Republicans crying wolf over Hunter Biden have hurt their own cause

<span>Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP</span>
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP
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“Sweetheart deal!” “Two-tiered justice!” “Mere traffic ticket!”

Republicans had their applause lines ready on Tuesday when Joe Biden’s son Hunter struck a plea deal over unpaid taxes, and gun possession while being a drug user, that is likely to keep him out of prison.

Related: What to know about the Hunter Biden investigation and what it means

But the Grand Old Party is like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. It has churned through so many wild allegations against the “Biden crime family” that its moment of self-righteous indignation risks getting lost in the noise.

Presidents’ families are inescapably part of the political package, often seen at their side at campaign events or state occasions. There have been past scandals involving Richard Nixon’s brother Don, who was rescued from business failures by the eccentric businessman Howard Hughes, George H W Bush’s son Neil, who directed a failed savings and loan, and Bill Clinton’s half-brother Roger, who spent time in prison for a cocaine conviction.

In such cases, it would be reasonable for any neutral observer to ask whether the commander-in-chief’s family has received special treatment.

Tuesday’s court filing showed that Hunter, 53, will plead guilty to failing to pay more than $100,000 in taxes in both 2017 and 2018 after making more than $1.5m each year. He therefore avoids the politically nightmarish spectacle of a trial and is unlikely to spend time in jail based on the tax loss amount, his status as a first-time offender and his willingness to accept responsibility for his actions.

Legal experts were less shocked than Republicans would have liked. The former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, says: “Plea deals are very common in federal cases with just a very small number actually going to trial – only about 2%. Deals done this quickly are much less common and diversion deals are even rarer, but these sorts of charges are generally worked out in plea deals for the most part, so I don’t find it unusual.”

Hunter also reached a probation agreement with the justice department that could enable him to avoid a conviction that he illegally possessed a Colt Cobra revolver in Delaware in October 2018 while “knowing that he was an unlawful user of and addicted to a controlled substance”.

Plea deals are very common in federal cases with just a very small number actually going to trial – only about 2%

Neama Rahmani

The former federal prosecutor Christine Adams, a partner at Los Angeles-based Adams, Duerk & Kamenstein, says: “It is not uncommon for the DoJ [Department of Justice] to make these kinds of deals. When crimes are related solely to someone’s addiction and not to some larger scheme and the individual is a first-time offender, DoJ may take these factors into account and offer the individual pre-trial diversion.”

It should also be noted that the charges resulted from a five-year investigation by David Weiss, the US attorney in Delaware – appointed by former president Donald Trump.

Predictably, however, Republicans cried foul, arguing that Hunter – who has worked as a lobbyist, lawyer, consultant to foreign companies, investment banker and artist – had received favourable treatment because of his dad.

Trump, recently indicted on federal criminal charges that he unlawfully kept national security documents when he left office, wrote on his Truth Social platform: “Wow! The corrupt Biden DOJ just cleared up hundreds of years of criminal liability by giving Hunter Biden a mere ‘traffic ticket.’ Our system is BROKEN!”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also running for president, decried the “sweetheart deal” and tweeted that, were Biden “not connected to the elite DC class he would have been put in jail a long time ago”.

Such attacks were amplified endlessly by Fox News, rightwing media and commentators such as Tucker Carlson, drawing a false equivalence with Trump’s extremely different case. Notably, Hunter Biden has also never been a public official.

Congressman James Comer, the Republican chair of the House of Representatives oversight committee, vowed to continue to investigate Hunter and the rest of the family – while turning a blind eye to allegations that Trump’s children Ivanka, Don Jr and Eric and son-in-law Jared Kushner profited off their time in the White House.

But Republicans have proved their own worst enemy by flooding the zone with attacks on Hunter, making it hard to discern legitimate concerns from crazed conspiracy theories about his business dealings in China and Ukraine.

James Comer
James Comer has vowed to continue to investigate Hunter. Photograph: Stephanie Scarbrough/AP

The fixation seems a kind of displacement. Republicans have never found targets as rich as Barack Obama, the first Black president, or Hillary Clinton, who aimed to the be the first female president. Biden never excited the base in the same way. Hunter and his troubles are a poor substitute.

Trump’s ravings about Hunter’s laptop in the 2020 election failed to capture the dark magic of “Lock her up!” four years earlier. Republicans have sought to raise questions about Biden’s knowledge of his son’s activities in Ukraine and China but never made a compelling connection.

When Hunter described in a 2021 memoir dealing with substance abuse issues, including crack cocaine use and alcoholism, Republican attempts to exploit it again backfired. Many voters shrugged or expressed empathy, perhaps connecting with struggles in their own families.

Nevertheless, the constant attacks might take a toll on Biden, who embodies the maxim that grief is the price we pay for love. His son Beau died in 2015 of cancer and his daughter Naomi Biden died as an infant after a car accident that also killed Biden’s first wife.

His two surviving children, Hunter and Ashley, would ordinarily be an asset on the campaign trail. Ashley spoke last week at Juneteenth concert on the White House south lawn; Biden said: “She’s the love of my life and the life of my love.” But Hunter risks becoming a distraction, more wayward Prince Hal than steely Henry V.

Asked about him on Tuesday, the president replied simply: “I’m very proud of my son.”