William Barr “has to act” and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter before election day, Donald Trump said on Tuesday, addressing his attorney general via his favorite medium, the Fox & Friends morning show.
Hunter Biden is the subject of reports by the New York Post about a laptop hard drive purportedly left at a repair shop in Delaware and obtained by Trump ally Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor is now Trump’s personal attorney and his search for political dirt on the Bidens has played out in public, having contributed to Trump’s impeachment for approaches made to Ukraine.
The Post stories, about alleged corruption involving an energy company, have not been verified by other outlets and have been treated with caution by social media platforms. Fox News is reported to have passed on the story, meant as an “October surprise” to boost the president as he struggles against Biden in the polls, given concerns over its credibility. On Monday the New York Times reported dissent in the Murdoch paper’s newsroom over its hurried production. One former Post staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian: “This reeks.”
But Fox has shown no compunction about discussing the claims widely on its air. In a 45-minute telephone interview on Tuesday, the Fox & Friends hosts asked Trump about it repeatedly.
The president was asked if he would “appoint a special prosecutor” to investigate the story and “any corresponding legal or ethical issues that might be uncovered from the former vice-president’s 47 years in public office”.
Trump replied: “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.”
The new demand by Trump of Barr, who critics say has done more than any attorney general in history to protect the political interests of his president, shows how perilous any allegiance to Trump can be, said Stand Up Republic, a non-profit government reform group.
“Trump attacking Barr should be a warning to every Republican: the compromises you make to your ethics and principles will never be enough,” the group tweeted. “There is always one more compromise, one more demand, one more corruption that he will require of you. There is no ‘half-in’ with Trump.”
Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, said Trump’s call to prosecute his political opponents was an abuse of power that would have been unthinkable under previous presidents.
“Imagine if George W Bush publicly called on John Ashcroft to investigate and potentially indict John Kerry’s children in October 2004,” Honig tweeted, “or if Barack Obama pressed Eric Holder to open a case against Mitt Romney’s family in October 2012.”
Barr has often been seen to carry out Trump’s wishes – and criticised for it. For example, he played down the findings of Robert Mueller, the special counsel who investigated links between Trump and Russia; intervened in sentencing for aides convicted by Mueller; and ordered investigations of the FBI and Department of Justice’s own investigations of Russian election interference beginning in 2016.
Just two weeks from election day on 3 November, it seems unlikely the attorney general will in this case do Trump’s bidding and appoint a special prosecutor to go after the Bidens. But even allowing for a level of “Trump fatigue” in a nation grown used to the president’s violation of political norms, the demand for political retribution via Fox & Friends was startling.
The Post has not allowed other outlets to see material taken from the laptop allegedly owned by Hunter Biden. But Democrats in Congress and media reports have said the FBI is investigating the Post stories as the fruits of a Russian disinformation campaign. Giuliani is known to associate with at least one individual who US agencies consider an asset of Russian intelligence.
On Monday John Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman installed by Trump as director of national intelligence, insisted to Fox Business there was no indication the Post stories arose from Russian disinformation efforts. On Fox & Friends on Tuesday, Trump said: “Thank goodness we have John Ratcliffe.”
Trump was due to stage a campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday night. He and Biden will meet in the final presidential debate on Thursday, in Nashville, Tennessee. The debate commission has set the subjects for the night and Trump has been advised by his team not to interrupt Biden as often he did in the first contest last month. But the president seems likely to bring up Hunter Biden and Ukraine.
Prompted by his Fox News friends, Trump called Biden’s statements that he did not know of his son’s business dealings a “disgrace”.
Biden has called the Post stories a “smear campaign”. On Tuesday, his campaign did not offer further comment.