Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. | Joshua Lott/Getty Images 2020 elections An extended discussion about his son’s business dealings isn’t helpful to Biden’s electability argument. Joe Biden had a chance to excoriate Donald Trump on Friday after a blockbuster report detailed how the president pushed Ukrainian investigators to investigate Biden’s son. Instead, Biden was circumspect…
Joe Biden had a chance to excoriate Donald Trump on Friday after a blockbuster report detailed how the president pushed Ukrainian investigators to investigate Biden’s son.
Instead, Biden was circumspect and measured in a comment to reporters.
Story Continued Below
Only hours later, after Biden and his advisors weighed more facts and after Democrats renewed calls for impeaching Trump, did the former vice president’s campaign issue a broader and stronger statement.
The time it took Biden to unleash his tougher comments – which stopped just short of urging impeachment — offered an insight into the political sensitivities surrounding the situation.
Despite the outrage that greeted reports of the president’s actions, Biden’s immediate response was no simple matter. His son Hunter Biden’s lucrative contracts with Ukraine — at the same time the vice president was in charge of U.S. policy toward the country raised — raised the prospect of fueling a narrative with downside political risk for Biden.
“This puts him on the ropes over having to talk about this,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster with Monmouth University. “He certainly doesn’t want to talk about this, his family.”
Murray suggested the ethical dimensions of the controversy — and the implications of Trump’s actions for impeachment, which Biden at present does not support — made any extended discussion of the story potentially perilous for Biden.
“At the primary level, I don’t think Democrats would believe these charges [concerning Biden] because of how polarized the debate is right now, but then they could start worrying that this could hurt him if he is the nominee,” Murray said. “It’s ‘can Biden fight back? Will this hurt his ability to take Trump on fully?’ And will it undermine that electability argument that he’s been making?”
In Florida, former Democratic nominee for governor and progressive activist Andrew Gillum said he was left feeling Biden came across as “defensive” when he initially spoke to reporters.
“I saw Biden’s response and was shocked that he wasn’t more incredulous about the president’s action,” Gillum said, stressing that Biden “shouldn’t have to answer for any of these allegations, as if to give them credibility. He should go directly at the president!”
Gillum added that others could “argue that his calmness and sensibilities may be exactly what the doctor ordered when compared to Trump.”
By the end of the evening Friday, Biden’s campaign put caution aside and began fundraising off the issue, using it to advance his core argument that he’s the best candidate to beat Trump.
“This sort of behavior tells you everything you need to know about Donald Trump and the people around him,” the campaign emailed supporters in a fundraising pitch. “But it also tells you what he’s worried about.”
However, even before Biden began running, Republicans as well as Democrats affiliated with his primary rivals said the imbroglio with Hunter Biden would help the president neutralize attacks against him — even if it paled next to voluminous evidence of Trump’s transgressions.
For months, Biden has sidestepped questions about his son’s business dealings, which were criticized when they were reported in 2015 by both The New York Times as well as Russia’s state-run Izvestia news service.
The controversy can be traced back to March 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in Eastern Ukraine, setting off an international crisis. As the administration’s point-man on Ukraine, Biden led the U.S. response.
That April, Biden’s son, Hunter, was appointed to the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company, despite lacking substantive experience working in Ukraine or the energy sector. He received compensation that was reportedly as high as $50,000 a month.
At the time, Burisma was seeking to build inroads to U.S. Democrats as it faced investigative scrutiny. The same month Hunter Biden joined Burisma, the U.K. government froze bank accounts that allegedly belonged to its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, as part of a money laundering investigation.
Two years later, Joe Biden successfully pressured the Ukrainian government to remove its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was unpopular with Western leaders, threatening to withhold loan guarantees if it did not. At the time, Shokin’s office had open probes of Burisma and Zlochevsky. Shokin’s successor closed the investigations, but then reopened an investigation of Burisma last year.
Hunter Biden has said he was not involved in the investigations. Spokespeople for Joe Biden have said his son’s dealings did not influence his official actions, and no evidence has emerged of wrongdoing on his part in the matter.
In a sign that Trump has no hesitation about attacking Biden over his perceived weaknesses, the president’s campaign recently released a mashup video compilation questioning Biden’s mental stability and his penchant for misspeaking.
Biden’s campaign co-chair, Rep. Cedric Richmond, dismissed the notion that the new revelations could in any way muddy Biden’s electability argument in the primary.
“No. I don’t think so at all,” Richmond said. “In Congress, we work to get the facts out, we will continue to do that. But I think it’s very concerning for Trump that he would ask for help from a foreign government [to investigate] not just the frontrunner, but the guy who’s beating him by double digits in all the polls … the Vice President has said he’s confident he’ll beat Trump. The actions that are revealed now shows that Trump believes [Biden] will beat him.”
Biden’s campaign also appears ready to turn the issue into a referendum about a favorite target: the news media.
“The press is playing into Donald Trump’s hands talking about this,” said a top Biden advisor. “Reputable news organizations have concluded there’s nothing here. This is not a Joe Biden problem. This is a Donald Trump problem.”
Trump’s focus on Biden could actually be beneficial, said David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s longtime strategist.
“I think, at least in the short run, it’s more likely to identify Biden as the candidate Trump fears and, perhaps, even benefit him among Democrats,” Axelrod told POLITICO.