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Senate Republicans attempt pivot to the Biden diversion

jules witcover

WASHINGTON — As inevitably would happen, the issue of Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, has been seized by the defenders of President Trump as diversion in the Senate impeachment trial.

The Trump lawyers this week turned their attention on the son, who reportedly earned millions of dollars as a board member on Burisma, a giant Ukraine energy firm. The switch came just as news of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s unpublished tell-all book became public. Key passages in the book reportedly describe the president’s pursuit of political dirt on the former veep along the outlines laid out in the House of Representatives’ articles of impeachment.

In the Senate trial and in the halls of the upper chamber, Republicans sought to describe in considerable detail how Hunter Biden supposedly traded on his family name at a time Joe Biden was then President Barack Obama’s point man in exposing Ukrainian corruption. The implication was that somehow the father was engaged in an unproven scheme to help his son.

In fact, the then vice president was working to root out criminal activities in the former Soviet republic as part of a Western Alliance anti-corruption campaign.

Both father and son flatly denied any wrongdoing, but the Republicans tried to make the most of the politically damaging optics. Hunter Biden served as a director of Burisma from 2014 until his term expired last April, well after father became a leading prospective challenger to Trump in his expected 2020 bid for reelection. Both Hunter Biden and the Biden presidential campaign have stated that in the event of Joe’s election, Hunter would have no official role in a Biden administration.

At a recent Iowa campaign event, the former vice president dismissed the Republicans’ allegations as an obvious effort to change the subject from the charges against Trump, the subject of the House impeachment, adding that the Bidens had no relevant information to contribute. Nevertheless, the appearance of prospective political damage to Joe Biden was obvious, and one of the Trump impeachment defenders, Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, spewed out chapter and verse of the GOP innuendo about Hunter’s lucrative gig, provided to him despite his conspicuous lack of experience in the energy field. (Hunter Biden is an attorney, and he stated last year his role had been “to focus on corporate governance best practices to facilitate Burisma’s desire to expand globally.”)

Inevitably, Hunter’s job at Burisma would be compared with those of Trump daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner at the Trump White House, held by them while maintaining private business opportunities, potentially in violation of emoluments laws.

Unfortunately for the Trump campaign, however, news of the Bolton book and hints of anti-Trump disclosures of “bombshell” proportions in it immediately drew press and television attention as the impeachment trial dragged on.

Some Democratic observers in news media circles, perhaps with an excess of wishful thinking, now ponder whether the Trump effort to get political dirt on Joe Biden may yet backfire, dramatizing Trump’s seeming concern over facing him in November.

The first Democratic delegate-selecting event is Monday in the Iowa caucuses, with primaries following soon thereafter in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. The former vice president, after some early bumps in the road, has remained viable as a candidate, according to polls in Iowa, other early-voting states and national surveys.

Biden’s age at 77 continues to be raised against him amid occasional minor gaffes and mental lapses, although he is a year younger than party rival Sen. Bernie Sanders. His doctors report him to be in good health, with evidence of the required endurance on the campaign trail.

Four Democratic contenders still in the Senate — Sanders, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado — now have limited time on the campaign trail because of required impeachment attendance. Biden meanwhile is free to camp out in Iowa through the Feb. 3 caucuses if he so desires.

He already has made the most of it traveling aboard his “No Malarkey” bus across the state, though at this point he might be better served staying out of the crossfire. There are no more debates scheduled before caucus night to make him a ready target for his rivals.

But then again, Joe Biden has always been a talker without much of a self-monitor protecting him. So he’s not yet home free either.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.