“I don’t think it moves a single voter,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told Axios as Election Day approached.
“I think Joe Biden should answer the questions being raised, but in the end, I think most Americans probably care more about their family than they care about the Biden family,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Iowa Republicans the week before the election.
In the end, Biden held on to every state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and added at least four others: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona. He is leading in too-close-to-call Georgia, as well.
And as he claimed victory on Saturday night, he was joined on a Delaware stage by his son Hunter — the villain of one of Trump’s last-ditch attacks — where the two clasped hands and waved after Biden’s victory speech.
Trump pushed two factually challenged narratives about Biden in the waning weeks of the campaign. In one, Biden was a mastermind of an effort to spy on Trump’s 2016 campaign, collaborating with top intelligence officials to derail Trump’s incoming administration. In the other, Biden was the secret beneficiary of multi-million-dollar business deals with shady foreign interests carried out by Hunter Biden.
But both stories were riddled with falsehoods, exaggerations and assumptions, often pushed by unreliable narrators who revealed no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden. Though Biden’s son may face legitimate legal problems over his foreign activities — and recent reports suggest he is facing an ongoing FBI investigation — no evidence connects the elder Biden to those allegations, and even Trump acknowledged that top advisers were urging him to back off the Hunter claims so close to Election Day.
“I get a call from all the experts, right? Guys that ran for president six, seven, eight times. Never got past the first round, but they’re calling me up, ‘Sir, you shouldn’t be speaking about Hunter. You shouldn’t be saying bad things about Biden because nobody cares,’” Trump said at a recent rally. “I disagree. Maybe that’s why I’m here and they’re not.”
In 2016, Republicans turned Hillary Clinton’s emails into a salient and effective cudgel, bolstered by the daily headlines about the Russian-hacked emails promoted by Wikileaks and lingering questions about the FBI’s probe of her private server. Those storylines fed a narrative about Clinton that had been decades in the making. But Biden, who has been well-liked on both sides of the aisle in Washington during his nearly 50 years of public service, has not been as easy of a mark. Additionally, the final reveals came just days before the election, after the first attempt to smear Biden — a campaign to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Biden family business dealings — ended in Trump’s impeachment.
“Any efficacy is undermined by the fact that they dropped this way too late to matter, with no meaningful groundwork laid since this angle was first derailed by impeachment,” said GOP strategist Liam Donovan. “The Hillary attacks worked in part because they played into an image of her they had built up in voters’ minds over time. In this case they just seem to be throwing everything at Biden and hoping something sticks.”
Yet Trump’s fixation on these issues — born of a desire to settle personal grievances and to run, for a second time, against a candidate freighted by scandal — meant his allies on Capitol Hill were compelled to devote a disproportionate share of their limited pre-election bandwidth to pursuing them. And it caused incalculable damage to the delicate relationship between Capitol Hill and the intelligence community, Republicans and Democrats alike have warned.
Trump initially placed his bets on an October bombshell from U.S. Attorney John Durham, appointed last year by Attorney General William Barr to probe the origins of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and any coordination with the Trump campaign. Barr, who helped blunt the sting of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump, also appointed a handful of other U.S. attorneys to review politically explosive cases prioritized by the president — from the outgoing Obama administration’s use of routine “unmasking” procedures in intelligence intercepts to allegations of misconduct by the FBI. Trump openly urged his Justice Department officials to prosecute his rivals, including Biden, and grew increasingly exasperated when he realized the charges would not materialize.
For over a year, the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), pursued allegations that Trump hatred within the FBI led it to launch the 2016 investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia. Though an inspector general found rampant problems with an FBI effort to surveil one Trump campaign associate, he also determined that the initial investigation was legitimate and found no evidence that bias drove any key decisions.
At the same time, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), ramped up an investigation into alleged improprieties by Obama administration officials in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, and a parallel probe into Biden’s son Hunter’s business relationships.
Both investigations have featured high-profile public hearings with figures like FBI Director James Comey and former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that often appeared geared toward appeasing Trump’s thirst for retribution. Graham has promoted documents — declassified by Trump’s political allies atop the intelligence community and Justice Department — that loosely supported Trump’s version of events but often failed to hold up to deeper scrutiny. And on Tuesday, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe will testify before Graham’s panel as part of the investigation.
Johnson’s committee released a report based almost entirely on unverified Treasury Department documents raising salacious allegations about inappropriate international business dealings by Biden’s son Hunter. The panel’s report found no evidence that the former vice president had acted inappropriately or twisted U.S. policy to help his son, but Johnson repeatedly insisted that it would prove Biden was unfit for the presidency.
The narratives were often convoluted even for intense followers of the Russia investigation and Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to gather dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. The storylines appealed almost exclusively to Trump’s diehard political base, and were featured on right-wing websites and the Fox News primetime lineup — a large audience indeed, but a narrow sliver of the wider electorate.
The investigative efforts didn’t just fail to sway voters; they turned public trust in traditionally nonpartisan arms of the federal bureaucracy into yet another partisan litmus test, lawmakers said. By twisting the arms of officials within the intelligence community and the Justice Department, Trump and his allies have politicized these institutions in a way that will leave lasting damage, Democrats say.
Trump may exacerbate that strain in the coming weeks: He’s considering firing FBI Director Christopher Wray and other intelligence leaders he has accused of failing to pursue his preferred probes more aggressively.
Democrats have also maintained that Johnson’s investigation in particular was based on Russian disinformation, a claim that Johnson has strenuously denied. Though Hunter Biden has acknowledged that his last name often helped his career, many of the claims against the younger Biden were being parroted by a Ukrainian parliamentarian, Andrii Derkach, whom the Treasury Department sanctioned earlier this year and dubbed a Russian asset.
Even top Republicans privately urged Johnson to avoid the topic altogether. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Johnson that his efforts could aid Russian disinformation campaigns, POLITICO reported earlier this year. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has consistently distanced himself from Johnson’s investigations.
And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of Johnson’s committee, consistently criticized the Hunter Biden investigation, saying it was a transparent political errand.
One reason that Biden’s allies say the allegations — whether they stemmed from the Russia probe or Hunter Biden’s business connections — never gained traction is that they were orchestrated by untrustworthy actors.
Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, worked for years to unearth dirt on Biden, partnering with people in Ukraine viewed as corrupt or aligned with the Kremlin. His early efforts led Trump to pressure the Ukrainian president into investigating the Bidens, a move that got the president impeached for abusing his power.
More recently, Giuliani, in partnership with the recently indicted former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, engineered the release of files allegedly contained on a laptop that Hunter Biden abandoned at a Delaware repair shop. The files have been trumpeted in the far-right media echo chamber, but have not stood up to scrutiny when investigated, and did not conclusively show any corruption.
“I think that the American public has caught onto the fact that Rudy Giuliani has no credibility,” said Daniel Goldman, a prosecutor who helped lead the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment investigation of Trump last year. “The conspiracy theory promoted and supported by Russian intelligence is so convoluted and confusing — and so far removed from Joe Biden himself — that it appears to be simply a smear campaign against the family of Joe Biden by a candidate whose own financial interests, as well as those is his own children, have benefited significantly from his presidency.”
Since Election Day, Bannon has been suspended from Twitter for suggesting the beheading of FBI Director Christopher Wray and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci. Giuliani has been Trump’s point-man for lodging complaints of voter fraud without providing evidence.
Despite the limited political salience of either line of attack against Biden, Republicans are foreshadowing that they’ll attempt to pursue them, particularly if they maintain the Senate majority, which appears likely.
And although Trump and his team may have overreached in making it a campaign issue, there are lingering questions about the FBI’s pursuit of alleged financial improprieties by the younger Biden that Trump may attempt to air during his last two months in office — or set up landmines for Biden on the matter after he takes office.