The Real Hunter Biden Scandal

The Real Hunter Biden Scandal

Joe Biden’s empathy is admirable. But it shouldn’t just be reserved for family.


Republicans sometimes give the impression that they are obsessed with punishing Joe Biden for the unforgivable sin of being a loving father. In the 2020 presidential race, the Trump reelection campaign and right-wing media heavily bet that they could score big by playing up the many scandals surrounding Biden’s son Hunter. But by elevating reports of Hunter Biden’s misdeeds, the right also highlighted evidence that the senior Biden was motivated by parental devotion.

Biden’s steadfast loyalty to his son is perfectly understandable and admirable. In 1972, Biden’s first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, and her three children were in a car crash. Both Neilia and daughter Naomi, age 1, were killed. Two boys, Beau and Hunter, survived. Beau later died of brain cancer in 2015. Although Biden remarried and has a daughter and several grandchildren, Hunter is his only direct flesh-and-blood legacy from the tragedy of 1972. Hunter naturally has a very special place in Biden’s heart.

On October 10, 2020, Sean Hannity reported on his Fox News show about a private voicemail message from Biden to Hunter where the father said, “It’s Dad, I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world pal. You gotta get some help. I don’t know what to do, I know you don’t either.”

On October 16, 2020, the New York Post published an article documenting a “raw and intimate” exchange between Biden and Hunter. In a February 24, 2019, text, Biden wrote to his son, then in a rehab clinic, “Good morning my beautiful son, I miss you and love you.” Hunter responded with concern that his personal problems were going to hurt Biden’s soon-to-be-announced presidential run. Hunter described himself as a “fucked up addict who can’t be trusted.” Biden responded, “I’ll run but I need you…. Only focus is recovery. Nothing else.” The publication of these messages by his opponents were clearly designed to humiliate Biden and sway voters against him—but, for anyone with a shred of empathy, they had the opposite effect. They show the candidate possessing an almost saintly patience and unfailing concern for a troubled offspring.

It’s easy to understand why Republicans and Fox News continue to devote uncountable hours to fulminating on the many scandals involving Hunter Biden, who is now the subject of a special counsel’s investigation—and might yet become the basis for an impeachment hearing. As a former Biden aide confessed to The New Yorker in 2019, “Hunter is super rich terrain.” That New Yorker report documents at great length that Hunter has long been a troubled man, beset not only with the disease of addiction but also blatantly trafficking on his father’s name and office. Over the last two decades and more, Hunter has earned extravagant sums as a lobbyist, legal adviser—and even an artist—from people who clearly valued him primarily for his proximity to his powerful father (who over that period has been a senator, vice president, and president).

But Hunter is not the first presidential relative who has turned out to be an embarrassing ne’er-do-well. Richard Nixon tapped the phone of his younger brother Donald, fearful of the sibling’s financial improprieties. Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy, had once been in the pay of the Libyan government, which made him a target of an FBI investigation. Accusations of influence peddling also bedevil some of Donald Trump’s progeny as well as his son-in-law Jared Kushner. But there’s little evidence that voters punish politicians for the sins of their relatives. Nixon was brought low by his own actions in Watergate, not anything Donald did. Billy Carter remains a footnote to his brother’s presidency, since Jimmy Carter’s 1980 loss had other causes (inflation, spiking interest rates, and the protracted Iran hostage crisis). The scandals involving the Trump children were dwarfed by the many other reasons voters turfed their father out of the White House.

If there were any actual evidence linking Joe Biden to Hunter’s alleged crimes, then Biden’s presidency would indeed burn and crash. Such evidence might yet emerge, but years of right-wing investigation have yet to produce it.

As a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation notes, “Some Republicans keep suggesting Joe Biden has been corrupted. But they don’t have first-hand evidence of the most incendiary claim: that he got a cut from these foreign transactions, as early as 2014. Instead, they have allegations from sources.” This is a fair conclusion.

There is, however, a Hunter Biden scandal that reflects badly on Joe Biden: not that the president is a criminal, but rather that he’s too harsh on alleged crimes if they involve those outside his family. Toward Hunter’s struggles with addiction, Joe Biden has offered unconditional love and forgiveness, with a preference for treatment over incarceration. This is the right approach, but it shouldn’t apply only to people named Biden.

As Jacobin reporter Branko Marcetic demonstrated in his 2020 book Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, the president has a long history as a fierce anti-drug warrior, constantly pushing for punitive laws. When Biden first entered the Senate in 1973, he was a liberal reformer emphasizing humane solutions to addiction such as job training and psychiatric care. That stance quickly changed as Biden saw how Republicans like Ronald Reagan reaped victories from tough-on-crime politics. By the 1980s, Biden was at the forefront of pushing for mandatory minimums and the centralization of law enforcement under a “drug czar.”

As Marcetic notes, “In 1989, [Biden] suggested the new drug czar could encourage police teams to go into drug-laden neighborhoods and even schools to take on violence. Biden urged him to explore the idea of a vaccine that prevents drug addiction, a fantastical idea that a National Institute on Drug Abuse official warned would likely involve targeting neighborhoods of mostly black kids—and developing a product that would suppress not just the good feeling that resulted from dug use but any sense of enjoyment, so that ‘it would in effect make life not worth living.’”

Biden sponsored the Anti–Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which, Marcetic points out, “poured funding into more anti-drug agents, prosecutors, and prisons; doubled penalties for using minors to distribute drugs or manufacturing them near schools; and gave the defense secretary three months to draw up anti-drug initiatives for the US military.” The bill set harsh mandatory minimums for merely possessing crack, creating the notorious “one-hundred-to-one sentencing ratio that gave the same prison term to someone convicted of possessing five grams of crack as it did to someone possessing a half-kilo of power cocaine.” Biden promoted a bill in 1988 that “levied fines of up to $10,000 for anyone caught with small, personal use amounts of drugs.” As the 1988 bill went through, Biden said, “If I don’t serve another day in the Senate and the bill passes, I will have made a contribution.”

These bills had a devastating effect on the poor, particularly poor African Americans. As Marcetic observes, “In 1986, when the first Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed, African Americans faced an average drug sentence 11 percent higher than whites; four years later, the disparity was 49 percent. Three decades later, African Americans who were arrested, convicted and sentenced for drug offenses made up 37 percent, 59 percent and 74 percent of the overall totals, respectively, despite comprising only 15 percent of drug users.”

Joe Biden’s role in fostering harsh sentencing for crack users is particularly galling because Hunter is an admitted crack cocaine user, although he has never been convicted for his use. To be clear, Hunter shouldn’t be punished for using crack cocaine—but neither should anyone else.

Looking at Biden’s record, it’s clear that he has a double standard. For his son, he draws on infinite reservoirs of mercy. For the poor, especially poor people of color, who do the same acts as his son, Biden’s response was to lock them up and throw away the key.

Over the past two decades, the politics of crime have changed, particularly inside the Democratic Party. Biden, ever the opportunist, has also shifted, although only slightly. He’s described some of his earlier anti-drug stances as mistaken. As president, he’s pardoned thousands of Americans convicted of marijuana possession.

This shift from Biden’s earlier hard-line stance is welcome but doesn’t go nearly far enough. The Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that fights mass incarceration, notes, “Biden’s executive action only brings us marginally closer to ending the ‘War on Drugs’ that has embroiled this country for decades—policy choices that have harmed millions, particularly Black people and other people of color, who have been targeted, surveilled, and punished more severely than white people.” Along with a host of human rights groups, Vera called on Biden to go much further on the path of decriminalization. One obvious move is to push forward with rescheduling marijuana so it is not classed in the same category as heroin and LSD.

It will take a major political effort to more broadly decriminalize drug use and move toward a harm reduction model based on treatment. But if any politician can make this cause his own, it’s Joe Biden. Harm reduction is clearly the model he prefers for those closest to him. And if harm reduction is good enough for Hunter Biden, it’s good enough for all Americans.

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