Long among the most sensitive subjects inside the West Wing, Hunter Biden’s legal saga now appears destined to play out amid his father’s bid for reelection, frustrating the president but so far causing little real concern among his advisers.
The probe into Hunter Biden is now one of two special counsel investigations – the other being an inquiry into his father’s handling of classified documents after leaving the Senate and the vice president’s office – that both appear poised to extend for months to come.
Even some of Biden’s allies acknowledge they threaten to complicate or erode the moral high ground the president asserts as he seeks reelection. Hunter Biden, of course, is not himself running for president and the White House has taken pains to avoid interference in the case – all points of contrast with the president’s most likely Republican rival.
The cases and consequences are entirely separate for both investigations. Although President Biden is so far not a part of special counsel David Weiss’s investigation into his son, his aides expect that he may be interviewed as part of special counsel Robert Hur’s documents probe.
Still, both investigations take away the fundamental element of control for a White House heading into an election cycle. As multiple Biden advisers conceded privately this week, special counsels have a history of uncovering information they hadn’t set out initially to discover. The fact that it’s also a delicate family matter, people close to Biden say, is creating a level of personal angst unlike any other challenge for the president.
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How and whether those factors play into Biden’s reelection chances remains to be determined. Next to a likely rival who has now been indicted four times, Biden’s predicament is vastly different. Democratic strategists believe swing voters see Hunter Biden as a private citizen and are more concerned about the economy.
Given the facts currently known, strategists say, these voters don’t believe President Biden has been implicated in any wrongdoing. Yet Biden’s advisers also concede the topic is mostly verboten with the president, raising the prospect of a critical blind spot heading into a bruising campaign where nothing will be off limits with their Republican rivals.
“Hunter Biden is not a topic of discussion in campaign meetings,” a senior aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the subject. “It’s just not addressed.”
It was a surprise to the West Wing last week when Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he was giving special counsel status to Weiss – originally a Trump appointee – a fact that further underscores the separation between the White House and the Justice Department on the case. The decision was met with a range of responses by Biden’s allies last week, from resignation to frustration.
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For the president himself, the decision to name a special counsel amounted to another page in a chapter he would like to close. Even as the president and first lady try to move on from a dark period surrounding their son’s addiction, Republicans and now the Justice Department are extending the scrutiny into an indeterminable future.
Just two weeks ago, the couple had hoped Hunter Biden’s expected plea deal would be a moment to admit mistakes and move on, one person familiar with the president’s thinking had said.
But that plea deal fell apart and the special counsel appointment moves the legal issues into a new phase, including potentially a trial.
From the beginning, the Bidens have tried to approach Hunter Biden’s issues through a personal lens, expressing their love and support for their son but otherwise declining to comment on the investigation. They have kept him close amid the legal proceedings with Hunter Biden appearing at family events and White House functions including a lavish state dinner days after his initial plea agreement was announced.
For some close to the president, however, there are now questions over how the matter has continued to persist, despite work toward a plea deal on tax and gun related charges, the resolution of a child support battle and no evidence yet that President Biden himself was implicated in any wrongdoing.
They pin the blame mainly on Republicans, whom the White House blasted this week for waging years-long investigations into the president that haven’t produced evidence showing President Biden engaged in wrongdoing.
“If you think about what Republicans in Congress have tried to do for years, they have been making claims and allegations about the president on this front over and over again. And month after month, year after year, they have been investigating every single angle of this and looking for any evidence to back their allegations,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week. “And what’s been the result of that, if you ask yourself what we have seen from that? They keep turning up documents and witnesses showing that the president wasn’t involved.”
Beneath the surface, however, private questions are now brewing among some Democrats about the abilities of Hunter Biden’s legal team and the wisdom of his visible presence around his father.
On Tuesday, Hunter Biden’s lead criminal defense attorney asked a federal judge on Tuesday for permission to withdraw from the case because he could now be called as a witness in future proceedings. To some Biden advisers, the surprise collapse of a plea deal only exacerbated existing concerns about Hunter’s legal team.
“I’m sure this didn’t land all that well over in the White House because I think they’d love this Hunter Biden case to be behind them. The Republicans are sort of pointing to it for purposes of what-about-ism,” said David Axelrod, a senior adviser in the Obama White House and CNN senior political commentator, who said Republicans were eager to make false comparisons – essentially saying, “what about” Hunter’s legal issues?
“They need to have a countervailing argument and their countervailing argument is, ‘Oh two standards of justice, they’re not indicting Hunter Biden,’” he said. “And they’re beating that horse to death, even though they’ve failed to make the connection between Hunter Biden and Joe Biden in the way that they allege. So I think that anything that extends the Hunter Biden case into the election year is not welcome news for Joe Biden.”
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Indeed, the actions of Hunter Biden are now becoming a central discussion point for Republicans in Congress and presidential candidates, who frequently point to the president’s son in their argument of a false equivalency in the Justice Department.
Republicans have criticized the now defunct plea agreement between Hunter Biden and federal prosecutors as a “sweetheart deal,” and they scoffed when Weiss was appointed as special counsel, despite many previously supporting the appointment of a special counsel.
Some of the president’s potential Republican rivals also blasted the special counsel decision. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis argued Hunter Biden would receive “soft glove treatment.” A spokesperson for former President Donald Trump argued the Biden family has “been protected by the Justice Department for decades” – even though Trump appointed Weiss to his position and Biden kept him in the post upon taking office.
The matter is likely to arise at the first Republican presidential debate next week in Milwaukee. The Democratic National Committee is already preparing to include Hunter Biden among the topics they expect to push back on.
In 2020, plans were similarly laid ahead of general election debates with Trump, who seized on Hunter Biden as an attack line. Biden’s defense of his son and his pride in his sobriety proved one of the most memorable moments of that year’s debate circuit.
First lady Dr. Jill Biden had previously told CNN that the investigations into their son Hunter did not impact the president’s decision to seek reelection this year.
Some Democrats view the development as an opportunity to demonstrate the party’s view of a fair judicial system – a contrast to many Republicans who have cried foul at the multiple indictments of Trump.
“If Hunter has done something beyond the tax issue and beyond the gun issue that deserves to be investigated, then that should happen. No one is above the law,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Florida Democrat. “That’s why you’re not hearing Democrats say that, you know, this is the weaponization of the Justice Department. No. We’re being consistent. When we say no one’s above the law when it comes to Donald Trump, we mean it even if it’s one of our own.”