Trump’s escalation comes amid his commanding polling position in the Republican primary, setting up what many allies hope will be a rematch with Biden in next year’s election, as well as the former president’s mounting criminal jeopardy, with multiple trials scheduled to occur during the height of the campaign.
The attacks offer a glimpse of potential 2024 battle lines and follow a well-established pattern for Trump of trying to delegitimize his political opponents. During the 2012 election, Trump became the leading promoter of the racist and unfounded conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States. In 2016, Trump pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton and encouraged his supporters’ chants of “Lock her up!”
Now, Trump is explicitly trying the same tack against Biden, announcing in April that he would “retire” the “Crooked” nickname for Clinton and start using it for Biden. “There’s never been anyone in the history of American politics so crooked or dishonest as Joe Biden,” he said at the time, during a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H.
The current onslaught from Trump coincides with a broader effort, as House Republicans have supplied a steady drumbeat of disclosures about Hunter Biden, with hard-liners pushing Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) toward opening an impeachment inquiry against the president, though they have not specified what it would focus on. Some House Republicans acknowledge the current evidence doesn’t implicate the elder Biden.
“Right now, I’m not convinced that that evidence exists,” Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said Wednesday on CNN.
Still, polling shows a stark partisan divide in how Americans view the allegations, with the vast majority of Republicans saying they believe the scandal implicates President Biden, while Democrats see things differently.
Trump already tried a similar approach against Biden in 2020. At the first debate, Trump accosted Biden about an alleged $3.5 million transfer to his son from the wife of the former mayor of Moscow. Biden denied the charge as Trump repeatedly interrupted him. The claim arose from a Republican Senate committee staff report, but the money went to a business associate who later testified it was unrelated to Hunter Biden.
In the years since, though, President Biden’s popularity has plunged, and Hunter Biden’s problems have not gone away. A deal for Hunter Biden to plead guilty to two tax-related misdemeanors in Delaware, admit to the facts of a gun violation and probably avoid jail time unraveled in July, leading to the appointment of a special counsel and the possibility that the case could go to trial during the campaign.
“For five years now, Republicans have been chasing and failing to prove their own conspiracies about Hunter Biden and his legitimate business activities,” his lawyer Abbe Lowell said in a statement. “Unlike Donald Trump and his family, Hunter Biden was not in business with his father, he did not work in his administration or create billion-dollar investments based on any work during public service.”
In an August Yahoo/YouGov poll, 86 percent of Republicans said Hunter Biden got preferential treatment, compared with 22 percent of Democrats. Eighty-four percent of Republicans also said they believed Hunter Biden “funneled millions of dollars to his father in a long-running scheme to help Joe Biden profit off of his position,” a claim that is not supported by available evidence and that only 10 percent of Democrats accepted.
“Due to congressional investigations into the corruption allegations against President Biden and his son Hunter, our national data shows that the plurality of voters think the evidence within those allegations is impeachable,” said Mitch Brown, director of political strategy for the Republican polling firm Cygnal. “It solidifies Biden as one of the weakest candidates in history to seek reelection and one of the most embattled presidents seeking a second term, second to only Trump. The difference is polls show the evidence against Biden sticks with voters.”
The White House declined to comment. Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said: “Americans see right through Donald Trump’s lies and projection — these are the same old debunked conspiracy theories Trump pushed four years ago and has now ordered MAGA Republicans in Congress to attack President Biden with. These desperate lies didn’t work in 2020, and they won’t work in 2024.”
In Trump’s hands, the allegations against Hunter Biden have morphed into “absolute proof that Biden’s being paid off by China, Ukraine and many other countries,” as the former president put it during a July speech in Iowa. Congressional Republicans have obtained thousands of pages of financial records and presented no evidence implicating President Biden in his son’s dealings. They also called witnesses who worked with Hunter Biden and testified that President Biden was not involved.
Trump’s claim that the FBI has “explosive evidence that Joe Biden took bribes from Ukraine” arose from a tip that was investigated and found to be unsubstantiated during Trump’s administration.
In a campaign video posted to social media in August, Trump falsely claimed, “It is now 100% proven that the Biden Crime Family received more than $20 million from foreign countries while Crooked Joe was vice president.” That allegation comes from a House Oversight Committee Republican staff report detailing payments from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to Hunter Biden and his associates. Only about $7 million of the total was attributable to Hunter Biden, and none to Joe Biden.
Elsewhere, Trump falsely alleged that “at least nine Biden family members were paid vast sums of money through 20 different shell companies for no legitimate reason at all.” The source of the claim is another House Oversight Republican staff report, which found payments to Hunter Biden and two relatives, not nine family members and not including Joe Biden. The companies were operating businesses, not shells.
Trump has tried to tie President Biden to his son’s dealings through instances in which Hunter Biden referenced their relationship. In one example, Hunter Biden sent a text message to a Chinese investor saying he was in the room with his father and expected payment immediately. Hunter Biden’s lawyer has said he was not in fact with his father that day, and there is no evidence that the elder Biden benefited from the transaction.
Trump has also accused Biden of being paid off by China through his center affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. In a July rally, Trump put the figure at “almost $100 million.” But a Penn spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the center received no gifts from Chinese or other foreign donors.
From the unsubstantiated premise that Biden has taken bribes, Trump goes on to allege foreign blackmail caused Biden to take certain actions. However, those actions never occurred. He accused Biden of supporting the Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion because of being bribed. “Not a single American life should be put at risk because Crooked Joe Biden has been illegally paid off,” Trump said at a rally in July. Biden has expanded the U.S. military presence in Europe but ruled out deploying ground troops to Ukraine. In the August campaign video, Trump accused Biden of doing nothing while China “took over the Panama Canal,” mischaracterizing Chinese infrastructure investments in a bridge and port in the canal zone.
The frequently false claims the former president is making intersect with another argument that is central to his candidacy: He has suggested that the crimes he accuses Biden of committing are the reason he is being prosecuted. Trump is fighting four separate criminal indictments: in New York for a 2016 hush money scheme; in Florida for allegedly mishandling classified documents after leaving the White House; in Washington for attempting to overturn the 2020 election; and in Georgia for allegedly interfering in that state’s results. The New York and Georgia cases are run by local prosecutors. The federal cases are brought by special counsel Jack Smith, acting independently of the White House.
Biden has said he never suggested to the Justice Department whether federal prosecutors should or shouldn’t charge a case.
But in Trump’s telling, all the cases are coordinated and timed to distract from Biden’s own scandals. “Joe Biden and the radical left can take foreign bribes and be totally protected,” Trump said without evidence during a June speech at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club, on the night of his arraignment in the Florida documents case.
At a July rally in South Carolina, he added, without evidence: “Joe Biden used the DOJ to cover up his own crimes. He ordered his top political opponent, me, arrested.”
During Trump’s first court appearance in Washington, his campaign distributed fliers drawing connections between the timing of revelations about Hunter Biden’s business dealings and charges against Trump. “When Biden corruption is exposed, the government targets Trump,” the flier said in all caps. “This is the Biden playbook.”
If elected, Trump has vowed to take revenge on Biden through a special prosecutor.
“From my first day in office, I will appoint a special prosecutor to study each and every one of the many claims being brought forth by Congress,” he said at the New Hampshire campaign stop, “concerning all of the crooked acts, including bribes from China and many other countries, all these foreign countries sending money into the coffers of the Biden crime family.”
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