Biden’s double whammy: Impeachment inquiry, son’s legal woes

Biden’s double whammy: Impeachment inquiry, son’s legal woes

Under routine circumstances, the American presidency is a pressure cooker of a job. Now, for President Joe Biden, there’s the added weight of a congressional impeachment inquiry and his son Hunter’s criminal indictment – all while pursuing reelection amid persistent questions about his age and stamina. 

But President Biden is nothing if not determined, having finally reached the Oval Office 32 years after his first bid. Today, a strong desire to block his criminally indicted predecessor from staging a comeback only deepens Mr. Biden’s determination. Devotion to family is another animating force. 

Why We Wrote This

An impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Joe Biden and the indictment of his son Hunter on federal gun charges could generate sympathy but also risk for his reelection campaign.

The impeachment gambit by House Republicans could be framed as an effort to deflect attention from former President Donald Trump’s legal troubles. But it’s still a serious matter for Mr. Biden – despite the lack of direct evidence that he personally profited from his son’s business dealings.

Republicans run the risk of perceived overreach, political analysts say. But that’s likely of little comfort to Mr. Biden and his team. 

“Nobody in the White House woke up in the morning and said, ‘You know what would help us? Another scandal involving Hunter Biden,’” says Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University. “The ‘what-about-ism’ hurts, especially when the leading Republican candidate [for president] has been indicted four times.” 

Under routine circumstances, the American presidency is a pressure cooker of a job. Now, for President Joe Biden, there’s the added weight of a congressional impeachment inquiry and son Hunter’s criminal indictment – all while pursuing reelection amid persistent questions about his age and stamina. 

But President Biden is nothing if not determined, having finally reached the Oval Office 32 years after his first bid. Today, a strong desire to block his criminally indicted predecessor from staging a comeback only deepens Mr. Biden’s determination. Devotion to family is another animating force. 

Even if the impeachment gambit by House Republicans can be framed as an effort to deflect attention from former President Donald Trump’s legal troubles, it’s still a serious matter for Mr. Biden – despite the lack of direct evidence that he personally profited from his son’s business dealings.

Why We Wrote This

An impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Joe Biden and the indictment of his son Hunter on federal gun charges could generate sympathy but also risk for his reelection campaign.

Republicans run the risk of perceived overreach, political analysts say. But that’s likely of little comfort to Mr. Biden and his team. 

“Nobody in the White House woke up in the morning and said, ‘You know what would help us? Another scandal involving Hunter Biden,’” says Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University. “The ‘what-about-ism’ hurts, especially when the leading Republican candidate [for president] has been indicted four times.” 

The danger for Mr. Biden is that voters who aren’t paying close attention may not see much distinction between former President Trump’s criminal indictments and the Biden inquiry. “What they hear is, something’s not right,” says Dr. Engel, director of SMU’s Center for Presidential History. 

Hunter Biden woes can cut two ways

Mr. Biden’s close relationship with his only surviving son, Hunter – who has long struggled with addiction, but says he’s now clean and sober – is another element that can cut two ways. To the president’s political opponents, the younger Mr. Biden is a troubled man who profited off the family name in international business dealings during his father’s vice presidency. 

To the president’s friends, the Biden family story is one of devotion in the wake of tragedy, including the death of son Beau in 2015 and before that, the car accident that killed Mr. Biden’s first wife and baby daughter in 1972. 

Today, Hunter’s struggles are, by many accounts, never far from his father’s thought; the two are known to speak almost daily. And when asked by reporters about his son, the president either responds with a steely glare or a terse expression of support. 

“The additional pressure he’s had with his son, Hunter Biden, that’s a tough thing,” says former Sen. Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, a longtime friend of the president from their time together as senators. “The problems Hunter Biden has had, you can’t somehow put that all on hold. That’s with you every day.” 

Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, of California, talks to reporters about avoiding a government shutdown and launching an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, at the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 14, 2023.

In June, the younger Mr. Biden reached a plea deal with prosecutors over federal tax charges that was expected also to help him avoid jail time over a charge related to purchasing a gun. But in July the plea deal fell apart, and last week, Mr. Biden was charged with lying about his drug use on a gun application. The indictment sets up the potential for a high-profile trial in the heat of the 2024 presidential campaign. 

Troublesome family members aren’t unusual in American presidencies, but the example of Hunter Biden – including his role in the business dealings under scrutiny by House investigators – may well represent a greater risk to his father’s political fortunes than in other cases. Republicans have alleged the son received special treatment from federal prosecutors.

McCarthy and the impeachment inquiry

The Biden impeachment inquiry, while not good news for the president, is as much a reflection of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s political travails. After initially promising to hold a formal House vote to launch the inquiry, the speaker skipped that step, and announced the inquiry himself, when he apparently didn’t have the votes. The Republican enjoys only the narrowest of majorities, and is operating under constant threat of a “motion to vacate” that could end his speakership. 

Some congressional Republicans oppose the impeachment inquiry. In a Washington Post opinion piece last Friday, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado – a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus – accused his party’s leadership of diverting attention from an impending government shutdown. “Republicans in the House who are itching for an impeachment are relying on an imagined history,” he wrote.

But even if the Biden impeachment inquiry is perceived by some to be political theater, history shows that investigations can go in unexpected directions. In the 1990s, the Whitewater investigation into real estate investments of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton eventually led to the discovery of President Clinton’s affair with an intern – and his impeachment for lying under oath about that. 

Well before the Biden impeachment inquiry was formally launched, the Republican-led House Oversight Committee had already obtained thousands of pages of financial records that the committee chairman claims provide evidence of the “Biden family’s influence peddling schemes,” though it has yet to release that evidence. Now the committee is seeking more documents. 

“If I’m Biden, I certainly don’t want anyone digging around,” says Chris Edelson, a political scientist at American University. Still, he adds, “the Republicans to an extent are gambling. What if there’s nothing?” 

On Sunday, Speaker McCarthy said on Fox News that House Republicans will eventually subpoena Hunter Biden. That, too, could be risky, as it could engender sympathy for the president’s son, whose personal travails have been tabloid fodder for years. 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that many families have experiences with addiction. But in a political context, she asks, “what is the capacity of a given member of the audience to experience empathy about this situation?”

With Hunter Biden, “are we now in a situation where if you’re a Trump-supporting Republican, you won’t experience empathy for someone in that situation?” Dr. Jamieson asks.

In the Biden White House, answers to press questions about Hunter typically echo the president’s six-word expression of support: “I’m very proud of my son.” Though on Friday, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre offered more: She stated for the first time that the president will not pardon his son or commute his sentence if he’s convicted on gun charges. 

President Biden’s demeanor and posture on the impeachment inquiry are completely different. While walking across the South Lawn of the White House on Sunday, after landing in Marine One, a reporter shouted a question: “What’s your reaction to the impeachment inquiry?” 

Mr. Biden grinned broadly, and responded: “Lots of luck.”

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