Dems push Biden to ‘fight back hard’ against Trump’s Ukraine attack

As President Donald Trump prepares to unleash a fusillade against former Vice President Joe Biden over his son’s ties to Ukraine, Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill have some advice for their candidate: Be ready to punch back — hard.

Trump previewed this week that he intends to hammer Biden over widely discredited claims that the Democratic frontrunner sought the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor in order to shield his son Hunter from an investigation of his work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.

Democrats have privately fretted that Biden hasn’t responded to these attacks forcefully enough, even though Trump’s allies have raised them for months. And now that Biden is favored to become the Democratic nominee for president, lawmakers say he needs to showcase a clear and effective response that can withstand months of Trump attacks.

“I believe in that old political maxim that an attack unanswered is an attack agreed to,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in an interview Thursday.

More than a dozen Capitol Hill Democrats, many of whom are backing Biden’s candidacy, said in interviews that the vice president needs to fine tune his response, pivoting away from the at times emotional and defensive rebuttals he’s offered on the campaign trail.

Their advice was wide-ranging: Some said Biden surrogates should attack Trump’s adult children for benefitting from the presidency anytime Trump goes after Biden’s son. Others said he should be prepared to lay out the facts of the Ukraine case, which debunk the allegations of corruption Trump has leveled. Others still said Biden should simply remind voters that it was precisely this attack that led to Trump’s impeachment last year.

But regardless of their advice, Democrats widely agreed that the Burisma matter wouldn’t weigh heavily on Biden’s chances because it’s been thoroughly debated for months and the facts are on his side — even as the president’s allies in the Senate are planning to use Burisma as a cudgel against Biden.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 25: House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) joins fellow House Democrats for a news conference on the Privileged Resolution to Terminate President Donald Trump's emergency declaration February 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. The House is expected to vote on and pass a resolution this week that would abolish Trump's declaration of a national emergency to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Not one bit, not one bit,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a prominent Biden ally. “You can make anything you want an issue. You can eat too much ice cream and make that an issue. And I think the president is eating too much ice cream.”

Other Biden supporters pointed to the swell of support he’s received on Super Tuesday as proof that voters don’t buy into Republicans’ claims.

“As we've seen, the president has been saying that for months and Vice President Biden has received overwhelming support and I think it will continue,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a House impeachment manager who endorsed Biden earlier Thursday.

Democrats’ comments came amid growing expectations that Trump and his allies in the GOP-controlled Senate are preparing to unleash a tsunami of Burisma-related attacks on Biden in an attempt to tarnish his campaign.

Trump's legal team and allies in Congress spent months launching attacks on Biden and his family — based on the disputed testimony of two former Ukrainian prosecutors removed for their own alleged corruption — to allege Biden leaned on the Ukrainian government to protect his son from a corruption investigation into Burisma.

The charge has been refuted by senior State Department officials, who said Biden championed anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine in partnership with U.S. allies. His efforts, they said, made it likelier that companies like Burisma would face legitimate scrutiny, rather than escape it.

But Trump pressed Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation of Biden last year, a push that ultimately led the House to impeach Trump for abusing his power by soliciting foreign help in his reelection. The president was acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate trial.

Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been mounting a year-long campaign to promote the discredited attacks on Biden and on Thursday echoed a call to revive them now that Biden has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner.

And on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) this week announced a new phase in his long-simmering Burisma investigation, including a plan to authorize subpoenas next week related to Hunter and the release of an interim report over the next two months. Johnson said he believed Democratic primary voters should see his findings before casting their votes.

Johnson’s push has led to some unease even among Republicans. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the only Republican to support Trump’s removal from office in the impeachment trial, said Johnson’s investigation appeared political in nature.

Democrats raised concerns during the impeachment process that Biden often failed to clearly articulate a rebuttal to the Burisma attacks — he even memorably tussled angrily with a voter who questioned him about it, calling him “a damn liar.” Some also acknowledged that Hunter’s work for Burisma did present at least the appearance of a conflict, even if there was no underlying wrongdoing.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 20: Terri Sewell (D-AL) questions Gordon Sondland, US Ambassador to the European Union before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony during the fourth day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump, whom House Democrats say held back U.S. military aid for Ukraine while demanding it investigate his political rivals and the unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukrainians, not Russians, were behind the 2016 computer hacking of the Democratic National Committee.  (Photo by Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images)

“The reality is, optically, it doesn’t look good, but I think the facts speak for themselves,” said Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.). “We need to put to bed any rumors about Joe Biden’s involvement at all on Burisma by just the facts, making sure the facts were out there.”

But some now say it wasn’t as urgent for Biden to develop a concerted response then because he was facing a field of Democrats that wasn’t mounting similar attacks. That’s about to change.

“His democratic opponents didn’t go after him on those — maybe a light blow here and there,” Beyer said. “With Trump it’ll be much different. One of the things I’m sure the Biden campaign won’t do is treat this the way John Kerry did the Swift Boats.”

For some Democrats, the key to neutralizing the impending attacks is for Biden to turn them right back around on the president, questioning the Trump children’s many financial and business entanglements as they continue to advise their father -- both formally and informally -- while he’s in the White House.

“If Donald Trump wants to talk about children, let’s talk about the president’s children and the immense amount of money they’re making off of their father’s name,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who hasn’t endorsed in the Democratic primary. “I’m Irish too, so you fight back hard. When somebody throws this kind of sleaze at you, you respond.”

But some longtime Biden allies on Capitol Hill said they didn’t expect the vice president to take that advice, noting it just wasn’t in his nature to attack politicians’ children, no matter what he is being accused of in the interim.

FILE - In this June 27, 2018 file photo, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., asks a question of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.   (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Biden is a good guy. He wants to be tough but he wants to be completely clean,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “I know there are people on our team who wanted him to say, ‘Look, let’s talk about your kids.’ But Biden is not a hater.”

Some senior Democrats have not been shy in their criticism of Biden’s campaign. Cleaver, who endorsed Biden last fall, said Biden’s responses to the Ukraine questions so far have not been effective. And Clyburn, speaking more broadly about the campaign over the weekend on CNN, said there needs to be some “retooling,” a sentiment Biden later agreed with.

With Biden consolidating his grip on the primary, though, allies see an influx of resources and support that could help him recalibrate his campaign to respond to those types of attacks.

“I think you’re going to see his message fine-tuned now that he has resources,” Cleaver said. “He hasn’t had the resources and so he hasn’t had the people who can sit around and craft the response he needs.”

But whatever the message Biden settles on, Democrat say he must be prepared for the issue to get ugly.

“The president will pound on whatever the president can pound on,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). “This isn’t pattycake. It’s going to be a tough, bloody fight.”

Sarah Ferris contributed reporting.

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