In theory, the announcement Thursday that President Biden’s son Hunter was indicted on charges related to his purchase of a gun in 2018 would seem like an obvious political win for the president’s opponents. Hunter Biden has been disparaged repeatedly by Republican politicians and the right-wing media to impugn the president; his reaching a plea agreement earlier this year that included the gun question was presented as an unacceptably light response to his alleged actions. That deal fell apart and here we are.
But the indictment instead meant that the right’s broader conspiracy theory about how Joe Biden is using the levers of power needed to be adjusted. (Announcing an impeachment inquiry Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) alleged that “the president’s family has been offered special treatment by Biden’s own administration,” for example.) It can’t both be the case that Joe Biden is leaning on the Justice Department to go easy on Hunter Biden and that Hunter Biden is now facing a set of charges that are only rarely brought against defendants.
The beauty of conspiracy theories, though, is that they are ever-flowing streams that easily slip around obstacles in their path to get to their destination. It might take a while for an ideal new channel to be carved, but the process by which it is established is already underway.
Charlie Kirk, head of the right-wing group Turning Point USA and a long-standing supporter of former president Donald Trump, came out of the gates early on.
“The day after the Washington Post and the New York Times say Biden shouldn’t run, they drop a new indictment on Hunter,” Kirk posted on social media, appending the “thinking face” emoji, used to signify skepticism.
This isn’t really accurate; Washington Post columnist David Ignatius did make such a call but that’s not the paper, as such. But you see the thrust here: The weapons charge is a way for someone — the “elites,” presumably — to effect change at the top of the Democratic ticket.
A little while later, Trump himself weighed in. First, he claimed on social media that U.S. Attorney David Weiss, who brought the charges in his new role as special counsel, was “appointed by the 2 Democrat Senators of Delaware under Blue Slip.” It’s an odd assertion, positioning Trump — who actually made the appointment — as nothing more than a rubber stamp.
It also doesn’t really make sense, given that Weiss took an action that Trump and his allies had sought (to Kirk’s point). So, a bit later, the former president had a different take.
“This, the gun charge, is the only crime that Hunter Biden committed that does not implicate Crooked Joe Biden,” he wrote.
This was the angle Donald Trump Jr. embraced a few hours later.
“So we are clear … They’re only going after Hunter Biden on the federal gun charges because that’s the only one of Hunter’s numerous crimes that doesn’t tie directly back to Joe Biden,” he wrote. “Biden’s [Justice Department] is covering for him, pretending to take action.” The whole thing was “a show,” he said.
The stream is digging a new channel! See, after declaring that Weiss was going too easy on Hunter Biden, now he’s going hard on the only thing that, in the Trumps’ telling, is unrelated to the president. Perhaps. But it is also the case that Hunter Biden essentially admitted to violating the applicable law in his recently published memoir. And it’s the case that Republicans haven’t been able to effectively link Joe Biden to any other crimes committed by his son. Here again, we see a common tactic at play: By claiming that Weiss is skipping other major crimes, Trump and his allies disparage Weiss and reinforce the idea that those crimes occurred.
A bit later, Trump Jr. retweeted a lengthier theory for how Weiss was protecting Hunter Biden by indicting him on federal gun charges. How? Because the Justice Department could “pretend there’s an ongoing investigation and prosecution, and refuse to produce any records to — or answer any questions from — Congress, the press, or the public.” Except of course that the Justice Department had already said there was an ongoing investigation.
On Fox News, Jesse Watters also tested out the “protecting Biden” line.
“Weiss is [Biden’s] pocket boy,” he said on the show he co-hosts, “The Five.” “He’s still protecting Hunter. I don’t think [Hunter] is going to serve a day in jail on the guns. I think they’re going to drag it out. It’s a charge not connected to the president.”
If this all seems a bit confused, that’s not surprising. When Weiss was first appointed as special counsel, Republicans — who previously called for Weiss to earn that designation — expressed anger at the development. Now that he’s indicted a Biden, there’s a similar need to depict the move as somehow another strategic masterstroke by their opponent, the guy who they also tend to depict as addled.
It is also possible that Weiss — who obviously does face pressure to take a firm approach to any illegality by Hunter Biden — brought the charges because the plea deal collapsed and he wants to hold the president’s son to account for violating the law. But that would mean that the law enforcement system is working in a way adjacent to how it’s supposed to work, that there are processes in place that aren’t inherently biased against Trump and other conservatives.
So instead, the fervor is for explaining how this is simply another manifestation of that bias. How, exactly, is still being worked out. But don’t worry, they’ll get there.