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Joe Biden hugs Hunter and Jill Biden after he was sworn in as president. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Hunter Biden hired a new attorney to assist with his federal criminal defense a month before his father became president. On Inauguration Day, one of that lawyer’s close colleagues was tapped to temporarily lead the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Why it matters: The moves put the new DOJ official atop a powerful arm of the justice system as his former colleague represents a client fending off a criminal probe. While their connection will fuel scrutiny of a politically charged matter, ethics experts say strictly adhering to conflict-of-interest rules can address any legitimate concerns.

What’s happening: In December, Hunter Biden hired former federal prosecutor Chris Clark, a partner at the firm Latham & Watkins. The president's younger son is said to be under investigation for possible tax and money laundering activities, with a potential counterintelligence component.

McQuaid, a former federal prosecutor, was tapped in January to serve as principal deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division. Additionally, he was installed as the acting assistant attorney general to replace a Trump appointee, making McQuaid one of a handful of acting AAGs appointed on Biden’s first day in office.

  • The president has yet to announce a nominee to permanently fill the post.

It’s not clear whether or to what extent the main branch of the Justice Department is involved in the Hunter Biden investigation.

  • While the investigation is being run by the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware, that doesn’t necessarily preclude involvement by Justice Department sections in Washington.
  • “It can really be quite ad hoc in the level of interactivity," said John A. Horn, a former U.S. attorney in Georgia. Any engagement is “very much dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case.”

Between the lines: Federal ethics laws and DOJ regulations would bar McQuaid from working on matters relating to the Biden investigation without a sign-off from Justice ethics officials.

  • DOJ guidelines, as well as an ethics pledge imposed by President Biden within days of taking office, bar federal officials from participating in matters involving former employers unless they receive a waiver of relevant laws and regulations.
  • “Potential conflicts between lawyers entering government and their former clients or firms are quite common,” said Kedric Payne, the senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center.
  • “This situation is one of the many initial tests of Biden's ethics pledge, which looks great on paper, but time will tell if it is effective in practice,” he added. “Enforcement is essential.”

The bottom line: “While not speaking to any particular matter,” a DOJ spokesperson told Axios, “all department employees are governed by the department’s ethics rules, including rules concerning recusal.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include that National Law Journal first reported McQuaid’s hiring.

Go deeper

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59 mins ago - World

Americans increasingly see China as an enemy

One in three Americans, and a majority of Republicans, now view China as an enemy of the United States, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.

By the numbers: Just 9% of Americans consider China a "partner," while 55% see Beijing as a "competitor" and 34% as an "enemy."

Scoop: Leaked HHS docs spotlight Biden's child migrant dilemma

A group of undocumented immigrants walk toward a Customs and Border Patrol station after being apprehended. Photo: Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Fresh internal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show how quickly the number of child migrants crossing the border is overwhelming the administration's stretched resources.

Driving the news: In the week ending March 1, the Border Patrol referred to HHS custody an average of 321 children per day, according to documents obtained by Axios. That's up from a weekly average of 203 in late January and early February — and just 47 per day during the first week of January.

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2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Mounting emissions data paints bleak picture on Paris climate goals

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Researchers keep finding new ways to reveal that nations are together showing very few signs of getting on track to meet the Paris Agreement's goals.

One big question: That's whether a spate of recent analyses to that effect, and scientific reports coming later this year, will move the needle on meaningful new policies (not just targets).