Former President Donald J. Trump now faces 78 felony counts in three different criminal cases, not to mention a slew of civil lawsuits and trials alleging all sorts of wrongdoing. At least in the court of public opinion, though, his defense can be boiled down to three words.
What about Hunter?
From Mr. Trump’s team to conservative media to the Republican Party leadership, the reaction to the latest blockbuster indictment accusing the former president of nothing short of trying to subvert democracy focused not on the evidence against him so much as the foibles and scandals of President Biden’s son.
The real outrage, Mr. Trump’s defenders maintained, is Hunter Biden’s shady business dealings. The Justice Department, they claimed, is only going after the former president to cover up for the current president. Mr. Trump is a victim persecuted by his enemies, so the argument goes, while Hunter Biden is a one-man crime wave who personifies the Washington swamp.
The wave of whataboutism from Trump world crested with this week’s indictment but has been building for months, a way of shifting attention from the former president’s kaleidoscopic legal troubles. The strategy provides the former president’s hard-core base a narrative to embrace that absolves him of any misconduct while muddying the waters enough to cause at least some independents and swing voters to throw up their hands out of a sense that, well, they all do it.
Never mind that Hunter Biden was not and is not seeking to be the president of the United States and that no hard evidence has emerged indicating that his father used his office improperly. Never mind that Mr. Trump’s family has intertwined personal business and public life for years. Or that the worst accusations against Hunter Biden, even if true, are hardly comparable to a plot by a sitting president to overturn an election and hold onto power.
“It’s a deflection tactic to avoid having to admit what virtually every Republican knew on Jan. 6, 2021 — Donald Trump’s actions were unfit and wrong,” Alyssa Farah Griffin, who resigned as director of White House strategic communications after the 2020 election as Mr. Trump pressed false claims that the vote had been rigged, said on Wednesday.
In a tweet on Tuesday night, she said “two things can be true at once” — Hunter Biden may have engaged in impropriety that should be investigated, but that it “has zero to do with Trump’s actions.”
“Breathtakingly bad spin,” she wrote. “Completely devoid of intellectual honesty.”
J. Michael Luttig, a conservative former appeals court judge who was once a top Supreme Court candidate for President George W. Bush, said the Hunter Biden discussion was a political non sequitur.
“Trump committed the gravest crimes against the United States possible, save, possibly, treason,” he said. “There is simply no comparison whatsoever between the case against Trump and the case against Hunter Biden. It is silly even to speak of the two in the same breath.”
But it is an argument that has gained traction among Mr. Trump’s supporters. For the former president’s base, it has become an article of faith that he is being persecuted while Hunter Biden is getting special treatment. Three-quarters of Republicans believe that the president’s son has gotten preferential handling, according to a June poll by Reuters and Ipsos taken shortly after he agreed to a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and not contest a gun charge that will be dismissed if he goes through a diversion program.
The fact that the U.S. attorney who struck that deal with the younger Biden, David C. Weiss, was originally appointed by Mr. Trump and allowed to continue the investigation by the new president has not discouraged suspicions. House Republicans have showcased testimony by two I.R.S. investigators to argue that the Justice Department impeded the investigation, something denied by Mr. Weiss, whose prosecutors indicated in court last week that they were still investigating Hunter Biden in other matters.
Mr. Trump went straight to Hunter Biden even as the latest indictment was being issued. “Why are they putting out another Fake indictment the day after the Crooked Joe Biden SCANDAL, one of the biggest in American history, broke out in the Halls of Congress???” he wrote on his social media site on Tuesday.
He came back to it on Wednesday as he prepared for his first court appearance in the new case. “Where’s Hunter?” he wrote.
His defenders, who have been deploying phrases like “Biden Crime Family” in their fund-raising appeals, immediately picked up the talking points following the charges against Mr. Trump.
“It’s not a coincidence that there is a sham indictment on President Trump the day after bombshell testimony from Hunter Biden’s longtime business partner,” Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the chair of the House Republican Conference, told the conservative radio host Mark Levin.
“What we see today are two different tracks of justice,” said Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is running against Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination but came to his defense anyway. “One for political opponents and another for the son of the current president.”
The Republican National Committee took whataboutism to the next level on Tuesday night by posting on social media a 24-minute video of Democrats like Hillary Clinton calling Mr. Trump an illegitimate president whose 2016 election was tainted by, among other things, Russian interference. What the video does not say is that the outgoing Democratic administration of President Barack Obama and Mr. Biden made no effort to stop Mr. Trump from taking office, unlike the concerted campaign Mr. Trump waged to block the peaceful transfer of power four years later.
Mr. Trump has long accused opponents of doing what he himself has done. When he was president, he openly sought to use the Justice Department to punish his foes and reward his friends. He publicly pressured his attorney general to undo the conviction of Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser, and reduce the sentence of Roger J. Stone Jr., his political adviser, while pressing for investigations into Mr. Biden, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, among others.
Mr. Biden, by contrast, has made no known effort to direct the Justice Department’s investigation into his predecessor and has kept publicly quiet about the case. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, in an effort to distance the inquiry, handed it over to Jack Smith and made him a special counsel with at least some independence under department rules.
On Capitol Hill, House Republican leaders have sought to equate their complaints about Mr. Biden’s leadership with Mr. Trump’s actions that led him to be impeached twice for high crimes and misdemeanors.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy has talked about holding House votes to expunge Mr. Trump’s impeachments while suggesting that it may be time to open an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Biden without saying exactly what crimes the current president would be investigated for.
For Mr. Trump, the question is whether the whataboutism defense will work as effectively for the latest indictment as for his past criminal charges. Supporters may brush off the New York state indictment stemming from hush money for a porn actress and the federal indictment for mishandling classified documents; they deal with actions taken before and after he was in office.
But Tuesday’s indictment went to his conduct as president and alleged more consequential crimes, a series of overlapping conspiracies to negate the will of the voters and illegally hold onto power, culminating in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to block Mr. Biden’s victory. Within Mr. Trump’s circles, there is some concern that these allegations pose a different level of threat than the previous two indictments, and some of his critics hope they will weigh more heavily on Republicans.
As for Hunter Biden, even some Democrats are privately critical of him, convinced that he traded on his family name in private business, and no one can be sure where the investigations by Mr. Weiss or House Republicans will lead. His handling of a daughter with whom he does not have a relationship, conceived during a period he was binging on crack cocaine, has discomfited Democrats.
But Mr. Trump’s efforts to make Hunter Biden a political asset did not work in 2020 or 2022, and Democrats insist it will not work in 2024 either. Most voters interviewed in the Reuters-Ipsos poll said that the president’s son would not affect their vote next year.
“The problem that they’re running into is we’re talking about apples and oranges in terms of the conduct that is at issue,” said Representative Dan Goldman, Democrat of New York, who served as lead counsel for House Democrats during the first Trump impeachment. “The notion that oh, Donald Trump is being indicted for all these different felonies and Hunter Biden only got misdemeanors is based on the false premise that the conduct is equivalent.”