By June, Hunter Biden seemed to have nearly resolved his years of legal troubles.
His lawyers had finalized a child support settlement with the Arkansas mother of a child he had fathered in 2018, and they had agreed to a tentative plea deal with the Department of Justice on federal tax and gun crimes that they thought would allow President Biden’s son to avoid jail time.
The plea agreement was made public on June 20. One day later, the president and first lady welcomed houseguests from California to the White House: Hunter Biden, along with his wife and young son. They stayed for the next two weeks, according to two people familiar with the arrangement — a visit that included Hunter’s controversial appearance at a state dinner honoring the Indian prime minister, two getaways to the presidential retreat at Camp David and an Independence Day celebration.
For President Biden, who aides say speaks to his children and grandchildren almost every day, the apparent conclusion of his son’s legal troubles marked a welcome end to a painful chapter for the Biden family, that of Hunter’s struggles with addiction and the scrutiny his actions have drawn from federal prosecutors.
The feeling of closure was premature, however. The plea deal unexpectedly collapsed, leading Attorney General Merrick Garland last week to appoint the prosecutor investigating Hunter, U.S. attorney David Weiss, as special counsel to continue the criminal probe.
Hunter’s extended stay at the White House this summer, which has not previously been reported, was a fresh reminder of the president’s continued closeness with his 53-year-old son despite his legal troubles and the intensifying political scrutiny Hunter is receiving from Republicans as Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign gets underway.
White House aides said that throughout Biden’s presidency, different family members have stayed at the White House for varying lengths of time. Ian Sams, a White House spokesman, said in a statement: “The President and First Lady love their son, support him, and are proud of him overcoming addiction and continuing to rebuild his life.”
For Biden’s aides and advisers, the president’s fatherly attachment has been both understandable and complicating to the campaign, particularly his reticence to strategize or even discuss his son as the political issue he has become.
Inside the White House, most aides strenuously avoid discussing Hunter’s troubles with the president, believing their contributions and ideas would not be welcome, even as they worry about the personal toll it is taking on the elder Biden, according to half a dozen current and former administration officials who, like other people interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss Biden family dynamics.
On July 26, the day that Hunter was set to enter the plea deal in a Delaware courtroom, White House aides intentionally left space in the president’s schedule so he could monitor the case, and some worried about exposing him to the press while the hearing unfolded, according to two people familiar with internal deliberations. The president made no public appearances that day, and aides privately expressed relief that Biden’s schedule was kept open because the plea deal collapsed, prolonging Hunter’s legal issues. There was particular concern in the West Wing that day because first lady Jill Biden was traveling out of the country, leaving the president without his primary source of support.
A White House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s private schedule, said Biden held internal meetings that day, including with economic and national security aides, and also sat for an unrelated interview with podcaster Jay Shetty about mental health generally.
Aides say Biden has a deep emotional investment in his son’s well-being, as most parents would. Biden has dealt with traumatic family deaths and illness throughout his long political career. His first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash shortly after he was elected to the Senate in 1972, and his other son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015, while Biden was vice president.
But Hunter’s struggles are of a different nature, involving the ongoing legal and personal struggles of a middle-aged man. The child support case in Arkansas highlighted how Hunter initially, and falsely, denied paternity in a case involving a relationship he says he barely remembers. What appear to be nude photos of the president’s son, often using drugs or in sexually provocative positions, have been distributed on the internet and were featured at a recent congressional hearing. And House Republicans are now probing Hunter’s business deals and whether he improperly used his father’s name in pursuing them. They have yet to present any evidence of wrongdoing by the president.
Biden has little control over any of these developments involving his son. Yet people close to the Biden family say they fear the ongoing scrutiny could lead Hunter — a recovering addict who wrote openly about his struggles with addiction in his 2021 memoir — to make damaging decisions. Furthermore, the difficulty Biden’s staff have felt in broaching the subject with the president makes it tough to offer strategic advice on the matter. The political pressures could increase as Republicans pursue their Hunter investigations and continue trying to exploit his troubles to damage the president’s reelection chances.
“This is inconvenient politically, but I don’t think this is a hit to the main engine,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “But I do think that, politics aside, he’s a father. He cares about his kid. This is hard. There’s no doubt. We think of politicians as solely motivated by a strategic imperative, but when it involves a kid, it’s very different — especially considering the history of the Biden family. I would be more concerned about the stress and worry that it places on him, especially when he has a lot of stress on him already, than I would be on the political impact.”
Publicly, the president has stood by his son. “My son has done nothing wrong,” Biden said in a May interview on MSNBC. “I trust him. I have faith in him. And it impacts my presidency by making me feel proud of him.”
That statement contradicted the terms of the original plea deal Hunter reached with the Justice Department in June. As part of that agreement, Hunter planned to plead guilty to two tax-related misdemeanors and admit to the facts of a gun violation, and in exchange would likely avoid jail time.
Biden’s comments also violated his policy to refrain from commenting on any open federal criminal investigation for fear of appearing to politically influence the Justice Department.
White House officials say that Biden was speaking colloquially as a father supporting his son through difficult times and point to the president’s repeated public reminders that the case is being handled by a Trump-appointed prosecutor, Weiss.
Still, the younger Biden has taken an increasingly public profile in recent months. In April, Hunter accompanied his father on an official presidential trip to Ireland, where Biden appeared to take pride in introducing his son at nearly every stop. The trip was largely an opportunity for the Biden family to trace their ancestral legacy, but Hunter was also among the dignitaries greeting foreign leaders in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In Washington, Hunter has been a frequent guest at public events, ranging from state dinners at the White House to the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. Last December, during a state dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron, Hunter walked up to a group including Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), just before he became the House speaker, and said hello to McCarthy’s mother.
While he was staying at the White House in late June, Hunter also attended the state dinner for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, during which he bounced around the tent to shake hands and dole out hugs with the A-list guests. But that appearance proved to be more controversial, even drawing criticism from some of the president’s allies, because Garland was also in attendance, and the dinner had come just two days after the plea agreement was announced.
Putting the president’s son in the same room as the attorney general played right into Republican attacks that Hunter received a “sweetheart deal” from the Justice Department. “Hunter and Merrick hanging out at Joe’s place?” Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-Tenn.) wrote on Twitter after the event. “Classic Biden Crime Family.”
Not long after, former president Donald Trump suggested without evidence that a small bag of cocaine found at the White House by the Secret Service may have belonged to Hunter and his father. The bag was discovered July 2 on the ground floor of the West Wing near where visitors taking tours are instructed to leave their cellphones.
The Biden family, including Hunter, had departed the White House for Camp David on June 30 and returned on July 4. Hunter, along with his wife and son, left the White House on July 5, according to the two people familiar with his visit.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at the time that questioning whether the cocaine belonged to a family member was “incredibly irresponsible.”
The Secret Service later closed its investigation after lab results were inconclusive about possible suspects.
Despite the political scrutiny Hunter has received, most White House aides, even some of the most senior ones, are not involved in any conversations about the president’s son. Most were unaware that he and his family were staying in the White House for two weeks this summer, and only a small group of longtime trusted aides are engaged in conversations about how to handle family matters.
It was Bob Bauer, the president’s personal lawyer, who provided Biden with updates about Hunter’s appearance in Delaware court, where he had been expected to finalize his plea agreement. Bauer, who is married to Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser, has been spotted frequently in the West Wing in recent months, aides say. Bauer is representing the president in a separate special counsel investigation into his handling of classified material that was found at his post-vice presidency office in Washington and at his home in Wilmington, Del.
Now, like his father, Hunter is facing a special counsel investigation of his own — news that blindsided the president when Garland’s elevation of Weiss to special counsel was announced last Friday, according to two people familiar with the president’s reaction.
Prosecutors signaled then that they were willing to take the case to trial. If the case goes to trial, it could occur in the midst of Biden’s reelection campaign.
Biden allies argue Hunter’s legal troubles will have minimal political impact, yet acknowledge the ongoing scrutiny takes a personal toll on the president and his family.
“They raised their family over the course of Joe Biden’s decades in the Senate when there were rules and norms of civility in politics that don’t exist today,” said Michael LaRosa, who served as Jill Biden’s press secretary on the 2020 campaign and in the White House. “In their view, children were always off limits when it comes to politics. The weaponizing of their family and exploitation of their son’s personal and legal issues for political gain has been incredibly painful for them.”
He added: “They’re not desensitized to what is happening. It doesn’t matter how routine and frequent the attacks on their family become, it hurts them.”