The specter of Hunter Biden, the ne’er-do-well son of Joe Biden, has haunted the impeachment trial since its beginning. His unseemly connections to a Ukrainian natural gas company prompted Trump’s now-infamous alleged quid pro quo in the first place.
But as the Senate trial of Donald Trump has progressed, the possibility of Biden being compelled to give testimony has become a subject of conversation on Capitol Hill. In particular, some Republicans floated the concept of a “one-for-one deal,” in which Democrats are allowed to subpoena John Bolton in exchange for Republicans getting to quiz Hunter Biden — in an attempt to bolster Trump’s claims that he was only concerned about corruption, and not undermining Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. And, as a bonus, it would still undermine Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
The possibility provided bountiful fodder for cable-news speculation in recent days. After all, no pair could be as unlikely as Hunter Biden, whose career has been plagued by a series of drug and sex scandals and Bolton, a bellicose septuagenarian with a mustache better suited to a 19th-century British viceroy than a 21st-century right-wing apparatchik.
Bolton’s expected testimony would be about the allegations reportedly contained in his unpublished manuscript that Trump explicitly told him he tied aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into the Bidens.
In contrast, Hunter Biden would be asked about his handsomely compensated service on the board of Burisma — an energy conglomerate owned by Ukrainian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky — as well as former vice-president Joe Biden’s work as the Obama administration’s point man on diplomacy with Ukraine. Trump has alleged, without foundation, that Biden worked to oust the country’s chief prosecutor, Victor Shokin, in an effort to protect Burisma from investigation. However, Burisma was not under active investigation at the time, and ousting Shokin was the policy of the United States as well as its European allies because the prosecutor was corrupt.
The idea of horse-trading the testimony of Trump’s former national security adviser for a man most recently in the news for settling a child-support suit in Arkansas brought by a former exotic dancer may seem outlandish in the abstract. However, it gained some bipartisan momentum earlier this week. As recently as Wednesday morning, one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said he would vote to compel Hunter Biden’s testimony.
But most Senate Democrats see this proposed Bolton-for-Biden witness deal as a nonstarter.
It’s not simply that they see the younger Biden’s testimony, which Trump allies have been pushing for, as irrelevant to the proceedings. It’s also that Democrats believe they would be doing Trump’s dirty work for him by supporting a subpoena for Hunter Biden to appear before them.
Chris Murphy of Connecticut told Intelligencer, “I think we would be making ourselves complicit in the scheme that the president is on trial for, using an official act in order to try to destroy the president’s political opponents.” He added, “I don’t want to try to be a co-conspirator in the president’s alleged crimes.”
When asked if there was any theoretical scenario in which he would agree to Hunter Biden’s testimony — even in exchange for 20 or 50 witnesses — Murphy jibed, “Only if they throw in a first-round draft pick.”
Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, where Trump won in 2016, echoed Murphy’s thinking that calling Hunter Biden would allow the president to benefit from his alleged offenses. “I think that’s honestly ridiculous in the debate about abuse of power of the president of the United States, and it would just reward the president for his political conspiracy theories,” she told Intelligencer.
The only public break in the Democratic consensus came from Manchin. A conservative Democrat who represents a state Trump won by 40 points, the West Virginian has long been prone to breaking with his party. When asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe if he would vote to subpoena Hunter Biden, Manchin said, “I think so. I really do.” As he explained: “I don’t have a problem there. This is why we are where we are. Now I think he could clear himself from what I know and what I heard, but being afraid to put up anybody who might have pertinent information is wrong.”
But even that came with a caveat. Manchin’s support on Hunter Biden’s testimony hinged on the premise that “the judge or whoever rules that it’s pertinent.”
Aside from the moral argument, Democrats don’t think that Hunter Biden would add any relevant information. Ben Cardin of Maryland told Intelligencer, “The Biden issue is a distraction.” He thought that Republicans should “be able to make a pitch as to any witnesses they want to and they should be allowed if they’re relevant.” However, the Maryland Democrat insisted, “I don’t see relevancy.” Cardin did say he would defer to Chief Justice Roberts to make any rulings about which witnesses are relevant.
Jeff Merkley of Oregon took a similar tone: “I’d be very comfortable with each side choosing its own set of three or four witnesses, as long as the Chief Justice can rule on them as relevant.” However, he disapproved of calling Hunter Biden, whom he did not think met the threshold of relevance. In Merkley’s view, it would “be wrong for the Trump team to continue their efforts to essentially injure or degrade the standing of a potential opponent by using this trial as a weapon, when the trial is all about their abuse of power to degrade and assault an opponent.”
Yet, for all the handwringing over Hunter Biden’s potential testimony, it may be for naught. For the younger Biden to testify, there would need to be 51 senators to support calling any witnesses in the first place, something there seems to be little appetite for in the Republican conference. Four Republicans would need to break ranks.
On Wednesday, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — who proposed a “one-for-one trade” in which Republicans would allow John Bolton to testify in exchange for Hunter Biden’s testimony — shied away from that proposal. He told reporters: “I remain very very skeptical that there’s any witness that’s going to shed any light that’s going to cause me to change my view on what the final outcome of this trial.”
This proposal for a trade had already been scoffed at by many Democratic senators. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii described it as: “You get your lousy witness so we get our relevant witness … it doesn’t make sense.”
As Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a press conference Wednesday, the final decision on the younger Biden’s testimony rests with Senate Republicans. “It’s not up to Joe Manchin, it’s not up to any of us,” said Schumer. “The Republicans could call Hunter Biden today. They have the votes. Trump and McConnell could call Hunter Biden today. They don’t want to.”
While Republicans and Democrats have entirely different reasons for not wanting to call Hunter Biden at this point, it does represent a rare bit of bipartisan agreement in an increasingly contentious trial. But, if Democrats manage to force votes on considering witness testimony, this peculiar sliver of bipartisanship is unlikely to last.