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Hunter Biden plea deal sparks political fight over independence of the justice system

Democrats say the plea proves the Department of Justice is independent. Republicans say it proves that it isn't.
Hunter Biden and then-Vice President Joe Biden, centre, during a ceremony to name a national road after his late son Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III in the village of Sojevo, Kosovo, on Aug. 17, 2016.
Hunter Biden and then-Vice President Joe Biden at a ceremony to name a national road after Beau Biden in the village of Sojevo, Kosovo, on Aug. 17, 2016.Visar Kryeziu / AP file

WASHINGTON — Democrats see the outcome of the Hunter Biden investigation as proof that the judicial system is fair and independent: Not even a president’s son can escape the consequences of criminal behavior.

Former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies aren’t satisfied, arguing that a plea deal resulting in misdemeanors and no jail time smacks of preferential treatment for a powerful family.

Voters will ultimately referee the dispute.

In a typical campaign season, crime and punishment are topics that the parties debate in the abstract. Should there be more funding for police? Shorter prison sentences for nonviolent offenders? This time, the two front-running candidates, President Joe Biden and Trump, are dealing with the judicial system in the most personal and intimate terms imaginable.

Trump has already been twice indicted — once in connection to hush money payments to a porn star and once for alleged mishandling of classified documents — and remains under investigation at the federal and state level over his attempts to reverse his 2020 election loss. (He has denied wrongdoing in all instances.) Biden's son Hunter struck a plea deal in which he will admit to a pair of misdemeanor charges of failing to pay taxes, court records show.

Neither side is happy about the legal entanglements overshadowing their campaign. Yet each has a strategy to wring some sort of advantage out of a grim situation. For Trump, the indictments appear to have galvanized his base. Every time he gets indicted, his poll numbers rise, Trump told pollster John McLaughlin last week in a meeting at the former president's golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

“I told him there are better ways to get the poll numbers to go up,” McLaughlin recalled in an interview. Trump agreed with that, he added.

A rebuttal that Biden allies plan to make is that Hunter’s plea deal demonstrates the judicial system is working as it should — even a president with all the protective instincts of a loving parent let the legal process play out rather than see his son break the law with impunity. 

“No parent wants to see their son’s legal struggles in public for the rest of the world to see,” said Michael LaRosa, a former press secretary for Jill Biden. “And the Bidens are no different than any other American family in that respect. When you stick a needle in their arm, they bleed. They hurt. And they are hurting.”

As Hunter Biden’s criminal record becomes part of the debate, the Biden camp hopes voters will conclude that law enforcement operates independently. The White House press secretary last year said that the president had “never” discussed any investigations into his family with the Justice Department. 

For proof that the probe was evenhanded, Biden allies point to the pedigree of the man who ran it: U.S. Attorney David Weiss of Delaware, who was appointed by then-President Donald Trump.

“The president had a Trump-appointed prosecutor looking at his own son,” said David Brock, president of the pro-Biden group Facts First USA. “He certainly had his opportunity to skew the investigation in the other direction, and he didn’t do that. It shows that justice was served.”

Weiss' investigation appears to be winding down. But House Republicans are using Congress's investigative machinery to continue digging into the Biden family's financial dealings. They insist that Hunter Biden traded on his family name in ways that require further investigation and sharper scrutiny.

Republican accusers had hoped the president's son would face steeper penalties following an investigation that stretched five years. The charges against Hunter Biden “reveal a two-tiered system of justice,” House Oversight Committee chairman James Comer, R.- Ky., said, calling them “a slap on the wrist” that would not slow ongoing House Republicans’ investigations into the president and his family. 

In a running commentary Tuesday after Hunter's plea deal was made public, Trump, writing in all capital letters, likened the charges to a “traffic ticket” from which Joe Biden emerges “all cleaned up & ready to go into the 2024 presidential election."

Trump also argued that he is getting harsher treatment because he's running against a sitting president.

In a fundraising appeal, Trump claimed that federal authorities want "to send President Trump to jail for 400 YEARS despite having committed NO CRIME.”

Democrats suggested that Trump has only himself to blame for his predicament by not swiftly complying with a subpoena to return sensitive national security documents that he had taken home with him from the White House. (Trump told Fox News in a recent interview that he didn't want to hand over boxes right away because he needed to first separate out personal possessions mixed in with the material.)

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said in an interview that “if Trump cooperated with the Justice Department, he might have avoided the situation he’s in right now. He chose not to because he’s arrogant, doesn’t care about the law. So I don’t think there’s a two-tiered justice system. I think this is equal justice under the law."

This is the second straight presidential campaign in which Trump and his supporters have sought to put Hunter Biden's financial dealings front-and-center. In 2020, one of Trump's mantras was "Where's Hunter?" His re-election campaign even sold "Where's Hunter?" T-shirts for $25 apiece.

As Biden embarks on his last campaign, he has not hid or distanced himself from his sole surviving son, who has struggled for years with substance abuse. Hunter Biden accompanied his father on a trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland in April, waving to crowds. That same month, he joined the Biden family for the annual White House Easter Egg roll.

Over the past year, the president has said that his son did “nothing wrong," while first lady Jill Biden has said, “I know that Hunter is innocent.

Federal prosecutors disagreed, of course. After the plea agreement was announced Tuesday, the Bidens issued a short statement saying that they love and support Hunter as he “continues to rebuild his life."

There was one omission compared to what was said earlier: This time, they made no blanket assertion of Hunter’s innocence.

A challenge for the Biden campaign will be explaining to voters that the legal system is treating both Trump and Hunter Biden fairly. The president has largely stayed silent, not wanting to feed any perceptions that he is exploiting Trump's indictment for political gain.

“You cannot leave it up to people to do their own research and come to their own factual conclusions,” said Silas Lee, a pollster and sociologist who polled for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. “You will see some Republicans use it [Hunter Biden’s plea deal] as a case of ‘whataboutism’ without discussing all the facts. ‘What about Trump compared to Biden?’"

“Hunter took responsibility for his actions, unlike Trump, who has denied responsibility,” Lee added.

Republicans have their own pitfalls to avoid: Harping on Hunter Biden could wind up boomeranging on the party's eventual nominee.

Ed Sarpolus, a longtime Michigan pollster, suggested that voters would most likely view Hunter’s plea agreement favorably, particularly those aged 65 and up, a bloc that reliably turns out on Election Day. 

“Baby boomers like you to admit your sins. Show your sins, and we’ll forgive you,” Sarpolus said. “Nothing that happened on Tuesday will convince voters who voted for Biden four years ago to switch.”