Bernie Sanders canceled an Iowa rally scheduled for Wednesday. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet didn’t bother scheduling any campaign stops this week — they’re all stuck in the Senate for the foreseeable future due to the impeachment trial.
But even as four of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign rivals were pulled off the campaign trail this week to sit as silent jurors in Washington, he’s hardly got an advantage. While he largely has the Iowa stage to himself this week, the former vice president is playing a starring role in the impeachment saga along with his son, Hunter.
Just before the trial kicked off, his campaign launched a preemptive strike by issuing a memo demanding reporters refer to President Trump’s allegations against the Bidens as discredited conspiracy theory about their unrelated work in Ukraine.
“The clinical term for that is horseshit,” Andrew Bates, Biden’s rapid-response director, said in a YouTube video released Tuesday that wove in the history of the case with swear words. “It’s bullshit.”
There’s only so much distance Biden can get from a trial that was sparked by charges against Trump that he improperly leveraged U.S. aid to Ukraine in return for it launching an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the country — dealings that dovetailed with his father’s overseas portfolio when he was vice president.
Democratic House impeachment managers have rallied to Biden’s side, insisting that the GOP-led Senate not call his son to testify in the Senate trial.
“It would not be appropriate for the president to seek to call witnesses merely to try to perpetuate the same smear campaign that was foiled when his plot was discovered,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the House impeachment managers, said Tuesday morning.
“Hunter Biden, for example, can’t tell us anything about whether the president withheld military aid, whether he withheld that aid to coerce Ukraine to conduct political investigations, or why he wouldn’t meet with the president of Ukraine,” Schiff said.
But an impeachment trial is like no other in American law. It’s a political process in which the jurors are senators who they write their own rules for the trial. And if Republicans will only allow witnesses for the House to appear in return for Hunter Biden testifying, it might be best to compel him to do so, said Jeff Hauser, the founder and director of the nonpartisan Revolving Door Project, which watchdogs executive branch appointees.
“It’s definitely a mess of a situation. And it’s not going away,” Hauser said. “There’s a germ of truth in that Hunter Biden does seem to have personally profited from what his father does without, in turn, his father doing anything wrong … Frankly, it would be in the best interest for the Biden family to address these accusations head on rather than to let them linger.”
Some Democratic senators have privately discussed a witness swap in the trial — trading the testimony of Hunter or even Joe Biden for that of a top administration official — according to the Washington Post.
The Biden campaign declined to comment for this story.
In prior remarks about his son, Biden has said he would let his son’s remarks in an ABC interview speak for themselves. Also, Biden says, he knew little about his son’s work for Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company that was the subject of Trump’s focus.
Judging by the questions Biden has received at town halls, voters are more interested in healthcare, Social Security or abortion. But the topic of Hunter Biden and impeachment has still come up.
In Grinnell, Iowa, Biden was asked on Jan. 5 by a voter about whether he or his son should testify and how the controversy would unfold if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
“I would comply myself with any legitimate subpoena that came to me,” Biden said, pointing out that the witnesses who testified during the House impeachment proceedings said he did nothing illegal or unethical when, on behalf of the U.S. government as vice president and a coalition of foreign governments, he pressured Ukraine to fire a corrupt prosecutor.
“With regard to my son, Hunter, there’s no way he shed light on whether or not Trump did in fact ask [the government of Ukraine] to investigate,” Biden said.
Biden usually avoids specifically discussing impeachment on the campaign trail and seldom says Hunter Biden’s name at all — a sharp contrast to his frequent mentions of his son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2014.
Biden’s emotions in defending his sole surviving son erupted last month when an Iowa farmer at a campaign event accused Biden of somehow “selling access” through his son’s Ukraine arrangement with Burisma.
“You’re a damn liar, man. That’s not true. And no one has ever said that,” Biden said in response. And when the man slipped up during the exchange, Biden exploded: “Get your words straight, Jack!”
The fiery exchange and the nature of Trump’s attacks on Biden, ironically, may have helped Biden to date in the primary.
“It reminds people that Trump is worried about Biden. He talks about him incessantly … because he doesn’t want to face Joe Biden in the fall,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic consultant. “A lot of folks in Iowa looked at what Trump is doing and thought, ‘Well, I think Biden must be the strongest candidate to take on Donald Trump if Trump thinks so.’”
Biden is in the midst of a two-day campaign swing through Iowa while the senators running against him are stuck in Washington. Just as Biden began campaigning in Ames, Iowa, Sanders’ campaign was announcing he had to cancel a Wednesday event in Cedar Falls. His surrogate, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), will stand in for Sanders in Iowa. The other candidates similarly have surrogates stumping for them in the early states during the trial. The only other top-tier candidate in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg, is also on the campaign trail.
Before Biden entered the race last year, some rivals were quietly whispering about the bad optics of his son getting lucrative contracts based on family connections. Some Democratic campaigns released opposition research about Hunter Biden, saying it was part of a pattern of him profiting off his father’s position as vice president and, before that, a senator.
But then news of Trump’s efforts to leverage Ukraine broke, leading to his impeachment. And Democrats quickly backed away from saying anything critical about the Bidens and Ukraine.
“That line of attack is just off the table,” said one Democratic consultant with one of the rival campaigns. “No one wants to look like Trump’s messenger boy. Trump screwed it all up.”
Democrats are so sensitive about the appearance of siding with Trump that Sanders broke with his own campaign on Monday night by apologizing for an op-ed by a surrogate who attacked Biden for having a “corruption problem.”
The op-ed specifically avoided any mention of Ukraine and instead focused on the corruption of the current campaign finance system. But the timing of the op-ed’s release — the day before the impeachment trial – made it untenable for Sanders.
Still, there’s a sense of unease among Democrats who don’t expect Trump will let the Hunter Biden matter go, and fear the matter could turn off just enough voters to help him win the general election if Biden is the nominee.
“Democrats should not nominate him because he’s got too many scandals, too much baggage, takes money from billionaires and is going to be doomed by the Ukrainian scandal,” a progressive activist, Pete Sikora, told a New York television station earlier this month while protesting a Biden fundraiser.
But, at least publicly, comments like that on the left are scarce on the campaign trail.
“It would be political malpractice for the Democratic candidates to discuss Hunter Biden because the overall facts are so bad for Trump that invoking Hunter Biden is a problem,” said Hauser, the activist with the Revolving Door Project.