SIOUX CITY, Iowa – With five days until the Iowa caucuses, Joe Biden is fending off a new onslaught of GOP attacks over his son's business overseas and facing piling pressure to show Democratic voters he can handle the incoming.
As Republicans amplified their allegations against the former vice president, accusing him of nepotism and worse in a series of charges stemming from the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Biden mounted an aggressive counterattack ahead of Monday's first nominating contest.
“Character is on the ballot. America's character,” Biden says in remarks prepared for an event Thursday in Waukee. “I don't believe we're the dark, angry nation we see in Donald Trump's tweets.”
Trump himself plans a nighttime rally in Des Moines, offering something of a preview of the election ahead should Biden be the Democratic nominee.
Biden made his case Wednesday by openly mocking Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, for running a digital ad in Iowa that repeats Trump’s discredited theories about Biden’s work in Ukraine as vice president and his son’s private business dealings there. The ad came a day after Trump’s impeachment defense team repeatedly framed Hunter Biden’s tenure on an energy firm's governing board as the real corruption in need of investigation.
“A senator from Florida, sitting in Washington, has decided to start running negative ads against Joe Biden just days before the Iowa caucus,” the elder Biden told several hundred Iowa voters in Sioux City. “What do you think that’s about? Look, it’s simple," he said, returning to an oft-used line: "They’re smearing me ... because they know if I’m the nominee, I’m going to beat Donald Trump like a drum."
Biden adviser Anita Dunn was even more pointed, saying of the Scott ad: “We’ll pay him to keep it up.” Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz said, “This is all a help to us" because it valid Trump's fear.
That’s quite a turn from October, when the Biden campaign sent letters to Facebook, Google and Twitter pressuring the online platforms to block ads from Trump’s reelection campaign that contained similar debunked allegations against the Bidens. But Dunn and Schultz suggest that their new posture could be the better path to turning a potentially damaging story line into an electoral asset.
"We are going to call out the lies. We are going to confront him,” Dunn said of how Biden will handle Trump going forward. “If Joe Biden has proven one thing in this race, it’s that he’s the person to stand up to Donald Trump.”
Yet there are Democrats who see the Biden controversy as a replay of 2016. In that campaign, Trump deflected myriad stories of his own conflicts of interests and business dealings by hammering away at Democrat Hillary Clinton, her use of a private email server as secretary of state and the foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation created after her husband Bill Clinton’s presidency.
"Whether there’s anything to it or not, there’s going to be a lack of trust and doubt that we could end up like we did four years ago,” said Iowa Democrat Emma Thompson, 63, who is considering caucusing for Biden, but is also considering Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang.
These aren’t perfect parallels. During the Trump-Clinton campaign, the FBI was actively investigating whether Clinton or her aides subjected classified material to disclosure, and the agency did not close the case — without any criminal charges — until well after Trump was in office. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son. The elder Biden’s efforts to oust a Ukrainian prosecutor reflected the consensus of the U.S. government and its Western allies. And there’s no evidence the U.S. government has ever actively investigated Hunter Biden’s dealings at Burisma, even under Trump’s Justice Department.
Still, Vicky Rossander, an Iowa caucus precinct captain for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said she's wary: “I don't want to spend the whole election hearing about Burisma and Ukraine."
Republicans appear eager to have the fight.
Besides Scott, GOP senators including Sen. Lindsey Graham have argued that Hunter Biden or the former vice president himself should be called as impeachment trial witnesses. Joe Biden has said he’d comply if called, but sees his testimony as irrelevant to the charges that Trump abused his power and obstructed Congress. Biden aides said Wednesday that they see “no indication of serious movement” toward calling Hunter Biden or his father.
Trump’s 2016 campaign architect, Steve Bannon, confirmed in a recent Bloomberg News interview a deliberate strategy: “Isolate and amplify the most damaging charge against the strongest Democratic candidate and hammer into voters’ minds until Election Day.”
And Iowa’s Republican Sen. Joni Ernst joined the chorus this week, emerging from the Senate proceedings to wonder aloud to reporters “how this discussion today informs and influences Iowa caucus voters. ... Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?”
In Sioux City, Biden thanked Ernst for “screaming the quiet part into the bullhorn.”
“She spilled the beans, didn't she?” Biden said, laughing. “The whole impeachment trial is about whether or not the president tried to interfere in the choice of a nominee for the Democrats." Outlining his preferred outcome, he continued: “Now all caucusgoers can have a twofer. One, you can not only ruin Donald Trump’s night if I win the caucus — you can ruin Joni Ernst’s night, as well.”
___ Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Mason City, Iowa, and Sara Burnett in Chicago contributed to this report.
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