Hunter’s War & Roe’s ’24 Choice

The bare knuckle tactics of Hunter Biden’s allies are beginning to aggravate some senior officials in the White House.
The bare-knuckle tactics of Hunter Biden’s allies are beginning to aggravate some senior White House officials. Photo: Handout/DNCC via Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
March 23, 2023

Hunter Biden, the president’s troubled lobbyist-cum-author-cum-artist son and tabloid media curiosity, has been assembling a more combative legal and communications apparatus to defend himself against House G.O.P. investigators looking to probe whether he sold access to Joe Biden. But while the president has publicly distanced himself from Hunter’s legal and personal affairs, which have at times been an embarrassment to the administration, the bare-knuckle tactics of his allies are beginning to aggravate some senior officials in the White House. 

It’s evident by the background quotes from those in Biden’s inner circle, who are questioning Hunter’s new aggressive defense, led by Abbe Lowell, the rainmaker who recently represented Jared Kushner, and supported by David Brock, the former Clinton operative and Media Matters advocate, with his outside super PAC, Facts First. To wit: Brock’s PAC has been working to bloody the noses of House Oversight chair James Comer and his compadre, Judiciary committee chair Jim Jordan, in defense of Hunter. The PAC also recently brought on Michael LaRosa, Jill Biden’s former chief spokesperson in the White House, who often had his wrist slapped for being too aggressive in his defense of the Bidens on Twitter. 

The PAC’s latest digital ad, which runs in Comer and Jordan’s districts, raises questions about their own personal scandals—like the early 1990s allegations that Comer abused his ex-girlfriend and brought her to get an abortion, and the accusations that Jordan covered up sexual abuse at the high school where he coached wrestling. They’ve also been pushing a recent New York Times profile that delves into the Comer allegations. 

It’s a total go-low knife-fight strategy, and it has unsurprisingly rankled a very controlled, borderline paranoid administration whose messaging is run by Anita Dunn, with a legal strategy guided by her husband Bob Bauer, that puts the Biden agenda before the Biden family. “They have a rogue entity that they can’t control—they can’t control the strategy,” said a Biden ally and source involved in the efforts to defend Hunter.

Brock’s controversial, scorched-earth and flamboyant style isn’t lost on Biden White House aides. A recent Hill piece cataloged the eye-rolling among some Democrats, who called his infamous #dickpics Twitter thread—pictures of men named Richard or Dick in order to highlight the prurient obsessions of Republican investigators looking into the contents of Hunter’s laptop—“baffling” and “juvenile.” But Hunter seems to appreciate the work being done on his behalf. It was Brock who suggested to Hunter’s friend and advisor Kevin Morris that he hire Lowell, who repped Kushner when he was up against congressional investigators, and embattled New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Back in the day, he represented Gary Condit.

Of course, Lowell and Bauer, two of the most storied attorneys in D.C., would clash. Bauer has been the personal lawyer for Biden working on the classified doc-handling investigation. Bauer has also long been developing messaging for White House communications aides regarding sensitive inquiries into Hunter Biden’s laptop or Ashley Biden’s diary. He recommended that Hunter hire outside lawyer Joshua Levy to handle his personal matters. But as The New York Times reported, when Lowell was brought on, Levy quit the legal team. 

Whereas Bauer and Dunn seem to be trying to steer a tight message, I’m told from allies of Hunter that Joe Biden actually welcomes a more aggressive style against Republicans, even if that risks putting Hunter front and center, creating residual unflattering press. A longtime Biden ally told me that the president explicitly told Dunn to back off any individual or outside group who is defending his son. A White House spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. 

Lowell also declined to comment. Brock called Comer’s congressional investigations a “continu[ation of] his pattern of abuse in Congress by using another stolen laptop to attack another private citizen.”

Bad Blood

For their part, Hunter’s allies feel they have reasons to distrust the White House’s interest, or incentives, to protect him. “Judging by how they handled the communications and P.R. effort during and after the documents scandal and the drip-drip-drip of endless cycles, it’s no wonder Hunter has no faith in them,” a source involved in the Hunter defense told me. “Their response was baffling and flatfooted. It makes sense that Hunter would want his own press apparatus when the White House can barely react to their own crisis without pissing off the press and donors and Democratic members of Congress.” 

This isn’t to say that the White House doesn’t welcome outside help when battling belligerent Republican factions. Stephanie Cutter and Patrick Bonsignore’s super PAC, Build Back Together, was designed to defend their Build Back Better legislation, which ultimately did not pass in its original form. There is plenty of connectivity there. Cutter and White House advisor Jen O’Malley were business partners. Bonsignore also worked with O’Malley and White House senior advisor Mike Donilon

The White House’s inner circle cares mightily, and understandably, about who they work with. And I’m sure it doesn’t help that Brock was so closely aligned with Hillary Clinton, in 2008, when she hit the mattresses against Barack Obama. A number of the key figures in Bidenworld, including Dunn and Bauer, may have long memories from their time in the Obama administration. Kyle Herrig and Leslie Dach’s Congressional Integrity Project, which has more of an umbrella approach to fighting congressional investigations (rather than focusing on just Hunter Biden), is the White House’s preferred vehicle, I’m told. They’re seen as blessed by the White House as they are willing to take signals from an administration that aims for control. But for Team Hunter, the more supportive and aggressive response, the better—especially as they consider a legal defense fund to cover Hunter’s attorneys bills.

Roe’s Choice

Washington’s most ambitious Republican uber-consultant Jeff Roe, no longer content to wait for Glenn Youngkin to decide whether he’s going to run for president, has ditched the vest-wearing culture warrior dad and hitched a ride toward the White House with Ron DeSantis. After months of swirling rumors about his ongoing flirtation with DeSantis—Roe previously demurred when I asked last month—the news broke last night while I was standing next to him at a book party for his former client, Dave McCormick, the former Bridgewater C.E.O. and author of Superpower in Peril. The event for the once-and-likely-future “America First” Senate candidate was hosted by the U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba

While the story swept through the glass Reach room at the Kennedy Center, as Ted Cruz stood just feet away, Roe explained to me that he now sees ’24 as a two-way race between Trump and DeSantis. He said as much on Fox News, before walking it back when it became clear that he was offending his client, Youngkin, who clearly sees the same thing but is nonetheless hoping for a late-entry opportunity. It’s the classic Bloombergian, rich man’s gamble—to parachute in after the first debate, quickly build a ground operation, and rack up 20,000 unique donors, the rumored number the R.N.C. will require to get on the debate stage. 

But Roe, an ambitious guy with lucid White House dreams, was not going to twiddle his thumbs while Youngkin bided his time. So Roe decided to consummate a deal with DeSantis to run his likely-to-be-blessed super PAC, Never Back Down, which was recently set up by DeSantis’s primary re-election consultant Phil Cox, as my partner Peter Hamby first reported. Now it appears that Roe has layered over Cox, even though they are both technically senior advisors. After all, with Roe’s larger-than-life presence, there’s no way he was brought on to play second fiddle to Cox, who already has history with DeSantis. 

That’s surely a tough pill to swallow for Cox. It wasn’t lost on Florida insiders that in DeSantis’s acceptance speech, after winning re-election by a whopping 19 points, he only thanked his campaign manager Generra Peck, who is expected to oversee his presidential campaign. So maybe Cox’s only move was to step away from the Casey and Ron nucleus and launch the super PAC. But Roe’s entrance into Never Back Down doesn’t bode well for Cox’s own status, even if there will be some effort to bring the team of rivals together. It would be a smart approach if DeSantis wants to avoid the sort of dysfunction that plagued Trump’s team. But alas, DeSantis has never been good with holding onto aides, as evidenced by the existence of a support group for scarred ex-DeSantis exiles.

In any case, it certainly looks like a reunion for the former Ted Cruz team at the PAC’s new Atlanta headquarters, with Roe, the former Cruz campaign manager, reuniting with former Cruz delegate counter Ken Cuccinelli to run the show. Toss in the support of Club for Growth, and it’s starting to feel a bit like the Cruz 2016 campaign 2.0. In fairness, Cruz did come in second to Trump in the primary after building an impressive ground game—with the exception of Trump’s team, there are really only a handful of consultants with experience in the last decade running past the first three states in the primary. 

As for Roe, he’s set himself up for a few client conflicts within Axiom Strategies, his own sprawling political consultancy. First, there’s the question of how to calm Youngkin, who will likely have to get a whole new team if he decides to run post-August. Youngkin already brought on the Virginia-based Dave Rexrode, the former Republican Governors Association executive director, to be his senior political advisor. But Axiom is going to continue working on the account, with Kristin Davison as the lead on communications support and advertising support for the Virginia legislative races. If Youngkin decides to jump into the ring after a potential DeSantis-Trump murder-suicide blowup, he can always take back Roe, who will surely be looking for a new client to latch onto. Though I doubt he would do that after Roe’s decision to switch teams. As my editor Jon Kelly would say: Youngkin is a private equity grinfucker, don’t let the vest fool you.

I’ve also heard that Roe’s right-hand man, Sam Cooper, has been in meetings with DeSantis’s political staff. That would create another “firewall” issue, of course, because campaigns and super PACs can’t coordinate, but I hear Cooper will leave Axiom to join the DeSantis campaign when it’s official in June. He could return to Axiom afterward, unless he’s in the White House by then.