by Charles Lipson
What will President Biden do if his son is indicted by the federal prosecutor in Delaware? That’s one of three questions looming over U.S. Attorney David Weiss’ fateful choice. The second is whether the indictment will go after a larger, coordinated family scheme of influence peddling or confine itself to smaller, tightly-confined issues like lying to get a gun permit and not registering as a foreign lobbyist. The third is whether Attorney General Merrick Garland will approve Weiss’ proposed charges. Significant political calculations follow from those decisions.
It’s easy enough to answer what Garland will do. He has little choice but to approve any charges Weiss proposes after the government’s multi-year investigation. Anything else would look shady, a far cry from the neutral, apolitical justice Garland’s department is charged with dispensing. Burying the charges, after Garland’s refusal to appoint a special counsel, would embroil his department in its nastiest controversy since John Mitchell befouled it under President Nixon.
Assuming the federal attorney proposes felony charges and Garland approves them, Joe Biden faces the toughest choice of his political life.
The president’s dilemma is why it’s so interesting to follow recent speculation by Miranda Devine, a reporter and columnist for the New York Post. She’s the most informed journalist on the Hunter Biden story. Her paper broke the news about the emails on Hunter’s laptop, three weeks before the 2020 election, and Devine has done the best follow-up reporting. To bury that story before the election took the combined, Herculean efforts of the legacy media, social media giants, and former CIA officials. Their success helped elect Biden. But the “little story that could” just keeps chugging along, mostly because the corruption is so extensive, so rich for investigation. Criminal charges now seem likely, not that the mainstream media has shown much interest.
Now, Devine is speculating that Biden is setting the stage to pardon Hunter, framing it as the actions of a loving father who backs his troubled child. “My son has done nothing wrong,” Biden told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in a rare one-on-one interview. “I trust him. I have faith in him, and it impacts my presidency by making me feel proud of him.”
Whether such sentiments presage a pardon, as Devine thinks, is still a guess. We can say something more concrete, though, as Biden weighs such a move. Four consequences stand out:
- A presidential pardon would set off a political firestorm.
- The White House will try its best to prevent any public revelation of the family’s business dealings. That means the president and his advisors want to prevent a trial, get Hunter to take a plea, and convince the judge to seal the evidence. Another option is to go trial, knowing it won’t be held until after the election.
- If Biden pardons his son this year, he’s signaling he won’t run for reelection. He wouldn’t put that albatross around his own neck if he intended to face the voters.
- If Biden does run and pardons his son after November 2024, the political impact depends on who wins the White House and Capitol Hill. The calculations are more complicated than one might expect.
Let’s consider each in turn.
First, a pardon would set off the biggest political firestorm since Watergate. It would look worse than self-dealing, bad as that is. It would look like the president is covering up his family’s corruption, not only to get Hunter off the hook but to prevent the disclosure of damning evidence in court. That evidence is likely to touch many more Biden family members than Hunter, and perhaps the president himself. The more Biden family members who are implicated, the more the whole operation looks like a concerted operation to monetize Joe’s political position. It also might threaten to shred Joe’s repeated claim that he knew nothing about any family business interests or influence peddling. The wider the sleaze, the harder it is to sell that story.
The chairman of the House committee investigating these issues has said Hunter’s corruption was merely one part of the family business. And that business was selling influence. Rep. James Comer has publicly said that his House Oversight Committee has already collected evidence that nine Biden family members are involved in sketchy business deals, including substantial payments from foreign firms. Some of those firms are closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Comer added that his committee is investigating the possible involvement of at least three more family members, as well as Joe Biden’s own role. His conclusion: “The entire Biden family” is entrapped in the financial enrichment scheme. So far, however, Comer hasn’t named names or provided the evidence. He says he will provide much more at a major press conference Wednesday.
Comer’s principle suggestion is that the Biden family’s influence-peddling scheme is much broader, and their criminal actions more serious, than isolated schemes perpetrated by the president’s conniving second son. He adds that his evidence points to Joe Biden’s direct involvement, including possible payments for official actions. That is what he told Maria Bartiromo on Sunday, although he hasn’t yet provided the evidence for that incendiary allegation. Comer is also attacking the FBI for desultory investigation – which ignored much of the malfeasance – and calling out the mainstream media for its concerted silence.
The Internal Revenue Service might be implicated, too, since a lot of payments – and a lot of Hunter’s income – went through what Comer calls the family’s “web of LLCs.” A senior supervisory agent at the IRS is seeking whistleblower protection to tell Congress about “preferential treatment and politics improperly infecting decisions and protocols that would normally be followed” in investigating Hunter’s taxes. If political pressure really was applied to the IRS over Hunter’s taxes, or if senior agents acted improperly to curry favor, those would obviously be very serious matters, legally and politically. Comer and the House Republicans in the committee’s majority want that testimony under oath and are seeking responses from the IRS and DOJ.
Anticipating an indictment soon, Comer has urged the Justice Department to hold off until his committee presents more evidence to the public this week. “When you have the opportunity to see the evidence that the House Oversight Committee will produce with respect to the web of [Biden family] LLCs, with respect to the number of adversarial countries that this family influence peddled in, and this is not just about the president’s son. This is about the entire Biden family, including the President of the United States.”
However wide-ranging the indictment is, Hunter will do everything he can to strike a plea deal and seal all the evidence to prevent its disclosure at trial. That would clearly be the preference inside the White House. But it’s not in the public interest.
If the DOJ tries to seal the evidence, it would be joining in a cover-up. The Department must require that Hunter attest to all incriminating evidence and that it all be made public as part of any plea deal. The judge himself should demand it. That requirement might kill Hunter’s willingness to take the deal. Rather than reveal the evidence now, the White House would prefer kick it down the road, to a trial date after the November 2024 election.
Whether a trial happens or not, a pardon for Hunter would be politically fatal for the president, and he and his advisers must know it. That leads to a clear conclusion. If Joe pardons Hunter this year, running for reelection becomes unrealistic. Such a self-inflicted wound would be a far more powerful signal of his intentions than a speech declaring his candidacy. There’s no way Joe would eviscerate his political prospects like that if he intended to face the voters again.
Of course, Biden could delay any pardon until after November 2024. That would still invite a high-profile congressional investigation and perhaps impeachment, but the political maneuvering would depend on the election outcome. If Biden loses and the current Republican House moves quickly to impeach, Senate Democrats would be in a bind. It takes overwhelming evidence to convince senators to humiliate a president from their own party. The only thing that would do it is overwhelming fear of their constituents at the ballot box.
The situation is entirely different if Biden wins and the Republicans take both the House and Senate. The problem, in three words, is President Kamala Harris. Although the new House would have no trouble collecting votes for impeachment, they might hesitate before passing the ultimate decision to their Republican colleagues in the Senate. Do they really want to elevate Harris into the Oval Office?
None of these prospects is a happy one. Each one adds to the misery of a country beset by lawlessness on the streets, chaos at the southern border, stagnant real income, and a looming debt crisis. We need to know whether the Biden family – not just Hunter – was engaged in a series of corrupt schemes to peddle the influence of a high-ranking government official. We need to know all the family members involved and their business partners. We need to know what they were paid for doing and who paid them. What we don’t need is a weak, narrowly-drawn indictment, an official cover-up of the evidence, and, worst of all, a self-serving presidential pardon.
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Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected].
Background Photo “Courtroom” by Carol M. Highsmith.