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Donald Trump has decided to skip this week’s Republican party television debate. “The public knows who I am,” he said. Instead, the former president will be preparing to turn himself in on Thursday to a court in Georgia, on charges of election interference.
Trump, who now faces four separate criminal indictments, remains the clear favourite for the Republican party nomination. Rather than focusing on the charges against the former president, many Republicans are far more excited by the allegations of crimes and misdemeanours committed by Hunter Biden — Joe Biden’s son.
Trump himself has repeatedly insisted that President Biden’s son is a criminal. His efforts to pin corruption charges on Hunter Biden led, indirectly, to his own first impeachment: as president, Trump was accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine, in an effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation into the younger Biden’s business dealings in the country.
Unchastened by this experience, Trump continued to mention Hunter Biden at every opportunity — including in his speech to followers on January 6 2021, shortly before they stormed Congress. Many prominent Republicans have followed Trump’s lead — often alleging, not just that Hunter Biden is corrupt, but that the trail leads directly to President Biden himself. Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House, has talked of “Biden family corruption”.
The political intention behind all this is transparent. Trump wants to suggest that the real criminals are the Biden family — and that he himself is the victim of a corrupt conspiracy, hatched by the Biden White House. As ever, far too many Republicans are prepared to pander to Trump’s conspiracy theories — rather than to puncture them.
But while it is clearly true that the Republican party is playing politics with the Hunter Biden case, that does not mean that there is nothing to investigate. The president’s son seems to have been paid extravagant sums of money for serving as a board member of Burisma, a Ukrainian company — at a time when his father was both vice-president and the point man for US-Ukrainian relations. Hunter was also all too willing to drop his father’s name — and allegedly to put him on speakerphone — to impress his business contacts. This may not have been illegal, but it was certainly unseemly.
So far, however, the Hunter Biden case seems to have generated a huge amount of smoke based on some rather small fires. The two charges that he already faces — and that were the subject of an unsuccessful plea bargain deal — relate to his failure to file tax returns and his possession of a firearm, while a drug user. The Department of Justice has now appointed a special counsel to look into the allegations surrounding him. The Republicans in Congress are also likely to pursue their own investigations.
Although several years of frenzied allegations have not so far turned up evidence of serious crimes, it is obviously possible that the special counsel or a congressional investigation will come up with new and damning evidence. Given the political sensitivity of the cases — and the Republicans’ repeated allegations that Trump is the victim of a double standard — it is right for all the allegations to be thoroughly investigated.
But even new charges against Hunter Biden would not establish the deeply implausible argument that Trump is attempting to make about his own victimhood. An attempt to subvert the results of a presidential election — which is the most serious charge that Trump faces — is a crime of enormous gravity. Hunter Biden’s business dealings, tax returns and gun ownership are simply not in the same moral or legal ballpark.