Does Hunter Biden Matter?

Republicans believe the president’s son is at the center of the corruption scandal of the century. Democrats think Hunter is a non-issue and the worst allegations are mere conspiracy theory. Should voters care, and how much?

Early in his memoir, Beautiful Things, Hunter Biden insists that he is “not Billy Carter or Roger Clinton, God bless them.” Billy Carter, brother of Jimmy, was infamously given a hefty sum of money by the Libyan government, supposedly as a loan. Jimmy Carter had to publicly insist that Billy had “no influence on U.S. policy or actions concerning Libya.” Roger Clinton was given a Rolex watch and $50,000 by the Gambino crime family to lobby Bill Clinton to give Rosario Gambino a pardon. (Gambino did not get one.) 

There has been something of a pattern, then, of the relatives of presidents using their connections to cash in, creating embarrassing problems for the president. Hunter Biden wants us to know this is not who he is. Through his ghostwriter, Hunter emphasizes that he is a more sympathetic character than his media infamy would suggest: 

“I’m a fifty-one-year-old father who helped raise three beautiful daughters, two in college and one who graduated last year from law school, and now a year-old son. I earned degrees from Yale Law and Georgetown, where I’ve also taught in the master’s program of the School of Foreign Service. I’ve been a senior executive at one of the country’s largest financial institutions [MBNA] (since acquired by Bank of America), founded my own multinational firms, and worked as counsel for Boies Schiller Flexner, which represents many of the largest and most sophisticated organizations in the world. I’ve served on the board of directors at Amtrak (appointed by Republican president George W. Bush) and chaired the board of the nonprofit World Food Program USA, part of the largest hunger-relief mission on the planet.” 

Even in this passage, some critical information is left out, such as his fourth daughter, whom both Hunter and Joe Biden refused to acknowledge until recently. (Later in the book Hunter does mention that he “challenge[d] in court the woman from Arkansas who had a baby in 2018 and claimed the child was mine—I had no recollection of our encounter.”) His work for MBNA was actually tainted with scandal because the company was paying Hunter while Joe was helping push through a law that would make it more difficult for consumers to file for bankruptcy protection, with MBNA being “one of the largest companies pushing for the changes.” Further, it’s hard to imagine Hunter would have been nominated to the Amtrak board if his father hadn’t been a U.S. senator. (A senator endorsing his nomination, summarizing the nominee’s previous background with trains, said that Hunter has ridden a lot of them.) 

Despite the omissions, Hunter is up front about many of his flaws in Beautiful Things. He is transparent about his addiction to crack cocaine, exhaustively recounting his long struggles with substance abuse. The picture he (and presumably Joe Biden, too) would like the country to accept is that of a troubled but well-meaning man who has gone through serious personal problems but ultimately done nothing unforgivable. If that picture is accurate, it’s hard to imagine why voters should have much interest at all in Hunter Biden. So the president’s son was addicted to crack, paid for sex, and makes overpriced paintings? (Personally I like the paintings, though I’d never, ever buy one.) So what? I think it can be argued that the media’s (and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s) publication of Hunter’s nude photos and intimately personal text messages are a gross, indefensible violation of his privacy. Shouldn’t this fucked-up man be left alone? 

But Republicans have long argued that there is a major political scandal around Hunter Biden. With new testimony from his former business partner, some say there is now a “smoking gun” that Hunter was involved in corruption, with Hunter being paid to successfully influence his father. The amount of outrage over Hunter Biden has been considerable, and I think it’s worth trying to sort what is mere gossip from what should actually matter to any member of the voting public. 

The evidence clearly establishes that Hunter Biden is not a very good person. While his memoir is full of professions of love toward his late brother Beau and self-deprecating accounts of his struggles, many leaked texts show him treating the women in his life like crap. Not acknowledging his daughter was a cruel thing to do to her. The Daily Mail has reported that he  “blew tens of thousands on prostitutes, drugs and luxury cars, was desperate to avoid jail for $320k in unpaid taxes and threatened to take money from his daughter’s college fund.” From a purely salacious tabloid perspective, Hunter’s life of debauchery can be of seemingly endless “car crash” fascination.

Personally, however, I don’t care at all about any of that. The world’s full of crappy people, and the children of the powerful tend to be especially rotten. In a time of climate disaster and rampant inequality, I couldn’t care less what the president’s son got up to in his private life, and I imagine most voters don’t really care either. If anything, some of the Hunter Biden disclosures have made Joe Biden look like a caring dad. 

As I see it, there are ultimately a few main issues involving Hunter Biden that are of any public interest: (1) Did Hunter Biden’s status as the president’s son result in the government treating him differently than it treated others? (2) Did Joe Biden change policies in ways favorable to his son? (3) Has Joe Biden been honest with people about Hunter’s conduct? Of course, the story of Hunter Biden is interesting for other reasons: we can see how just being the president’s son results in people showering you with a colossal amount of money, and he certainly illustrates how grotesquely privilege functions in our society. He’s living disproof of the theory that we live in a meritocratic or in any way just world. But being a rich prick is not a crime; if it were, hardly anyone who currently holds public office could continue to do so.

So, the stuff that matters: Hunter Biden appears to have committed major tax fraud, failing to pay the required taxes on millions in earnings, and misleading the government. He was recently going to plead guilty to this, but the judge refused to accept the plea agreement he had negotiated with prosecutors. That arrangement would have immunized Hunter from prosecution on other charges, while requiring him to plead guilty to two misdemeanors. There is an open question about whether this was a sweetheart deal that would not have been given to a defendant who was not the president’s son. Separately, two Internal Revenue Service (IRS) investigators “have testified to Congress that the investigation into Hunter Biden’s tax returns were hampered by justice department officials for political reasons” and Hunter “received more lenient treatment because he is the son of US President Joe Biden.” Obviously, if either of these things is true, it is a scandal, because exempting powerful and well-connected people from the laws that apply to the rest of us is outrageous. (Of course, there are plenty of other ways in which we have a two-tiered justice system, but this would be truly egregious.) Even the most partisan Democrats should want to make sure the legal system hasn’t been corrupted for Joe Biden’s son. I don’t think we can say definitively whether this happened , but there’s clearly potentially serious wrongdoing here by government officials. (Of course, it’s possible that those officials tried to treat Hunter favorably without receiving explicit instruction from the president to do so.)

The next question is whether Joe Biden and his son were involved in corruption. Republicans have a theory that they were. We know that Hunter Biden was paid a fortune by companies in China and Ukraine, and that it’s pretty clear that the primary service he delivered was simply being named “Biden.” For instance, the Ukrainian oil company Burisma paid Hunter tens of thousands of dollars a month to serve on its board. In his memoir, Hunter has an entire chapter called “Burisma.” He defends his decision to take the job, insisting that it was not a “mistake” despite saying he wouldn’t do it again if given the chance. Knowing that it looks shady to be given huge sums of money for nothing by a Ukrainian oil company, Hunter offers some lame excuses, claiming that the money helped him tend to his dying brother and even saying that “having a Biden on Burisma’s board was a loud and unmistakable fuck-you to Putin.” He says he was told that “the only bulwark against [Russian] aggression… is to strengthen the independent, nongovernmental entities that can give Ukraine the chance to blossom.” Taking their money was just his way of helping Ukraine! You know, like how some people go and fight on the front lines. Hunter’s contribution to the Ukrainian people’s cause was to cash large paychecks. 

But since Hunter Biden is not an elected official, his presence on Burisma’s board may once again be an example of how unjustly wealth is distributed, but it is not itself proof of wrongdoing by Joe Biden. The actual scandal Republicans allege is that Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was supposedly investigating the company on which Hunter served as a board member. For Republicans, the story here is corruption of the most direct kind: a company being investigated paid Hunter Biden to get his dad to use the power of the U.S. state to end the investigation.

Democrats have long argued that Biden’s pressure on Ukraine to fire the prosecutor (which he admitted to exerting) had nothing to do with Burisma, and the prosecutor’s corruption was well-known. Republicans now believe, though, that they have (or at least are close to) new evidence. A former business partner recently testified to a closed-door congressional committee, and, according to a Republican congressman (the transcript has not yet been released), confirmed that Burisma executives “placed constant pressure on Hunter Biden to get help from D.C. regarding the Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin” and that at one point Hunter “called DC” to discuss it. (Who he called, we do not know.) The former business partner, Devon Archer, also said that Hunter did successfully sell access to Joe Biden, with Joe Biden himself being present on around 20 calls with Hunter Biden’s business associates, despite his previous denials. Supposedly Joe Biden didn’t talk about business on these calls, but just “niceties” about “the weather or whatever.” But it seems Hunter sold actual access to his father, not just the “illusion of access.” (The ability to get Joe Biden on the phone is the definition of having access to Joe Biden!) Separate from the testimony, we already had allegations from a different former Biden partner that Joe Biden had at least one meeting with Hunter about “the Biden family business plans with the Chinese,” despite Joe Biden’s denial of any discussion with his son about business. But despite Republican claims to have uncovered a “smoking gun,” it appears this is precisely what they don’t have. They don’t have actual proof of the main thing they want to allege, which is that Hunter took money to influence Joe, and successfully did so. It’s pretty clear that Hunter was paid because his last name was Biden (Archer says they were selling “the brand”), but whether those paying him actually got anything for their money is still not clear. 

Let’s turn to the issue of whether Joe Biden has been honest about Hunter’s business dealings. This one is open and shut. He hasn’t. The Washington Post fact checker gave him “four Pinocchios” for saying in a debate that “my son has not made money” in China, noting that “Biden’s assertions have been directly rebutted by Hunter himself.” The New York Times concluded that “Mr. Biden had made false or misleading statements regarding his family members’ finances,” having “repeatedly said he had ‘never discussed’ and had ‘never spoken to’ Hunter Biden about his business dealings.” The Times noted that the White House is now “speaking in less declarative terms about the matter,” saying that Joe Biden “was never in business with his son.” 

Does all of it add up to, as Fox News suggests, “one of the greatest corruption scandals in DC history”? Not unless more evidence comes out showing that Hunter did in fact push his father to get the Ukrainian prosecutor fired, or Joe Biden used his power to get his son leniency in his tax case. But even then, I doubt—given the list of Donald Trump’s crimes—many people would care enough to change their vote. I certainly think we have ample evidence that Hunter Biden is scummy and Joe Biden is dishonest. (We already knew the latter before Biden received the 2020 nomination.) I do think Democrats should avoid believing that their candidate is a paragon of integrity and virtue whereas the Trumps represent corruption and vice. 

As Yasmin Nair writes, every president is a sociopath, and I recommend an anarchist analysis that sees the similarities between powerful families as far more important than their differences. Joe Biden’s public image as grandfatherly and compassionate is probably concocted in large part for the cameras, as are so many of the personas of the famous people we think we know. What I take away from the Hunter Biden story is that DC is indeed a swamp, privilege is quite real, and the battle lines of politics are not rightly conceived as being between the “blue” and “red” teams, but between the rich and the rest of us. 

PHOTO: President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden arrive at Fort McNair, Sunday, June 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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