From the Center

Most mainstream news media and most unFox-ified voters have paid little attention to the various Hunter Biden controversies that have surfaced over the years. But the stories haven’t gone away, and last week we received two reminders that the president’s son could still end up playing a relevant role in next year’s election.

Early in the week, the younger Biden agreed to plead guilty on tax evasion and gun possession charges that will keep him out of jail. The immediate reaction was predictably partisan, as Republicans railed about a “two-tier justice system” and a “sweetheart deal,” while Democrats pointed to the guilty plea as evidence that the Justice Department stayed above partisanship in its prosecution.

But a few days later, a more complicated wrinkle emerged when the IRS agent who supervised the investigation told a congressional committee that Justice Department officials had interfered with his work. He charged that presidential appointees had withheld potential evidence and ensured that Hunter Biden would be charged with misdemeanors rather than more serious crimes. This directly contradicts what both the president and Attorney General Merrick Garland have said about the case: Garland immediately disputed the accusations, but the national political media now seems to be interested in the Hunter Biden controversy for the first time.

It’s important to note that there is still much that is unknown about these allegations. We don’t know if the whistleblower is a reliable source or a vengeful provocateur with a score to settle. His story has been corroborated by one additional witness, but there are dozens of others whose stories have yet to be heard. There’s a long way to go before this becomes a full-blown scandal for anyone other than the most devoted Trump loyalists.

But the latest news makes the controversy much more difficult for Team Biden to dismiss. Until now, a general consensus had emerged that Hunter had profited in an unseemly and unattractive way from selling his proximity to one of the world’s most powerful men, much as Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton family members have done when their relatives occupied the White House. The tax and gun problems crossed the line from uncomfortable to illegal, but there was still no solid evidence of any direct involvement from the president himself.

Now that’s not as clear. The hard-core Trump haters will argue that the former president’s children exploited their relationships with their dad much more egregiously than Hunter, but what-about-ism is a partial defense at best. It’s clear that we’re going to spend the foreseeable future trying to learn whether Joe Biden ever crossed the line from a supportive parent trying to guide his son through a difficult time to an unwitting co-conspirator.

Already, there are emerging signs of a more difficult challenge for the president. For the past three years, whenever Republicans have attacked Biden, his administration, or his family for a variety of purported scandals, the response from Democratic allies has been swift and strong. “Outrage”, “travesty”, and “disgrace” are the types of epithets that they’ve hurled at the president’s GOP critics.

But when the news broke last week about the whistleblower’s accusations, the response was much more subdued. Richard Neal (D-MA), the ranking minority member on the House Ways and Means committee, which heard the testimony, simply said that the release of the interviews was premature and that there was “no corroboration” for the charges.

Which sounds a lot like a presidential defender who is not very confident in what he is defending and is buying himself time before making a more forceful statement.

Given the House Republicans’ history on such matters, it is entirely possible that they will overplay their hand to a point where the public reaction to Hunter Biden’s conduct breaks down along typically partisan battle lines. But Joe Biden is not enjoying particularly strong support from the voting public right now. His approval numbers are mired at historic lows, most Democrats do not think he should seek re-election, and he and Trump are running close to even in public opinion polls even in the aftermath of Trump’s indictment. Large majorities of Americans believe that he is too old to serve another term as president.

As was the case in 2020, Biden’s best path back to the White House is with an “at least he’s better than Trump” message. But in a closely contested race, what the president definitely does not need is an ongoing distraction caused by a scandal-plagued son.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).