After months of staying silent amid an avalanche of attacks by President Trump and his team, Hunter Biden, son of the former vice president, made his first public comments in an interview Tuesday morning just about 12 hours before his father takes the debate stage Tuesday night.
For the majority of the Democrats running for president, and even one notable surrogate to Joe Biden himself, there is a sense of confusion as to why Hunter is choosing now to finally speak up about the extent of his business ties in Ukraine and China.
“I wouldn’t have put Hunter on the air,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a top surrogate for Biden, told The Daily Beast. “I think the more you respond, the more you’re playing into Donald Trump.”
Rendell, who said was not involved in any discussions about the matter, wondered aloud about the thinking behind it, before doubling down. “There’s a danger in playing Trump’s game,” he said bluntly.
For Team Biden, Hunter’s Biden’s interview, which aired on ABC News’ Good Morning America, was an opportunity to clear the air and turn the attention back to the widespread corruption running rampant in the Trump White House. It also gave the younger Biden a chance to present facts in his own words to counter Trump’s misinformation campaign.
In the interview, he admitted that he had shown “poor judgment” in taking the job with a Ukrainian natural gas company but insisted that he had done nothing unethical. He also took the opportunity to fire back at the Trumps who had criticized him, comparing the president's son to the buffoonish prince in The Princess Bride. “Donald—Prince Humperdinck—Trump Jr. is not somebody that I really care about,” he said.
“How, when and the substance of this came directly from Hunter,” a source familiar told The Daily Beast. “The campaign did not arrange this, but Hunter has been increasingly under attack in personal and vicious terms for the past couple of weeks from the president—all based on lies—and he made the decision to speak.”
Rival campaigns weren’t so sure.
“This is insane that they would do it,” a senior adviser to a Democratic opponent said.
Multiple aides to 2020 candidates found the timing suspect and speculated that Hunter Biden’s move to go public automatically puts the debate moderators in a position that they can’t ignore it on Tuesday night.
“Everyone else had laid off of Joe Biden,” the senior adviser added. “Now that’s all gone. I would bet $100 it’s the first question. If it is, it’s a major disaster.”
“Why even put it out there to answer for that?,” another rival campaign aide asked. “Now it’s fair game that a moderator can bring it up.”
A third aide wondered why the whole thing was necessary at all: “When I saw that I thought, why would you do that? There was no clamor to hear from Hunter directly.”
The Westerville debate will be moderated by CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and The New York Times’ National Editor Marc Lacey. Biden will assume a center-stage spot, joining Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and mega-donor Tom Steyer, who will join for his first debate of the 2020 cycle.
Some aides speculated that if it’s not the moderators, debate wildcards Gabbard and Steyer may launch surprise attacks on the former vice president. Aides to two 2020 candidates said Biden’s team should be prepared for a possible line of attack following Hunter Biden’s interview that goes against the soft embrace he’s enjoyed by other candidates thus far, and pointed to Gabbard and Steyer as the contenders most likely to go for it.
“I would be shocked if candidates lean in,” one aide said, before tweaking their thought: “Maybe Tulsi, maybe Steyer.”
Biden’s son has been uncredibly accused, largely by the president and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, over unsubstantiated claims of misconduct tied to business dealings in Ukraine and China. Hunter Biden stepped down from the board of a private gas firm before his father launched his presidential bid over the spring, but that didn’t stop the president from relentlessly unleashing attacks on his work. And over recent days, the narrative shifted to China. On Oct. 13, when Hunter Biden announced he would also step down from the board of the Chinese private equity company he served on, some outside observers saw the arrangement as ethically dubious.
But for the majority of Biden’s fellow Democratic presidential contenders, the bigger issue was the timing behind it, just hours ahead of the debate. And while presidential contenders are highly unlikely to launch into attacks on Biden on stage, according to interviews with half a dozen aides advising their bosses for the event, questions about Hunter Biden’s decision dominated private discussions on Monday ahead of the Ohio event.
For weeks, the Biden campaign was content to argue forcefully that the entire thing was a non-story—a controversy manufactured by Trump in order to appear that something was untoward when in reality the president and his children were engaged in something far worse. On Sunday night, Hunter Biden’s lawyer George Mesires released his own statement.
“Hunter always understood that his father would be guided, entirely and unequivocally, by established U.S. policy, irrespective of its effects on Hunter’s professional interests,” Mesires said in a post on Medium. “This was the standard observed throughout Hunter’s professional career.”
Then, Mesires detailed a new commitment on behalf of the former vice president’s son.
“Under a Biden Administration, Hunter will readily comply with any and all guidelines or standards a President Biden may issue to address purported conflicts of interest, or the appearance of such conflicts, including any restrictions related to overseas business interests. In any event, Hunter will agree not to serve on boards of, or work on behalf of, foreign owned companies,” Mesires wrote.
Still, not everyone was convinced the move was such a bad idea. One top aide to another presidential contender drew a parallel between what Biden’s team is grappling with and a hurdle that previously plagued another campaign.
“It’s the way Elizabeth Warren did it with her DNA test,” the senior campaign aide said, referencing the Massachusetts Democrat’s decision to preemptively release the results of a DNA test to show part of her heritage after being taunted for months by Trump. The move, widely panned at the time, has not stifled Warren’s eventual assent to achieve co-frontrunner status with Biden.
“Everyone was like ‘what’s she doing?’ But you know what, it worked.”