On the Tragedy of Hunter Biden
His father, our president, is one of the main victims of his abuse
Though I am very aware that former President Trump has been indicted for the third time — in fact, if you want to hear my views on that and more analysis of the charges, I’ll point you to the episode of Serious Trouble I recorded last night with Ken White — today I have something for you on Hunter Biden.
Hunter Biden probably will be allowed to plead guilty to two counts of misdemeanor tax crimes, after the terms of his plea agreement get straightened out a little.1 And Hunter has gotten himself in the news this week due to testimony from his former business partner Devon Archer that Hunter repeatedly got Joe on speakerphone in the presence of his shady foreign clients — though never to discuss business, and sometimes without even informing Joe of their presence.
Whether or not Joe handled his son’s behavior as well as he should have — a matter I’ll discuss below — one thing that’s clear here is that one of Hunter’s many sins is causing a lot of political trouble for his father.
But that’s not the only trouble Hunter has caused Joe.
One of the most depressing aspects of the Hunter Biden saga is the emotional terrorism he has wrought on his family as they have struggled to keep him alive and sober. Here is one vignette from his memoir, as described by Time magazine:
There’s a too-brief scene late in Hunter Biden’s new memoir where Dr. Jill Biden tricks the crack-addled lawyer and consultant to come for dinner at the family home in Wilmington, Del. Upon walking through the door, Hunter sees the family gathered — along with counselors from one of the countless rehab facilities that pop up throughout his new memoir.
There is screaming and there are tears. Future President Joe Biden is described as terrified and pleading with his son. One of Hunter’s daughters takes his car keys away from him. He eventually agrees to his family’s plea to try another round of rehab, just not at the one they picked. He wants to go to one in Maryland. The family, after 15 years of rounds of rehab and relapse, agrees. Frantic phone calls follow and appointments are made for that evening. Hunter’s brother’s widow (and his ex-girlfriend) Hallie ferries him to the front gates. Once she drives away, Hunter summons an Uber, checks into a hotel near BWI, smokes the crack he had hidden in his bag and flies to Los Angeles for yet another bender.
The bit about Hunter’s brother’s widow also being his ex-girlfriend — that is, about Hunter having wrecked his marriage to have an affair with his sister-in-law just after his brother’s tragic and very public death — is a key and sordid point here: Hunter obviously has a big, compelling, charismatic personality, and he manages to draw people toward his desires against all common sense and good judgment. He gets the people who are close to him to excuse his inexcusable behavior, and to expend their resources — financial, emotional, and professional — to rescue him from his own mistakes. To love Hunter Biden is to expose yourself to being used and abused.
Joe Biden’s love for his troubled son is obvious. The “terrified and pleading” characterization of Joe Biden in that private meeting matches up with the way he talks about his son in public — emphatically emphasizing that he loves his son and is proud of him; declaring that he has done “nothing wrong” even when it is obvious to everyone that he has; hosting him at a state dinner just days after he agreed to plead guilty to failing to pay his taxes. What I see here is a father who knows his son has tremendous issues, including a deep-seated need to feel useful and successful (like his late brother was) even though he fundamentally isn’t. One of the main things Joe can offer Hunter is repeated public declarations of his worth and rectitude, and he offers them readily. Joe Biden is also a father who has faced tremendous loss: many of his loved ones have died untimely deaths, and Hunter, whatever his flaws, is one of the children he has left. I find Joe’s devotion to and accommodation of Hunter to be very understandable, human, and heartbreaking. It shows the costs and the hurt that Joe Biden is willing to endure for his love.
And this is the frame I start from when thinking about a question people have been discussing this week: why did Joe Biden take those various phone calls from Hunter, as he hung out with his shady foreign business associates? More broadly, why didn’t Joe get Hunter to knock it off — to stop trading on his father’s name to make money in a way that was, if not necessarily illegal, obviously corrupt?
In 2019, the New York Times reported that a diplomat who raised concerns about Hunter’s business interests in 2015 received a message from the White House that Joe Biden lacked the “bandwidth” to seek to correct one of his sons while the other was dying of cancer:
WASHINGTON — A career State Department official told impeachment investigators this week that he raised concerns with a senior White House official in 2015 about the son of then-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. holding a position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
But the warning from George P. Kent, then a State Department officer stationed in Kiev, was not acted on, according to two people familiar with Mr. Kent’s testimony. Mr. Kent, now of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said he told the official that Hunter Biden’s position could look like a conflict of interest, given his father’s role, and would complicate American efforts to encourage Ukraine to clean up corruption.
The White House official told Mr. Kent that the elder Mr. Biden did not have the “bandwidth” to address the concerns while his older son, Beau, was undergoing cancer treatment, according to the people, who were not authorized to discuss the private deposition.
I take this basically at face value. You don’t have to — you could instead think Joe put up with Hunter’s actions because he was financially in on the schemes, but I don’t think the math adds up for that: far from piling cash up for the Biden family, it sure looks to me like Hunter blew more than 100% of his corruptly earned earnings on hookers and drugs and extravagances — ending up without enough money to pay all his taxes and needing a bailout from one of his rich friends. It seems likelier to me that Joe Biden was motivated by love here rather than money: that he was not about to seek a conflict with his wayward son that he would have reasonably feared could send him into a relapse or worse.
Besides, even if Joe had told Hunter to knock it off with the shady foreign business, how do we know Hunter would have complied, any more than he complied with that plea to go to rehab? Should Joe have publicly repudiated Hunter’s business affairs in a way that would have made it impractical for him to obtain lucrative contracts? Should he have stopped taking phone calls from his son — abandoning an approach of showing love to his son by maintaining constant availability — out of concern that he might sometimes have shady foreign businesspeople (their presence often undisclosed) listening into the calls? Should he tell the world not to buy his son’s art? It’s quite possible the answer to those questions is yes — that Joe owed it to President Obama, or the Democratic Party, or the country, to cast out his corrupt son who was causing all this trouble — but it’s extremely easy to understand why a loving father would be unwilling to do so.
Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s obligations extend beyond his family. One of his core professional obligations is to maintain his appeal to people who have less inclination to give him the benefit of the doubt than I do. And what Hunter has done is — to at least some extent — damaging to the trust people place not just in Joe Biden, but also in the Democratic Party and the American government. I think it’s important for the country that Joe Biden be re-elected, and as such I resent Hunter for making that more difficult at the margin, and I regret that Joe did not do all he could to stop Hunter from trading corruptly on his name and damaging his political position. But Hunter isn’t my son, and it’s easy for me to feel that way.