President Donald Trump has long tried to press a reelection strategy that turns “Where’s Hunter?” — an attack on Joe Biden via his son — into the “lock her up” of 2020. It just hasn’t really worked.
Trump and his followers used to spend considerable energy taunting Hunter Biden at campaign rallies and on Twitter, eager to make an issue out of his work overseas and raise suspicions that his father, the former vice president, somehow used his influence to help enrich his son.
Then for months, the strategy faded as Trump searched for an attack that would stick to Biden, who has remained persistently ahead of the president in national polls and many battleground state polls. But with the first debate Tuesday night, and a new report from Senate Republicans that relies on baseless old allegations and debunked theories, Trump appears eager to bring Hunter back for one last try.
“The biggest thing going on the internet is exactly this,” Trump insisted of Hunter from the White House on Sunday, minutes after the New York Times published deep reporting about the president’s taxes. At his Saturday campaign rally in Pennsylvania and in response to other questions since, he’s been clear that he intends for Biden’s son to be part of their Tuesday debate.
Some Trump allies, though, aren’t sure revamping attacks on the younger Biden is a winning strategy.
Republican strategists who spoke with BuzzFeed News don’t see much of an advantage for the Trump campaign in raising Hunter and his work in Ukraine. It could be a deflection point, as it was on Sunday. Or it could be a move designed to trip up Biden, who can quickly get angry and defensive when his family is attacked. But the strategists also believe there are reasons the attacks had, until recently, gone away. They were not very effective in defining Biden or weakening his standing with voters. The Hunter issue has been lapped in importance by the pandemic, a rickety economy, and anti-racism protests often used by Republicans to stoke fear about the Black Lives Matter movement among white suburban voters.
“If he's going to make Biden play defense, I'd rather he make Biden play defense on the $4 trillion tax increase, on refusing to stand with law enforcement, on his position on the Supreme Court,” said Matt Mackowiak, founder of the Republican political consulting group Potomac Strategy and chair of the Travis County GOP in Texas. “All those issues, I think, are more likely to yield real benefit for him than the shady stuff around Hunter.”
Mackowiak said that while he thinks the allegations against Hunter have a legitimate basis, the real value of bringing them up again isn’t a question of what he did or didn’t do — it would be to point to the idea that Joe Biden is a political insider.
“Joe Biden's in a difficult spot on all this because it's one of his children, right. So it's sensitive to begin with. Hunter's obviously had a difficult time. He doesn't want to probably add to that in any way. He obviously lost his oldest son, so it's even more sensitive and difficult,” said Mackowiak. “In terms of the value, though, I think it goes to this argument that Biden is an insider. To this whole, you know, Scranton Joe, middle-class Joe, working-class Joe — that really doesn't square with what we've seen over the last 10 years.”
Others said they don’t see compelling evidence of any misconduct on the former vice president’s part, and since there isn’t a clear connection between Biden and his son’s work, they think rekindling the issue now might not be the most helpful course for the Trump campaign.
“We all already knew that,” said Chris Wilson, a pollster who helped guide Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, referring to the information in the report released last week by Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley. “But it doesn’t seem that anyone has the perfect smoking gun of [Joe] Biden altering policy to benefit Hunter, so it’s a mixed bag.”
Wilson said polling on the Hunter issue in February, during the Democratic primaries, showed that voters were split on the matter, largely along party lines. A Politico/Morning Consult poll that month found that while most voters surveyed believed Hunter’s work for a Ukrainian gas company was inappropriate, a plurality of respondents said it wouldn’t make a difference in their vote. Nevertheless, Wilson said, it's “definitely an issue that Republicans should push on and give Biden and his team the opportunity to make a mistake, but without the clear link between Biden's actions and Hunter's, it's more likely to be a marginal issue than a game changer.”
Trump has risked and invested a lot for a marginal issue. His eagerness to coax Ukrainian officials into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden triggered his impeachment earlier this year. Rather than defining Biden, Trump world spent considerable time at first introducing voters to his son and leveling accusations that the media quickly determined to be false or misleading.
Even so, the Trump campaign and Republicans were so relentless on the issue in the lead-up to the Democratic primaries that even Democratic voters at Biden events were concerned about how the former vice president would handle the issue if Trump continually brought it up during the general election. Some voters drew comparisons to how Trump damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a hyped-up and repeated focus on her use of a private email server. Those attacks had a role in voters’ beliefs in 2016 that Clinton was corrupt or untrustworthy.
At times, it seemed Biden was struggling to quiet the noise drummed up by the Trump campaign, despite the allegations having little substance. He would parry questions about Hunter by vowing that his children would not have White House jobs — an attempt to deflect attention to the senior roles that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, have in the administration.
At a primary debate last October, Biden danced around a question about the propriety of Hunter’s work overseas while he was vice president, saying he and his son had done nothing wrong. On a few occasions in the following months, Biden lost his temper when questioned about his son by voters and reporters. But instead of damaging Biden, his aggressive defense of his family seemed to generally play well with Democratic voters in the early primary and caucus states.
Once Biden became the clear Democratic nominee, the Hunter-themed attacks began to recede as the Trump campaign began working to characterize the former vice president — again without substantiating evidence — as mentally unfit for office and razzing him for riding out the early days of the coronavirus crisis in his Delaware basement. Trump’s own tweets and comments attacking Hunter, which came almost daily late last year and into the start of 2020, had almost entirely disappeared until this weekend. There were exceptions: a campaign ad in June, the occasional mention at a rally. By the time of the Democratic National Convention last month, the notion of Hunter being a true liability was so remote that he appeared in a video introducing his father. At the Republican convention the following week, Hunter was mostly an afterthought, the focus of only one speech, from former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News about why the campaign scaled back on the attack line in recent months and why it’s raising the issue again in recent days, Trump campaign deputy national press secretary Courtney Parella repeated several of the discredited claims but did not say why the president is aggressively resurrecting the allegations now.
“The corruption of the Biden family knows no bounds, and it calls into question whether Joe Biden or foreign interests would be leading our nation if he were elected,” she said.
Last week, after the Republicans attempted to revive the story through the Johnson–Grassley report, Biden campaign spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that the suggestion that the Democratic nominee had done anything corrupt to help his son in Ukraine was a “hardcore rightwing conspiracy theory.”
Bates referred to conservative political commentator John Solomon, who originated the claims about Biden and corruption early last year, in columns published in the Hill. The outlet reviewed his work this February and concluded that many of his claims were inaccurate and that his allegations against Biden had no factual basis.
“Yet, to pursue it, Donald Trump committed unprecedented abuses of national security policy — triggering his own impeachment; Rudy Giuliani embraced Russian agents and had his closest collaborators indicted; and Ron Johnson diverted a crucial Senate committee away from the failing pandemic response in order to become the first sitting Senator to subsidize a foreign influence operation with American taxpayer dollars,” Bates continued.
He added, “In their sickening attempts to fabricate wrongdoing on the part of Joe Biden for delivering a key anti-corruption victory that Republicans — including Sen. Johnson — supported, they came to redefine political corruption in the United States themselves.”
The media’s coverage of the Senate report emphasized the lack of new or damning information. Trump’s campaign issued an overstated press release that also chided journalists for not calling more attention to the findings.
“American journalists have a responsibility to relentlessly question Joe Biden about all of this, in detail, and to call out his attempts to cover up this potentially criminal activity,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said in a press release that was part victory lap, part media critique, following the Senate’s report. “Regardless of whether Biden is forced to face the music, this is further evidence that if Joe Biden wins, China and many other foreign interests with a financial stake in the Biden family win too.”
Jim Renacci, a former congressional representative from Ohio who aligned with Trump during an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2018, said in a telephone interview with BuzzFeed News that Hunter’s lucrative overseas work while his father was vice president is the type of issue that can outrage a voter who is struggling financially.
“If Hunter Biden was not the son of the vice president, he probably would not have gotten these appointments and positions,” Renacci said. “The question is: Did he do anything illegal?”
After reading a summary of the Johnson–Grassley report last week, Renacci wasn’t convinced. “I don't think it reflects that he did anything illegal.”
Mackowiak, the Republican consultant, echoed one of the points raised by Murtaugh: Without the issue being picked up more widely by the press again, he said, it’s not likely to do the kind of damage that Hillary Clinton’s emails did to her campaign.
“I mean, right now, I think Republicans are going to talk about this probably in the conservative and right-wing media, but it's hard to see how it kind of breaks out beyond that bubble,” he said.
He added that late last year and early this year, the Trump campaign’s messaging around Hunter was “relevant and useful in a way that it's not now” because impeachment was the biggest story of the time.
“Look, do I think this is a really valuable attack area of attack? Probably not,” Mackowiak said. “That doesn't mean it's not legitimate. I think it's absolutely legitimate. But, you know, I think they've got better opportunities.”
Kadia Goba contributed reporting for this story.