President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial will once again put an uncomfortable spotlight on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, but also offers the former vice president an exceptional opportunity to campaign in a less-crowded field while his biggest rivals are holed up in the Senate chamber.
The trial, which begins in earnest on Tuesday, will keep fellow presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in Washington less than three weeks before the crucial Iowa caucuses. The two progressives, along with fellow Senators Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet, had to be in Washington on Thursday to be sworn in as jurors.
For the duration of the trial, which could last weeks, they will be able to campaign only in short bursts on weekends or during breaks in the proceedings. Warren is slated to dash back to Iowa and South Carolina over the holiday weekend, while Sanders plans to be in New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, Biden is scheduled for a three-stop tour in Iowa on Friday and Saturday and will be campaigning all next week there and in South Carolina. Pete Buttigieg, who is also free to campaign and needs a big showing in Iowa to boost his national standing, kicked off a 13-city tour Wednesday to barnstorm the Hawkeye State through Saturday.
“Certainly Buttigieg and Biden will benefit from being the only top-tier candidates on the trail in Iowa if there’s a Senate trial,” said Ian Sams, who worked for Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign before it folded last month. “The candidates who are stuck in DC — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar — will have to get creative with their ability to do outreach in Iowa.”
Trump weighed in on Friday, tweeting that the Democratic party was “rigging” the election for Biden by keeping Sanders and other senators off the campaign trail.
“Very unfair, but that’s the way the Democrats play the game,” he wrote.
Opening for Republicans
But despite the lucky timing, the attention impeachment brings to Hunter Biden leaves an opening for Republicans to attack the Democratic front-runner over unsubstantiated allegations that Hunter’s past lucrative board position with a Ukrainian company was corrupt.
Some Democrats worry that Republicans are trying to smother their candidate with bad headlines just as they used Hillary Clinton’s private email server against her in 2016, though it is unclear such a strategy would work.
“Fair or not, with Hillary’s emails there was already a perception in the electorate that she was suspect or something. There were questions about her and corruption surrounding the Clintons that actually was sticking with a set of the population. And the coverage of the emails fed into that and poked an open wound she had,” said Sams.
“There’s no broad perception of Joe Biden being corrupt at all with the electorate. It’s like trying to convince people that the sky is green,” he said.
Among Democratic primary voters, Biden’s level of support has held steady at the front of the pack between 26% and 30% since September, before the publication of a whistle-blower complaint that brought national attention to Hunter Biden’s work and led to Trump’s impeachment.
A stalemate between Democrats and Republicans over whether to call witnesses in the Senate trial means it’s unclear whether Hunter Biden will be put in the uncomfortable position of being compelled to testify. Some Republicans have threatened to call him if Democrats get enough Republican support to force appearances from administration figures like former National Security Adviser John Bolton and White House Budget Director and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, who is now one of the lawmakers making the case for impeachment in the Senate trial, has argued that Hunter Biden was “not a relevant witness” because he had no information on the underlying question of whether Trump betrayed the U.S. by attempting to extract a personal favor from Ukraine in exchange for U.S. military aid.
The Biden campaign has sought to prevent the GOP claims from casting doubt on his viability as a candidate against Trump, which could be damaging with a primary electorate focused on “electability” if they stick.
Whether or not the younger Biden testifies, the closely watched impeachment trial — only the third in U.S. history — will give Trump’s legal team space to launch attacks on the Democratic front-runner with unpredictable impacts on public opinion.
Biden’s team intends to aggressively fight anything it sees as lies or mischaracterizations of his or Hunter’s work, whether it comes from Republicans, the media or Democratic opponents.
Biden campaign spokesman TJ Ducklo dismissed Trump’s accusations about Hunter as “pathetic conspiracy theories” prompted by fear of losing the election.
“Donald Trump finds himself the star of the third presidential impeachment trial in American history for one simple reason: He was so petrified to face Joe Biden in a general election he tried to coerce a foreign power into inventing dirt on Biden’s family,” Ducklo said.
Sanders said on Capitol Hill on Thursday that his primary responsibility is to the office he currently holds, not the one he seeks.
“I swore an oath of allegiance to the Constitution as a United States senator. Would I rather be in Iowa? I would. But this is my job. I’m a United States senator. I’m going to be here. I’m going to do my best,” he said.
As the trial progresses, Biden will be focused on campaigning – mostly in Iowa – and addressing issues that matter to Democratic caucus goers and primary voters. Ukraine and Burisma don’t rank high on the list of Democrats’ concerns in polls.
Congresswoman Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat who’s endorsed Biden, said any rehashing of Republican claims about the Bidens and Burisma aren’t necessarily a bad thing for him. “It gives Biden a chance to just say there’s nothing there, we’ve been there, we’ve done that. To clear his name in effect,” she said.”I certainly don’t think that it hurts because the longer this goes on, the more bad stuff comes out about Trump. People are getting a real big dose of just how bad Trump is. And the more he goes after Biden, the more it looks like he’s the one that I don’t want to run against and so that boosts his electability,” Titus said.Titus said she thought the senators’ absence from the campaign trail would ultimately be “a wash” because they’ll get national media attention from Washington.