ANALYSIS: Special counsel appointment cements Hunter Biden as major campaign issue

Naming a special counsel could turn up the political temperature.

August 11, 2023, 6:00 PM

In theory, naming a special counsel might turn down the temperature on a sensitive investigation -- or at least move things in the direction of settling a grand political disagreement.

But Friday's surprise announcement by Attorney General Merrick Garland, elevating the status of the prosecutor who has long been investigating the business dealings of President Joe Biden's son, figures to do pretty much the opposite.

Hunter Biden's business practices, up to and including work he did for foreign entities and potential intersections with the official actions of his father, are now set to play out through multiple investigatory channels just as the Biden reelection campaign gears up.

A criminal inquiry that just weeks ago looked to be winding down is now very much alive -- and unlikely to be wrapped up to anyone's satisfaction in the foreseeable future. A by-the-books decision is already being viewed skeptically among both Democrats and Republicans, with few reasons to expect that any new status will end any old arguments.

In elevating Delaware US attorney David Weiss to special counsel status after what he said was Weiss' request, Garland on Friday cited the "extraordinary circumstances" surrounding the case. He offered a public commitment to make "as much of his report public as possible."

"I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint him as special counsel," the attorney general said at a brief news conference.

But there's no timeline for Weiss to wrap up his work, and no practical limit as to what his investigation might encompass. The appointment came as prosecutors in Weiss' office said in a new legal filing that they intend to pursue a criminal trial for tax-related offenses, effectively calling off plea negotiations that could have resolved matters quickly.

Barely two weeks ago, Hunter Biden appeared before a federal judge with every expectation that he could end years' worth of legal scrutiny by pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges. The Biden campaign and White House hoped that would be the end of a matter that could be contained to partisan corners of the political spectrum.

Far from celebrating Garland's move as vindication, Republicans served quick notice that they won't necessarily trust the special counsel, or wait for Weiss in any way. Their own investigations -- which have already sparked serious conversations of an impeachment inquiry against the president -- have produced new tidbits that cast doubt on how forthcoming Hunter and his father have been.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan -- who has been at the forefront of Biden-related investigations, and would be intricately involved in any impeachment effort -- said in a statement that Weiss' appointment "is just a new way to whitewash the Biden family's corruption."

Jordan is among the many allies of former President Donald Trump who have sought to elevate Hunter Biden matters for years. Their lack of trust for Weiss, who was appointed by Trump, along with the Trump campaign's references to what he calls the "Biden crime family," serve a familiar political purpose of placing Biden in the middle of a murky Washington swamp.

Notably, it's not just Trump-loyal Republicans who see things that way. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has long called for Weiss to be replaced by a special counsel, and former Vice President Mike Pence told ABC News' Rachel Scott on Friday, "it's about time that we saw the appointment of a special counsel to get to the bottom of not only what Hunter Biden was doing but what the Biden family was doing."

That sentiment is even creeping into Democrats' conversations about the road ahead. Biden faces no serious primary opposition, but another Democratic candidate for president -- Marianne Williamson -- for the first time suggested that the Hunter Biden matter could become campaign fodder.

"Hunter Biden is not his father, of course," Williamson told ABC News in a statement. "It is up to the American people to decide how this complication impacts their view of President Biden's candidacy and whether it's a further reason to move on."

Biden and the White House have long cast Hunter's actions as that of a private citizen, emphasizing that the president and his son have never done business before. The White House did not comment on Friday's announcement by Garland, in keeping with its pledge to stay out of Justice Department business.

Hunter Biden's legal team emphasized the fact that Weiss has had authority to investigate and in fact has investigated him for some five years -- noting that he previously was moving toward "a resolution of his investigation."

The legal pieces, however, are not the only consideration, given that Biden is a candidate for president. Trump's own far-worse legal predicaments may offer him a political defense, though only a partial one, particularly with polls showing the public less than enthusiastic about a Biden vs. Trump rematch.

At its best for Biden, the saga involving his son is a sad one: An addict in a grief-stricken family who benefitted from his family name to make a living and then some, playing loose with tax laws while selling what one associate described before a congressional committee as the "illusion of access."

The worst case scenario is quite a bit more damning, even if a direct financial link between Hunter Biden and his father is never established. A father's love for his son is unlikely to end the relevant inquiries, and questions are likely to outstrip answers for the foreseeable future.