Hunter Biden's Tangled Tale Comes Front and Center

Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden's son, at a White House ceremony on July 7, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden's son, at a White House ceremony on July 7, 2022. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

The way Republicans tell it, President Joe Biden has been complicit in a long-running scheme to profit from his position in public life through shady dealings around the world engineered by his son, Hunter Biden.

Taking a first step in their long-promised investigation, Republicans on the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday demanded information about the Bidens’ banking transactions from the Treasury Department. And in an earlier report on the Bidens intended to lay the groundwork for hearings they plan to hold, they said they had evidence “demonstrating deliberate, repeated deception of the American people, abuse of the executive branch for personal gain, use of government power to obstruct the investigation” and more.

The real Hunter Biden story is complex and very different in important ways from the narrative promoted by Republicans — but troubling in its own way.

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After his father became vice president, Hunter Biden, a 52-year-old Yale-educated lawyer, forged business relationships with foreign interests that brought him millions of dollars, raised questions about whether he was cashing in on his family name, set off alarms among government officials about potential conflicts of interest, and provided Republicans an opening for years of attacks on his father.

And after the death of his brother, Beau, in 2015, Hunter descended into a spiral of addiction and tawdry and self-destructive behavior.

He is sober now and no longer entangled in foreign business deals. He is a visible presence in his father’s life — his oldest daughter was married at the White House in November, and he attended a state dinner last month.

But his travails remain front and center in Washington in ways both legal and political.

David C. Weiss, the U.S. attorney for Delaware, is closing in on a decision about whether to prosecute Hunter Biden on charges stemming from his behavior during his most troubled years.

Investigators have pored over documents related to and questioned witnesses about his overseas business dealings. They include his role on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company led by an oligarch who at the time was under investigation for corruption — a position that Hunter accepted while his father, as vice president, was overseeing Obama administration policy in Ukraine.

They also include his equity stake in a Chinese business venture, and his failed joint venture with a Chinese tycoon who had courted well-connected Americans in both parties but was later detained by Chinese authorities.

Investigators have similarly sought information about interactions between Hunter Biden’s business associates and his father.

But Weiss, people familiar with the investigation say, appears to be focused on a less politically explosive set of possible charges stemming from his failure to meet filing deadlines for his 2016 and 2017 tax returns, and questions about whether he falsely claimed at least $30,000 in deductions for business expenses.

Weiss is also said to be considering charging Hunter Biden, who has openly acknowledged his years of struggle with drugs and alcohol, with lying on a U.S. government form that he filled out to purchase a handgun in 2018. On the form, he answered that he was not using drugs — an assertion that prosecutors might be able to challenge based on his erratic behavior and possible witness accounts of his drug use around that period.

A veteran federal prosecutor, Weiss was nominated in 2017 as U.S. attorney by then-President Donald Trump. He was kept on by Attorney General Merrick Garland after Joe Biden took office to avoid any suggestion of political meddling in the investigation. Weiss has been given authority by the Justice Department over whether to bring charges and could make a decision at any time.

Hunter Biden’s lawyers have argued to prosecutors that the potential charges are considered so narrow by the department that even if prosecutors believe they can prove them, they are almost always dealt with through civil actions.

Regardless of what the department decides, Republicans who now control the House intend to intensify their scrutiny of Hunter Biden in a bid to inflict damage on his father as he prepares for his likely 2024 reelection bid.

Despite their years of efforts — including Trump’s attempt to muscle Ukraine into helping him sully the Bidens, an escapade that led to his first impeachment — Republicans have yet to demonstrate that the senior Biden was involved in his son’s business deals or took any action to benefit him or his foreign partners.

An examination by The New York Times of Weiss’ investigation and Hunter Biden’s journey to this juncture does not provide either side with the narrative they would prefer.

It highlights how he aligned himself with foreign actors eager to leverage their connections to him to further their own interests. But it also underscores how far removed the most likely legal charges against him are from the issues most aggressively promoted by Republicans — and how his father’s opponents have often twisted or exaggerated the story of his descent to score political points.

As Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist, put it: “I don’t care about Hunter’s feelings. This is war.”

Just before 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, Hunter Biden received an urgent-sounding email from his accountant, Bill Morgan.

Morgan had been hounding Hunter, who had recently completed a stint in rehab for addictions to crack cocaine and alcohol, to provide him with information needed to complete his 2017 personal and business tax returns.

What he owed was substantial, more than $800,000.

“I did not hear back from you,” Morgan wrote, adding that he needed his client’s address so he could FedEx him the returns, which had to be filed within three days to meet the deadline.

That same Friday afternoon, however, Hunter Biden, whose father’s second term as vice president had ended nearly two years earlier, seemed to have other matters on his mind. He had misplaced his iPhone and had gone to an AT&T store in Wilmington, Delaware, to buy a new one. He then went into a shop across the street — StarQuest Shooters & Survival Supply — and bought a .38-caliber handgun.

His exposure to the tax and gun charges traces back to that October afternoon, and to his intensifying problems with addiction and his loss of relationships with three of the people closest to him: a longtime colleague, his wife and his brother.

Not long after the purchase of the gun, Beau Biden’s widow, Hallie Biden, with whom Hunter had a romantic relationship after his separation from his wife, Kathleen Buhle, found the weapon in his truck. Hunter had ominously told a close family friend, “I know you all think the wrong brother died.”

Fearing he might use the gun to take his own life, Hallie Biden tossed it in a dumpster.

That November, Morgan tried once again to get Hunter’s attention. Not only did he still need to file his 2016 and 2017 tax returns, but now the IRS had instructed the State Department not to renew his passport because of his outstanding tax liens.

Hunter Biden’s career had long crossed paths with Democratic politics and constituencies associated with his father, stoking questions about favoritism. For much of the 2000s, he had a thriving domestic lobbying practice, which he set up with the help of one of his father’s longtime advisers.

But Hunter gave the lobbying business up after his father was selected as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008. Hunter had to scramble to find new sources of income, and by his father’s second term as vice president, he was being approached about — and seeking out — opportunities abroad.

A driving force behind Hunter’s international work was a new business partner, Devon Archer, an ambitious, gregarious former Abercrombie & Fitch model who went to Yale, started his career with Citicorp in Asia and dreamed of one day becoming an ambassador.

Archer found an opportunity in Eastern Europe that was lucrative from the start. During a visit to Moscow in early 2014, Archer was introduced to the oligarch who owned Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company. Excited about the opportunity, Archer told Hunter that the oligarch, Mykola Zlochevsky, “appears incredibly legit and great guy.”

In fact, Zlochevsky was under scrutiny from British authorities who were investigating whether he had illicitly taken millions of dollars worth of Ukrainian assets. His U.S. visa had been revoked by officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

The oligarch offered Hunter Biden a seat on the board alongside Archer. At the time, Hunter was sober, and when he accepted the board seat, he appeared to be fully cognizant of the thorny issues he would face by tying himself to Burisma while his father was overseeing U.S. policy in Ukraine.

He told Archer in an email, “They need to know in no uncertain terms that we will not and cannot intervene directly with domestic policymakers, and that we need to abide by FARA and any other U.S. laws in the strictest sense across the board,” referring to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

American officials who worked on Ukraine issues were upset to learn of Hunter’s role at Burisma. They were concerned it could undermine U.S. efforts, led by Vice President Biden, to persuade Ukrainian leaders to combat rampant corruption, including by investigating oligarchs, a group that included Zlochevsky.

The younger Biden’s main point of contact at Burisma, Vadym Pozharskyi, would press him to help fix Zlochevsky’s visa issues in the United States. To insulate Hunter Biden from the requests, a lawyer in private practice who had previously served as a top immigration official in the Obama administration was brought in to handle the matter.

Despite criticism of the oligarch within his father’s administration, Hunter did not want to give up his role at Burisma, which was not particularly demanding of his time and continued to pay him handsomely — about $600,000 a year — even after he started smoking crack and stopped responding to emails from Pozharskyi.

After his father entered the presidential race in 2019, and with his relationship with Burisma under renewed scrutiny and political attack, Hunter gave up his seat on the company’s board, cutting off his main source of income.

That May, he married Melissa Cohen, his second wife, and he rededicated himself to staying sober.

A few months later, Hunter learned firsthand what his accountant had warned him about the previous year: The State Department would not give him a new passport because of the outstanding tax liens.

Hunter Biden tried in vain to get in touch with his accountant. But Morgan had died. Hunter hired new accountants, who reminded him that he had never filed his 2016 and 2017 returns.

The accountants estimated that he owed about $2 million in back taxes, plus accumulated interest and penalties. He did not have that much, so he filed the returns without paying the bill, and his accountants reached out to the IRS to discuss a payment plan.

The IRS did not respond and he did not understand why — until December 2020, when, about a month after his father won the presidency, CNN broke the news of Weiss’ investigation.

When Trump heard, he was furious at William Barr, his attorney general, for not making Weiss’ investigation public during the campaign.

By the middle of 2021, it was clear to Hunter’s legal team that Weiss was considering bringing charges against him for not paying his taxes.

That October, Hunter Biden borrowed $2 million from a wealthy Los Angeles writer and lawyer named Kevin Morris, with whom he had become friends, and he paid the IRS the full amount that his accountants estimated he owed. His liens were similarly paid.

By making the payments, former officials said, he complicated Weiss’ ability to charge him with tax evasion because juries often question why the government has indicted someone who has paid his taxes.

The possible gun charge could also present hurdles for prosecutors. Lying about drug use on the federal form is rarely prosecuted unless it is added to more serious crimes and when it is used to extract cooperation from a witness.

Hunter has a growing number of lawyers and advisers. Prominent criminal defense lawyer Chris Clark has been dealing with the Justice Department investigation. He recently hired the high-profile Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell to deal with the congressional investigations.

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