," Biden’s opponent, James Baxter Jr., said.

Biden denied that they went on a safari, saying that they merely passed a wildlife park on the way to an airport.

Frank Biden would go on to hold senior positions for his brother’s campaigns and the Clinton administration. He is now a lobbyist in Florida and has acknowledged that his brother’s political career has helped advance his own, going so far as to place an advertisement for his firm touting his connection to the president on Inauguration Day 2021.