Mon. Sep 25th, 2023

After more than a half-century in politics, no subject may be more personally painful nor politically problematic for President Biden than his troubled son, Hunter. He is by various accounts a gaping wound in his heart and the most sensitive soft spot in his campaign armor.

On the one hand, Hunter Biden’s agreement on Tuesday to plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax crimes capped a five-year investigation without allegations of wrongdoing by the president or, presumably, prison time for his youngest son. But on the other hand, it put Hunter once again in the cross-hairs of Mr. Biden’s adversaries who instantly complained that the wayward son got off too easy.

The saga of the 53-year-old presidential progeny who has struggled with a crack cocaine addiction has become a fixation of the political right, which sees him, or at least has cast him, as a walking, talking exemplar of the pay-to-play culture of the Washington swamp who profited off proximity to power. The phrase “Hunter Biden’s laptop” has taken on totemic meaning for opponents of the president, even if they cannot describe what was actually found on the computer that turned up at a repair shop in 2020.

The timing of the younger Mr. Biden’s plea agreement, coming nearly two weeks after the indictment of former President Donald J. Trump on 37 felony counts of jeopardizing national security and obstructing justice, invariably generated comparisons between two vastly different cases. The president’s allies pointed to the plea deal as evidence that Mr. Biden was playing it straight by letting a prosecutor first appointed by Mr. Trump decide how to handle his son’s misconduct, while the former president and his backers characterized it as proof of selective justice.

“The corrupt Biden DOJ just cleared up hundreds of years of criminal liability by giving Hunter Biden a mere ‘traffic ticket,’” Mr. Trump wrote on his social media platform. “Slap on the wrist” became the phrase of choice for Republicans like Representatives James R. Comer of Kentucky and Elise Stefanik of New York.

David Brock, a Democratic operative, said the outcome of the prosecution refuted the many allegations hurled at the president and his son since the Trump administration. “Hunter will not be charged with any of the unfounded and outlandish issues Republicans and right-wing media have used to smear him with for years,” Mr. Brock said.

It is a debate Mr. Biden would just as soon not engage in and he stayed largely quiet in the hours after news of the plea agreement broke, authorizing a White House spokesman to say only that he and the first lady “love their son and support him as he continues to rebuild his life.”

Asked by reporters traveling with him in California whether he had spoken with Hunter on Tuesday, the president said simply, “I’m very proud of my son.”

Mr. Biden understands that the plea deal will not be the end of the matter as House Republicans aggressively conduct their own inquiries and publicize more sensational accusations that, even without confirmation, have become a staple of conservative media.

But after months of waiting in frustration for the case to be resolved, Mr. Biden was relieved to have the plea agreement settled, hoping it would lift an enormous burden from his son’s shoulders without triggering a relapse of his addiction problems, according to people close to him. Mr. Biden has remained publicly silent not out of fear of political blowback, the people said, but out of concern of inflicting more torment on his son.

“I don’t know of any parent who wants to see their son or family’s personal or legal struggle play out so publicly for all the world to see,” said Michael LaRosa, a former spokesman for Jill Biden. “In the three years I worked for them on the campaign and in the White House, they never became immune to the personal assault on their family. Every smear, attack, conspiracy and lie about their son is painful and never gets old.”

Troubled and troublesome relatives have been a perennial White House headache for many presidents. In modern times, the harsh spotlight of media scrutiny has focused on Donald Nixon’s financial dealings with Howard Hughes, Billy Carter’s work as an agent for Libya, Neil Bush’s service on the board of a failed savings and loan, Roger Clinton’s drug convictions and of course the various financial and security clearance issues involving Mr. Trump’s children and son-in-law.

For the most part, the presidents sought to remain removed from their relatives’ problems, although Bill Clinton did give his half brother a pardon just before leaving office. How much any of those issues hurt the presidents politically may be up for debate, but at home they were generally a source of anguish — either irritation at a loved one for causing problems or guilt at putting a target on the back of family members, or both.

Hunter Biden has become in some ways a more extreme example of the phenomenon in an era when any restraint about a president’s family that might have existed in the past has long since vanished. His work in Ukraine helped lead to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment, his laptop led to allegations that Twitter covered up on his behalf, his foreign financial ties have prompted sprawling congressional investigations and his turbulent personal life has produced much tabloid fodder.

Many Americans have been persuaded that the president’s son has been up to something shady beyond the tax and gun charges at issue on Tuesday. A Harris Poll conducted last month for Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies found that 63 percent of Americans think Hunter Biden was involved in “illegal influence peddling,” and 53 percent said his father was somehow involved while vice president.

Even some of the president’s Democratic allies have privately said there were legitimate questions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine and China that seemed to trade on his name. Even as they emphasized that there was no evidence that his father abused his power in office as a result, they lamented that Mr. Biden had not done more to rein in his son’s lucrative activities.

Even so, none of those produced charges in Tuesday’s deal, and the fact that it was brokered by David C. Weiss, the U.S. attorney who was first appointed by Mr. Trump’s attorney general to investigate and was allowed to stay on the case by Mr. Biden’s Justice Department, provided a useful rejoinder to allegations of favoritism. Mr. Weiss told Congress that he was granted “ultimate authority over this matter.”

Democratic strategists doubted the issue would resonate with swing voters regardless. “The Republicans have been all in on and constantly beating the Hunter Biden drum and while it certainly riles up their base, there isn’t much evidence that the average voter feels impacted by this issue,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked for President Barack Obama.

For the president, though, it is much more personal. His relationship with his son was forged in the 1972 car accident that killed Mr. Biden’s first wife and infant daughter and hospitalized Hunter and his older brother, Beau.

While Beau grew up to become a successful politician who his father imagined might become president himself one day, Hunter struggled with alcohol, drugs and personal issues. After Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, a distraught Hunter spiraled into repeated bouts with crack cocaine that ultimately destroyed his marriage.

As he wrote in “Beautiful Things,” his 2021 memoir, he would descend into weekslong drug binges, smoking crack as often as every 15 minutes and engaging in erratic and even reckless behavior, including inviting his street dealer to live with him and conducting an extramarital affair with Beau’s widow, Hallie Biden. He described a life of “buying crack in the middle of the night behind a gas station in Nashville, Tenn., or craving the tiny liquor bottles in your hotel minibar while sitting in a palace in Amman with the king of Jordan.”

At one point when he disappeared for nearly a month, he opened his door to find his father, then the vice president, trailed by Secret Service agents. “You need help,” his father said. As Hunter Biden wrote, “He wouldn’t leave until I agreed to do something.” On another occasion the elder Mr. Biden participated in a family intervention, ambushing Hunter to push him into treatment. When Hunter stormed out in anger, his father chased him down the driveway, grabbed him and cried.

Hunter Biden has since remarried, paid the tax debt that led to Tuesday’s charges and said he had turned his life around. Friends of the family said he had demonstrated fortitude.

“Hunter has had the character to recover from his addiction and partisan political attacks to sign this settlement and begin the rest of his life,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman, Democrat of Delaware and a longtime adviser to Mr. Biden.

Still, Hunter Biden faces a civil trial in Arkansas next month in a dispute over child support payments to a woman who in 2018 bore a daughter that he denied was his until DNA proved his paternity — a case that Republicans made sure to highlight on Tuesday.

The younger Mr. Biden only occasionally shows up at public White House events, knowing that whenever he does it will become an issue. He attended a state dinner at the White House in December and traveled with his father to Ireland in April.

But regardless of whether he is there in person, Hunter Biden will continue to be a presence in his father’s presidency, welcome or not, especially as next year’s election draws closer.

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