But even as Democrats express outrage over Trump’s apparent desire for Ukraine officials to dig up dirt on Biden, the impeachment inquiry has created a complicated dynamic for the former vice president and top 2020 presidential contender, political analysts, voters and Democratic strategists say.
The scandal has also put the spotlight on Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s past work for a Ukraine energy company and given Trump the opportunity to raise doubts about Biden with voters, analysts say.
No proof has emerged to support Trump’s allegations about Biden and Ukraine. But as Trump’s interaction with Ukraine percolates in the headlines, potentially for months to come, will the facts be obscured for voters?
“There is a real concern for Biden that many people aren’t going to take the time sort out the issues and make a decision about what’s right and wrong,” says Karen Kedrowski, a political scientist at Iowa State University. “Instead, it’s really going to contribute to this general idea Trump’s wants to push that there is something smarmy about Biden. It’s exactly what Trump did to Hillary Clinton.”
The situation also comes amidst the release of a pair of polls — a national survey and one in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa — in recent days that show Biden in a dead heat with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the battle for the Democratic nomination. While the nomination race is tightening, multiple polls have shown Biden leading Trump by a wider margin in a head-to-head race than any other Democratic candidate.
As details of Trump’s July 25 call in which he urged Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden became public, the former vice president and his campaign aides pushed back against unsubstantiated accusations floated by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani about the Bidens.
Trump and Giuliani contend that Biden, while vice president, forced the firing of Ukraine’s then-top prosecutor Viktor Shokin because Shokin was investigating an oligarch connected to Burisma Group. Burisma is an energy company where Hunter Biden previously held a seat on the board of directors that paid him $50,000 per month.
But the Obama administration, along with several European nations, said they in fact pressed for the firing of Shokin because he was feckless in rooting out corruption in the Eastern European nation.
The attempt by Trump to turn the focus on Biden and his son has enraged the former vice president and some of his surrogates.
“If this isn’t treason, what is?” said South Carolina state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a top Biden backer in the Palmetto state, which will hold the fourth primary of 2020 election cycle. “This is clear cut. (Trump) concedes he called a foreign power. He concedes he asked them to investigate the Bidens. He implied that the foreign aid was conditioned on him doing an investigation. If you recruit a foreign power to interfere in our elections, that’s treason.”
Following the release of the summary of the Trump-Zelensky call, Biden on Wednesday called it “a tragedy for this country that our president put personal politics above his sacred oath.” Biden added in a statement that he hoped to turn the page as Congress moves forward with its impeachment inquiry and focus on presenting his vision to voters.
“I will continue to focus my campaign not on how Donald Trump abused his power to come after my family, but on how he has turned his back on America’s families,” Biden said.
Biden, who spent more than 40 years in elected office, is fiercely protective of his family and speaks often of the inspiration of his late son Beau Biden, the former Delaware attorney general who died in 2015 of brain cancer while the former vice president was still in office.
He more rarely speaks publicly of Hunter Biden, 49, a Yale-educated attorney who worked as an executive for the Delaware-based banks MBNA, a top campaign contributor to Biden’s senate campaigns, and also did lucrative work as a lobbyist and was partner in a advisory firm.
Hunter Biden earlier this year spoke to the New Yorker magazine about his years-long struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. He was kicked out of the Naval Reserve in 2014 after a failed drug test.
Biden told supporters at a fundraiser in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles Wednesday that he anticipated that Trump would go after his family members.
Biden recalled that as he pondered whether to make a bid for the White House that his grandchildren asked for a family meeting where they told him they were worried that he wasn’t going to run.
“I was worried because I knew what was going to happen if I ran,” said Biden recalling conversations he had with his grandchildren. “And they said, ‘But we understand Pop’ and then they each gave their own story that they had written out a note as to how mean they knew it was going to be, but why (we) had to do it.”
Miriam Kenning, 69, a Democrat from Ottumwa, Iowa, stopped Biden as he campaigned last weekend at the Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Des Moines amid reports of Trump pressuring Zelensky to probe the Bidens. She squeezed Biden’s arm, thanked him for his service during the Obama administration, and told him to keep up the fight.
In an interview, Kenning expressed outrage that Trump would attempt to encourage a foreign leader to investigate Biden. But Kenning also had a measure of concern that Trump could benefit by sullying Biden’s reputation with swing voters as the impeachment inquiry plays out in Washington.
“Of course it impacts me,” said Kenning, who said Biden is among five Democratic White House hopefuls she is weighing caucusing for in February. “I worry about them battering him over his son’s life. I just think when I go and knock on doors of the little old ladies — and how all they get their information from the local (conservative) news stations’ coverage about all of this. What I fear the old ladies will be saying to me is, ‘Biden wasn’t right. Something is wrong.’ I don’t think it’s right, but it’s reality. And that’s what’s sad.”
Biden’s campaign has also expressed frustration with the Trump team’s efforts to try to turn Trump’s Ukraine scandal into an issue for Biden.
After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week announced she was opening an impeachment inquiry, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called on Biden to release transcripts of his calls with Ukraine and China officials during his time as vice president.
Biden campaign national press secretary TJ Ducklo slammed McDaniel’s request as nonsensical.
“Imagine our disbelief that Republicans called for Joe Biden to break the law and release classified transcripts he doesn’t have access to or permission to release, given their track record for holding politicians who commit crimes accountable and their general ethical and moral conduct across the board,” Ducklo said. “With their newfound sense of transparency, will they also ask President Donald Trump to release his tax returns, something he promised to do nearly 4 years ago?”
Sam Johnson, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, said that situation could potentially prove to be a great opportunity for Biden.
“His selling point has been that he could stand up to Trump,” Johnson said. “It could potentially offer Joe the opportunity to have a unique conversation with Trump where he could say, ‘Look, my family did nothing wrong and this is not how you act presidential.’ This is an opportunity for him to show voters that he could stand a step above primary candidates and a step above Trump above himself.”
For now, it seems unlikely that Biden’s Democratic rivals will raise questions about Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is trailing Biden in the polls, said unequivocally in a CNN interview Tuesday that he would not raise questions about the former vice president’s son to make his case for his own candidacy.
“I don’t think we should allow this kind of ‘whataboutism’ that allows what was clearly an egregious pattern of behavior by this president to turn into an excuse to allow them to say, ‘Look over there. Look at this thing that happened,’” Buttigieg said. “We are talking about an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented breach of the oath of office by the American president, and if they tried to change the subject, we’ve got to make sure that that can’t happen.”
Nevertheless, Biden faces a difficult task in having to fight Trump’s efforts to muddy his record as voters begin to tune into the 2020 election, said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.
“There’s a contamination effect on the Biden campaign,” Baker said. “Even though he isn’t the bearer of the pathogen, he is forced to wear the surgical mask. It’s not becoming in the course of the campaign — even if you’re completely in the clear — to have to explain things that your opponent is saying about you even if they aren’t true.”
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