WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden had just six words to offer after his 53-year-old son Hunter pleaded guilty to federal tax offenses in a deal that is also likely to spare him time behind bars on a weapons charge.
“I’m very proud of my son,” he said.
That pride has been accompanied by pain, and for the president’s family, both have been on public display. Republicans have worked to use Hunter Biden’s actions — and his acknowledged struggle with addiction — as an anchor to try to drag down his father.
As a parent, Joe Biden has tried to keep his son close; they speak almost every day. Hunter was at his father’s side on a recent trip to Ireland, on the lawn of the White House with other family members for the Easter egg roll and in the bleachers with his mom and dad as his daughter graduated from college last month.
But out of public view, a five-year criminal investigation was coming to a conclusion, with a plea deal announced Tuesday that resolves the probe into the taxes and foreign business dealings of the president's second son. The agreement with the Justice Department means Hunter Biden will plead guilty to a misdemeanor tax offense, and he'll avoid a more serious felony charge of illegally possessing a firearm as a drug user, as long as he adheres to conditions agreed to in court.
As a president, Joe Biden has made of point of keeping his distance from the federal investigation into his son’s dealings.
The most fatherly of things he could do — advise a son going through a hard time — isn’t exactly available for a man whose administration commands the office that was investigating his son and his political rival simultaneously.
“President Biden has always impressed me as someone who puts his family first,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close friend of the family. “In this case involving Hunter Biden, he has drawn a clear line. He has not been involved in or interfered in the Department of Justice in their five-year-long investigation, which is now coming to a close. I can only imagine the relief they may feel in being able to move forward.”
But Republicans are hardly satisfied with the outcome, particularly as the Justice Department indicted former President Donald Trump in an unrelated case where he is accused of mishandling classified documents. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., compared the outcome of Hunter Biden's case to the Trump documents case now heading toward federal court and said, “If you are the president’s son, you get a sweetheart deal.”
Though Hunter Biden is a private citizen, he factors heavily into notable political moments over the past five years: surfacing as a central character in the first impeachment case against Trump, who tried to get Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into the younger Biden related to his position on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
Hunter Biden had joined the board in 2014, around the time his father, then Barack Obama’s vice president, was helping conduct U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine. Trump and his allies have long argued, without evidence, that Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine influenced the Obama administration’s policies toward the East European nation.
Hunter Biden's descent into drugs and alcohol following the 2015 death of his brother Beau Biden from cancer led to some troubling decisions and interventions that Republicans have seized on as proof of his shady tactics, but he also doesn’t always help himself.
In 2020, the contents of a laptop that he’d left at a Delaware repair shop and never retrieved made their way to Republicans and were publicly leaked, revealing personal messages about his work and his life.
Addiction is still very much seen as a moral failing instead of a disease, said Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman who is now a leading voice on mental health and addiction, was himself an addict and also the son of a famous lawmaker, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Kennedy said Biden could use this as a teachable moment for the nation to shift how addiction is viewed, even if Hunter is being used as a tool to attack his father.
“The benefit of this president is that his policies are the most progressive of any president to date in terms of treating them as the medical issues they are,” Kennedy said. “In a sense, he is like my father was, from an old school. They kept this under wraps, it was shameful. They didn’t talk about it. But you know, to his credit, his policies reflect an enlightened approach.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said of Hunter Biden's situation that he “felt very sorry for him and for his family. I respect the president for saying he loves his son. That’s a good thing even if your son does embarrassing things.”
There were questions as well about a White House arrangement in the early days of Biden’s presidency that allowed Hunter to sell his artwork without knowing the identity of the purchaser. Officials said it would avoid any potential ethical entanglements with the sales but Republicans have raised questions and are seeking an interview with the gallery owner.
Hunter Biden also has been tangled up in an ongoing child support dispute in Arkansas after a DNA test proved he was the father of a now 4-year-old. The Biden family hasn’t publicly acknowledged the child, and Hunter Biden initially objected to an effort by the woman to change the girl’s last name to Biden.
His recent trip to Ireland with his dad came up in court testimony when his lawyers said Hunter slept on a cot in his dad’s hotel room, part of an accounting of how he had been spending money.
And still, photos of Hunter Biden in the throes of addiction routinely circulate online. Biden said in his memoir he can shrug them off because he’s come out the other end thanks to the support of his family.
“I come from a family forged by tragedies and bound by a remarkable, unbreakable love,” he wrote in his 2021 memoir “Beautiful Things.”
In many ways the same could be said of President Biden’s political career, which was nearly cut short after the death of his wife and daughter in 1972 just days before Biden was sworn in to the Senate at age 30.
Sons Beau and Hunter, who were just about to turn 4 and 3 at the time, were seriously injured. The two brothers spent months together in the hospital, a bond that Hunter wrote was unbreakable. Even if they argued later in life, he wrote, they’d always close with an “I love you.”
Beau was the one who sought public life, a decorated Iraq war veteran and Delaware attorney general. The president has said many times that it should have been Beau on the stage as president rather than himself.
Hunter said he was content to have it be Beau in the spotlight. But when his brother died, Hunter came unglued. At one point, he wrote, he was living in a motel completely removed from his family in a haze of drug use.
“Dad saved me,” he wrote. “Left on my own, I’m certain I would not have survived.”
___ Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Kevin Freking and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.