How Joe Biden should handle the issue of Hunter’s conviction at the debate

Along with questions about his son, Biden will also face difficult questions about Israel’s war in Gaza

Published June 27, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Hunter Biden, Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)
Hunter Biden, Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Getty Images/Salon)

“Mr. President, your son, Hunter Biden, has been convicted of felonies in connection with his purchase of a gun and lying about his drug use. He now faces another trial for tax evasion. What makes him different from your opponent, who has also suffered a criminal conviction?”

Tonight’s debate on CNN, the first of the general election, is bound to include such a question about the president’s adult son and his troubles with the law. As Joe Biden’s campaign has laid out, and as we’ve previously outlined, the president’s major debate strategy should be focused on bringing attention to Donald Trump’s criminality. The former president’s supporters are obviously hoping that Hunter Biden’s recent criminal conviction will distract from the verdict against Trump. Here is the best way to avoid the obvious pitfalls surrounding the other Biden while turning his son’s troubles into an opportunity to reinforce his commitment to the rule of law. 

“I am a dad as well as being the president. I love my son. Before he worked so hard to turn his life around, he made serious mistakes. He is suffering the consequences. That’s what the rule of law is all about. I stand by it, I trust the jury’s first verdict, and I will not criticize it. We must accept the law when it does its work, even if we might wish, as a parent, that the jury’s decision was different.

My opponent is different. He is the first former president ever tried or convicted of crimes. 34 times he was found guilty of lying in business records to cover up a crime against democracy. 

He paid hush money to interfere with the 2016 election and keep the truth about the scandal from you, the voters, and interfere with the 2016 election, as he tried to do after the 2020 election. His coverup could well have changed many Americans’ votes. The jury said that no person is above the law, even a former president.

So he attacks the jury. He attacks the judge. He attacks the witnesses. He undermines our justice system and the rule of law which keep us safe. No one is above the law. Anyone who tries to be above the law is unfit for office.

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He’s running to save himself from three other indictments in three other jurisdictions. Two involve his role leading up to January 6. If he’s elected, he’ll have his attorney general toss his federal indictments faster than Buddy Baker’s souped up Dodge Charger in the Daytona 500.

“I am different from my opponent in another way, too. I will not pardon my son.I will not commute any sentence he may get. The law is the law. The American people elected me to follow the law, not to favor my family, even when my heart aches.

“My opponent has already pardoned his son-in-law’s father, Charles Kushner, convicted of tax evasion and witness tampering. But it gets worse. He has promised to pardon the violent invaders of our sacred Capitol on January 6. Violence is never ok. Attacking the seat of our government is never ok. 

Violence is on the ballot. Any vote for my opponent or any third party candidate is a vote to approve January 6. Staying home and not voting is a vote for violence. I believe in you, and I ask for your vote because I know you believe in a peaceful America, too.

One other difficult topic for Biden is certain to come up tonight. 

“Mr. President, your policy on Israel has divided Americans who support our Middle East ally and those who call your supplying arms being used to kill Palestinian civilians in Gaza genocide. How do you win back the support you have lost?”

Biden should respond: “Voters are smart. They are looking for a president who keeps America safe, keeps our troops out of harm’s way whenever possible, who supports our friends, presses them to defend themselves according to the values in which Americans believe. That’s why I have pressured Israel to get humanitarian aid into Gaza and last month paused a shipment of bombs that I feared could be used where civilians would be at too great a risk.

“I have been on the world stage through many crises. Leaders across the globe who believe in America respect me. I don’t cater to dictators like Putin or Kim Jung Un, as my opponent does.

"The Middle East has always been the region where the differences are the toughest to bridge. We are seeing that now."

“My policy is guided by five principles. First, Israel was brutally attacked on October 7 and has the right to defend itself. Second, we must contain the war to avoid a regional conflagration that could easily consume the entire world. Third, America’s fighting men and women must be kept out of it. Fourth, the two-state solution is the only way out of the cycle of war. Last, we must maintain our leverage with our ally to support the first four principles and to keep Israel from doing more things that harm innocent people and Israel itself.

“None of this is easy. To my progressive friends and to the young people rightly shocked by the killing of innocent civilians in Gaza: I abhor those deaths, each and every one of them. I know the pain that every parent who loses a child suffers. 

Because we agree that children and innocents have not been protected in this war, know this: If my opponent were in charge, with his opposition to a two-state solution and his Israel-right-or-wrong policy, this crisis and innocent Palestinian people would be far, far worse off. I cannot share the confidential communications I have had with Israel’s leadership, but you have seen, even in public, that we do not always agree. 

Friends can be critical of one another. The support we have given Israel in arms has been used and at times abused, but it gives us the ability to be heard when we speak our truth about humanity in the midst of war. 

“We have kept the conflict from spreading, especially last month, when Iran sent hundreds of missiles and drones to attack Israel. We were on the brink of regional war. Our technology and jets helped our ally of 76 years protect its civilians, which gave us leverage to help ensure that Israel responded in strong but limited ways. Iran stood down. A dangerous situation was defused. 

“I am proud that our policies helped save the world from a near-catastrophe.

“Bill Burns, a seasoned diplomat and head of the CIA, along with Secretary of State Blinken, have been in shuttle diplomacy to get my ceasefire proposal in place. In support of a ceasefire and the return of hostages, just last weekend, Israelis in Tel Aviv staged a massive demonstration. That gives us faith that peace will return.

“The choice in this election is clear. I am experienced in the complexities of world crises and the fine line a Commander-in-Chief must walk to keep America safe and avoid the worst. Unlike my opponent, I do not act out of spite, impulse and bluster. I need your vote to keep us on the track to a two-state solution that is best for Israel as well as Gaza, and for keeping America out of war.”

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

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