WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates are likely to stick to script if they’re asked on the debate stage next Tuesday about rival Joe Biden, his son Hunter and the newly developing impeachment inquiry, according to sources on several campaigns.
“I think a lot of candidates have been out there defending Biden, and if more questions come up at the debate, a lot of the candidates know that answering in a certain way is playing into Trump’s hands,” a staffer for one of the campaigns told Yahoo News. The staffer, whose boss is set to be onstage next week, said comparisons of that candidate’s record against Biden’s wouldn’t be off the table.
“I’m sure that’s going to be the posture of a lot of candidates,” the staffer added.
Over the last several weeks, a number of Democratic contenders have been pressed on the trail about Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president. Although neither Biden has been accused by U.S. or Ukrainian authorities of any misconduct, President Trump in a July phone call asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden’s dealings, a move that Republicans have labeled “rooting out corruption.”
While Trump’s Ukraine call is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry, it also touched off a wave of renewed scrutiny — and criticism — of Hunter Biden’s business relationships abroad. That has left Democratic candidates to navigate the tricky position of condemning Trump for his attacks on Joe Biden while also distancing themselves from what appears to have been a potentially conflicted business arrangement.
“There is no reason [to look] into Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden,” said former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “They have been cleared of any wrongdoing whatsoever.” O’Rourke clarified, however, that if he were president, “I would not allow a family member, anyone in my Cabinet, to have a family member work in a position like that.” Several presidential contenders followed suit.
A staffer for O’Rourke added that if the Texas politician were pressed onstage, his remarks would be “consistent with what he’s said” in the past.
“I can promise you right now, my own daughter, who’s only 24, does not sit on the board of a foreign company,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar on CNN. “But that is not the issue. The issue here is what the president is doing.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris said she would “probably not” let her vice president’s child serve on a foreign company’s board, but she criticized Trump’s attacks on Biden. “Look, as far as I’m concerned, leave Joe Biden alone,” she said. “I’m not going to be distracted by what this president is trying to play.”
Appearing on CNN, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker praised Biden as a “very honorable man.”
“This in no way can besmirch his character, his honor and his incredible service to this country over decades,” he added.
Several campaign staffers said that unity among the Democrats on the Biden issue poses a serious threat to Trump.
“We are very unified right now,” said another Dem campaign aide. “No one is taking the bait. Some people might on the debate stage — CNN might try to create that moment — but teams know as soon as we do it we play into Trump’s hand. We have to be focused on this. We can’t lose sight of the person of the hour here: Donald Trump.”
Trump himself has tweeted frustrations at the Democrats’ apparent lockstep.
“The Democrats are lucky that they don’t have any Mitt Romney types,” he wrote. “They may be lousy politicians, with really bad policies (Open Borders, Sanctuary Cities etc.), but they stick together!”
But it will be up to Biden, who has shouldered a deluge of attacks on himself and his family, to fight back against Trump.
A Biden adviser said Tuesday evening’s broadcast will give the former vice president “a chance to continue to be aggressive on Trump. If the abuses of office have shown us anything, it’s just how concerned and worried Trump is about Biden. Expect the same level of tone and aggression and fervor directed at Trump to continue.”
The Biden adviser agreed with staffers on other teams that candidates’ records are not off the table. If the conversation gets into the minutiae of who onstage presents the most “progressive” ideology, Biden is prepared to step in with his long-held campaign belief that “we need more than plans, we need a president who can deliver.”
A few staffers expressed concern that candidates who have been out of the debate scene, such as Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, could take the offensive, either on Hunter or Joe Biden or any number of other issues, to generate interest in their campaigns. It’s currently unclear if Gabbard will even show up on Tuesday night; her campaign released a video on Twitter teasing a potential boycott.
“There are some wild cards,” said the Democratic aide. “I just hope we don’t go too far off the deep end. ... That would be a bummer, especially if it was from the two people who weren’t at the last debate.”
A senior staffer for a campaign who didn’t qualify for next week’s debate said that while “the vice president needs to answer questions about what Hunter was doing and why,” voters will not want to see party infighting.
The senior staffer has a hunch that Gabbard could be an “attack dog” against Biden. (The Gabbard campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“My advice to everyone is to leave those questions to the moderators,” the senior staffer said. “I expect not everyone will heed that advice.”
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