The announcement by Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday that he had appointed a special counsel in the Hunter Biden probe was likely — as noted by the New York Times chief White House correspondent — the last thing the White House wanted to see.
Referring to a plea deal Hunter Biden reached with federal prosecutors in June on charges of tax evasion and gun possession, Peter Baker wrote that President Joe Biden, his father, “had hoped the plea agreement would allow them to put this matter behind them to some extent, even knowing that Republicans on the Hill would keep investigating.”
However, the appointment of the special counsel, Baker wrote on his blog, “now makes clear that Hunter’s issues will remain front and centre as the 2024 campaign heats up.”
And while the investigation into Hunter Biden may continue to hang over the president for the indefinite future, what remains unclear is just how politically damaging this could be.
Republicans looking for ‘smoking guns’
“I would put it as a headache,” said Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant and a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy in Durham, N.C. “But always with the possibility that it could get worse.”
What could be worse, he said, is if new evidence showed any kind of link to the president and his son’s operation.
“So far, the Republicans have been looking hard for such smoking guns and finding only ambiguous dribs and drabs,” McCorkle said.
That a special prosecutor has been appointed may seem like a political gift for the Republicans, giving legitimacy to controversy surrounding Hunter Biden that they believe has been ignored for years.
Yet the appointment of David Weiss, the U.S. attorney for Delaware, who had been probing the financial and business dealings of the president’s son, as the special counsel was slammed by some Republicans. Weiss was at the centre of Hunter Biden’s plea deal — a deal some Republicans felt gave him preferential treatment before it ultimately fell apart.
“If Weiss negotiated the sweetheart deal that couldn’t get approved, how can he be trusted as a Special Counsel?” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
McCarthy added that the Department of Justice “cannot be used to obstruct congressional investigations or whitewash the Biden family corruption.”
The announcement by Garland comes as Joe Biden’s possible rival for the presidency in 2024, former president Donald Trump, faces criminal charges in three separate indictments, as well as a potential fourth indictment for alleged election interference in Georgia.
“Republicans are furiously trying to get the scores even as possible because of all the former president Trump’s problems,” McCorkle said.
House Republicans have been mounting their own investigation into Hunter Biden’s business dealings, including foreign payments. The Republicans are struggling to connect the son’s work to his father. So far they have not been able to produce evidence to show any wrongdoing.
“As long as it stays in that arena, it’s going to be a headache for Biden, but not something that could really threaten him,” McCorkle said.
“But the Republicans are going to do their best to keep the Biden story alive, regardless of how thin it might be in terms of actually directly implicating Joe Biden.”
Distraction for Joe Biden’s campaign
Still, Friday’s announcement is “an unwelcome development” for the Biden team, said Jim Merrill, who served as Sen. Marco Rubio’s senior adviser and consultant during his presidential run in 2016, and as campaign manager for Sen. Mitt Romney’s campaign in New Hampshire when he ran for president.
“We just don’t know yet what’s going to come out from this,” he said. “As we know, a few weeks ago, there was a plea agreement that now has gone away that would have helped take this issue off the table. So I think it’s a problem. And and we just don’t know yet how big.”
It’s also a major distraction for Joe Biden’s campaign, Merrill said, and an issue that might occupy his team as they struggle to manage these stories.
Lori Cox Han, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., said her advice to the president would be to say that he supports his son and make no further comment.
While the announcement of a special counsel is certainly a significant development, it actually could end up helping Joe Biden, she said.
“When it is resolved one way or the other, I think that will be the best thing for Biden politically now — both the White House and his re-election campaign,” she said. “And I think in some ways, it’s in everybody’s best interest.”
Todd Belt, a professor and program director at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C., said if Garland had denied Weiss’s request for this designation as special counsel, “that would have looked really bad for Joe Biden,” who would have been accused of politicizing the Justice Department.
“So in effect, this actually gives Joe Biden cover to show that he’s not politicizing the Justice Department,” he said.