For a broad cross-section of Americans, the political scandal of the moment has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s various alleged criminal misdeeds.
In conservative America, the one they’re talking about involves U.S. President Joe Biden’s family and how the family, his son Hunter in particular, gets its income.
Republicans are now warming to the possibility of impeachment hearings targeting Joe Biden after the U.S. Congress returns from its summer recess.
The allegation in a nutshell is that the president’s relatives, especially Hunter, drew millions from foreign sources, including some shady ones; that it wasn’t disclosed properly; and that this occurred primarily, but not exclusively, while Biden was out of politics.
What’s unclear is the president’s role, if any.
To toggle between news channels in the U.S. these days is to run the risk of whiplash from the head-snappingly differing treatments of this story.
On Fox News, hosts have mentioned Hunter Biden thousands of times; lately they might squeeze in 100 references to him before lunch without breaking a sweat.
“This is potentially the biggest political scandal in American history,” Fox Business host and former Trump White House aide Larry Kudlow said in one recent example.
“The evidence against the Biden crime family is mounting up across the board.”
In the other media ecosystem, these claims are dismissed as a partisan joke, a right-wing rabbit hole on par with Benghazi and Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate.
Summing up that view, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy recently told CNN: “I think this is a witch-hunt.”
So which is this: Silly? A scandal? Or something in between? To help form an opinion on this, it’s worth going back three years.
What was said in 2020
Before the 2020 election some media ran reports alleging influence-peddling by Biden’s relatives, that his siblings and his son got paid for their connections to him.
Millions reportedly poured in from foreign countries from 2014 to 2018 – from businesses in Ukraine, Romania, and China.
Some of the foreigners involved in these transactions were convicted elsewhere – of corrupting public officials.
That energy company, CEFC, had connections to the government in Beijing, as a major private-sector partner of China’s big geopolitically driven construction project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
But that company collapsed after one of its representatives was convicted in the U.S. of corruption schemes in Africa; then the company chairman mysteriously vanished in 2018, after being accused of corrupting a senior Communist Party official.
Biden issued two denials: That he had ever discussed business with his son, and that the family had revenues from China.
“My son has not made money in terms of this thing about China,” Biden said in a debate with Donald Trump.
“What he’s saying is a bunch of garbage.”
The Post reporting rebutted this. It said it had Hunter Biden’s laptop, abandoned at a repair shop, which was turned over to the Trump campaign, and then to the newspaper by Trump ally Rudy Giuliani.
The contents of that laptop included evidence Biden was aware of his son’s work, and had repeatedly met his business partners. The paper also reported the still-unproven, and disputed, allegations about Joe Biden potentially getting a share of the revenues from a 2017 deal with CEFC.
The story got minimal media attention during the election campaign. It was dismissed by former senior U.S. intelligence officials as possible Russian disinformation.
It was even suppressed on social media. People were blocked when they tried posting the story on Facebook and Twitter. The White House press secretary even lost access to her Twitter account.
A journalist who first reported on all this for the New York Post is Canadian, originally from Montreal.
At a recent congressional hearing, Emma-Jo Morris mocked other media, like The Washington Post and New York Times, for belatedly acknowledging the story.
“Two years later,” said Morris, who’s now with the right-wing website Breitbart. “When the stakes were nothing.”
What she’s saying: U.S. voters should have heard more about this.
To Republicans, that’s a scandal with monumental implications: given the less than 0.5 per cent margin across three critical swing states, they say, this story’s stifling might have prevented Donald Trump’s re-election.
“It probably changed the outcome,” Republican congressman Mike Johnson said during that same recent hearing.
“Millions of Americans were not exposed to that story. Had they been, we know they might have voted differently.”
There’s no way to test that hypothesis, without the benefit of access to an alternate universe.
But Americans have voted since then, and the outcome of the 2022 congressional midterm elections resuscitated this story.
What we’re hearing now
Now in control of the House of Representatives, Republicans are holding hearing after hearing into the Biden family.
The procession of witnesses they’ve talked to includes tax investigators who wanted to charge Hunter Biden with serious felony tax crimes.
Those investigators say he committed repeated felonies over several years. In one example, they said Hunter Biden wrote off encounters with prostitutes as a business expense.
The two IRS investigators allege they weren’t allowed to pursue the case – that their supervisors at the IRS, and the Department of Justice, during both the Trump and Biden presidencies, interfered with their work in a way they’d never witnessed before.
“Hamstrung, limited and marginalized,” is how one IRS investigator, Joseph Ziegler, described it to Congress.
“I still think a special counsel is necessary.”
They’ve shared their findings with Congress. One notable snippet was a text exchange where Hunter Biden tried applying pressure on a Chinese businessman in 2017.
“I’m sitting here with my father,” said the purported message from Hunter Biden.
“You will regret not following my direction.”
Hunter Biden wound up obtaining a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid jail, and would have closed all criminal investigations into him, if he admitted guilt to minor tax charges.
But that deal just collapsed in court.
It was derided by critics as unusually soft. And last month, a judge in Delaware, Maryellen Noreika, asked whether Hunter Biden could face future charges.
She mentioned his work for foreigners. And she asked the parties: Could Hunter Biden eventually be charged for working as an unregistered foreign lobbyist?
Prosecutor Leo Wise replied: “Yes.”
And that blew up the plea deal. Biden’s lawyers furiously argued their client should be spared from future prosecution under its terms. The agreement, at least for now, is off the table.
The White House has now changed its official line.
Previous denials that the Bidens ever talked business are gone. So is the denial of Chinese revenues.
The new White House line: The president was never actually in business with his son.
The Democrats’ counter-argument here is that none of this proves anything of substance about the president.
Take, for example, that text message sent by Hunter Biden in 2017. Joe Biden was out of politics at the time. The message is also vague – it’s not clear what the son is demanding.
And Joe Biden wasn’t even aware it was sent, said the son’s lawyer. In a letter, the lawyer noted that this was a chapter in Hunter Biden’s life when he was struggling with drug addiction.
In this disastrous period, the lawyer said, Hunter was speaking for himself. Not for his dad.
Democrats’ contention is that their rivals are taking true tidbits and exaggerating them, building a wall of falsehood from little bricks of truth.
“We didn’t hear a lot about Joe Biden,” Democratic congressman Jared Moskowitz noted, during the hearing with IRS investigators.
“Why? Because he didn’t do anything. This has nothing to do with him.”
He called it hard to accept Republicans’ crying now about conflicts of interest after they ignored repeated, pervasive examples of it throughout the Trump presidency.
Rep. Moskowitz cited a Chinese state-owned bank spending an estimated $5.4 million US on rent in Trump Tower while he was president; a $2 billion US Saudi investment with his son-in-law Jared Kushner weeks after he left the White House; and Chinese commercial agreements with Ivanka Trump‘s company while she worked in the White House.
The Republican response to this alleged hypocrisy? We know what businesses the Trumps were in, like real estate and apparel; they say they want to know more about what services, exactly, Hunter Biden was offering foreign clients.
Some Republicans keep suggesting Joe Biden has been corrupted. But they don’t have first-hand evidence of the most incendiary claim: that he got a cut from these foreign transactions, as early as 2014.
Instead, they have allegations from sources.
Another is an unnamed informant who told the FBI that he heard about it from someone else, the head of a Ukrainian energy company who, he said, told him years ago about multimillion-dollar bribes while Biden was still vice-president.
Amid these various claims, there’s just been a perfect illustration of how the different parties can witness the same set of events and walk away trumpeting different conclusions.
In a closed-door hearing in Washington, D.C., one of Hunter Biden’s business partners testified that Hunter spoke with his dad every day and would occasionally put him on speakerphone.
Devon Archer also suggested Hunter used his father’s presence to bolster his own business “brand”; this is the part Republicans later highlighted.
What Republicans didn’t highlight: Archer said he never saw any wrongdoing, and said the current president never talked business on those calls.
“That did not happen,” Archer said.
What’s next: Impeachment?
In light of the allegations, Republicans are starting to talk about a possible impeachment inquiry. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said, before the August recess, that the more he sees, the more he’s concluding that hearings are warranted.
Republican lawmakers are being pressured to launch impeachment proceedings by their de-facto party leader: Donald Trump. And Trump isn’t just egging them on – he’s demanding it.
The former president, speaking at a campaign rally, said that any Republican who fails to act should be forced out in a primary next year.
“Get out!” Trump said of those skeptical Republicans. “They have to play tough and … if they’re not willing to do it, we’ve got a lot of good, tough Republicans around … and they’re going to get my endorsement every single time.”
To be clear, there’s no way impeachment will remove Biden from office – the Senate won’t let that happen.
It’s not even clear hearings would lead to an impeachment vote.
But they would put this issue in a high-profile, prime-time news-making forum, right as the 2024 presidential election campaign ramps up.
In essence, some Republicans want make this a central election story, the opposite of what happened in 2020’s vote.
It’s not clear impeachment hearings would hurt Biden.
During his first impeachment, Trump enjoyed some of his highest approval ratings, as he accused his opponents of ignoring the bread-and-butter issues voters care about.
A specialist on government ethics and law said the Hunter Biden saga has raised serious issues, notably the tax crimes he’s been charged with.
Kedric Payne said it would also be serious if someone worked for foreign entities and failed to register as a foreign agent, which is a crime.
He said it’s too early to draw a conclusion on that, let alone on the most serious question being raised by Republicans: Did the president have foreign revenue sources and, if so, what did he do to earn them?
“If that is true, those are serious problems,” said Kedric Payne of the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.
“The only question is: Are they true? Is there evidence that shows that these are more than just claims that are made that are unsupported?… There’s so many unknowns.”