Washington, DC – In a White House eager to distance itself from allegations of nepotism, corruption and grifting, Hunter Biden is the problem that simply won’t go away.
US President Joe Biden’s 53-year-old middle child has been a persistent source of the wrong kind of attention for the first family, with questions swirling over whether he used his father’s office for personal gain.
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The latest chapter of the Hunter Biden saga came on June 22, when a WhatsApp message was released by a congressional committee investigating the presidential family.
The message, allegedly from Hunter Biden to a Chinese business associate, showed him berating the associate in July 2017, when Joe Biden was a private citizen and former vice president.
“I am sitting here with my father and we would like to understand why the commitment made has not been fulfilled,” Hunter Biden allegedly wrote.
As the message continued, Hunter appeared to threaten the business associate.
If the Chinese end of the deal was not fulfilled, he wrote, “I will make certain that between the man sitting next to me and every person he knows and my ability to forever hold a grudge that you will regret not following my direction.”
The message seemed to counter claims from White House officials and President Biden himself that he had no involvement in his son’s business activities.
When reporters asked on Wednesday whether he was sitting in the room when Hunter sent his message, President Biden replied, “No, I wasn’t.”
When asked again by Al Jazeera, White House Counsel spokesperson Ian Sams denied Biden had any involvement. “The president was not in business with his son,” said Sams.
But it has become increasingly difficult for the White House to minimise the glut of stories that have emerged from Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
That was apparent at a press briefing on June 23, the day after the WhatsApp message was released. Both White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby faced a frustrated press corps, eager to find out more about the Hunter Biden text.
When Newsmax reporter James Rosen read aloud the message and asked whether it undermined claims that the president never discussed his son’s overseas business dealings, Kirby tried to shut down the conversation.
“I am not gonna address this issue from this podium,” Kirby said. He then promptly left the news briefing.
“It’s not an unreasonable question to ask,” Peter Baker of the New York Times later said, as he pressed Jean-Pierre in a tense exchange over the WhatsApp text and Rosen’s question.
“Hunter Biden has been a problem for a very, very long time,” says Eric Ham, a political analyst and co-author of the book The GOP Civil War.
The president is very sensitive about criticism of his son, Ham argued — “which is why the people around Joe Biden are hesitant to really say anything”.
The White House also finds itself under pressure from the investigation unfolding in the House of Representatives.
After reclaiming control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans opened a probe into the Biden family and its business dealings, as part of the chamber’s Oversight and Accountability Committee.
Much of that scrutiny has gone towards Hunter and the president’s 74-year-old brother James — and their ties to countries like Ukraine and China.
In 2009, as Joe Biden was beginning his term as vice president under President Barack Obama, Hunter Biden co-founded Rosemont Seneca Partners, a Washington, DC-based investment fund with business in China.
Between February 2014 and August 2019, the committee found 93 wires “totaling $2,461,962.60 to and from businesses and associates linked to the Biden family and a China-based investment fund controlled by the Bank of China”.
Using testimony from whistleblowers and former government officials, Republican lawmakers have accused the Biden administration of obstructing attempts to find out more. They also argue Hunter’s business dealings have a direct effect on Biden’s policies towards China, a charge the White House has denied.
“If President Biden is compromised by deals with foreign adversaries and they are impacting his decision making, this is a threat to national security,” said Republican James Comer, chair of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.
Hunter Biden has also faced allegations of corruption based on his business affairs in Ukraine.
Starting in 2014, Hunter served for five years on the board of Burisma Holdings Limited, a large Ukrainian natural gas company. Critics have questioned how he got on the board with zero experience in the energy industry.
But his term coincided with his father’s investigation of corruption in Ukraine while serving as vice president.
In a 2019 interview with ABC News, Hunter Biden denied his father played any role in helping him get the job. “It does not serve either one of us,” Hunter said.
Earlier this month, the president himself shrugged off the suggestion he was entangled in Ukrainian business dealings as “dumb”.
Two Republican-led Senate committees concluded in a 2020 report that “much more work” needed to be done to fully analyse Hunter’s Burisma ties — but they could not find evidence of criminal wrongdoing nor direct involvement by Joe Biden.
“Hunter Biden has made some questionable choices,” said Elisabeth Anker, associate professor of American studies and political science at George Washington University.
“But he’s not part of his father’s administration or campaign, so these issues really do seem to be to the side of any evaluation of President Biden.” She argues that much of the criticism directed at the Biden family has been “purely political”.
The congressional inquiries come on top of Hunter Biden’s personal problems, many of which have become front-page news.
In a 2021 memoir, Hunter admitted to crack cocaine use and alcoholism, although he said he has received treatment and recovered from his addictions. On Thursday, he settled a long-running child support case with an Arkansas woman who gave birth to his daughter.
And in 2020, a laptop abandoned in a Delaware computer repair shop was shown to have racy photos of Hunter Biden as well as personal information. It has since been the subject of an FBI probe and an online campaign to disparage him.
Another major twist in his ongoing personal drama came on June 20, when he reached an agreement with federal prosecutors on tax and gun charges.
The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware had accused Hunter of failing to file his taxes correctly in 2017 and 2018. Despite owing more than $100,000 in federal income tax each year, “he did not pay the income tax due for either year”, prosecutors said.
They further alleged that he bought a firearm in 2018 while being “addicted to a controlled substance”.
As part of the June 20 agreement, Hunter Biden pleaded guilty to misdemeanour tax charges and avoided prosecution for his gun possession. A federal judge has yet to sign off on the deal, and it is unclear whether Hunter Biden will face any jail time.
Nevertheless, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, like Speaker Kevin McCarthy, called the agreement a “sweetheart deal” that unfairly benefits Hunter Biden.
The question for political analysts now becomes: Will any of it matter to voters?
As President Biden heads into another election cycle, he faces an opponent whose own legal and personal problems have dominated headlines.
Former President Donald Trump, a candidate in the 2024 race, has been charged with 37 federal counts related to his handling of classified documents in Florida, not to mention 34 felony counts at the state level in New York.
The Republican frontrunner has also dealt with his own allegations of nepotism. Critics point to the fact that members of Trump’s own family — his son-in-law Jared Kushner, in particular — served as advisers in the Oval Office and did business with foreign governments while part of his administration.
And Trump’s foreign business dealings have likewise sparked controversy. In 2021, a congressional committee released financial documents showing one of Trump’s hotels — located one block from the White House — made more than $3.7m from foreign governments while the Republican was in office.
Still, Trump has tried to weaponise Hunter Biden’s scandals against his father — his main rival in the upcoming presidential race.
But Anker, the political science professor, said that focusing on Hunter Biden likely won’t sway many voters, “given the incredible amount of graft, corruption and questionable financial choices that we’ve seen in presidential administrations over the last six years” — referencing Trump.
Ham, the political analyst, agreed: “I think, if we were not in such a polarised environment, this would pretty much be a non-story.”