WASHINGTON (SBG) — President-elect Joe Biden’s commitment to the independence of the Justice Department could be tested early in his administration as federal prosecutors and the FBI probe his son’s finances, presenting new political and legal challenges for the former vice president to navigate as he prepares to take office.
In a recent CNN interview, Biden vowed his Justice Department would operate in “a totally different way” than President Donald Trump’s has and would not be influenced by politics or personal considerations. The comments came in response to a question about reports that Trump was weighing preemptive pardons of his children.
“It's not my Justice Department. It's the people's Justice Department,” Biden said. “So, the person or persons I pick to run that department are going to be people who are going to have the independent capacity to decide who gets prosecuted and who doesn't.”
That stance is facing fresh scrutiny after Biden’s son Hunter confirmed in a statement Wednesday that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware is investigating his “tax affairs.” Sinclair Broadcast Group previously reported in October that Hunter was under federal criminal investigation.
“I take this matter very seriously but I am confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately, including with the benefit of professional tax advisors,” Hunter Biden said.
According to The Associated Press, the investigation was launched in 2018 and is at least partially focused on Hunter’s activities in China. Hunter Biden was involved in a Chinese investment fund while his father was vice president, and he worked with a Chinese energy firm, CEFC Energy, on an effort to invest in U.S. energy projects in 2017 that ultimately collapsed.
CNN reported the federal probe has looked into whether Hunter properly reported his income for tax purposes for several years, including a 2.8-carat diamond he received from CEFC’s founder. He also briefly served as an attorney for a Chinese businessman linked to CEFC who was convicted of bribing officials in Chad and Uganda.
Reports of a possible federal investigation related to Hunter Biden’s business activities first emerged in October when a Delaware computer repair shop owner claimed he had been subpoenaed by the FBI in late 2019 to turn over a laptop Hunter purportedly left with him. The computer supposedly contained emails related to Biden’s dealings in Ukraine and China, which were provided to The New York Post by Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s attorney.
The only public statement on the investigation from President-elect Biden’s office Wednesday made no mention of the specific allegations or how he intends to handle them once inaugurated. In the past, Biden has acknowledged his son made mistakes but denied any legal or ethical wrongdoing.
“President-elect Biden is deeply proud of his son, who has fought through difficult challenges, including the vicious personal attacks of recent months, only to emerge stronger,” the transition team said.
That response is unlikely to satisfy Republican critics who have long questioned the propriety of Hunter Biden’s business dealings in countries where his father influenced over U.S. policy. President Trump made Hunter’s alleged corruption a centerpiece of his reelection campaign in the final weeks of the race, even bringing one of Hunter’s former business partners to a debate as a guest.
Senate Republicans released an extensive report on Hunter Biden’s foreign business activities in September, including his dealings in China. Though the report raised questions about conflicts of interest and cast doubt on the legality of some transactions, it did not identify any evidence that the deals impacted his father’s policy decisions.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of one of the committees that issued that report, complained on Twitter Wednesday that the media and Democrats ignored his findings and accused him of propagating foreign disinformation. The report stated the Treasury Department had flagged several of Hunter Biden’s transactions for “potential financial criminal activity.”
“Now those same orgs report IRS/FBI subpoenaing Hunter Biden in tax fraud probe over his China ties,” Grassley wrote.
President Trump—who is still contesting Biden’s election victory in court—tweeted a comment by a New York Post columnist Wednesday night claiming 10% of voters would have changed their votes if they knew about the investigation. A postelection survey conducted for the conservative Media Research Center suggested 4.6% of Biden voters would not have supported the former vice president if they knew more about the probe of his son.
However, that survey question alleged President-elect Biden was directly implicated in corrupt dealings with China, and there is no evidence to support that assertion. Biden won the election despite extensive reporting about his son’s questionable business deals—including reports that Hunter was under active FBI investigation—so it is unclear if confirmation of the investigation would have made much of a difference.
According to Brandon Rottinghaus, an expert on political scandals at the University of Houston, reactions to political scandals have become deeply partisan in recent decades, and this one will probably be the same. Republicans may claim it should have been more thoroughly investigated before the election and raise doubts about Biden’s integrity, while Democrats will downplay those concerns and try to move on.
“Supportive partisans forget, but opponents don’t... Everyone in between is confused about what’s really true,” Rottinghaus said.
Democratic strategist Scott Ferson expects the political impact will be determined by how Biden and his administration deal with the investigation and the outcome. If it is handled appropriately, as he believes it will be, it might be painful for Biden personally but not necessarily damaging politically.
“If there is an issue there, it’s good to get that taken care of, investigated now, rather than have it lingering for a long period of time,” Ferson said.
Questions about Hunter Biden probably will linger, whether justified or not, predicted Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University and editor of two books on political scandals. Attacks on Hunter over his business and personal activities could present an ongoing distraction for his father’s administration.
“Hunter Biden will be synonymous with scandal for the next four years... The public, particularly the conservative public, has been primed to look at Hunter as the poster child for corruption,” Dagnes said.
President Trump’s adult children have faced scrutiny and investigations, as well. If Biden adheres to his pledge to stay out of Justice Department affairs, it would represent a stark contrast with the outgoing president’s approach.
Trump has spent much of the last four years railing against the FBI and DOJ over probes of his campaign, his family, and his political allies. He has publicly and privately pressured his attorneys general to shut down investigations that could hurt him and open investigations that would benefit him.
“It could be that President-elect Biden decides to take a hands-off policy even with regard to his own family, which would send a strong signal,” Rottinghaus said.
How much sending that signal matters is a different question. Any response from Biden is certain to be viewed through the same partisan lens as most other political developments in the modern media environment, inevitably drawing skepticism from Republicans.
“It is an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is, and 40% of the American public won’t care,” Dagnes said.
According to Politico, federal investigators have also been digging into the role of Biden’s brother James in the management of rural hospital company Americore Health as part of a separate probe. It is unclear what the focus of that investigation is or exactly how James Biden is connected with the company.
In the CNN interview last week, President-elect Biden assured the public his son and his brothers would not participate in any business ventures that create even the appearance of impropriety while he is in office. During the campaign, Hunter Biden had committed to halting foreign business activities if his father won.
“My family will not be involved in any business, any enterprise that is in conflict with or appears to be in conflict, where there's appropriate distance from the presidency and government,” Biden said.
Even before Hunter Biden’s statement Wednesday, some Republicans were demanding a special counsel be appointed to investigate the business dealings of President-elect Biden’s family. The confirmation of the federal probe is certain to add fuel to those efforts.
“These investigations span multiple jurisdictions and if Joe Biden becomes president then all of those prosecutors are in line to be fired next month. If there were ever circumstances that created a conflict of interest and called for a special counsel, I think those circumstances are present here,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told Fox News Thursday.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who led an investigation of Hunter Biden’s finances, said he opposes appointing a special counsel, insisting he would give the federal investigators handling the case “the benefit of the doubt.” However, he warned he would be watching closely to ensure there is no cover-up, which he claimed occurred during the FBI probe of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server.
"I will cross my fingers and hope that is not what this is about, and does not turn into, under a Biden administration," Johnson said on Fox News Wednesday.
Ferson noted the appointment of a special counsel is typically only necessary if an attorney general is compromised or mishandles a case in some way. Robert Mueller was appointed to handle the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself and President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
“If [Biden’s] son has issues in that regard, I don’t think it requires a special prosecutor because it seems fairly contained to Hunter Biden’s behavior,” he said.
Biden has not yet announced his nominee to head the Department of Justice, but whoever it is will surely face pointed questions from Republicans about how they would preserve the integrity of this probe. If Republicans retain the majority in the Senate after runoff elections in Georgia next month, it could present a significant hurdle for confirmation of Biden’s pick.
The Georgia elections might also determine how lasting and destructive the political fallout from an investigation turns out to be. If the Clinton email investigation or the probe of Clinton’s handling of a terrorist attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi are any indication, Dagnes doubts a Republican Senate majority would accept the closure of the case under Biden appointees as the final word.
“I think it depends on if Republicans maintain control of the Senate,” she said. “At that point, I would imagine a Benghazi-level of committee hearing after committee hearing after committee hearing.”