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How much legal jeopardy is Hunter Biden in?

Several recent reports claim the investigation into President Biden’s son is intensifying.

Hunter Biden, then-World Food Program USA board chairman, speaks at the organization’s annual McGovern-Dole Leadership Award ceremony in Washington, DC, on April 12, 2016.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for World Food Program USA
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.

Federal prosecutors’ investigation into Hunter Biden is heating up and the indictment of the president’s son is a real possibility, a recent series of reports suggests.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, and the Associated Press have all published stories in recent weeks with a similar theme: the investigation, run by the US attorney’s office in Delaware, has gotten increasingly active, with witnesses testifying to a grand jury.

The investigation focuses on Hunter Biden’s well-compensated work for foreign interests over the past decade or so, particularly for businesses or tycoons in Ukraine, China, and Kazakhstan. The main legal questions appear to be whether Hunter violated tax laws, committed money laundering, or acted as an unregistered foreign lobbyist.

Ethical questions have long swirled about Hunter’s foreign consulting and investment work, which he began as his father was set to become vice president and continued amid tumultuous years for Hunter and the Biden family. Critics have argued he was at the very least trading on his father’s name, or that foreign interests were paying him exorbitantly in hopes of pleasing his father. President Trump became obsessed with all this as Joe Biden prepared to challenge him for reelection, and Trump’s allies have tried hard to make charges of Hunter’s purported corruption stick to Joe — so far without success.

But prosecutors’ inquiry into Hunter reportedly dates back in some form to the Obama administration. Recent stories reference some doubts and differing opinions from investigators about the strength of the case, so it’s not a certainty that he’ll be indicted. And by all accounts, the investigation is focused on Hunter Biden, not Joe Biden.

With prosecutors’ ultimate conclusion unclear, most of the political discourse around Hunter Biden’s legal woes so far has been about how the media should cover them — with Republicans demanding more coverage and Democrats maintaining it’s not that important a story. But the possible indictment of the president’s son would be at the very least a PR problem for his administration, and potentially a threat to his reelection as well.

Why is Hunter Biden being investigated?

For pretty much his entire adult life, Hunter Biden has been in the business of being Joe Biden’s son. At age 26, Hunter took a high-paying job at Delaware-based bank MBNA, one of then-Sen. Biden’s largest donors. Five years later, Hunter Biden became a lobbyist. And after his father became vice president of the United States in 2009, Hunter moved into the more opaque world of highly paid consulting and investment efforts for foreign clients.

Hunter Biden, center, flanked by siblings Ashley and Beau, watches father and then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden speak on stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 6, 2012.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This proved to be lucrative. A Ukrainian gas company paid Hunter millions over five years to sit on its board (despite his lack of experience in the energy business), through a company Hunter had set up, Rosemont Seneca Bohai LLC. A company controlled by a Kazakh oligarch sent Rosemont $142,000 that Hunter then used to buy a sports car. In 2017 and 2018, a Chinese energy company sent $4.8 million to entities Hunter and his uncle James Biden controlled for purported legal and advisory work, per the Washington Post. That company’s founder gave Hunter a large diamond, which he has said he then gave to his business associates.

There is nothing inherently illegal about accepting money and gifts from foreign interests if you are a private citizen and your dad is a famous, powerful person. But you do have to pay taxes on it. And according to the New York Times, a federal inquiry into whether Hunter had properly paid his taxes began back during the Obama administration. Then, in 2018, the tax inquiry became a broader criminal investigation into Hunter, conducted by the US attorney’s office in Delaware, examining possible money laundering and whether he was an unregistered foreign agent.

At that point, the investigation wasn’t public, but as Joe Biden prepared to launch a presidential bid in 2019, Hunter became a particular fixation of Trump and his allies, who hoped to damage the elder Biden politically. Their efforts to do so became a saga that resulted in Trump’s first impeachment and, eventually, the “October surprise” release of Hunter Biden’s private emails, texts, and other documents said to be from a laptop abandoned at a Delaware computer repair store.

But the federal investigation into Hunter predated these shenanigans. It’s being led by the US attorney for Delaware, David Weiss, a Trump appointee left in place by President Biden (due to a desire not to interfere with this specific investigation). Weiss has worked in various capacities in that office since 2007 and isn’t known to be a partisan or a Trump crony. And he has moved forward with the probe in the new administration.

What is Hunter Biden being investigated for?

Per recent reports, the investigation focuses on three main topics.

1) Taxes: Did Hunter properly pay taxes on the millions of dollars in income he made? It seems like the answer might be “not at first,” since he belatedly coughed up over $1 million to pay off his tax liability last year, per the Times. That wouldn’t get him off the hook for past criminal conduct, though, and the Wall Street Journal reports prosecutors are examining whether Hunter “moved funds in a way to obscure his tax liability.”

One recent comparison is the case brought by special counsel Robert Mueller against Paul Manafort. Manafort made tens of millions of dollars from Ukrainian clients, parked it in offshore accounts, and used much of it to fund his expensive lifestyle in the US — spending big on real estate, antique rugs, luxury cars, and more. But he didn’t disclose any of this as income on his tax returns or pay taxes on it. Similar issues appear to be at play for Hunter, as prosecutors are examining, for instance, the money a Kazakh oligarch paid his Rosemont company that he used to buy a sports car.

“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,” Hunter said in a December 2020 statement.

2) Money laundering: Hunter is also under scrutiny for potential money laundering — basically, bringing foreign funds into the US financial system in connection with some sort of crime. Various financial institutions filed “suspicious activity reports” to the US government about movements of funds in and out of Hunter’s accounts, including to his uncle James Biden.

Then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, left, and his brother James Biden at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Though the term “money laundering” may bring to mind drug trafficking or something of the sort, prosecutors can also charge it in connection with more prosaic crimes, such as acting as an unregistered foreign agent. (Manafort was charged with conspiring to launder money for this purpose.)

3) Acting as an unregistered foreign agent: The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires people doing political, public relations, or lobbying work for foreign clients to register with the government as foreign agents. Ordinary business work for foreign clients does not require FARA registration. But when that work moves from the business realm to the political realm — or, importantly, to the public relations realm — that obligation may kick in.

So the question is what kind of work Hunter really did. Though FARA was rarely enforced until some recent high-profile prosecutions, Hunter, a lawyer, was well aware of it. In a 2014 email cited by the Times, he wrote that officials at the Ukrainian gas company Burisma needed to know he’d “abide by FARA and any other US laws in the strictest sense across the board.” Here, at least, he expressed a desire to stay on the right side of the line.

But sometimes the lines seemed to blur. He brought some of his clients into contact with Vice President Biden — for instance, at dinners and on foreign trips. He helped arrange for a Democratic PR firm to help burnish Burisma’s image in the US. Is all this sufficient to support criminal charges? It’s not clear. When Manafort was charged with FARA, prosecutors alleged he’d orchestrated an extensive multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign meant to influence US officials and the press on behalf of his Ukrainian patrons.

From what we know so far, Hunter’s conduct seems relatively more hands-off. One indication of this is that, per the Times, prosecutors have considered pursuing this as a civil matter for Hunter, not a criminal one, which would come with much less steep penalties.

What about Hunter’s personal life?

Prosecutors are investigating a period filled with tumult in Hunter’s personal life and tragedy for the Biden family. Hunter had struggled with alcoholism for some time, and in the mid-2010s he began more frequently using hard drugs, including crack cocaine. His older brother Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. Hunter then split from his wife, who would later accuse him in a court filing of “spending extravagantly” on “drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations.” He began dating Beau’s widow, until that relationship collapsed too. He fathered a child with a different woman who later sued him for paternity. He repeatedly went in and out of rehab. He was a mess.

Obviously some of the above conduct involves breaking laws, but reports have not so far suggested it’s really prosecutors’ focus. CNN did report, though, that they have looked into Hunter’s purchase of a gun in 2018, because he claimed he was not a drug user on a form when he bought it. Per CNN, though, it’s “unclear whether the gun incident remains an active part of the investigation.” And the Journal reports that Justice Department officials have actually discussed whether Hunter’s addiction problem could make convicting him more difficult if he argues he was not of sound mind during this period.

Does this case mean legal trouble for Joe Biden too?

Trump allies have been arguing for years that Hunter Biden is corrupt, but they’ve also had a bigger game in mind — they want to tie his corruption to his father. But there have been no reports that prosecutors are aiming to do this or have evidence to do so.

Hunter Biden hugs his father, President Joe Biden, after he was sworn in during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol on January 20, 2021.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

The closest thing so far came just days ago when the New York Post reported a grand jury witness was questioned about who the term “big guy” referred to in a now-infamous email from one of Hunter’s business associates. The 2017 email laid out a proposed share split for a potential joint venture with the Chinese energy company, CEFC, which would include 10 percent “held by H for the big guy?” One former business associate has publicly claimed the big guy was Joe Biden, newly out of office.

This joint venture deal did not end up coming together. Hunter would instead end up being paid millions by CEFC for advisory and legal work in the ensuing months. But when the Washington Post recently reviewed that whole affair, they wrote that they “did not find evidence” that Joe Biden “personally benefited from or knew details about” those transactions. In 2020, Biden’s presidential campaign issued a statement claiming he “has never even considered being involved in business with his family, nor in any overseas business whatsoever.”

Basically, there’s no evidence at this point that money from this Chinese company actually went to Joe. All indications so far are that this investigation is squarely focused on Hunter Biden.

What does it all mean?

The Hunter Biden story has been a thorny one for the media and political system in part because of all the other scandals both Democrats and Republicans still have grievances with the media about.

Democrats deeply resent how the mainstream press covered the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices in 2016, believing the underlying issue was never all that important, but that the media gave it comparable time to Trump’s many scandals and extreme positions, which contributed to Trump’s victory. They also deeply resent the media’s coverage of the Democratic emails that were hacked by Russian intelligence officers, which they argue weren’t all that scandalous.

Meanwhile, Republicans remain furious that the mainstream media spent so much time covering the investigation into whether Donald Trump secretly conspired with Russia to impact the 2016 election, which never ended up being proven or charged. They believe the media was happy to assume the worst of Trump and that, to try and ensure Trump’s defeat in 2020, they swept stories about Hunter Biden’s corruption under the rug in comparison.

Liberals have tended to argue that while Hunter Biden may perhaps be kind of corrupt and reveal the grubby world of DC influence-peddling, the story just isn’t that important and should not be the focus of much media attention; he’s not even a public official. They also argue Republicans’ concerns about corruption are insincere, since the Trump family business also accepts large amounts of money from foreign interests that may well be motivated by a desire to curry favor with a powerful politician. Also, he tried to steal the election! (Conservatives fire back that all this is excuse-making to downplay a story that makes Democrats and President Biden look bad.)

There may be no perfect answer to how much media coverage an investigation into the president’s son should get. But it surely merits some. If it continues to an indictment, it will merit more. And congressional Republicans are already planning on restarting their own Hunter probes if they retake the House or Senate in the midterms.

All this will be a continued political problem for Democrats as Biden prepares to potentially run for reelection in 2024 — a problem with no solution in sight.