Democratic nominee Joe Biden coolly defended his son Hunter Biden in the last general election debate of the presidential race, providing a rough rendering of what he has maintained for over a year: that “nothing was unethical” about his conduct abroad.
The moment came approximately one hour into the NBC News event in Nashville, Tennessee, as President Donald Trump sought to insinuate that the former vice president was an unscrupulous Russian money leech, before turning to his son.
“They were paying you a lot of money,” Trump said to Biden, referring to Russia. “And they probably still are. But now with what came out today it’s even worse. All of the emails. The emails, the horrible emails [and] the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family. And Joe, you were vice president when some of this was happening,” he said.
Biden hardly looked surprised.
“I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden said, before pivoting to the president’s still unreleased tax returns and then circling back to protect his son.
“Nothing was unethical,” Biden said. “Here’s the deal. With regard to Ukraine, we had this whole question about whether or not, because he was on the board … of Burisma, a company, that somehow I had done something wrong. Yet every single solitary person when he was going through his impeachment, testifying under oath who worked for him, said I did my job impeccably. I carried out U.S. policy. Not one single solitary thing was out of line.”
“The guy who got in trouble in Ukraine was this guy trying to bribe the Ukrainian government to say something negative about me, which they would not do and did not do because it never, ever, ever happened,” Biden continued on stage. “My son has not made money in terms of this thing about—what are you talking about, China,” he said. “The only guy that made money from China is this guy. He’s the only one. Nobody else has made money from China.”
After the mentally dizzying kickoff against his Republican rival in late September, Biden campaign officials prepared their principal for the probability that Trump could use many different tactics to divert one last time from the hundreds of thousands of positive COVID-19 cases. And, as The Daily Beast reported earlier on Thursday, the Democratic nominee’s campaign confirmed on a call that meant his family.
Hours before the televised finale began, senior officials briefed reporters about Biden’s strategy of circumventing Trump’s presumed off-topic remarks by talking to viewers at home about coronavirus, which the president has largely tried to avoid. Trump is “actively running away from his own record,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said.
While Trump for days seemed eager to go off in a number of directions on Hunter Biden—despite mixed guidance from some in his inner circle—officials from Biden’s campaign spent only a few moments discussing how weak and corrosive they thought the attack was, and how they believe it won’t alter the race in fewer than two weeks. Bedingfield called Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer and a chief spinner of the narrative about the former vice president’s son, “perhaps one of the most discredited humans” around.
A few hours later, the Trump campaign had their own phone conversation with reporters. It struck a different note. “This is a call to talk about the Biden emails,” a journalist on the line tweeted, attributing the quote to Ric Grenell, a Trump ally who was once the acting director of national intelligence. Grenell, reporters said, heckled them about whether or not they had been sufficiently reporting on Hunter Biden. Trump campaign officials also let it slip that they had invited a man named Tony Bobulinski, who was a work associate of Biden’s son, as a guest, which Trump slyly acknowledged on stage.
Democrats have generally stayed out of the Republican-led Hunter Biden matter since the primary. Early in the cycle, Biden’s opponents avoided faulting him, or rushing to any early conclusions, over various claims of misconduct by his son with foreign entities. Party operatives warned that the Trump campaign would probably play dirty. That strategy has since extended to the general, where new unproven allegations published in the conservative The New York Post and peddled by Giuliani suggested that Hunter Biden had engaged in other inappropriate deals, which the former New York City mayor claimed were documented on his laptop computer. The storyline has juiced up Team Trump. Before the debate got underway, the president appeared flustered during a pre-recorded 60 Minutes segment airing on Sunday when interviewer Lesley Stahl reminded him that the claims had not been proven.
Nearing the conclusion of the debate, Trump grew increasingly desperate to introduce the laptop detail into the discourse and to try to convince viewers that Biden, a public figure for decades, is not who he appears to be.
“If this stuff is true about Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, if this is true then he’s a corrupt politician, so don’t give me the stuff about how you’re this innocent baby. Joe, they’re calling you a corrupt politician,” Trump said, before Biden replied: “Nobody’s calling me that.”
“They’re calling it ‘the laptop from hell,’” Trump said, exercising less restraint than he exhibited earlier in the night.
“Nobody is saying that,” Biden retorted. “I have to respond to that because there are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plant,” he went on. “Five former heads of the CIA, both parties, say what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage. Nobody believes it except him and his good friend Rudy Giuliani,” Biden said.
Trump responded by mentioning his own impeachment trial in the House. “You mean the laptop is now another Russia, Russia, Russia hoax?”
Biden finished by saying that’s “exactly” what the intelligence community has found.