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.
David A. Graham: All Trump cared about was Ukraine announcing an investigation
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.
Sarah Chayes: Hunter Biden’s perfectly legal, socially acceptable corruption
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?