Impeachment trial fallout: Trump could get his wish — to hurt Biden

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Former Vice President Joe Biden at a Democratic primary campaign event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Tuesday. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 12 days until the Iowa caucuses and 286 days until the 2020 election.

The odds that President Trump’s impeachment trial will lead to his undoing are microscopic, as any observer of the lockstep Republican-controlled Senate can see. But the fallout could complicate life for Trump’s leading Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in the days and weeks ahead — which is exactly what Trump was trying to do when he first launched his Ukraine scheme last summer.  

As the all-important Iowa caucuses approach, the former vice president appears, at first glance, to be in better shape than his main rivals for the Democratic nomination. Though a new CNN poll shows Bernie Sanders narrowly pulling ahead of Biden for the first time, every other poll released so far this year shows Biden maintaining his longtime national lead by anywhere from 5 to 11 percentage points. His average level of support ­— 28 percent — is identical to what it was a year ago.

In Iowa, Biden now leads Sanders by nearly 4 points, on average, after polling in fourth place as recently as December. In New Hampshire, where Biden was also polling in fourth last month, he now trails Sanders by 1 point and leads Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg by more than 4. In Nevada, he is ahead by nearly 6 points; in South Carolina, he is trouncing his closest competitor by 17 points. A detailed forecast by the data journalists at FiveThirtyEight currently gives Biden a 44 percent chance of winning the nomination. Sanders (20 percent), Warren (13 percent) and Buttigieg (8 percent) all trail by wide margins.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a town hall in Anamosa, Iowa, on Jan. 3. (Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

What’s more, Warren, Sanders and moderate dark horse Amy Klobuchar are all senators, which means they’ll be stuck at their desks ­— unable to talk, tweet or take to the trail in key states — eight hours a day, six days a week for the duration of Trump’s impeachment trial. Apart from Buttigieg and other, unlikelier candidates, Biden will basically have Iowa and New Hampshire to himself for the next few weeks. 

So why should he worry about what’s happening in Washington, D.C.?

The problem is that what’s happening in Washington, D.C. is all about him. Amid the procedural debates over admitting evidence and allowing witnesses, it’s easy to forget what triggered this whole ordeal: Trump’s attempt last summer to tarnish Biden, his most formidable rival at the time, by coercing Ukrainian officials into announcing an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, who was a member of the board of directors of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. To be clear: as vice president, Biden pursued Obama administration policy and pushed to remove a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor — an effort that made it more likely, not less, that Ukraine would investigate corruption at Burisma. Independent fact checkers have repeatedly and unanimously debunked Trump’s false claims about Biden and Ukraine.

But that doesn’t mean the Biden campaign wants the media and the public to devote the next week and a half to obsessing over the story. Trump, on the other hand, almost certainly does. The truth is, Hunter Biden has struggled with a number of personal and professional problems and, lacking any relevant energy industry experience, he undoubtedly got the lucrative board post on the strength of his name. At the time, top State Department official George Kent raised concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest, only to be ignored, and both Hunter and Joe Biden later acknowledged that the arrangement represented “poor judgment,” in Hunter’s words, even if it wasn’t “improper.”

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter at a basketball game in 2010. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Biden’s team is clearly concerned about the national narrative. On Monday, they issued a memo warning media outlets that if they “fail to make clear that the conspiracy theory and false accusations about Joe Biden have been comprehensively disproven,” they will be “enabler[s] of misinformation.” On Tuesday, the campaign released a YouTube video in which Andrew Bates, Biden’s rapid-response director, insists that “the clinical term” for Trump’s allegations is “horses***.” Right now, Biden is fending off attacks from Sanders’s campaign over his willingness in the past to consider cuts to Social Security benefits. Two top Sanders surrogates have penned op-eds in recent days accusing Biden of “corruption” and having “repeatedly betrayed black voters” (Sanders apologized for the former). The last thing Biden needs as he attempts to deliver his closing argument is for America’s entire media apparatus to be amplifying Trump’s “misinformation” as well — which the president’s super-PAC is already doing a fine job of amplifying on Facebook.

It’s also possible that Biden himself — and perhaps even Hunter — will play a starring role in the trial. Though top House Democrats have repeatedly dismissed the idea, the Washington Post reported Tuesday that “several Senate Democrats are privately discussing the possibility of calling Republicans’ bluff on witnesses, weighing an unusual trade in President Trump’s impeachment trial: the testimony of Hunter Biden for the testimony of a key administration official” — that is, former national security adviser John Bolton. The former vice president has already said he would “obey any subpoena that was sent to me” and travel to Capitol Hill to testify. Whether or not Democrats cut a deal — others waved off the Post’s report Wednesday — it’s likely that if witnesses do get called, Republicans will try to get both Bidens on the stand. The ensuing circus would represent a massive distraction for the Biden campaign, and given Joe’s “gaffe machine” reputation and Hunter’s troubled past, it could easily go sideways.

Former Vice President Joe Biden at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, on Wednesday. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The elder Biden, for one, plainly despises the notion. “I just asked Joe Biden about Senate Democrats considering swapping testimony of him or his son in exchange for John Bolton,” Washington Post political reporter Matt Viser tweeted Wednesday.

“No, they’re not,” Biden said.

Some of them are, Viser countered.

“No, they’re not,” Biden said again.

Would he consider testifying? Viser asked.

“No, they’re not,” Biden said a third time.

Ultimately, the real danger of the drama in D.C. is that it may look to wavering Democrats like a last-minute preview of precisely the sort of general-election battle they don’t want to wage. Biden’s argument is that he will “beat Trump like a drum” by appealing to working-class defectors who want to restore “the soul of America.” Trump’s implicit argument is that everyone is corrupt — Biden included — so you might as well stick with the guy who’s been occupying the Oval Office while the economy has been on a tear. The impeachment trial gives Trump’s team an opportunity to drag Biden — unfairly and inaccurately — down into the mud. It’s possible that after weeks of exhausting Senate fights, undecided Iowans and New Hampshirites may ask whether that’s really where they want to spend the next nine months.

To be sure, all of these causes for concern are also chances for Biden to solidify his frontrunner status. Trump’s attacks could elevate him and make him look even more “electable,” and testifying in the Senate could give him a platform to strike back and prove his power as a candidate. 

Yet, as predictable as the eventual outcome of Trump’s impeachment trial may be, its impact on Biden’s campaign is anything but clear.

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