Web Stories Wednesday, June 19

Another president is waiting for another verdict from another jury.

Less than two weeks after Donald Trump learned he had been convicted of 34 criminal counts in his hush money case, Joe Biden is enduring his own agonizing vigil as his son Hunter awaits the outcome of his gun trial.

Jurors return Tuesday morning to consider evidence against the president’s son, who has pleaded not guilty to three charges related to his buying of a gun in 2018 that prosecutors say violated federal law because he was addicted to crack cocaine. The defense argued there was no direct evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he was using the drug when he got the firearm.

The two trials — one in Trump’s old patch of New York and the other in Biden country in Wilmington, Delaware — represent a remarkable departure from traditional presidential campaigns. Never has a former president and presumptive major party nominee been convicted of a crime. Nor has the child of a sitting president faced that possibility in a trial. Trump pleaded not guilty in New York, as he has to three other criminal indictments ahead of delayed trials.

The Hunter Biden and Trump cases are vastly different, as is the way the former and current first families have responded to the trials. For instance, there have been no daily rants by the president’s son about a “corrupt” and “biased” judge. Trump’s conviction for falsifying financial records to cover up a payment to an adult film star, by contrast, prompted the ex-president to warn of retribution. He’s also absurdly claimed he’s a persecuted political dissident who compares to South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. In the latest stage of his legal morass, Trump sat through an online pre-sentencing meeting Monday that came two days after he used his Truth Social network to launch a fresh assault on the probity of the verdict he has vowed to appeal. “These are not legitimate trials; they are merely part of an illegal POLITICAL WITCH HUNT the likes of which our Country has never seen before!” Trump wrote.

Joe Biden, who has said he is trying to restore faith in the justice system after the Trump presidency, has pledged not to interfere in his son’s federal trial and said in a solemn ABC News interview that he won’t pardon his son. This is especially significant since Hunter Biden could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted, although a sentence for a first-time offender is unlikely to be that severe.

While cameras were barred from the courtroom in both trials, each unfolded against a backdrop of taut political drama and the glare of publicity surrounding the former and current first families.

The ex-president’s adult sons Eric and Donald Jr. sometimes attended court in New York. And crowds of GOP lawmakers — including House Speaker Mike Johnson — were eager to embroider the presumptive GOP nominee’s claims that he was a victim of politicized justice in what amounts to an attack on the rule of law by a major American political party. Former first lady Melania Trump did not attend. Biden has stayed away from his son’s trial in Wilmington, but first lady Jill Biden has led a gathering of the clan at the courthouse for the last week. She crossed the Atlantic four times last week, balancing her official role alongside her husband at D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations and in a state visit to France with her desire to be with her son in his hour of greatest need.

In one striking moment in the trial’s closing arguments Monday, prosecutor Leo Wise told jurors drawn from a state where many families have a story about interacting with the Bidens that they should draw no inference from the first family’s rock-solid bond and presence at the trial. “People sitting in the gallery are not evidence. You may recognize them from the news … but respectfully, none of that matters.” Wise added: “Your decision can only be made on evidence.”

Biden’s statement at the start of the trial — that “I am the President, but I am also a Dad” — encapsulated the tension of his role as the titular head of the nation’s justice system and the pain he would naturally endure from seeing a cherished son, who has dealt with addiction and worked hard to recover, go on trial in the middle of a media storm.

The Hunter Biden trial is the latest cruel twist in the story of a family that has endured more tragedies than most could bear. The story of how the future president lost his first wife and infant daughter as a newly elected senator in the early 1970s and brought up his sons with his second wife, the current first lady, has become part of his personal political mythology. Nearly a decade ago, Biden suffered the loss of his elder son Beau, who had brain cancer. The president’s grief remains raw and often comes to the surface during public events.

The trial of Hunter Biden is also occurring at a moment when the president is already under extreme pressure, amid an intensifying reelection campaign in which he is facing an opponent who he warns is bent on destroying American democracy. Biden’s personal burden is, meanwhile, being exacerbated by the fact that at 81, he’s the oldest president in history and opponents highlight every slip or senior moment to charge he’s unfit for office. He just returned from Europe on Sunday, but heads back Wednesday for the G7 summit. And his critical first debate with Trump, on CNN on June 27, will provide the kind of test of his mental faculties and emotional fortitude to match anything any modern president seeking reelection has faced.

It’s not that unusual for presidents to have to deal with distractions and embarrassments imposed by family members while in office. President Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother Roger Clinton on his way out of office in 2001 over a drug conviction in the mid 1980s. And the late Billy Carter, the younger brother of President Jimmy Carter, faced several tax and ethics investigations. But no president has been forced to confront the possibility that his son could go to jail.

The infringements on the Biden family’s dignity and privacy cut deep during the trial, which saw discomforting testimony about Hunter Biden’s former cocaine addiction. Beau Biden’s widow, Hallie, who had a relationship with Hunter as they grieved, testified about their joint cocaine use that she said now embarrasses and shames her. In a heart-rending scene, the accused’s daughter, Naomi, was brought to the stand by the defense, then came under a rigorous cross-examination from prosecutors. The way addiction ravages loved ones as well as the user was laid bare when a text from Naomi to her father reading, “I’m really sorry dad, I can’t take this,” was introduced into evidence. Media organizations, meanwhile, played an excerpt from Hunter Biden’s audio book that chronicles his spiral into addiction that was used in the prosecution case.

Given the identities of those involved and the fraught national moment in the middle of a bitterly contested general election, there’s no way the Trump and Hunter Biden trials could not have become politicized.

Trump has claimed that he’s the victim of a vendetta by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, though he was indicted by a grand jury, enjoyed the presumption of innocence like any other accused felon and was judged by a jury of his peers. When Biden’s plea deal collapsed in the court of a Trump-appointed judge and when Attorney General Merrick Garland made David Weiss, the prosecutor investigating Biden, a special counsel, some Democrats asked whether Republican pressure designed to damage the president had weighed on the renewed push for a trial.

But both trials have been conducted according to the rules of evidence and provided expansive protections for the accused. And the same bedrock American principle that was cited by prosecutors in the Trump hush money trial was used by Wise in his summation on Monday. “No one is above the law,” he said, urging jurors not to treat this case differently “because of who the defendant is.”

There is a critical difference between the two trials that debunks much of the political noise around them. Hunter Biden, unlike Trump, did not serve as president and has no chance of sitting in the Oval Office as commander in chief on January 20. While Biden is facing serious charges and will go on trial again in September in a separate tax case, his alleged offenses have nothing to do with the Constitution or threats to democracy. Trump’s charges, however, focus on alleged mishandling of national security documents that he hoarded at Mar-a-Lago after leaving office. He has also been charged in two separate cases — one federal and one in Georgia — with the ultimate crime in a democracy: seeking to overturn the will of voters. The former president is waiting for a US Supreme Court ruling on his sweeping claims of immunity arising from the federal election interference case that, if the court rules his way and he wins a second term, could augur a presidency of almost no constraints that could verge on autocracy.

The second distinction lies in the fact that Joe Biden’s behavior is not an issue in the criminal cases against his son. And House Republicans have so far failed to find that the president benefited from Hunter Biden’s business deals in nations like Ukraine and China while his father was vice president — even if the younger Biden’s activity raises serious ethical questions.

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