Inside the Biden scandal response playbook that his team of Clinton and Obama White House veterans is going to use over and over and over again if he wins
- The Trump campaign has stepped up its attacks on Joe Biden in the final weeks leading up to election day in the hopes that a scandal tied to the Democrat's son could help deliver the president a second term.
- Biden has surrounded himself with a scandal-management team made up of White House veterans and political crisis experts including senior advisors Ron Klain, Anita Dunn, Bob Bauer, and Steve Ricchetti.
- Biden's team also teaches his surrogates tapped to defend him on the airwaves "how to take the story and where to spin it," one Democratic strategist with ties to a key surrogate told Insider.
- His team has so far managed to swat off or at least keep Biden's campaign largely unscathed by the attacks coming in from President Donald Trump and Republicans.
- There's something else going for Biden too. "This isn't 2016. This isn't Hillary Clinton. This isn't Benghazi," said Kurt Bardella, a senior advisor to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The people Joe Biden has surrounded himself with as his presidential campaign approaches the finish line are the same ones helping him deflect an October onslaught of opposition hits that are pretty much guaranteed to spill over into his presidency — should he win.
Mud-slinging personal politics is the price of admission in the Donald Trump era, and the Democratic nominee aspiring to move into the White House next January is responding to the nonstop attacks by leaning on a team of veteran operatives and experts in crisis messaging and strategy steeped in first-hand experience from their own White House years under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
They are plenty busy. In the final weeks and days of the 2020 election, the Trump campaign, outside advocates, and conservative media allies have gone after Biden with spurious, half-baked claims that seek to tie the former Democratic vice president to corruption allegations surrounding his 50-year-old son Hunter Biden.
Rather than go point-by-point in response to the charges, Team Biden has opted for another playbook. They're mounting aggressive pre-buttals in anticipation of the Trump attacks, with the candidate, his campaign and an expanding network of Democratic surrogates expressing open contempt toward anyone taking the, um, malarky, seriously.
"What the Biden campaign and Joe Biden himself have done is they've dealt with it directly but they give Trump — I would say the expression is — the back of their hand," said Lanny Davis, the veteran Democratic crisis manager who helped Clinton's White House navigate a series of GOP-fueled attacks that ultimately led to the president's impeachment.
Who's doing what?
Biden's scandal response team is led by Ron Klain, Anita Dunn, Bob Bauer, and Steve Ricchetti. These aren't just any old political operatives. Each has Washington experience that dates back decades, with battle scars from previous scandals (and pseudo-scandals) that damaged their bosses and tarnished the Democratic party.
For starters, Klain served as chief of staff to two vice presidents — Al Gore and Biden. He helped Gore mount his 2000 White House bid on the heels of a toxic Clinton impeachment trial in the Senate and played a pivotal role during the legal fight over contested ballots in Florida that ultimately determined George W. Bush would be the next president. In Obama's White House, Klain also served as the federal government's Ebola response coordinator.
Dunn advised the Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle during the Clinton impeachment trial in early 1999. She later joined the Obama White House as interim communications director during the early months of the presidency when the US economy remained in tatters and the Democrat-led Congress launched major legislative efforts on health care, Wall Street reform and climate change.
Bauer, who is Dunn's husband, served as White House counsel under Obama at a pivotal period in late 2010 and into 2011 when Republicans seized control of the House and started several investigations that would weigh down the Democratic president as he mounted his reelection campaign. On the Biden campaign, Bauer has helped on the legal issues surrounding crisis management.
Like Klain, Ricchetti worked for the Clinton White House during impeachment. He helped on congressional relations for the Democratic president amid concerns that his political allies could defect and ultimately vote to remove him from office (That didn't happen). Ricchetti also served in the Obama White House as the second-term chief of staff to Biden at a time when Republican-led congressional investigations and ultimately an FBI probe would undercut 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Others on the Biden campaign are also active in dealing with the attacks related to Hunter Biden. There's Andrew Bates, the campaign's rapid response director, who has been the main person fielding reporters' questions. And surrogate directors Adrienne Elrod and Melissa Piccoli work to ensure anyone tapped to defend Biden when speaking with the media is well-prepared to do so.
Biden's Democratic defenders learn "how to take the story and where to spin it," said a party strategist with ties to a key surrogate. "It's pretty common to ask the surrogate team, 'What do you suggest I say?'"
Preemptive crisis messaging
Hours before Biden appeared for the second and final presidential debate last week, his campaign arranged a call with reporters to preemptively dismiss rumblings about the Hunter Biden allegations. There was no doubt the scandal would come up during the debate and they needed to get ahead of it.
The message was simple: a New York Post story published eight days earlier alleging Biden's son tried to connect a Ukrainian businessman to his father who was vice president at the time was in fact the product of a Russian disinformation campaign.
"I think if we see tonight from Donald Trump these attacks on Vice President Biden's family, I think we need to be very, very clear that what he's doing here is amplifying Russian misinformation," Biden's deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told reporters on the call.
Trump and his campaign did their part to keep the story alive. They invited as a guest to the debate in Nashville a former Hunter Biden business partner who insisted he had text messages and emails showing corruption involving the vice president. Nothing of the sort actually emerged.
And while the president brought the Hunter Biden topic up during the debate in a cryptic aside, calling it "terrible," Biden countered that "nothing was unethical" when moderator Kristen Welker asked if it was improper for his son to try to gain business in Ukraine and China while the former vice president was in office.
For all of that back-and-forth, Trump's attacks against Biden and his family appear to matter most as fuel to excite the president's political base on the eve of the election. That's regardless of where the facts go. Indeed, several major media outlets, including Business Insider, immediately found holes in The New York Post story about Hunter Biden not long after it was published. Questions still remain surrounding how the information was reportedly obtained via a laptop Hunter Biden allegedly dropped off at a repair shop and never picked up.
Dozens of former intelligence officials have also come to Biden's defense by explaining the allegations brought against the Democratic nominee's son appear to have links to a Russian disinformation campaign similar to the one waged in 2016 that damaged Clinton and helped Trump.
'This isn't Benghazi'
Trump's campaign team has its doubts that their rivals are any good at dealing with the Hunter Biden attacks. They also insist the "mainstream media" is protecting the Democratic nominee.
"Joe Biden has never been good at handling crises, as evidenced by his time as vice president when he oversaw the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression and did 'every possible thing wrong' during the 2009 swine flu," Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager told Insider. "Now as a candidate, the mainstream media has shielded Biden from himself."
Democratic crisis experts Insider interviewed said Biden has indeed handled the allegations against his son correctly by offering quick denials. They also question whether Trump's White House and his campaign have shown the aptitude for marketing and managing a scandal.
"It's really amateur hour," Julian Epstein, an attorney who served as Democratic chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment, told Insider.
Biden's team has another asset too as it defends their candidate. The attacks from the Trump campaign don't have nearly the same firepower as some other hits recent presidential candidates have experienced.
"This isn't 2016. This isn't Hillary Clinton. This isn't Benghazi," said Kurt Bardella, a senior advisor for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project.
He's referring to the fatal attack in 2012 on a US diplomatic mission in Libya that led to a House GOP probe that uncovered Clinton used a secret private email server while she was secretary of State. Those revelations, coupled with the scandal-plagued history of the Bill Clinton presidency and the Russian-led attacks that led to embarrassing information released in the heat of the 2016 campaign, all did a number on the former first lady's chances of returning to the White House.
"That baggage just doesn't exist for Joe Biden," added Bardella who is now a Democrat and no stranger to scandal himself.
This being Washington, a Biden win in 2020 won't make the attacks go away. Not in a hyper-partisan post-Trump era where conservative media and GOP lawmakers appear intent on continuing to replay the allegations against the Democrat's adult son.
"If there is a Biden presidency, I don't think anybody working in the White House with these types of connections would actually get a security clearance, because those individuals would be compromised," Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, a staunch Trump ally and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo on Wednesday.
But Epstein, the former House Democratic aide, said Biden should stick to what has worked during the campaign if he is elected president. That includes keeping around political veterans like Klain, Dunn and Ricchetti.
"I think he should keep doing what he's doing," Epstein said. "You raise sufficient doubt, which I think they've been able to do based on the facts. And if something shows that Joe Biden was somehow in the know about something that was inappropriate — I'm skeptical — but if there's anything that even sort of looks out of place, I think you sort of find a place to get that out in the appropriate time."
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