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Joe Biden’s Justice Department will inherit an investigation into Hunter Biden

The president-elect’s son announced his tax affairs are under scrutiny. Here’s what we know.

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President-elect Joe Biden embraces his son Hunter Biden after his victory speech on November 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Andrew Harnik/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President-elect Joe Biden’s son Hunter is under investigation by the Justice Department, Hunter confirmed in a statement issued by the Biden transition Wednesday.

“I learned yesterday for the first time that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware advised my legal counsel, also yesterday, that they are investigating my tax affairs,” the statement reads. “I take this matter very seriously but I am confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately, including with the benefit of professional tax advisors.”

After this announcement, several news outlets, including CNN, Fox News, Politico, and the New York Times, provided more details on the probe, citing anonymous sources “with knowledge of” or “familiar with” the inquiry.

The investigation was reportedly opened in late 2018, before Bill Barr became attorney general. It has focused on Hunter’s business dealings in China and began as a money laundering probe, but is now focusing on potential violations of tax law. The investigation was kept “covert” to avoid influencing the election, and Hunter was indeed only told of it Tuesday. And Joe Biden “is not implicated,” per CNN.

President Trump has long seized on Hunter’s work for foreign interests to try to argue that Joe Biden was corrupt. Trump’s 2019 effort to pressure Ukraine’s president into announcing an investigation of the Bidens eventually led to his impeachment. More recently, in October, Trump allies leaked emails, texts, and images — purportedly from a hard drive owned by Hunter, or provided by associates of Hunter — to media outlets, in an effort to swing the election in Trump’s favor.

With news of the investigation, some of these Trump allies have claimed vindication. But the main argument they and Trump made at the time was that Joe Biden was corruptly involved in Hunter’s dealings — and that has not been shown to be true. The inquiry is “focused on Hunter Biden and some of his associates, not the president-elect or other family members,” the Times reports.

But the news raises questions for both the outgoing Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration. One question is whether Trump himself knew of the investigation or improperly influenced it in any way, or whether it’s a legitimate probe that’s proceeded without political interference. The second question is how Biden’s Justice Department will handle an investigation of the new president’s son — and whether, if there really are violations of the law here, Biden appointees will vigorously pursue them.

The investigation reportedly focuses on money Hunter Biden made from Chinese business interests

Hunter Biden’s questionable ethical choices have been the subject of media scrutiny on and off for over 20 years, but particularly after his father became vice president and Hunter started doing highly lucrative work with foreign companies or businesspeople, while also dealing with drug and alcohol addiction. (The New Yorker’s Adam Entous wrote an excellent profile of Hunter summing up these issues last year.)

In particular, Hunter’s 2017 and 2018 work with the Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming and his company CEFC Energy has drawn scrutiny from investigators, CNN reports. Entities tied to Ye ended up sending nearly $5 million to an account held by Hunter, according to a Senate committee report. This took place as Hunter tried to negotiate a gas deal for the company in Louisiana.

There are some red flags around this company. One of Ye’s associates, Patrick Ho, was indicted in the US in 2017 and then convicted for violating bribery and money laundering laws. Ye Jianming himself was then detained by Chinese authorities in early 2018. (Ye at one point gave Hunter a large diamond that Hunter claimed to have given away, and CNN reports that investigators have “examined” what happened to it.)

According to the New York Times’s Adam Goldman, Katie Benner, and Kenneth Vogel, the investigation into Hunter originally focused on whether he had violated laws prohibiting money laundering — but “that aspect of the case failed to gain traction after F.B.I. agents were unable to gather enough evidence for a prosecution,” per their sources.

Which has left, it appears, the question of whether Hunter properly paid taxes on this money that was coming in. (He claimed in his statement that he acted “legally and appropriately, including with the benefit of professional tax advisors.”)

The investigation has at least surface similarities to the probe of Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort, who had similarly made large amounts of money from questionable foreign sources and freely spent it in the US. Special counsel Robert Mueller eventually convicted Manafort of a series of tax crimes (Manafort wired money from foreign accounts to buy expensive clothes and other items without paying taxes on it, and he failed to disclose his foreign accounts on his tax returns) as well as other crimes.

Both Trump’s Justice Department and Biden’s Justice Department will face questions about how they handled this probe

Given Trump’s obsession with Hunter Biden and his long-evident willingness to try to interfere with Justice Department investigations, there will naturally be questions about whether this investigation is on the level.

There are some encouraging signs on that front. The Times reports that the US attorney’s investigation began in “late 2018,” before Bill Barr became attorney general. That is around the same time Rudy Giuliani began working to try to dig up dirt about Hunter Biden in Ukraine, but there’s no evidence the US attorney’s investigation was connected to that effort. And the US attorney himself, David Weiss, wasn’t brought in by Trump for a hit job — he’d worked in the office during the Obama administration as well.

Additionally, the Justice Department did appropriately manage to keep quiet about this during the 2020 campaign — well, mostly.

An anonymous Justice Department official did tell the conservative outlet Sinclair Broadcast Group, shortly before the election, that Hunter was actively under investigation. (No mainstream outlet confirmed this report, and the department said nothing publicly.) Also, FBI officials speedily interviewed one of Hunter’s business associates who went public with claims of corruption, rather than waiting until after the election to do so. But there was nothing anywhere close to then-FBI Director James Comey’s 2016 announcements and proclamations regarding the Clinton email investigation.

But soon it will be Joe Biden who gets to staff the top layers of the Justice Department, so his team will also have some questions to weigh here. Biden himself has pledged not to interfere with criminal investigations at the Justice Department, but he will have some decisions to make.

For instance, it’s customary for a new president to ask all US attorneys to resign. Will Biden make an exception for the US attorney for Delaware, who is overseeing the Hunter probe? If not, who will he choose to replace Weiss?

And what will Biden’s other top Justice Department nominees say during their confirmation hearings about how they’ll handle the thorny question of investigating the president’s son?

“President-elect Biden is deeply proud of his son, who has fought through difficult challenges, including the vicious personal attacks of recent months, only to emerge stronger,” the transition team said in Wednesday’s statement. But it seems that Hunter’s challenges will continue to loom over his father’s presidency.