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Hunter Biden, the black sheep who got Trump impeached, explained

A troubled guy at the center of the fake scandal that became a real scandal.

Hunter Biden, then the chair of the World Food Program USA, speaking at a 2016 event in Washington, DC.
Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images for World Food Program USA

Hunter is the younger of Joe Biden’s two sons. He never showed as much promise as his brother Beau, stumbling through life and often trading on his dad’s name and position for financial gain. He’s more or less operated in the background as something of a black sheep in the family, but he emerged at the forefront of American politics in 2019 over work he did in Ukraine that fueled a bogus conspiracy theory at the heart of Trump’s decision to strong-arm the country’s president.

It’s not unusual for the children of successful politicians to trade on their family’s famous name and connections to get ahead in life. And when that happens, most political parents hope for a trajectory like the one enjoyed by Beau Biden until his life was cut short by cancer in 2015.

Beau followed in his father’s footsteps to Syracuse University for law school and then clerked for a US District Court judge. He got a job at the Justice Department and then became a federal prosecutor. He then dipped into the private sector briefly. But when Delaware’s attorney general, Jane Brady, resigned to take up a judicial post, the state’s governor appointed Carl Danberg to serve as a placeholder attorney general who wouldn’t run for reelection. Beau won the seat in the 2006 midterms, Danberg got appointed to serve as the head of Delaware’s Corrections Department, and all eyes were on Beau to run for governor in 2016 when Jack Markell’s term would be expiring.

Only an extremely naive person would see this as a career free of nepotism. But Beau, like a successful politician’s kid, had to actually do his work adequately each step of the way. As a candidate for attorney general, he clearly got a boost from his dad’s name, and it seems like the Delaware political establishment was working to open up an office for him to run for. But as a former federal prosecutor and Army JAG, he was qualified for the job and he won the election fair and square. And there’s nothing unusual at all about a two-term attorney general campaigning to win an open gubernatorial election in his home state.

This is more or less how the system is supposed to work for children of privilege — you get a consistent favorable tailwind at your back, but you still need to steer the plane. Hunter, by contrast, has been the guy who even into his 40s keeps needing dad to send the search-and-rescue party. And yet in a strange way, Hunter ended up being one of the most politically accomplished figures of our time since Trump’s efforts to smear Joe Biden over Hunter’s work in Ukraine ended up leading to his impeachment.

Hunter Biden’s whole career is being Joe Biden’s son

According to Adam Entous’s profile in the New Yorker, “it was clear to family and friends that Beau would follow his father into politics,” while Hunter was initially interested in more artistic pursuits “but, with a baby on the way, he decided to go straight to law school.”

The desire to make money is pretty commonplace. Hunter, after a year at Georgetown Law, was able to transfer to Yale and finish out at the country’s most prestigious law school. Yale Law grads don’t normally hurt for opportunities to earn a decent salary, but Hunter interestingly went to work right away for MBNA, a major Delaware-based bank (later purchased by Bank of America) that was also a big contributor to Biden’s campaigns.

This was part of a much larger coziness between Biden and the bank that the then-senator took flak for from conservatives like Byron York, who dubbed him “the senator from MBNA” in a 1998 American Spectator article. The nickname stuck in years to come as Biden became the leading Democratic advocate of a bankruptcy reform bill that most Democrats opposed but that major credit card issuers like MBNA strongly favored.

There’s no reason to think that Biden backed MBNA’s position because his son worked there — senators normally line up with their home state’s major employers’ policy priorities — it’s more like Hunter got the job due to his dad’s overall cozy relationship with the company.

Hunter’s career, however, never really seems to have quite launched as an independent entity. In 1998, he went to work for the US Department of Commerce and then left after the Clinton administration ended. He formed a lobbying firm with an old associate of his dad’s. By mutual agreement, Hunter avoided lobbying his father but did continue to collect consulting fees from MBNA through the 2005 passage of the bankruptcy bill the bank had long sought.

In 2006, President George W. Bush appointed him to the Amtrak board of directors as a gesture of bipartisanship. Here’s how Tom Carper, Delaware’s other senator, described his qualifications for the job (emphasis added):

Hunter Biden is a native Delawarian and I would go on to say that he’s also been nominated to serve on the Amtrak Board of Directors. When Hunter was unable to get into the University of Delaware, he instead went on to Georgetown and then to Yale Law School and managed to get through those OK. He’s ended up being Senior Vice President at MBNA, one of the largest financial institutions in the country. He served as Executive Director of Economy Policy Coordination at the U.S. Department of Commerce. About 5 years ago he went off and formed a law firm here in Washington, D.C., and now they represent over 100 clients including a bunch of non-profit organizations and educational institutions.

More specifically, though, and for our purposes and for the purpose of this nomination, Hunter Biden has spent a lot of time on Amtrak trains. Like his father, like our Congressman, Mike Castle and myself, Hunter Biden has lived in Delaware while using Amtrak to commute to his job as we commute to our job in Washington almost every day of the week. You know, you learn a lot about what could work and what would work better at Amtrak by riding trains and talking to the passengers, the commuters, the passengers, the folks who work on the trains and make them work every day. You also have a chance to see the huge economic benefit the region receives from having a strong passenger rail corridor, something that should be available in a lot of other parts of our country.

It would obviously be a stretch to attribute any specific shortcoming of passenger rail in the United States to Hunter Biden’s service on the board. But the fact that the job is treated as a kind of patronage position to hand out to random senators’ kids who have no relevant knowledge beyond riding the train a lot helps explain why American passenger rail is low quality and exhibits little understanding of international best practices.

When his dad became vice president, Hunter left the Amtrak board and instead got involved with a series of investment companies. As detailed by Ben Schreckinger in Politico, a lot of this work seems to have hinged on Hunter and his uncle James Biden sort of hinting around that the family connection to the vice president could help get things done and then not delivering. The Obama administration generally regarded Hunter as a kind of embarrassing family black sheep rather than a real scandal.

Hunter Biden had a lot of problems in life

Stepping back from politics, the Hunter Biden story is basically sympathetic. His mom died in a car accident when he was a little kid, his dad was a loving but busy US senator, and his older brother was accomplished in ways he couldn’t quite match.

And the history of American presidential politics is littered with similar characters like Billy Carter, Tony Rodham, and Neil Bush, who try to capitalize financially on relatives in the White House and thereby succeed in embracing their family without really accomplishing much of anything.

In May 2013, Hunter joined the US Naval Reserve, for which he required two waivers — one because, at 42, he was above the normal age for a military recruit, and the other due to a previous drug use incident. In August, his brother Beau received the initial diagnosis of the brain cancer that would eventually kill him.

By February of 2014, Hunter was discharged from the Navy for testing positive for cocaine. The next spring, Beau died. In October 2015, Hunter separated from his wife Kathleen. She filed for divorce in 2016, and in paperwork complained that Hunter had been “spending extravagantly on his own interests including drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations.”

Sometime in 2016, Hunter began dating Beau’s widow, which family members claimed to be supportive of, but that relationship unraveled by early 2019.

Hunter’s personal troubles were severe enough that he was for whatever reason unable to attend Joe Biden’s presidential campaign kickoff — an event that featured Hunter’s three daughters, the boyfriend of one of the daughters, Beau’s two kids, Hunter’s half-sister Ashley, and Ashley’s husband Howard Krein, along with an empty seat in the row with a piece of paper on it that said “reserved.”

And during the bulk of this troubled period in Hunter’s life, he was fortuitously on the board of a Ukrainian energy company — a stroke of good fortune that’s become the centerpiece of a bogus corruption allegation leveled at his dad.

Joe Biden didn’t do anything to help Hunter in Ukraine

Back in 2014 after a change of regime in Ukraine, Hunter Biden joined the board of a scandal-plagued Ukrainian natural gas company named Burisma. Hunter had no apparent qualifications for the job except that his father was the vice president and involved in the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy.

He got paid up to $50,000 per month for the job and the situation constituted the kind of conflict of interest that was normally considered inappropriate in Washington until the Trump era. These days, of course, the president of the United States regularly accepts payments from foreign sources to his company while in office, and so do the Trump children. The Obama administration probably should have done something about this at the time, but the White House couldn’t literally force Hunter not to accept the job. And given the larger family context, you can see why Joe might have been reluctant to confront his son about it.

This would all be a small footnote in history except that by 2016, officials throughout the Obama administration and in Western Europe had come to a consensus that Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, wasn’t doing enough to crack down on corruption. Biden, as he later colorfully recounted, delivered the message that the West wanted Shokin gone or else loan guarantees would be held up, and Shokin was, in turn, fired.

There was nothing remotely controversial about this at the time. No congressional Republicans complained about it, and the European Union hailed the decision to fire Shokin. The reason there is video footage of Biden touting his personal role in this is it was considered a foreign policy triumph that Biden wanted to claim credit for, not anything sordid or embarrassing.

But Shokin, of course, didn’t want to go down on the theory that he was corrupt or incompetent. So he started offering another theory: he was fired for going after Burisma by Joe Biden operating on behalf of Hunter Biden.

The question of whether Shokin was actually investigating Burisma at all is a matter of dispute (the relevant Ukrainian players have told inconsistent stories), but this is clearly not the reason he was fired. The desire to push him out was fully bipartisan in the United States and reflected a consensus across European governments, not anything idiosyncratic to Biden.

The notion that firing Shokin was somehow problematic was not in the air until the New York Times ran a story co-bylined by Ken Vogel and a Ukrainian journalist named Iuliia Mendel (who a few weeks later would become Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s official spokesperson) highlighting Rudy Giuliani’s efforts at muckraking.

The worst you can say about any of this, however, was that Hunter’s position on the board was a standing conflict of interest that should have been avoided. There’s no evidence that Joe did anything wrong, specifically. But an examination of the life and times of Hunter Biden does provide a reminder that most Americans thought politics as usual was corrupt long before Trump arrived on the scene to make it more corrupt.

Hunter Biden is a product of an unloved system

Progressives find Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” to be galling and hypocritical in light of his family’s massive financial conflicts of interest. But people who identify with Trump’s racial and cultural politics find progressive complaints about corruption to be hypocritical and unpersuasive because the whole system is corrupt.

As of 2014, Gallup found that 75 percent of voters felt corruption was “widespread” in American government.

And if you think about Biden’s role on the Obama ticket back in 2008, the whole point was that he was the reassuring insider to balance out the fresh-faced outsider reformer who was running for president. That’s a common formula in American politics, with an outsider (often a governor) promising to “fix the mess in Washington” with the assistance of a more seasoned vice president. That’s Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The other formula — the political veteran balanced by a younger and more energetic vice president — is much rarer (H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle come to mind), even though in theory vice president is the junior job.

That’s no coincidence. Some aspects of Hunter Biden’s career and life story are a bit extreme (the Amtrak gig, dating his brother’s widow), but the kid who trades on family connections to make money is much more a case of business as usual than an extraordinary scandal. “Business as usual in Washington,” however, is normally the subject of scorn in American politics. Any focus on Joe Biden’s son is likely to remind people of what they don’t like about it.

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