Donald Trump is trying to run his favorite play one more time: spreading unverified but salacious accusations, demanding that they be investigated, and then using the fact of the investigation to convince the public that something must be wrong. The biggest unanswered question of this election, with just 11 days to go, is whether he can pull it off one more time.
For days, the Trump campaign has hyped a coming scoop from The Wall Street Journal about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. Last night, the story finally arrived. Actually, it was two articles. First, there was a column by the Trump-friendly opinion writer Kimberley Strassel, which was heavy on innuendo, but otherwise caveated into opacity. Later in the evening, the Journal’s news side published a story that was clearer and less juicy.
The upshot of the reports, insofar as there is one, is that a disgruntled former business partner of Hunter Biden’s alleges that Biden tried to cut his father, the former vice president, into lucrative deals. The claim seems to rest almost entirely on an email that reads,“10 held by H for the big guy?,” which the business partner says refers to Joe Biden. The Biden campaign says he was never involved, as does another business partner, and the news article reported, “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.” And the Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich searched the emails and poured cold water on the claims.
In other words, insofar as it is possible to decode these stories and discard the innuendo, they contain no wrongdoing by Joe Biden, and they suggest that Hunter Biden was unscrupulously trying to profit from his famous last name.
This presents some problems for the Trump campaign. First, it has been clear all along that Hunter Biden’s personal and business lives are messy and unsavory. What Trump has yet to turn up, though, is any evidence of illegal behavior by Hunter in his business dealings. That’s certainly not for lack of trying. Trump henchmen such as Rudy Giuliani have been searching for years, and so far the only tangible thing they have to show for it is that the president was impeached.
Sarah Chayes described Hunter Biden’s behavior in The Atlantic as “perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption,” and I argued that the House should have called him during impeachment proceedings. Trying to profit off your father’s name and fame is gross, but if it’s a criminal offense, then that’s bad news for Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka Trump—to say nothing of the president himself.
Trump is stuck flogging a story with no clear legal violations that’s difficult to understand for anyone not already immersed in the conservative-media ecosystem—which means nearly anyone who’s not already a committed Trump voter. This helps explain why on Tuesday, even before the Journal stories had published, Trump was calling on Attorney General William Barr to announce a probe.
“We’ve got to get the attorney general to act,” Trump groused to Fox & Friends. “He’s got to act and he’s got to act fast. He’s got to appoint somebody. This is major corruption and this has to be known about before the election.”
The call for an investigation reflects a lesson Trump has learned well. Arcane scandals and non-scandals can affect voters, but they have to be laundered out of right-wing media, and then they need some imprimatur that imparts seriousness or coherence. A legal investigation is the easiest way to do this.
In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton was revealed to have been using a personal email server while secretary of state. This was, in fact, the scandal: Clinton was breaking rules about public records. It was both inappropriate and pretty dull. So Trump’s allies tried to intimate some broader scandal about things Clinton was trying to hide. Nothing ever turned up, and the FBI recommended in July 2016 that Clinton not face any charges.
But in October, then–FBI Director James Comey turned up a tranche of supposedly new emails. The announcement of a reopened FBI investigation arguably cost Clinton the election—even though, in the end, the FBI found nothing new and closed the investigation again. (The Trump Justice Department investigated Clinton’s emails once more, but also couldn’t find anything to charge her with.) The FBI investigation turned an otherwise dull and bureaucratic scandal into something more potent: If there were nothing here, why would the FBI be investigating?
Midway through Trump’s term, as it became apparent that Joe Biden was a likely Democratic nominee, the president began trying to dig up dirt on him. What his attorney Rudy Giuliani came up with was a complicated set of circumstances in Ukraine. Understanding the claims required some knowledge of Ukraine, and it required Giuliani to lie, claiming that Biden had pressured the government of Ukraine to drop an investigation, when in fact he had pressured it to pursue one.
Faced with this unpromising fact pattern, Trump tried to cut a corner: He would just coerce the Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation into the Bidens. As Ambassador Gordon Sondland testified during the impeachment inquiry, Trump didn’t care about the outcome of the investigation, and he didn’t even care whether there was a real investigation. What Trump wanted was for Ukraine to announce an investigation.
This was clever, up to a point: It would solve the problem of explaining what was supposedly illegal, and Trump could simply say: Look, Biden is under investigation in Ukraine. The problem was that Ukraine’s president wouldn’t do it, and Trump tried to extort him with federal funds, which is wildly illegal and inappropriate. He ended up getting impeached, and the Biden-Ukraine story was neutered.
Nonetheless, Trump is now trying the same trick on Hunter Biden. On the one hand, it is unlikely to work quite so effectively when Trump’s opponent is Joe Biden, who is generally well liked and viewed as decent, versus Hillary Clinton, who was widely disliked and seen as corrupt. On the other hand, Trump has in Barr a far more willing partner than the Ukrainian government. Barr has tended to eagerly enlist in Trump’s schemes to abuse power. The questions over the next 11 days are whether Barr is ready to jump at the president’s behest this time, and whether voters will buy it.
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