As Joe Biden’s campaign braces itself for an onslaught of highly dubious accusations from Donald Trump over Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine, Democratic veterans of the last presidential election are watching in horror.
Nearly three years after their boss was on the receiving end of Trump’s attacks, former aides to Hillary Clinton recognized the current Trump playbook: allegations of corruption amplified by his allies and the conservative media, followed by the mainstream press adding more oxygen to the scandal by treating it as a horse race story rather than a misinformation campaign.
As a result, they are sounding the alarm, urging Biden’s campaign to be extremely careful with how they handle the fallout, arguing that missteps will be twisted and exploited sometimes before a cohesive pushback strategy can be crafted. And, they warn, it’s not just Biden’s problem to tackle.
“I think the other candidates should all recognize that it may be Joe Biden in the barrel today but it could just as easily be them tomorrow if Trump decides any of them emerge as the Democratic nominee,” said Brian Fallon, who served as Clinton’s press secretary in 2016. “It is a problem that needs to be tended to by the party as a whole. It is not a Joe Biden problem. It is a party problem.”
Karen Finney, a political consultant and former spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, said the Biden campaign has done a good job calling attention to Team Trump’s tactic of creating a false equivalence between Joe and Hunter Biden and what Trump reportedly said during a phone call with the Ukrainian president. But she warned that the onslaught was just starting. “Everybody get ready, because this is what 2020 is going to be like every day,” Finney said.
The fears expressed by multiple Clinton veterans underscore the difficult task at hand for Biden, the current frontrunner in the Democratic primary. Going after Trump for encouraging or even pressuring the president of Ukraine to investigate allegations of corruption involving Hunter Biden may seem like the only move at hand, but it runs the risk of elevating the attacks on his son even further.
“The key piece of advice is to never repeat the negative,” said Zac Petkanas, a former senior adviser to Clinton who ran her 2016 campaign’s rapid response effort. “Never accept the premise of the question. The only thing the Biden campaign should say about the substance of the attack is that it has been debunked.”
For now, the former vice president’s team sees no other choice than to rebut the president and his team head-on.
“This is a situation where there is no question about whether us reacting to it gives it more oxygen,” said Anita Dunn, an adviser to the Biden campaign. “When the president, his personal of lawyer, the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of state, and every other person they can find is out there raising the issue, when the president decides to tweet or talk to the press, he is elevating the issue regardless of whatever we are doing. The question then becomes: What is the most effective way to combat it?”
“We will be direct, call it out for what it is, be aggressive, and won’t back down,” Dunn added. “I hope the media has taken some lessons from 2016 on this too, because the media tries to play by a set of rules and Trump knows what those rules are, and uses them to his advantage because he doesn’t play by any rules.”
Those who have worked on campaigns past don’t quibble with the approach. But there are fears that Biden’s campaign has already made errors. One Clinton vet noted that Hunter Biden told The New Yorker in July that he had spoken to his father about his Ukraine work, in contrast to the former vice president’s assertion that the topic was never discussed.
“That’s an inconsistency,” said the former Clinton aide, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely. “They should get their facts in order and push back hard on substance so that everyone can have confidence that this won’t be a real issue for his campaign.”
Biden’s campaign has, in recent days, denied any wrongdoing. It’s also gone after Trump, his allies, and reporters for suggesting there’s any validity to the claim. During a press gaggle in Iowa, Biden called Trump’s conduct an apparent “overwhelming abuse of power.” And his spokesman, Andrew Bates, told The Daily Beast that Trump had debased the presidency, “remind[ing] the American people of something he made clear long ago: He will always put himself before his country.”
Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton confidant, said the best course of action for Biden’s team moving forward is to “just let it rip.” Biden, he said “should just breathe fire and say, ‘Look, you’re lying.’”
To that end, in a strongly worded memo sent to some members of the media on Saturday, Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield pushed any media outlet covering Trump’s allegations to “state at the outset that there is no factual basis for Trump’s claims,” asserting that failure to do so “is misleading readers and viewers.”
“The inescapable news from this week is that Donald Trump, in order to damage the potential Democratic nominee he fears the most—and who, as Joe Biden said Saturday, polls consistently show would ‘beat him like a drum’—may very well have perpetrated an abuse of presidential power that has never before taken place in American history,” the memo read.
Trump himself has not shied away from the accusation that he encouraged the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation into Hunter Biden’s work as part of conversations about sending military aid to the country. He has suggested he’d even be comfortable with a transcript of the call being made public, all while insisting that the real scandal involves the former vice president’s encouragement that a Ukrainian prosecutor looking into the Hunter Biden-tied company be sacked. Several reports have noted that other officials, including many European governments, wanted the Ukrainian prosecutor gone on grounds that he was corrupt.
The chaotic fallout has prompted many Clinton allies to draw comparisons to the allegations they were tasked with responding to in the lead-up to the 2016 general election. During that campaign, Clinton faced months of scrutiny over her use of a private email server, the workings of her family’s charitable foundation, and revelations that she’d exchanged more than 100 emails that contained classified information. She struggled with how to respond to the steady drip of news and hesitated for weeks over whether to apologize.
But by the end of the cycle, she and her team came to believe that the news media’s coverage of the controversies lacked any proportionality—certainly when compared to the coverage devoted to Trump. Reflecting on that now, Fallon called the stories of Clinton’s wrongdoings “banana peels” that would have the effect of making them slip up. Biden, he warned, would be wise to simply avoid stepping on them at all.
“Trying to sort of duke it out in the press every day is not a recipe for long-term success,” Fallon said. “You might get the better of any given cycle, but it won’t alter the trajectory of the story or shift the press off the mindset of probing any merits of whatever controversy Trump is trying to fan around your candidacy.”