Democrats downplay Hunter Biden's plea deal, while Republicans see opportunity to deflect from Trump
NEW YORK (AP) — Democrats, already anxious about President Joe Biden's reelection prospects, are seeking to downplay — or ignore altogether — revelations that the president's son has entered into a plea deal with federal prosecutors over tax offenses and a gun charge.
And as Democrats dodge, former President Donald Trump and his Republican allies seized on the extraordinary legal development to tighten his grip on the GOP and deflect from his own legal shortcomings.
But in a nation deeply divided and with voters from both parties firmly entrenched in their political outlook, there were few signs immediately after Hunter Biden's plea deal was announced on Tuesday that the unprecedented prosecution of a president's son had shifted the 2024 presidential election in any significant way.
In conversations with The Associated Press, some of the elected Democratic officials best positioned to challenge Biden for the party's presidential nomination reaffirmed their decisions not to run in 2024. And while party officials did not rush to support the president publicly, they privately described the development as a minor political distraction — at most — that could linger into next year's general election.
The Biden campaign declined to comment. At a summit on artificial intelligence in San Francisco on Tuesday, Biden smiled when asked if he’s spoken to Hunter. “I’m very proud of my son,” he said.
For now, veteran Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter suggested that Hunter Biden's prosecution “is not on most Americans’ radar."
“But to the extent it is, it shows that no one is above the law and what taking responsibility looks like, which in itself is a sharp contrast to the former president,” Cutter said, referencing Trump's legal entanglements. “The MAGA echo chamber will continue to obsess over Hunter as they have for years, but those aren’t President Biden’s voters, and nothing changes in terms of his strategy for reelection.”
Hunter Biden, 53, will plead guilty to the misdemeanor tax offenses as part of an agreement made public Tuesday. Under the agreement, he will avoid prosecution on a felony charge of illegally possessing a firearm as a drug user, as long as he adheres to conditions set by prosecutors.
The deal ends a long-running Justice Department investigation into Biden’s younger son, who has acknowledged struggling with addiction following the 2015 death of his brother, Beau. It also averts a trial that would have generated distracting headlines for a first-term president just beginning to focus on the 2024 election.
Already, two high-profile Democrats with national ambitions have reaffirmed their support for the president's reelection bid since the plea deal came to light.
“Hunter changes nothing,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. He told the AP over the weekend that “not on God's green earth” would he run against Biden.
“My decision has not changed,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California said of his own decision not to primary Biden. He has been a frequent presence in recent months in early presidential primary states like New Hampshire and Nevada.
That's not to say Democrats are excited about Biden's reelection bid.
Only about 1 in 3 Democrats want the 80-year-old president to seek a second term, according to a poll conducted in February by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a former state House speaker, said on Tuesday that he didn't know if he would vote for Biden in 2024, although Hunter's legal problems have nothing to do with it.
“I feel sorry for the president. I know he loves his children,” said Shurtleff, who has been one of Biden's closest allies in the state for several years. He decided this spring that the Democratic Party would be better off with a new generation of leadership.
“I may end up voting for him again, especially if he's running against Donald Trump or the governor of Florida (Ron DeSantis). If those are the options, I will vote for the president," Shurtleff said. “But I really wish he’d get out of the campaign.”
For Republicans, who have been consumed by Trump's legal baggage for much of the year, the charges against Hunter Biden offered a much-needed opportunity to go on offense — at least temporarily. Republicans on Capitol Hill are vowing to continue investigating the president's son no matter what happens with his current criminal case.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the younger Biden's plea deal, outraged conservatives addressed the revelation in the context of the latest federal indictment against Trump, who is charged with 37 felony counts related to mishandling classified documents and misleading investigators.
The former president is facing years in prison if convicted. He's also fighting 34 felony charges in New York related to alleged hush money payments to a porn actor and a separate investigation by Georgia authorities probing his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.
Hunter Biden will likely avoid jail time based on his plea deal with the Justice Department.
He is set to plead guilty to two misdemeanors for failing to pay more than $100,000 in taxes on over $1.5 million in income in both 2017 and 2018. The felony gun charge states that Hunter Biden possessed a handgun for 11 days in October 2018 despite knowing he was a drug user.
“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!” Trump wrote on his social media site. “People are going wild over the Hunter Biden Scam with the DOJ!”
DeSantis, Trump's leading Republican rival, supported Trump's assessment.
“Looks like Hunter received a sweetheart deal and is not facing any charges on the massive corruption allegations,” DeSantis tweeted. “If Hunter was not connected to the elite DC class he would have been put in jail a long time ago.”
Experts consulted by the AP said that misdemeanor tax cases as well as gun possession charges not associated with another firearm crime are uncommon.
Republican operative Jim Merrill, a veteran of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, predicted that Hunter Biden's plea deal would likely help Trump dominate the Republican Party's nomination fight for the foreseeable future by highlighting the differences between the Trump and Biden cases.
“That perceived contrast plays to Donald Trump’s advantage in the short term,” Merrill said. "And it will allow him to continue dominating primary media coverage and voter attention.”
Regardless, there was an underlying belief among many Republicans that Trump’s legal entanglements would quickly return to the forefront of the 2024 conversation.
Democrats, meanwhile, acknowledged that Biden has serious political challenges ahead even without his son's legal problems.
“I don't think that this will be a significant issue for voters either now or come November 2024,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith. “This is Hunter Biden, not his father.”
“But taking a step back, there's no doubt that no matter who the Republican nominee is, this is going to be a dog fight," Smith added. "President Biden has his work cut out for him.”