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The Memo: Legal chaos engulfs Biden and Trump

A dramatic day in Washington on Friday shook up the 2024 presidential race, causing big problems for President Biden and former President Trump.

The more shocking development came when Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the president’s son, Hunter Biden. The special counsel will be David Weiss, who had already been the lead prosecutor on the matter but with more circumscribed powers.

Relatedly, negotiations about a plea deal for the younger Biden over a failure to pay taxes and a gun matter definitively broke down. A deal had seemed to be sealed in June but then crumbled during a court appearance in late July. The chances of the deal being resurrected were extinguished on Friday. 

Shortly before all that, and less than a mile away, the judge in the most recent of Trump’s three criminal cases imposed restrictions on what the former president can say and how he can use evidence unveiled in the recovery process.

Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is presiding over the case pertaining to Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, said that any attempt to “intimidate witnesses or prejudice potential jurors” would draw action from her. Chutkan asserted that Trump would not be able to share “sensitive” evidence in the case with the public.

Trump is charged with four crimes in the matter. He has also been indicted on 40 criminal counts pertaining to sensitive documents kept at Mar-a-Lago and 34 counts of falsifying business records in New York. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The upshot of the two legal developments is stark for the frontrunners in the 2024 battle for the White House.

For Biden, he now confronts the reality that his son’s behavior — much of it tawdry or shady at a minimum — will continue to be an issue into the 2024 election year. That’s a problem Biden doesn’t need to have, given that he is already contending with low approval ratings and concerns about his status as the oldest president ever.

Democrats express concern, even if the White House resolutely seeks to maintain a perception of its separation from the case.

“This is pretty bad,” said one Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Any notion that this was going away before the election is basically gone, any notion that this was an isolated issue that would only affect Hunter Biden is gone, any notion that this is not going to bleed into the election and be a serious problem is gone.”

Trump, for his part, faces multifaceted dangers. The former president’s ultra-combative approach could land him in legal trouble with Judge Chutkan, especially if he goes after former Vice President Pence, who wears two hats as both a GOP rival to Trump and a potential witness at trial in the 2020 election case.

Trump’s broader tendency toward bellicosity — seen again last Friday, when he warned on social media “If you go after me, I’m coming after you” — also holds its perils. The Truth Social posting was cited in a filing by prosecutors and, one week later, Chutkan warned specifically against “inflammatory statements.”

Chutkan also suggested that misbehavior could lead her to move more speedily to trial if there were a risk of jury-pool contamination.

The widespread assumption is that Trump and his team want to extend the legal process past the date in January 2025 when he would be inaugurated again if he won the presidency — something that would enable him to discontinue any federal cases against him.

On the other hand, if Trump submits to Chutkan’s warnings, it could make him look more cowed than his supporters are accustomed to seeing. It could also lower the decibels of his attacks on the rest of the GOP primary field.

At Friday’s hearing, Trump lawyer John Lauro claimed the former president had the right to speak out about things he remembers while “on the campaign trail.”

Chutkan shot back: “The existence of a political campaign will not have any bearing on my decision.”

Some former Trump allies seem highly doubtful that he can stop himself from transgressing the limits Chutkan has set.

“Trump is going to have his bail revoked,” Anthony Scaramucci wrote on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter, Friday afternoon. Scaramucci served an infamously brief spell as Trump’s White House Communications Director in 2017.

Meanwhile, on the Biden matter, Republicans have hit out at the appointment of Weiss as special counsel. The most vigorous critics of the president contend that Weiss pulled his punches at an earlier stage of the probe.

They also note that an IRS whistleblower, Gary Shapley, previously testified that Weiss had wanted special counsel powers and been unable to get them. Weiss denies this.

A spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asserted Friday that Weiss “can’t be trusted.” House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) alleged that the appointment was part of “the Justice Department’s efforts to attempt a Biden family coverup.”

At a minimum, Republicans see some measure of validation in the appointment as well, however.

“It adds jet fuel to the fire of the crisis the Biden White House is having to manage,” GOP strategist Ron Bonjean told this column. “It looks to voters like an admission that where there is smoke there could be some fire.”

No concrete evidence of wrongdoing by the president has emerged, while the White House has asserted he was never in business with his son.

But the bottom line is that Friday added one more thing for both Biden and Trump to fend off— just as they begin to square up for a likely 2024 rematch.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Source: The Hill

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