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'Family, family, family:' Valerie Biden Owens defends brother 'Joey' and nephew Hunter

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NEWARK, Del. – With the Bidens, it's all in the family.

For better or worse.

There's the "safe haven" President Joe Biden's sister Valerie provides in their regular late-night phone conversations, chitchat about nothing after a day that might have been dominated for him by Russian aggression and record inflation. But there's also the escalating furor around his son Hunter, the subject of a federal investigation and the likely target of Capitol Hill hearings if Republicans win control of Congress in November.

Not since John F. Kennedy has a president been surrounded by such a large and close-knit clan, one that has been a source of both emotional support and political trouble for the commander in chief.

"We have been best friends our entire life," Valerie Biden Owens told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview about her memoir, "Growing Up Biden," being published Tuesday by Celadon Books. "I can't read his mind, but 99.9% of the time, we'll come out with the same answer, his by Jesuit logic and mine by just a feel."

She was her brother's first campaign manager and decades later remains a voice he trusts. Dubbed "the Biden whisperer," she shares her brother's instincts and articulates his perspective, sometimes with fewer political constraints than he has.

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Valerie Biden Owens, right, is a source of unwavering support for her brother Joe and their family.
Valerie Biden Owens, right, is a source of unwavering support for her brother Joe and their family.

She heatedly defended his son Hunter, who has struggled with addiction, as the blameless victim of a partisan attack over alleged financial misconduct.

Does he bear some of the responsibility for the controversies swirling around him?

“No,” she replied flatly. “Hunter walked through hell. He didn't wake up and say, ‘Aunt Val, I think I'm going to be an addict. And so whatever happens, it's my responsibility.’” She praised him for having the “courage” and “strength” to combat the dependence on alcohol and crack that she said was behind his actions.

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Federal prosecutors who convened a grand jury in Delaware may be less understanding in their investigation of whether Hunter Biden violated money laundering laws, evaded taxes and failed to abide by foreign lobbying regulations. For years, Donald Trump has hammered Joe Biden with accusations of corruption involving multimillion-dollar contracts that son Hunter and brother James won in China and Ukraine when Biden was vice president.

On the Senate floor last week, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, both Republicans, made their third lengthy presentation about what they labeled "The Biden Family Investigation," this time detailing James Biden's business ties to the Chinese government. Johnson described the Biden family as "grifters" and "influence peddlers."

If the GOP wins control of the House or Senate in the November midterm elections – and with that the power to convene hearings and issue subpoenas – floor speeches about the Biden family are likely to become full-scale congressional inquiries.

A fast talker with a big laugh

Valerie Biden Owens, 76, is wiry and wired, a fast talker with a big laugh. Perched on a chair pulled before a crackling fireplace in Joe Biden's office at the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware, she said she can't remember a time when she and the big brother she calls Joey weren't best friends. "Really and truly, from the time I opened my eyes," she said.

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She said she sees Hunter as more of a son than a nephew, the little boy she helped rear when his mother and sister were killed in a car accident that injured him and his brother, Beau.

Addiction is a thread that runs through her memoir and through generations of her family. Her "Uncle Boo-Boo" was an alcoholic, she wrote. Her brother Frankie abused drugs and alcohol.

President-elect Joe Biden, right, embraces his son Hunter in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7, 2020.
President-elect Joe Biden, right, embraces his son Hunter in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7, 2020.

"What is it? The Irish and the drink," she said, citing a genetic susceptibility in the family to addiction. That's why she didn't drink through high school and college; Joe Biden has never used alcohol. The hardest part of the book to write, she said, was "exposing the vulnerabilities of a family and addiction."

She dismissed out of hand the idea that the worst is yet to come for the family in the investigations into her nephew and brother.

"I don't know what could be worse than Beau's dying of glioblastoma when he was 46 years old," she said sharply. "I don't know what could be worse than watching Hunter walk through hell. You never say the worst is over, but whatever comes, we can handle it as a family."

Their unity gives them resilience, she said, a lesson from her parents. "Mom said there's family, and there's family, and then there's family."

Even some allies worry that Joe Biden's devotion to family has made it harder for him to fully acknowledge and effectively deal with the political perils his son and brother present.

Vice President Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and his sister Valerie Biden Owens attend the funeral Mass for the Bidens' mother, Jean, on Jan. 12, 2010, at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del.
Vice President Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and his sister Valerie Biden Owens attend the funeral Mass for the Bidens' mother, Jean, on Jan. 12, 2010, at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del.

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Knowing she was nervous about the USA TODAY interview, brother Jimmy and his wife, Sarah, unexpectedly arrived at the Biden Institute before the conversation began to offer moral support. They sat against a wall for the hour, two friendly faces that were out of the camera angle but within her line of sight.

'The price was going to be too high'

Valerie was one who initially urged her brother not to make his third bid for the presidency in the 2020 contest. "I just thought the price was going to be too high," she wrote, worried that a campaign against Trump would be brutal. "I didn't want the family to go through it. I was worried the family couldn't go through it."

Though she came around to support Biden's run, she said her predictions about the campaign turned out to be true. "It met and exceeded my expectations of being ugly and degrading, disrespectful, a disservice to the country," she said. "Trump and his right-wing followers have continued to do whatever they can to discredit the family and therefore to bring Joe down."

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"Just watch him," she said in response. "It's not even worth a flick."

Do those comments bother him?

"No," she said.

Later in the interview, she launched into a defense of his sometimes stumbling speaking style, which she described as an aftermath of his childhood stutter.

"My brother's a stutterer, and he still stutters and tries to get things out," she said. "And what did really make me mad and drive me crazy was when he would go to speak, and there would be a hesitancy, and the critique from the bad guys, the right wing, was that he's not smart; he didn't know what he was saying."

She bristles at criticism of her brother, and she worries that the White House staff doesn't do a good enough job in spotlighting his administration's accomplishments. "This Washington jargon," she said with frustration. "Talk about infrastructure? What the hell? I don't care about infrastructure. I care about the water that's coming out of my faucet that is toxic to my children."

Several nights a week, at 10 p.m. or so, she'll call the president or he'll call her to touch base. "When he calls, I don't talk about what happened with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin today," she said. "We talk about family. It's a respite. ... We talk about nothing, and in talking about nothing, we talk about everything. "I don't have to say a whole lot, because we understand each other."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Joe Biden's sister Valerie on 'Joey,' nephew Hunter