“We’ll handle that the way I handle things.” Who said it: Donald Trump on a podcast this week or fictional crime boss Tony Soprano over a plate of pasta at Vesuvio restaurant?
One could be excused for thinking it was the head of television’s DiMeo organized crime family. No, it was the 45th president of the United States and still-leader of the Republican Party.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor and longtime House Intelligence Committee member and its chairman in the last congress, has repeatedly compared Trump’s political actions and some aspects of his business organization to a DiMeo-like operation.
About the list of pardons Trump issued before leaving office in early 2021, the California Democrat said this in December 2020: “He’s acting like an organized crime figure, except this organized crime figure is the president of the United States with the power to give people a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.”
Fast forward a little over two years: GOP lawmakers and commentators in recent weeks have used social media posts and interviews with right-leaning television networks to indirectly and directly describe the Biden family as a white-collar criminal entity.
“The Bidens are just a Delaware version of the Sopranos,” former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., tweeted Tuesday even though no member of the president’s family has been charged with a single crime. No matter to Republicans. The House GOP’s probes will play out in a political — not criminal — court.
“Well, we’re doing the Biden family influence-peddling investigation. And I can tell you, what we have learned just in the last few days from Biden’s mishandling of classified documents is that the Biden Center was funded primarily through anonymous donations from China,” said House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., referring to a think tank in the former vice president’s name that was established at the school after the elder Biden left office in early 2017.
“It was the University of Pennsylvania that funneled it through the Biden Center,” he added of the alleged Chinese cash. “And then you have the Hunter shady business dealings.”
House Republican lawmakers are trying to cast Biden as Delaware’s Tony Soprano, also known as “the Big Guy,” as his son Hunter Biden reportedly referred to him in some business emails.
They also are intensifying years-old attempts at casting Hunter Biden as Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony’s nephew on “The Sopranos” and a DiMeo “captain.” There are some rather sad parallels between Hunter and Christopher, including addiction issues.
Expect GOP lawmakers to paint Hunter in the Christopher mold: A troubled soul who often ignored the law in the pursuit of cold, hard cash — and as a loose cannon, just like Christopher, who made impulsive decisions that could come back to haunt the “boss.”
To that end, a Fox News commentator on Monday night asked House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, this pointed question: “Is Hunter Biden a national security risk?” His response: “Well, I think we’re going to find out. There’s certainly questions about that.”
‘The way I handle things’
Meantime, there’s also Trump, who gave off his own family “boss” vibes this week.
In one social media post, the 45th president took aim at the 46th over the latter’s mishandling of classified documents, which were improperly taken to an office and two houses after he left the vice presidency. Trump contended Biden’s Wilmington, Del., area home is not as secure as his own Mar-a-Lago resort, where FBI agents were deployed to retrieve over 300 pages of classified documents Trump took after leaving the presidency — and initially refused to return.
“Mar-a-Lago is a highly secured facility, with Security Cameras all over the place, and watched over by staff & our great Secret Service,” wrote Trump, along with a “boss”-like warning: “I have INFO on everyone!”
He did not stop there, however. During an interview with David Brody on “The Water Cooler” podcast, the former chief executive issued another “boss”-like warning, this one to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen as his top potential 2024 GOP primary foe: “So you know, now I hear he might want to run against me. So we’ll handle that the way I handle things.”
Very “boss.” But with Gingrich already casting Biden as Tony Soprano, Trump very neatly fits into the mold of “The Sopranos” heavy-handed Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), who became the “boss” of the Lupertazzi family across the river in New York.
By the end of the series, the two families were at war. Sound familiar?
Biden has given every indication he planned to use the 300 pages or so of sensitive materials Trump took to his Florida residence in a potential 2024 rematch. That will be harder now. Much harder.
That’s even though the Justice Department is investigating Trump, in relation to his possession of documents, for possible obstruction of justice charges and other potential offenses. So far, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has merely named a special counsel to look into why the Biden documents were improperly taken.
So behold the fledgling 2024 presidential race: The party’s two front-runners — and leaders — are both under special counsel investigations for misusing classified documents. But has one party “boss” behaved worse than the other?
“Trump intentionally resisted returning classified records to the government and his team went so far as to obstruct the government’s efforts to recover them,” Walter Shaub, a former Office of Government Ethics director who resigned early in Trump’s term, said in an email. “That is serious misconduct likely implicating criminal laws, and it is an entirely different matter than Biden’s decision to self-report and return the records in his possession to the government.”
Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and editor of the Lawfare blog recently wrote of the Biden documents scandal: “Special counsel or not, this is most unlikely to be a criminal case.”
“In Trump’s case, we kind of know the answer to this question: He or his staff removed them from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, and he has tenaciously resisted giving them back, in a fashion that the Justice Department believed warranted investigation as an obstruction of justice.”
‘What’re you gonna do?’
On the one hand: Perhaps Biden, who has dealt with classified documents during his entire five decades of government service, is correct when he claims this: “People know I take classified documents and classified material seriously.” That would suggest it was merely bad staff work, mistakes made as his vice presidential office was packed up.
But on the other: None of that will matter politically. Nor will the sensitive Biden documents (around 20) far under-numbering the ones Trump took (around 300). Nor will this Biden remark, which so far appears to be true: “We’re cooperating fully and completely with the Justice Department’s review.” Nor will it matter that Trump acted in the opposite manner, prompting the FBI raid of his Florida resort to retrieve the materials.
Republicans will merely continue saying Trump is being treated too harshly and Biden is getting a pass from his hand-picked Justice Department leaders.
Though experts — right now — see sloppiness in the Biden case rather than criminal actions, Shaub said there is still plenty to question about the Biden camp’s reaction to the first batch of documents being found just before a crucial congressional election — as well as its latest messaging woes.
“Once you move beyond inappropriate comparison to the Trump situation, there are two concerning aspects of President Biden’s handling of this situation,” said Shaub, now senior ethics fellow at the Project On Government Oversight. “For one thing, his retention and improper storage of classified records was irresponsible and amounts to neglect of his national security responsibilities.”
“It’s hard to understand how classified records can wind up crammed into a garage with a sports car,” he added. “Secondly, while his prompt return of the records to the government was a good thing, the administration’s failure to own up to this debacle in the media is also disappointing.”
Biden told reporters on Jan. 12 he is “going to get a chance to speak on all this, God willing, soon.” Since, the president has taken a scant few questions from reporters and his team has opted against explaining its decision-making before the midterms and after. Team Biden’s tone has been a cocktail, one part dismissiveness, one part secretive — with a strong splash of standoffish.
Biden did take a question on the matter Thursday while touring storm damage in California, saying: “There’s no there there.” But that will be a decision most immediately for the special counsel.
Given the expected ferocity of House Republicans’ investigations, Biden, if he runs again, would enter the 2024 race lacking the luxury of using this often-uttered Tony Soprano shrug-it-off line: “What’re you gonna do?”
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.