Trump previews attacks on Biden's son ahead of debate

As Donald Trump and Joe Biden prepare to face off on the debate stage, Trump has previewed one line of attack against his Democratic opponent in a long-running feud over the former president’s attempts to tie Biden to his son’s foreign business dealings.

Hunter Biden’s struggles have been elevated in recent weeks by his felony conviction in a gun trial — proceedings that led Republicans to take a victory lap when government witnesses confirmed the authenticity of his abandoned laptop computer, materials from which have stoked GOP claims that he spent years profiting off his proximity to his father.

Now, Biden and Trump are poised to face off for the first time since 2020 in a debate hosted by CNN at its Atlanta studio, with Trump suggesting he will reprise the attack line.

“It wasn’t Russian disinformation. It was a made-up story for election interference purposes,” Trump said at a recent conservative conference. “I assume we’re going to be talking about that at the debate.”

There will be no in-person audience for the 90-minute debate, a dynamic that threatens to upend expectations.

“It’s telling you what is going on, indirectly, with applause or not applause,” Trump said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. He acknowledged he interrupted Biden too often during the first debate against him in September 2020 and said he had learned from the experience.

Trump spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said there is a ready-made opportunity for the moderators to showcase a level playing field for Trump on Thursday.

“If CNN wants to prove they’re fair and balanced, they should ask Joe Biden why he lied about the existence of Hunter Biden’s laptop on the debate stage four years ago in 2020,” Leavitt told NBC News.

In the October 2020 general election debate, after Trump mentioned the laptop, Biden responded that it was a “Russian plan.”

Biden is preparing to face several possible Trumps on Thursday, including a grievance-filled Trump and a version who hews to a more disciplined message, with Biden’s advisers combing through recent interviews to identify his trigger points.

Trump has shied away from attacking Hunter Biden over his addiction struggles, an attitude that some say lends itself to holding out an olive branch to the former president’s son. A Trump ally suggested he would be wise to offer a commutation of Hunter Biden’s sentence if he wins.

There is evidence to suggest that Trump holds a softer outlook toward Hunter Biden than he does his father, whom Trump’s allies expect he’ll go after following Trump’s conviction on charges related to a hush money payment.

“Trump doesn’t see Hunter Biden’s struggles with addiction as a target,” a former senior Trump administration official said. “The animosity is towards Joe Biden, and there’s the notion that Hunter wouldn’t be in that position if it wasn’t for his father.”

At Camp David, Maryland, Biden has been preparing for how the debate could unfold. That includes the idea that Trump might raise the subject of Hunter Biden and his legal issues. Meanwhile, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a top vice presidential running mate prospect, has challenged CNN to raise questions about the laptop, Trump’s political action committee has floated potential lines of inquiry for the moderators, and Trump’s own Truth Social posts seem to heighten the possibility that he’ll mention the topic, a source familiar with debate preparations and discussions said.

But Biden’s advisers don’t think it will definitively come up in the debate or be a significant focus if it does, and aides have tracked public comments by Trump suggesting he might soften his tone.

There’s a chance Trump may sidestep the issue altogether. As Hunter Biden’s recent trial on gun charges placed his spiral into drugs under a microscope, Trump has shied away from attacking him over his addiction. Instead, he spoke at length about his own brother’s struggle with alcoholism in an interview with Sean Hannity while Biden’s trial was underway.

“You have sympathy for addiction — I think most Americans do,” Hannity said before he tried to direct the interview to what he called the “bigger issues involving the Biden family.”

Trump interjected. “Excuse me,” he said. “Look, I feel very badly for them in terms of the addiction part of what they have right now, because I understand the addiction world. … Frankly, it would be nice if people would do certain things and live certain ways, but you’re not able to. They’re just not able to break it.”

Some Republican allies believe talking about Hunter Biden’s conviction is bad politics for Trump because it risks placing a spotlight on his own legal issues. After a historic nearly two-month trial, he was convicted in New York City last month of falsifying business records to cover up a sex scandal that threatened to derail his 2016 campaign. His support among swing and independent voters appeared to falter in a recent poll by Fox News, in which Joe Biden took a slight lead over Trump in a general election match-up. That lead is within the margin of error.

“It gets us off message,” said a Republican consultant with ties to Trump. “Who knows what happens if Biden says something that ticks him off? But the more we can talk about issues, the better off we’re going to be.”

The consultant said it risks setting off a tit-for-tat that is unlikely to do Trump any favors.

“He’ll say you’re a convicted felon, and it’s going to turn off the independents; it’s going to turn off those swing voters,” the consultant said.

Biden’s aides feel that he had a “very strong” moment when, in 2020, Trump swiped at Hunter Biden on the debate stage, an exchange they would be glad to see repeated, a source familiar with the preparations and discussions said, noting that the president is happy to reiterate his support for his son in his recovery from addiction.

The source said Biden is prepared to restate what he has already said publicly: that he has no plans to pardon his son or commute his sentence.

Trump, meanwhile, has been advised to focus on the issues and is being prepped on policy.

“The more Donald Trump can talk about issues, can talk about his accomplishments and can talk about his vision for the country, the better off we’re going to be,” this person said.

A source familiar with some of the strategies being discussed echoed that sentiment, saying, “Trump will focus on the issues that people know and love him for.”

The danger, this person said, is “you bring up Hunter, [Biden] brings up the New York court verdict,” meaning Trump’s recent conviction on charges related to the hush money payment stemming from the 2016 campaign.

Republican leaders in the House this month sent criminal referrals to the Justice Department recommending charges against Hunter and James Biden, the president’s brother, claiming statements they made before the Oversight and Judiciary committees implicate Joe Biden in what Republicans say was an effort to profit off his family’s business dealings while he was vice president. Biden has denied wrongdoing, and GOP investigations have yet to deliver evidence implicating him.

But hammering the issue won’t matter unless Biden faces criminal penalties.

“We proved this with Trump,” a former Trump adviser said. “The allegations didn’t hurt until he was convicted.”

During the first debate in 2020, Biden said Trump’s allegations that his son took payments from foreign business associates when Biden was vice president were “totally discredited.” When the two faced off in a second debate weeks later, Trump returned to the issue, seeking to tie Biden to materials allegedly pulled from a computer Hunter Biden had abandoned at a Delaware repair shop during his spiral into drug addiction.

“If this is true, then he’s a corrupt politician,” Trump said before he turned to Biden. “So don’t give me the stuff about how you’re this innocent baby.”

In response, Biden cited a letter from 51 former intelligence officials who claimed the files on the laptop had “the classic earmarks” of Russian disinformation. It was an allegation poised to draw Trump’s ire after he faced a special counsel investigation over his campaign’s ties to Russia and was deemed a would-be “puppet” of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Hillary Clinton four years earlier.

The White House has denied that Biden had any involvement in his son’s business deals.

Furthermore, while Trump has continued to raise money off of his conviction in New York, a former adviser said the frequent reminders risk damaging his appeal to independent and swing voters.

“Right now, he’s Richard Nixon with two fingers up saying, ‘I’m not a crook,’” the former adviser said.

And there are other pitfalls. If Trump attacks Biden’s age, “he brings up that they are the same age,” the ally said.

Another source familiar with Trump’s planning said: “I told him to stay away. But no one tells Donald what to do.”

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