Inexplicable legally, inexplicable ethically, and only barely explicable politically. With two weeks to go before the election, Donald Trump wants to make his drain-the-swamp argument focus on Joe and Hunter Biden — by demanding a politically motivated investigation into his rivals. Trump may want revenge for Russiagate, but he’s essentially trying to use the same mechanisms in the exact way he has accused the Obama administration of doing to attack him:
President Trump urged Attorney General William Barr to initiate an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, escalating his efforts to discredit his Democratic opponent two weeks before the election.
Asked Tuesday on Fox News whether he supported tapping a special prosecutor to probe the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine and China, Mr. Trump said, “We’ve got to get the attorney general to act. He’s got to act, and he’s got to act fast. He’s got to appoint somebody. This is major corruption and this has to be known about before the election.”
Mr. Trump’s comments come in response to a letter from 11 House Republicans asking Mr. Barr to appoint an “independent, unbiased special counsel” to investigate allegations stemming from New York Post articles suggesting the former vice president was involved in or benefited from his son’s overseas work. The lawmakers also called on such a special counsel to investigate “any corresponding legal or ethical issues that might be uncovered from the former vice president’s 47 years in public office.”
Speaking of ethics, the ordering (or at least public pleading) of the Department of Justice to undertake criminal probes against one’s political opponents opens up multiple cans of ethics worms. While presidents have the technical authority to order or stop DoJ investigations, they rarely if ever exercise it, especially in electoral contexts. While it’s not illegal, it presents such a conflict of interest that it instantly undermines confidence in the DoJ’s work. There is almost no way to pull that off so that it doesn’t appear to be an abuse of power.
But Obama did it to Trump! people will respond. Perhaps, but if so, the point of a populist renewal of our institutions is to keep presidents from doing it in the future, not to make it a habit or (heaven forfend) a frickin’ tradition. That is banana-republic territory.
Legally and logistically, this is even more foolish. Barr already has investigations into Russiagate that necessarily have stretched into months, if not years of effort. There are literally fourteen days to Election Day, and millions of people have already voted. Barr couldn’t even get agents reassigned in time to get a proper investigation started in two weeks. Furthermore, there doesn’t appear to be any statutory crimes demonstrated thus far — only the kind of influence-peddling that’s morally and ethically corrupt but don’t necessarily cross the line into crimes. Even the New York Post’s smoking gun demonstrates only that Biden lied about not knowing of his son’s business operations before pressing for the removal of Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. That’s not a crime in itself, and the proper forum for an investigation of that would be Congress rather than the DoJ.
Politically, perhaps Trump sees this as a way to stoke the base, and maybe it might excite them tangentially. But it is a strange decision indeed to focus the last two weeks of an election not on the economy, not on foreign policy, and not on Operation Warp Speed, where Trump has potentially winning arguments, but on the son of his political rival. Hunter Biden touches nearly no voters’ lives and matters less than all of those other issues. It’s so out of touch that it looks even odder than the sum of its legal and ethical deficiencies.