WASHINGTON — The attorney general's appointment of a special counsel in the Hunter Biden probe creates a fresh headache for the re-election campaign of President Joe Biden, distracting from his message and potentially drawing attention away from likely GOP opponent Donald Trump’s mounting legal problems.
The president's allies worry that Republicans will attempt to exploit his son's predicament the same way they weaponized Hillary Clinton’s private email server in 2016, sowing doubts about the Democratic nominee's character and sapping enthusiasm from her presidential campaign. Clinton never faced charges over her reliance on private email as secretary of state, though the issue dogged her and she lost the election to Trump.
“It creates a Hillary-email vibe all over again, and it creates a false equivalency between the very real attacks on American democracy that Trump committed and much lower-scale things in this case that will muddy the waters for the 2024 election,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Two weeks ago, Hunter Biden's legal saga seemed to be nearing the finish line. He was preparing to accept a plea deal over tax charges that would have spared him any jail time, an outcome that would have allowed the Biden campaign to argue that the issue had been fairly adjudicated and was now closed.
But the deal with prosecutors collapsed under questioning by the judge in the case, setting off a chain of events that culminated in Friday’s announcement from Attorney General Merrick Garland that the prosecution of Hunter Biden was continuing, with no end in sight.
The development makes it tougher for Democrats to capitalize on Trump’s more direct and immediate legal troubles. A renewed investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings, depending on what it uncovers, could tarnish the president’s image as someone who had avoided scandal through a career in politics that stretches more than 50 years. Biden has already proclaimed that his son “has done nothing wrong,” a blanket claim that will surely be tested if special counsel David Weiss files new charges that result in a criminal trial.
Some Democrats believe the appointment of Weiss, the U.S. attorney in charge of the matter who was nominated by Trump in 2017, is merely a procedural step to enable him to take the Hunter Biden case to trial, given the jurisdictional hurdles he would otherwise face.
Still, other Democrats hope that Hunter Biden’s fate will be irrelevant to his father’s re-election chances.
“The Hunter Biden special prosecutor changes absolutely nothing,” said Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins. “Republicans have been using Hunter as a vessel to investigate the president for the last four years. There has been no substantial evidence of any crimes.”
Hopkins said Biden should stick with his 2024 strategy and keep highlighting contrasts with Trump.
“The president should continue to stay above the fray, focus on his administration’s wins, and remind voters of how chaotic and dangerous a return to Trump would be," he said.
Biden has not been implicated in his son’s alleged misdeeds, despite five years of federal investigations by a Trump-picked U.S. attorney and months of probes by the House Republican leaders aimed at establishing a connection.
Trump, however, is already facing three criminal indictments, one of which goes to the heart of his efforts to subvert the popular will and overturn his electoral defeat. A fourth indictment is possible in Georgia as early as next week, also with a focus on 2020 election interference.
Scott Rogers, 47, a software engineer from St. Louis and an independent voter, was at the Grand Canyon earlier this week with his family and spoke to NBC News about Hunter Biden’s travails.
“I hear everybody yelling about his laptop,” Rogers said. “I don’t know what’s on his laptop. I hear people yelling about Burisma,” the Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden served on the board. “I don’t know what happened at Burisma. I don’t see any substance behind the accusations. I know he’s got a problem with addiction, but he’s not the president. He’s not in political office. So that, to me, is neither here nor there. If I start hearing about corruption from Joe Biden directly, that might open my eyes.”
Yet the appointment of a special counsel creates potential pitfalls for Democrats. It keeps Hunter Biden’s legal problems in the public consciousness and is likely to redouble GOP efforts to look for a link between the son’s business dealings and the father’s exercise of power.
Tim Miller, a former Republican operative who led early attacks on Clinton over the assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, but abandoned the GOP after Trump’s rise, offered this warning to Democrats: Republicans are simply “out for blood” when it comes to Joe Biden and “there is no satisfying them.”
There’s little evidence that the GOP’s attempt to conflate Hunter with Joe Biden has worked with voters. But some political analysts say the issue has the potential to further confuse key voting blocs.
“Swing voters are already struggling to keep the dizzying number of Trump indictments straight. Add Hunter Biden’s travails into the 2024 mix, and these voters may well suffer from vertigo,” said Rich Thau, president of the research firm Engagious, who moderates focus groups for the Swing Voter Project of battleground state voters who backed Trump in 2016 and switched to Biden in 2020.
One recent focus group of Trump-to-Biden voters in Michigan found they had little grasp of the controversies that have shadowed Hunter Biden. Participants largely said they didn’t believe the criminal investigation into Biden’s dealings implicated his father.
Only two of the 13 voters described President Biden as “corrupt,” and only two said Congress should launch an impeachment inquiry into the Biden family’s dealings, according to Thau.
On Capitol Hill, reaction to the appointment of a special prosecutor split along partisan lines Friday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chair of the Judiciary Committee and a Biden ally, said the attorney general's move demonstrates the Justice Department's commitment to avoiding “even the appearance of politicization” when it comes to the president’s son.
Top Republicans, meanwhile, blasted Weiss' appointment.
“Appointing Weiss special counsel doesn’t solve any of the problems exposed in this case,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally and the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.
Citing unproven claims of meddling that Weiss has disputed, Graham added: “Whistleblowers have told Congress time and time again that the Justice Department had its thumb on the scale when it came to the Hunter Biden investigation. The only solution for this problem is to have a new set of eyes on all things Hunter Biden.”