While House Democrats are confident they can defend President Joe Biden against a potential impeachment inquiry, many wish for a clearer strategy against GOP allegations on a known sensitive topic in the West Wing: Hunter Biden.
A new CNN poll out Thursday shows the issue has potency: Most Americans (55%) think the president was involved in his son’s business dealings with Ukraine and China while he served as vice president, with even one-third of Democrats saying so. The Hunter Biden headaches show no signs of going away either, as the Justice Department said Wednesday it intends to seek an indictment against Hunter relating to gun charges by the end of the month.
Conversations with more than a dozen House Democrats and aides reveal that the party has contrasting views on how to best message a sensitive issue at a critical time – even as the White House has been adamant it has been aggressively providing Democrats with information as needed. The House is set to begin a contentious month of work next week, with House Republicans ratcheting up the threat of launching an official impeachment inquiry against the president and using his son in large part to do it. As congressional recess comes to a close, the White House, outside groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill are ramping up a coordinated strategy, welcome news for some in the party who will be on the front lines.
Some rank-and-file Democrats want the White House to be more forceful in shutting down the Republican allegations, which at this point Democrats view as a political ploy to hurt the president and his reelection bid since Republicans have yet to reveal any wrongdoing by the president or tie the president directly to his son’s business dealings.
Democratic lawmakers also see more opportunity to frame the GOP probes into the Biden family as a distraction from the four times that former President Donald Trump has now been indicted on various criminal charges.
“I fear we are missing an opportunity here to put Republicans back on their heels, to say it is pretty sick that someone who is in recovery and trying to redeem themselves is subjected to these political attacks for something that happened before Joe Biden was president and with no evidence that Joe Biden did anything wrong,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat.
If Democrats don’t come out loudly, said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, others will.
“It is dragging out and the obvious effect of it is to create the opportunity for false equivalency given Trump’s problems,” Kildee said. “That void is going to be filled. Now it is being filled by Republicans.”
Some Democrats wish the president, who has said he has done nothing wrong, would be more aggressive in framing Republican failed efforts to connect him to his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings as a personal political attack.
“I know a lot of Democrats have wondered why the president is so accommodating of a son who’s clearly been unethical and casts a really unfortunate shadow on both the president, the administration and Democrats writ large,” another Democratic member told CNN.
“But I’ve made my case that President Biden is a remarkably compassionate and decent human being and I think Democrats have that in their soul as well,” the member said. “At the end of the day, while it’s politically frustrating, it’s also principled and compassioned, especially in the light of addiction, something that a lot of families can relate to in this country.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and member of the House Oversight panel, argues that too many assaults on Hunter Biden will eventually lead to sympathy for Joe Biden.
“There are a lot of families in America, who have had a son, a sister, a cousin, a brother who have dealt with addiction,” Connolly said.
But the topic of Hunter Biden is known to be a sensitive one in the White House and some House Democrats say they’ve felt the brunt of that.
“If someone talks to someone in the White House staff, they get yelled at or they are told it’s a non-touchable issue,” one member told CNN.
“We aren’t getting any information to help respond or defend the president and his family,” said the other. “Not exactly a rapid response operation.”
A White House aide objected to characterizations that the White House has rebuffed any Democratic members along the way, stressing that any members who seek out messaging guidance on the GOP investigations get assistance, and also noted that the White House has pushed out dozens of rapid response releases refuting GOP claims.
The White House has spent over a year assembling a team of more than two dozen legal, legislative and communications experts to build out a war room effort to respond to the expanding portfolio of investigations launched by House Republicans. Senior White House aides from the White House counsel’s office, legislative affairs and the communications team made the rounds in Capitol Hill as far back as December to meet with Democratic caucus members and key committee leaders to establish a strong line of communication and make sure the members on the front lines of this had the resources they needed, a person familiar but not authorized to discuss the private gatherings told CNN.
A source close to the campaign told CNN, “Members of Congress should do a better job of reaching out if they feel like they’re not getting enough pushback materials,” and added that the campaign regularly provides talking points on Hunter Biden to Biden campaign surrogates, including around the recent Republican presidential primary debate.
Even though Republicans have tried tying Hunter’s business dealings to the president, the White House has drawn some clear distinctions. The White House has worked tirelessly to defend the president for months against GOP allegations. But, it has also made a conscious decision to not comment on claims that pertain to the status of the ongoing criminal investigation into Hunter Biden, now being run by a special counsel. That’s not an accident.
“We’re not going to intervene or send around talking points on anything that would impact an ongoing legal proceeding,” a White House aide said.
A Democratic source told CNN that it would be “inappropriate” for the White House, run by Hunter’s father, to send out talking points on Hunter’s ongoing criminal situation, even if some Democrats think that would be a good idea.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Hunter Biden walks to a waiting SUV after arriving with US President Joe Biden on Marine One at Fort McNair in Washington, DC, on July 4.
Beyond just how to respond to the Republican allegations about Hunter, the Democratic messaging strategy on Capitol Hill against a Republican impeachment effort of the president is still taking shape.
One Democratic leadership aide told CNN the reason for that is because House Democrats want to see if the House GOP even has the votes to move forward with an impeachment effort.
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, told CNN she has gotten whatever information she needs from the White House to be prepared to respond to Republican allegations, and said Democrats can do a better job of contrasting Republican allegations against Biden with the criminal charges Trump is facing, even if it’s an area the White House doesn’t want to touch.
“To me, that’s the area that I think we could use a little bit more time and space on,” she said.
Another member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told CNN that Democrats “should be much more muscular” in reaching persuadable voters to debunk Republican allegations.
But it’s a delicate balance. Other Democrats believe that no unnecessary oxygen should be spent on responding to the GOP’s unverified allegations because the party should be focused on talking about issues that move them towards their ultimate goal of taking back the House in 2024. A number of lawmakers told CNN they did not focus on this topic nor were they asked about it back in their districts during recess, a point that polling provided to Democrats has shown.
“You do not want to breathe more air into this cynicism,” said Democratic freshman Rep. Becca Balint of Vermont, who told CNN she has always been prepared for her work on the House Oversight Committee. “But you also have to be ready to shut it down.”
“Our job is not to defend Hunter or Joe Biden,” said another…
Read More: House Democrats seek clearer Hunter Biden strategy as GOP Biden impeachment threats loom