how the president’s son became a Republican target – again

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>

Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The difference between six and seven is slight but, in the mouth of Joe Biden, it meant everything. “I have seven grandkids,” the US president said in a podcast interview this week.

That was Biden’s way of yielding to critics and acknowledging his four-year-old granddaughter, Navy Joan Roberts. His son, Hunter, has said he fathered Navy during a period when he was struggling with alcohol and drug addiction and does not have a relationship with her. Hunter’s paternity was established by DNA testing during a lengthy dispute over child support.

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The episode illustrated the personal and political sensitivities around Hunter – and Biden’s delicate efforts to navigate them ahead of another bruising reelection campaign. It came in a week that again saw Hunter at the centre of a legal storm that made him a target for Republicans straining to connect dots between him and his father.

Whit Ayres, a Republican political consultant and pollster, said: “There are plenty of questions surrounding his business activities and the extent to which he traded on his father’s name and reputation or used his father to get more money or get large contracts. There are plenty of questions and a lot of suspicion – in Republican circles anyway – about how that has been investigated.”

The scrutiny is testing boundaries and whether the family of a politician – even a president – is fair game. Hunter has never served in the White House, which is quick to describe him as a “private citizen”. But he is often seen at his father’s side, including on a recent trip to Ireland and on the White House balcony for 4 July fireworks, a frequent reminder of the president’s family complications.

Ayres added: “I don’t think I would be putting him front and centre as much as the president is doing. I understand his instinct to try to be loyal to a troubled son but politically it is not at all helpful. The less visible Hunter Biden is, the better it is for Joe Biden.”

What is beyond dispute is that Hunter, 53, has fought personal demons. He appeared in a Delaware court last month amid expectations that he would plead guilty to two tax charges and avoid a gun charge. But the judge in the case said she could not accept the plea agreement with prosecutors. Republicans in the House of Representatives have launched an investigation into the plea deal.

Republicans have also been attempting to prove – so far without success – that there is a link between father and son that implicates the former in wrongdoing. Among their allegations is that, when Biden was vice-president, he played a role in his son’s business dealings and profited from transactions. The White House says Biden was never in business with his son.

In a press call hosted by the Congressional Integrity Project, Dan Goldman, a Democratic congressman, said: “This is not an investigation into the Bidens, no matter what they say. This is an investigation into Hunter Biden and they’re trying to find some connection to Joe Biden. But there is no connection based on the facts and the evidence.”

The less visible Hunter Biden is, the better it is for Joe Biden

Whit Ayres

This week Devon Archer, a former business partner of Hunter, appeared for a closed-door interview led by staff from the House oversight committee. Representatives present at the interview said Archer testified that, over the span of 10 years, Hunter put his father on the phone around 20 times while in the company of associates but “never once spoke about any business dealings”.

According to Goldman, the only member of Congress who stayed in the room for the entire interview, Archer testified that Hunter sought to create an “illusion of access” to then vice-president Biden while doing business in Ukraine. But Biden played no role in any deals and Archer provided no evidence of wrongdoing by him.

Goldman said: “The Republicans’ witness was unequivocally clear – President Joe Biden never, at any point, discussed Hunter Biden’s business dealings with Hunter or any of Hunter’s business partners.”

However, Republican congressman Andy Biggs, a far-right member who has co-sponsored legislation to impeach Biden, took a different view. He claimed that Archer’s testimony implicated the president, insisting: “Archer talked about the ‘big guy’ and how Hunter Biden always said, ‘We need to talk to my guy.’ I think we should do an impeachment inquiry.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has warned that Republicans could begin an impeachment inquiry against Biden if federal agencies fail to cooperate with oversight committees looking into his administration and family’s business dealings. That would be a sure way to guarantee media exposure that Republican say has been sorely lacking because of liberal bias.

US House speaker Kevin McCarthy has repeatedly warned Republicans could begin an impeachment inquiry against Joe Biden.

US House speaker Kevin McCarthy has repeatedly warned Republicans could begin an impeachment inquiry against Joe Biden. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Bill Whalen, a former media consultant for Republican politicians, said: “If you swapped out the names and, instead of Joe Biden and Hunter Biden, you had Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr, do you think there would be the same lack of coverage?

“My god, an impeachment investigation would be underway. Protests outside the White House. It would just be 24/7 news coverage. Instead this is treated as something of a non-event by the mainstream media who clearly don’t want to see Joe Biden taken down in any way.”

But Hunter is already receiving plenty of airtime in rightwing media. While most news channels focus on former president Donald Trump’s three criminal indictments, Fox News and others have been quick to pivot to Hunter, his father and an alleged bribery scheme, even though Republican-led committees have failed to provide evidence and witness after witness has disappointed.

Ayres, the political consultant, noted: “If you look at Fox News or some of the more conservative cable networks, you would think that Hunter Biden was about the only thing going on in America right now. ‘Was Trump indicted? But Hunter Biden, what a scandal!’”

Where rightwing media leads, Republican politicians follow. When Trump was charged this week over lies that fueled an attack on American democracy, McCarthy responded with a list of allegations against Hunter and an assertion that the justice department was seeking a distraction. Steve Scalise, the House majority leader, accused the department of “cutting sweetheart deals for Hunter” while trying to persecute Trump in “an outrageous abuse of power”.

If you look at Fox News or some of the more conservative cable networks, you would think that Hunter Biden was about the only thing going on in America right now

Whit Ayers

Trump’s son, Don Jr, joined the fray by writing on X, formerly Twitter: “Anyone else noticing a pattern here? The corrupt beurocrats of the Biden regime charge Trump literally the day after every single disastrous Biden crime family story,” – misspelling “bureaucrats” along the way.

Critics say it is a classic piece of false equivalence and “whataboutism”. As the legal walls close in on Trump, Hunter has emerged as an imperfect foil for Republicans. Whether it will have much impact with voters in next year’s presidential election remains uncertain: efforts to weaponise Hunter against his father fell flat in 2020.

Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, lead impeachment manager in Trump’s trial over the January 6 attack, told the MSNBC network: “It’s obviously a frantic and desperate effort to distract everybody from this unprecedented and phenomenal crime against American democracy. Hunter Biden was not and has not been an elected public official. He has not been a member of the Biden administration or a government official.”

There is no equivalence with Trump’s crimes, Raskin added. “You’re talking about an encyclopedia of outrages and scandals against constitutional government versus what’s at best a comma or a footnote in the annals of American political history because you’re talking about the son of a president. They haven’t laid a glove on Joe Biden and they have not been able to link him in any way to any of their alleged corruption scandals.”

Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, drew a comparison with Republicans’ efforts to use the 2012 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, against Hillary Clinton. “Hunter Biden is their latest Benghazi. It’s an imaginary issue that they’re desperately trying to wish to life. They need something, anything to change the subject from the indictment of the former president.”

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