Opinion: It doesn’t get more awkward than it did for Biden

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the forthcoming book, “Our Nation at Risk: Election Integrity as a National Security Issue.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

President Joe Biden delivered a previously scheduled speech Tuesday about what his administration has done on gun control on the very same day that his son Hunter Biden was found guilty on gun-related charges.

The president spoke at Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund’s “Gun Sense University,” where he blasted former President Donald Trump’s record on gun control: “After a school shooting in Iowa that killed a student and a teacher my predecessor was asked about it — do you remember what he said? … He said you have to get over it. Hell no, we don’t have to get over it, we have to stop it — stop it, and stop it now. My predecessor told the NRA convention recently, he’s proud of that quote, ‘I did nothing on guns when I was president,’ and by doing nothing he made the situation considerably worse.”

Talk about awkward timing. Sometimes real-world politics works in mysterious ways. But the fact that Hunter Biden’s story is now intertwined with a push for gun control creates some unusual cross-pressures not only for Biden but also for both Democrats and Republicans as they navigate the difficult terrain of the 2024 election.

For Republicans, there is a danger of saying too much. After all, the GOP has moved over the years into a staunch position against almost any stringent gun regulation. Should they double down on the actual charges that have resulted in Biden’s conviction, they would end up helping to bolster the very kinds of gun-restriction laws that the party has been eager to avoid.

The convergence of these two core GOP issues — the president’s son and guns — could dampen some of the initial Republican response to the verdict. Trump’s party may prefer to press their case that Hunter Biden’s work for overseas companies deserves investigation as a sign of the Biden family selling influence.

Last week, the House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden made criminal referrals to the Justice Department against Hunter and the president’s brother James, seeking their prosecution for allegedly making false statements to Congress. James Biden’s lawyer said “this baseless partisan action is a transparent and cynical attempt to distract from and retaliate for Donald Trump’s recent criminal conviction.”

Hunter Biden, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, left, and his wife, Melissa Cohen Biden, right, walks out of federal court after hearing the verdict, Tuesday, June 11, in Wilmington, Delaware. - Matt Rourke/AP
Hunter Biden, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, left, and his wife, Melissa Cohen Biden, right, walks out of federal court after hearing the verdict, Tuesday, June 11, in Wilmington, Delaware. - Matt Rourke/AP

Rather than talk about gun laws, Republicans would be more comfortable discussing President Biden — or at least, the forthcoming trial Hunter Biden faces for allegedly failing to pay taxesOverall, however, some of the rhetoric might be more tamped down than expected.

For Democrats, there are incentives to avoid attacking the legitimacy of the gun charges against Hunter Biden. As President Biden made clear in his speech, many Democrats have worked hard to elevate the issue of gun control following after many years of mass shootings that have shocked the nation.

With his speech, President Biden had an opportunity to show voters as the election heats up that he and his party are serious about continuing to pursue gun control despite the fierce opposition Republicans have put up each time the issue reaches Capitol Hill.

Even when the matter touches the people he loves most in the world, the president demonstrated that he will not desist in trying to make the nation’s schools and streets safer from the gun violence that has plagued the US.

There’s a deeper issue here as well. This conviction of the president’s son by his own administration’s Justice Department gives the lie to the Republican claim that Biden has weaponized federal prosecutors to punish his political enemies, especially Trump, and protect Democrats. The Justice Department has indicted Trump in two cases but Biden has insisted that those decisions were left under the purview of Attorney General Merrick Garland. The other two prosecutions of the former president were brought by local prosecutors in New York and Georgia, where Biden had absolutely no involvement.

President Biden has made clear that — unlike Trump — he will respect the decisions of the courts and not use his power to pardon Hunter Biden even if the outcome is devastating for his son. This gives room for Democrats to avoid saying too much about Tuesday’s news, keeping the focus on Trump and avoiding any questions about the laws that are at the heart of the case.

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