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‘It’s hard to believe he’s Al Capone’: Republicans portray Biden as both incompetent and a criminal mastermind

Republican Representative James Comer of Kentucky and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia listened to testimony during a hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Biden.KENT NISHIMURA/NYT

WASHINGTON — To hear Republicans tell it, President Biden is a feeble, bumbling, 80-year-old man unfit to hold the office. And to hear Republicans tell it, he’s also an ingenious criminal mastermind.

This tale of two Bidens comes as the party’s long-running narrative about the oldest sitting president in history clashes with a growing line of attack highlighted by a House Republican impeachment inquiry revolving around his family’s business dealings.

“He intentionally misled the American people by using complex maneuvers to pocket millions of dollars from our adversary,” Representative Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, said without evidence at the first impeachment hearing by the House Oversight and Accountability Committee late last month.

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She and other Republicans asserted Biden has been leading a sophisticated, global influence-peddling enterprise by his family and orchestrating a Justice Department coverup. They referred to him as being “the big guy” who was “intimately involved” in alleged “pay-to-play schemes and crooked foreign business dealings” by his son Hunter, even calling “an audible” at one point in a quick-thinking maneuver.

“It’s hard to believe he’s Al Capone,” said Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor who was a Democratic witness at the hearing, in an interview. “I think the Republican narrative is riddled with problems and it’s largely still based on conjecture and assumptions and not concrete proof.”

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, acknowledged the basic inconsistency as he led the rebellion last week that ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

“It is going to be difficult for my Republican friends to keep calling President Biden feeble while he continues to take Speaker McCarthy’s lunch money in every negotiation,” Gaetz said on the House floor Tuesday before the vote to remove McCarthy.

The Biden campaign’s social media team quickly posted that video on X as it tried to counter polls showing a significant majority of Americans say he’s too old to be president. Officials from the Biden campaign and the White House declined to comment directly on the conflicting Republican attacks. But, in a statement, White House spokesperson Sharon Yang decried what she called “smear campaigns.”

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“House Republicans have wasted time and taxpayer dollars launching all kinds of baseless, partisan attacks aimed at damaging the President politically — what Americans see as D.C. politics at its worst — and yet have turned up zero evidence linking President Biden to any wrongdoing,” she said.

Since the 2020 campaign, Republicans have seized on nearly every physical stumble, verbal gaffe, or other senior moment by Biden as evidence he’s incapable of serving as president.

Just in recent days, the Republican National Committee posted short video clips on X declaring “Biden is confused again” and “Biden stares off into the abyss as reporters ask him questions before they are kicked out of the room.” The RNC mashed up a bunch of miscues into a video titled “Here are 120 seconds of Joe Biden showing he’s totally fit to be president,” and continued to hit the theme even as Biden dealt with the Hamas attacks on Israel, questioning if he was sleeping Saturday when he should have been directing the US response.

Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates routinely question Biden’s mental and physical competence, with comments ranging from subtle to extreme, such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia recently calling him “an ailing old man ridden with dementia.”

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But now Republicans are trying to convince Americans that the same Biden is the architect of a vast criminal conspiracy.

Such inconsistent political narratives aren’t new, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who teaches political communications at the University of Southern California and the University of California Berkeley. Democrats at times depicted former presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump as both “stupid and diabolically evil,” he said. “Saturday Night Live” aired a skit in 1986 that portrayed Ronald Reagan as genial and doddering in public while behind the scenes he masterminded every minute detail of the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostage deal.

Republicans risk undercutting one or both of their arguments in their dueling Biden attacks, but Schnur said it could be worth it.

“One or the other of these might be more effective in motivating a dedicated conservative voter. They’ve decided it’s worth throwing both against the wall and seeing which sticks,” he said. “The majority of the American public believes Joe Biden’s too old to be president and the race is still tied, so maybe this is a logical next step.”

Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat on the oversight committee, noted that both of the Republican depictions of Biden can’t be true.

“It’s not only that the message itself is contradictory . . . but the methods they’re using to propound these dual contradictory narratives are very flawed,” Connolly said. “You add all that up and they look like the gang that can’t shoot straight.”

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The flaws in Republicans’ impeachment case were evident during the hearing. No new evidence was presented. And one of the Republicans’ witnesses, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, said that while an inquiry was warranted, “I do not believe the current evidence would support articles of impeachment.”

Representative Dan Goldman, a first-term New York Democrat on the committee, said the scheme Republicans are portraying “would require someone who is a business wizard and criminal mastermind.”

“The only plausible way that President Biden has done anything wrong would be as part of an incredibly sophisticated complex web of shell companies and bank accounts that could be concealed from a basic investigation,” said Goldman, a former prosecutor who has investigated fraud rings and money laundering and was the Democrats’ lead counsel in the first Trump impeachment.

“They’re trying to conflate and misrepresent the evidence, partially by making it seem more complicated than it is and partially by just misrepresenting what it says in order to infer that there’s something nefarious here even when there’s not,” he said.

A spokesperson for Representative James Comer, a Kentucky Republican and chair of the oversight committee, did not respond to a request for comment. Comer opened the impeachment inquiry hearing by saying his committee “has uncovered a mountain of evidence revealing how Joe Biden abused his public office for his family’s financial gain.”

Democrats said none of that evidence ties Biden to any crimes or abuses of power. Gerhardt made the analogy of Hunter Biden being arrested for speeding and the police going after his father because he owned the car.

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“I don’t think that’s how the law should work,” he told the lawmakers. “I don’t think that’s how impeachment should work.”

But latching onto the new Republican narrative about Biden, Representative Lisa McClain of ,Michigan later asked Gerhardt about a revised version of that analogy.

“If a criminal pulls a trigger for a murder, he’s guilty, right? . . . But don’t you also agree with me, if somebody ordered that hit, we would charge him too?” she said.

Gerhardt said she was right but that her analogy didn’t fit. McClain cut him off before he could explain why.

“What I was going to say is there’s no evidence suggesting Biden ordered anything,” Gerhardt said. “It’s casting Joe Biden in a way that’s hard to reconcile with what we actually know about him. Joe Biden master criminal? It’s hard to come to terms with that when he seems to be, I mean this in a positive way, more of an ordinary American.”


Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.