Image by Emma Kumer

America’s Son | Who’s Afraid of Hunter Biden?

Tarpley Hitt

It is easy to discount most new entries in the canon of conservative cinema, on account of the fact that they tend to be bad. By conservative cinema I mean overtly partisan agitprop, not the Clint Eastwood kind, and by bad I mean their dialogue is sermonic, their symbolism is obvious, their edits waffle between awkward and uncanny, and their casts represent a collection of Hollywood afterthoughts who ascribe their mainstream exile to personal politics, whatever its actual cause. In many respects, My Son Hunter, the Breitbart-distributed Hunter Biden biopic that came out this September, seems to fit the mold.

The fictionalized, feature-length drama was directed by occasional CPAC speaker Robert Davi — a supporting actor in Die Hard who went on to narrate losing campaign ads on topics like “demonic sheep” — and stars a range of far-right also-rans. Among them: Laurence Fox, the anti-vax scion of a U.K. theater dynasty who mounted a failed mayoral campaign on a platform against “extreme political correctness,” and MMA champ-turned-actress Gina Carano, who was fired from The Mandalorian for comparing online hate to the Holocaust. The project was originally pitched as “Austin Powers meets King Lear meets House of Cards,” but it hews closer to what you could call “right-wing A24” — 95 minutes of drug montages, a one-off flirtation with animation, and an unrelenting aversion to the fourth wall. Like most of its spiritual predecessors, the film is a hardly coherent and fairly expensive vehicle for a popular Republican talking point: the story of Hunter’s laptop and its suppression by the mainstream media. But My Son Hunter has a degree of narrative credibility, even though it was timed to reignite conservative outrage in advance of the midterms; many of its plot points are, simply, true. “This is not a true story,” Carano says in the opening scene, “except for all the facts.”

It has been roughly two years since the New York Post first published its now-infamous piece on Hunter’s laptop — which allegedly contained hundreds of gigabytes of his personal and financial information that suggested, among other things, potential conflicts of interest — sending conventional media into either debunking overdrive or conspicuous silence. While liberal outlets cast doubt on the story, conservatives seized upon it with an anger approaching glee; they have never quite moved on. Fox News, which runs a Hunter-related article almost every day, has been airing a multi-season series called “Who Is Hunter Biden?” since last winter. Rep. Matt Gaetz — a man intimately familiar with federal investigationsturned a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing into a referendum on whether Hunter was “a threat to national security.” And just last month, Sen. Rick Scott went on the radio to demand Hunter testify before Congress. 

With the midterms a month away, most polling shows Republicans poised to retake the House of Representatives. If the math works out in their favor, the GOP will have Hunter in its crosshairs. In April, Kentucky Rep. James Comer, who will lead the House Committee on Oversight and Reform if his party wins a majority, predicted the panel would “be all over Hunter Biden.” Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy agreed that Hunter was “definitely something we should look at.” In case the message wasn’t clear, Comer and McCarthy cowrote an op-ed with Rep. Jim Jordan in July, the headline promising, “We’ll investigate Bidens’ shady business dealings when Republicans take the House in November.” 

As the plan to weaponize Hunter has become obvious, liberal outlets have begun to signal a willingness to contend with the issue. The Breitbart film ushered in a wave of reviews from major publications, and a September 12 New York magazine cover story — an 11,000-word, rigorously reported dive into the laptop’s origins — was clearly designed to break the seal. The piece effectively ribs liberals’ “polite indifference” to Hunter, but it frames the laptop leak foremost as an invasion of privacy, lending a kind of cover to the widespread hesitance to report it out (“It is hard to think of a single living individual who has experienced as total an annihilation of digital privacy”). The drive certainly contained some of the most private imprints of Hunter’s life, but it also held evidence of undisclosed and somewhat suspicious business dealings. If a device containing Eric Trump’s data had emerged under similar circumstances, it’s hard to imagine reporters would be so courteous. A Trump family laptop would be thoroughly scavenged — as it should.

Conservatives have pitched the potential Hunter investigation as an answer to the January 6 hearings: a televised reckoning with what they claim is clear criminal misconduct. But Hunter, contra Donald Trump, has never run for public office; he has no known plans to seek one. To date, he has not attempted to undermine an election. And unlike Ivanka and Jared, whose appointments overruled decades of DOJ procedure barring family members from White House roles, Hunter holds no position in his father’s administration. If even the most damning allegations against him were true, one could find far worse within the Republican Party, perhaps among the Trumps alone. But the Bidens deny wrongdoing, and if their account proves accurate, then Hunter amounts to little more than a public figure sans meaningful political impact — a troubled child of privilege with a few ill-earned jobs, a debilitating addiction problem, and some mediocre paintings

The Hunter saga can be better understood as the right’s answer to Russiagate: a protracted legal saga with too many dates and niche characters for the public to remember, whose complex nexus of obscure allegations fuels both its critics’ detractions and its champions’ hysteria. Whatever the GOP has planned may yield equally opaque results; it will be a show trial — but one that Democrats will not be able to avoid, the media will have to cover, and the internet will digest into trending topics for weeks. So it’s worth asking why Hunter has become so combustible that the liberal establishment has chosen silence over strategy. In a sense, he is both the nepotistic failson whose harebrained money-grabs expose the pecuniary tendencies of Democratic leadership, and the messy everyman whose moronic inability to be anything other than himself makes him more likable than any media-trained official could ever be. Regardless, it would be wise to get ahead of the story before the right begins broadcasting Hunter’s cell records on C-SPAN. As a former Joe Biden aide once put it: “Hunter is super rich terrain.”

High-Tech

 

The story of Hunter’s laptop has never been nonpartisan. When it first broke, the Post claimed to have uncovered a trove of personal documents with a provenance almost too cartoonish to be true. Specifically, the piece alleged that a waterlogged laptop had been abandoned at a Delaware repair shop in 2019; that the shop owner — later identified as a four-first-named, legally blind beret-lover named John Paul Mac Isaac — had seen a “Beau Biden Foundation” sticker on the device and turned it over to the FBI; that the same repairman had also made a copy of the hard drive, which he passed along to America’s Mayor and Trump legal counsel Rudy Giuliani; that Giuliani had mentioned said drive to fired Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who then, months later, tipped off the Post; and finally, that in early October, Giuliani had sent it to the Post, where staff identified it as Hunter’s own in just three days. 

As the Post told the story, Hunter’s drive held thousands of photos; years of email correspondence; a substantial number of naked, partially naked, or gray-sweatpants-clad selfies; and video evidence of drug use, including a twelve-minute tape that showed Hunter “smoking crack while engaged in a sex act with an unidentified woman.” More importantly, it seemed to offer vague proof of a conspiracy theory that had been simmering since 2014, when Hunter joined the board of Burisma Holdings, one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas producers. At the time, his father was steering the Obama administration’s anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. Both Bidens have repeatedly denied any overlap between their positions. (“I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings,” Joe Biden said in 2019.) But an email from 2015, which the Post called its “smoking gun,” suggested Hunter had once arranged a meeting between his father and a Burisma advisor. (Joe Biden’s advisors disputed the claim after reviewing his official schedules.)

The Post conspicuously dropped its original article less than three weeks before the 2020 election — just a touch longer than, say, the eleven-day period between former FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress and Trump’s 2016 victory. Still, the speed of the right-wing reaction and liberal counter-reaction was remarkable. The Post hit publish at 5:00 a.m. By 10:46 a.m., a GOP-led Senate committee had opened an investigation into the hard drive. Tech platforms took another route: by 11:10 a.m., Facebook had startedreducing” the story’s distribution on its platform, pending a review by “third-party fact-checking partners.” (Mark Zuckerberg later admitted that a warning from the FBI influenced the company’s decision.) At 2:20 p.m., the Post was locked out of its Twitter account; the platform claimed the story violated its “distribution of hacked material” policy, though no apparent hacking had taken place. Readers who clicked the link were alerted that it was potentially “unsafe”; soon, they were blocked from sharing it at all. The Post wasn’t allowed back on Twitter for more than two weeks. 

In the meantime, rival outlets swarmed the story. Some uncovered details that did seem suspicious. Several different reporters, for example, used photo metadata to identify the repairman as Isaac — who, once tracked down, was cagey about his relationship with Giuliani. (“Ah shit,” he said when pressed on their ties. “No comment.”) Then, it came out that the primary Post writer had allegedly refused to use his byline due to “concerns over the article’s credibility.” Most mainstream coverage, rather than reporting out this potentially explosive story, chose instead to interrogate the Post’s sourcing. NPR claimed the story had more “red flags than investigative rigor”; the A.P. called it “dubious”; Insider said it was “riddled with holes and red flags”; PolitiFact assessed that it “offers very little fire”; Vox hypothesized it stemmed from “an orchestrated campaign.” The Washington Post ran a fact-check — one of its most-read of all time — which asked the question: “How do we know the email is authentic?” They answered: “We do not.” 

Even the United States Intelligence Community, a group disinclined to public comment, got involved. Some 60 former officials signed a joint “Public Statement on the Hunter Biden Emails,” alleging the leaks had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” The officials had no evidence for their theory, and they said as much: “We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails… are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement.” But that detail was overlooked in the press — a Politico headline read: “Hunter Biden story is Russian disinfo, dozens of former intel officials say” — and the Democrats ran with the story anyway. Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted the emails were “very likely Russian propaganda.” Rep. Adam Schiff said it with more certainty, telling CNN, “We know that this whole smear on Joe Biden comes straight from the Kremlin.” 

There are, of course, ample reasons to be wary of Hunter Biden scoops. It often seems that the Democratic Party enjoys nothing more than a circular firing squad, and the mainstream media, on its perpetual quest for equivalency, is frequently loading the guns. But was this “disinformation”? It would take two years to settle the question. In a word: no. One feature of disinformation is that it is false. Intelligence veteran James Clapper, who signed the I.C. letter, still won’t admit the mistake. (“What are you trying to get me to say, that I screwed up and I shouldn’t have signed the letter?” he asked New York last month. “I’m not going to say that.”) By the spring of 2022, however, many of the same outlets that disputed the New York Post’s story came out with pieces of their own, corroborating the messages it cited. To quote The Washington Post: “Thousands of emails purportedly from the laptop computer of Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son, are authentic communications.” 

The campaign to discredit the laptop story was so effective that its suppression has become a bogeyman almost as big as Hunter himself. On the right, it seemed to confirm the widespread paranoia — one held in obvious bad faith, if not entirely unfounded — about corruption within the highest echelons of the liberal elite, and the willingness of corporate media, Big Tech, and the “deep state” to conspire in covering it up. This was the key complaint of Roger Stone, the convicted political strategist who knows a thing or two about manipulating media, when contacted for comment. “The reason why the public doesn’t know as much about Hunter Biden’s activities as they should,” Stone said, “is because of the aggressive censorship of that information on the internet and in the media.” To the extent that My Son Hunter has any narrative heft, it stems not from its didactic and inanely plotted recap of the laptop’s alleged contents but from positioning itself as a disruption to the perceived political blackout.

The Journey Home

 

The trouble with any thorough accounting of the Hunter problem is the sheer volume of drama in his personal and professional lives. The former, of course, has been defined by misfortune. In 1972, two weeks before Joe Biden was sworn into the Senate, Hunter was in the family car when it collided with a truck, killing his mother and sister, leaving his brother Beau with multiple broken bones, and giving Hunter a severe head injury that doctors “feared might be permanent.” He was just two years old at the time; his only memory was waking up in a hospital room to Beau mouthing, “I love you.” Forty-two years later, Hunter would watch that same brother die of stage four brain cancer. 

Grief is the lens through which many of Hunter’s more salacious escapades come into focus, though not necessarily all — it cannot be overstated just how much material there is. In the interest of both time and print space, here is a partial rundown: He got busted for cocaine possession weeks after graduating from high school. A pretrial intervention landed him with six months of probation and a clean record. A year after college, his girlfriend became pregnant, so they married four months later. By 2000, Hunter was “a functional alcoholic”; by 2003, he had entered his first rehab — Crossroads, an Antiguan center founded by Eric Clapton. He returned there in 2010 after a relapse. In 2013, he was admitted as a Navy Reserve ensign, but he was discharged just a year later after testing positive for cocaine. He went to a rehab in Tijuana to undergo treatment with ibogaine, a psychedelic dissociative derived from dogbane plants, which is not legal in the U.S. In 2015, Beau died, Hunter’s marriage began to fall apart, and one of his emails appeared in a hack of Ashley Madison, the dating site focused on extramarital affairs. Hunter “drowned himself in alcohol” on a bender that ended only when then-Vice President Biden showed up at his door, prompting a trip to rehab in Big Sur. During Memorial Day weekend in 2016, after a Burisma meeting in Monte Carlo, he relapsed again, got into a fight with his drug counselors over a drug test, and befriended an unhoused D.C.-area woman named Bicycles with whom he smoked crack. Bicycles moved in with him for five months. In late 2016, he set out on, in his words, “a crack-fueled cross-country odyssey” to a retreat center in Sedona, during which he crashed one rental car after falling asleep at the wheel, returned a second filled with drug paraphernalia, and only made it to Sedona after a quasi-hallucinatory pursuit of a giant barn owl he half-believed to be either “a guardian angel” or a “figment of my addled imagination.” His brother’s widow, Hallie Biden, picked him up from the retreat. In February of 2017, Hunter’s soon-to-be ex-wife filed a court order to freeze his assets. The next week, news broke that he was dating Hallie. It was the affair, of all things, that cost Hunter nearly all of his clients and various board positions. After it quietly ended in early 2018, Hunter fled to L.A., holed up at the Chateau Marmont, and relapsed on crack for five months; checked into another rehab in Brentwood; lived with a “sober coach” before relapsing again; tried ketamine therapy in Massachusetts; relapsed again; stormed out of a family intervention in Wilmington; then returned to California. 

It was around this time that Rudy Giuliani started attacking Hunter on T.V. and a New Yorker writer reached out asking to profile him. Hunter agreed without telling his dad. In April 2019, after Joe Biden officially launched his presidential campaign, Hunter supposedly pitched a reality T.V. show about his charity work. A week later, news finally broke that Hunter and Hallie had called it quits. Two weeks after that, he married a South African filmmaker at a venue called “Instant Marriage L.A.” In May, Hunter was sued by a stripper from a D.C. club he frequented. She claimed he’d fathered her child, but he denied it. Then he took a paternity test, which was positive, and he agreed to pay child support. The New Yorker profile came out that July. During the presidential debates that fall, Trump name-checked Hunter’s Ukraine ties repeatedly. In February 2020, The New York Times reported that Hunter had started painting “colorful works of decorative abstraction” — mostly galactic blots made by blowing ink through a metal straw. He and his new wife had their first child in March. In July, he got hit with a $450,000 tax bill for unpaid state income taxes. He settled the lien in a matter of days, then delivered a speech at the DNC the following month. That October, the laptop leak dropped, and the Post reported that Hunter had been under federal investigation since 2019 over tax and money laundering allegations. His father won the election. In December, Politico reported that multiple federal agencies were investigating Hunter’s business interests. In 2021, he published his addiction memoir, Beautiful Things, went on a (relatively muted) press tour, and was a guest speaker for a Tulane course on “media polarization,” all while the Post continued to report on his hard drive day in and day out. In October, he opened a New York exhibit of 25 paintings called The Journey Home. By the end of 2021, Hunter had fully paid off his tax liabilities, but he remained under federal investigation. As we rolled into this midterm year, he had settled into lofty heights of obsessive conservative hatred previously known only to the likes of Hillary Clinton

Hunter, Inc.

 

The prurient aspects of Hunter’s alleged misconduct help explain both why mainstream reporters are wary of touching him and why he has so much staying power in the right-wing imagination. This dichotomy was exemplified by a mini-scandal in mid-July, when a 4chan poster claimed to have accessed Hunter’s iCloud backup and recovered “voice mails, videos, voice recordings, pictures etc of Joe,” as well as supposed evidence that Hunter had listed his father’s contact as “Pedo Pete.” The “iPhone from Hell” story dominated the conservative blogosphere for weeks. Tucker Carlson made it nightly talk-show fodder. (“It’s pretty obvious that the materials that we’ve looked at are real,” he said, without proof of verification.) The tabloids focused on the footage of Hunter jerking off in a sensory deprivation tank (allegedly). But The New York Times and The Washington Post ignored it entirely. Snopes advised that readers “take individual rumors and memes… with a grain of salt,” though Vice revealed that some of the unverified photos had, at the very least, not appeared anywhere else online.

But it’s the drier episodes in Hunter’s life that serve as real kindling for critical flames. Hunter has always been comfortable accepting positions conspicuously close to his father’s purview, and the appearance of impropriety — sometimes considered a conflict on its own — has dogged his entire career. Consider his first job out of law school: an executive-track role at MBNA, a holding company that’s now part of Bank of America. At the time, MBNA was among the largest employers in Delaware and a major donor to Joe Biden’s Senate campaigns. Hunter stayed there for five years — moonlighting for the latter three as a policy director in Bill Clinton’s Department of Commerce — but continued accepting consulting fees from MBNA into the early 2000s. During that period, Joe Biden backed a controversial bankruptcy bill boosted by the credit card industry, including MBNA. 

The apparent conflicts only accumulated from there: in 2001, Hunter helped found a lobbying firm called Oldaker, Biden & Belair. Hunter repped an online gambling group while Congress was considering a gambling legislative question and took on Napster as a client while one of his father’s Senate committees dug into online piracy. It would be hard, of course, to find an industry that Congress doesn’t engage in some oblique way. But the arrangement looked bad enough that Hunter stepped down from his post when Joe joined the Obama ticket. He left fingerprints even on the utterly wholesome-seeming “Amtrak Joe” phenomenon: appointed by President George W. Bush, Hunter served on Amtrak’s board from 2006 until after the 2008 election. But Hunter didn’t drop all of his jobs in the Obama years — most notably, he did not resign from Paradigm Global Advisors, the hedge fund he had purchased two years earlier with his uncle, James Biden. 

Hunter’s stint with Paradigm, which started in 2006 and ended with the company’s voluntary liquidation in 2010, was bizarre at almost every turn. The company was founded in 1989 by the son-in-law of Sun Myung Moon, the billionaire and self-described “Second Coming of Christ” behind the Unification movement, the New Age cult whose followers are known as the Moonies. One of Moon’s daughters married Paradigm founder James Park, whose father was an intelligence agent and Moon’s “deputy.” Park had once been a moderately successful hedge funder, but by 2006, he had taken some alleged personal hits — namely, a cocaine addiction plus an affair involving his wife and a Moonies keyboard player, during which the latter moved into their home. Park was ready to sell, and Hunter was ready to buy.

The sale involved an array of shady or indicted characters, and was clouded by allegations that James and Hunter planned to sell access to Joe. The pair had recruited a third partner, New York financial advisor Anthony Lotito, whom James had met through a union head once named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a 2001 pension scheme then described as “the largest securities fraud bust in U.S. history.” (Lotito later claimed in a lawsuit that the whole hedge fund idea had stemmed specifically from a call with Joe Biden, desperate to get Hunter out of lobbying; Hunter and James denied that.) Together the three set out to secure funding for the deal, at least $2 million of which would come from known Joe Biden associates. Things quickly soured: first, the partners learned that Paradigm, which had claimed to manage more than $1.5 billion in assets, in fact held less than $300 million. Then, the lawyer Lotito hired to broker the deal was convicted on twelve counts of fraud. The Bidens settled on buying a majority stake in the firm, ousting Lotito in the process. He sued them; they counter-sued; the ex-president of Paradigm, whom the Bidens had summarily fired, sued all three of them, alleging an “elaborate scheme” to kick him out. (The latter case was dismissed. The former were both dropped in 2008.) In late 2006, the Bidens restructured the company. Hunter was named interim CEO, taking a salary of $1.2 million.  

If there is a case to be made that Hunter abused his proximity to the White House, it might draw some of its strongest evidence from his time at Paradigm — when Hunter was, by his own account, fully sober, and his father was arguably the second most powerful politician in the country. Notably, he never mentions this episode in his own memoir. There have been some allegations of impropriety, which Politico reported in depth in 2019, though most relate to James Biden. A former Paradigm executive, for example, claimed that James clearly “viewed the fund as a way to take money from rich foreigners who could not legally give money to his older brother or his campaign account.” In one meeting, James supposedly told that executive, “Don’t worry about investors.… We’ve got people all around the world who want to invest in Joe Biden.” Hunter and James denied the meeting occurred, but it seemed they at least planned to solicit funds from Joe Biden’s sympathizers. Three ex-executives told Politico the Bidens wanted to “capitalize on Joe’s strong ties to labor unions in the hopes of landing investments from them.” Documents filed during Lotito’s lawsuit seemed to confirm this story. An early contract claimed the trio had “specific expertise in identifying funds held by state and municipal labor unions,” and would employ their “expertise and relationships” to recruit investors. (A spokesperson for Hunter and James told Politico they ultimately did not target unions.) The ex-executives also alleged that on multiple occasions, both James and Hunter withdrew money for their own use. Their spokesperson denied that too, though a 2008 audit of the company, filed with the SEC, did find some gaps in its accounting.

Then the 2008 recession hit, the financial system started to collapse, and Paradigm found itself with three too many ties to alleged fraud schemes. Two were somewhat incidental — their office building was accused of being “a front for the Iranian government” and subject to civil forfeiture as “property involved in money laundering,” and one of the office subletters who shared their phone number went to prison for fraud —  but the third put Paradigm in the news. In an impressive stroke of bad timing, the company had registered a fund in partnership with Stanford Financial Group, the firm run by mega-financier Allen Stanford, in September of 2007. Just five months later, Stanford was charged in what the SEC called a “massive Ponzi scheme” for misappropriating some $1.6 billion. He was eventually sentenced to 110 years in prison. James and Hunter liquidated the hedge fund in 2010, around the moment when, according to Hunter, he relapsed for the first time in seven years. 

Hunter would go on to hold some dozen other gigs, both benign and — depending how you view the machinations of global finance — somewhat suspect, most at places sporting the kind of banal-sounding, jargon-salad names typically assumed by obscure money management firms. In 2008, he founded a consulting outfit called Seneca Global Advisors. In 2009, he teamed up with Christopher Heinz (an heir to the ketchup empire who is also John Kerry’s stepson) and Devon Archer (a former Abercrombie & Fitch model who has since been indicted for defrauding an Oglala Sioux tribal corporation) to start an investment firm called Rosemont Seneca Partners. Later, Hunter and Archer joined forces with what remained of “junk bond king” Michael Milken’s old investment bank to revive the firm as several similarly named entities, at least one of which would end up implicated in the fraudulent bond scheme that sent Archer to prison. From 2012 to 2014, Hunter managed the venture capital group Eudora Global. In that time, he served as counsel with the New York law firm Boies Schiller Flexner and took several board positions — at the World Food Program USA, then at BHR Partners, the China-based private equity firm he helped launch, and, in 2014, at a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma Holdings Limited. 

Ukrainegate

 

It is in Ukraine that Hunter the businessman finally goes, to borrow a phrase he uses multiple times in his memoir, “off to the races.” The dizzying paradox of the Hunter-Ukraine narrative, at least for the less partisan onlookers, is the feeling that the story has been simultaneously obscured and covered to the point of exhaustion. In some ways, both are true — there has been abundant coverage of Hunter’s relationship with Burisma. But the question of whether it involved anything untoward remains disputed, not least because of several informational gaps in public understanding of Burisma’s corporate operations and what, precisely, Hunter did for them. 

We do know that the Kyiv-based natural gas company was founded in 2002 and fell under the control of Mykola Zlochevsky, an oligarch whom Hunter describes in Beautiful Things as having “a shaved head, booming laugh, and essentially no neck.” Burisma’s growth spurts often coincided with Zlochevsky’s political appointments. At one point, he oversaw all of the country’s energy companies, including the one he owned. This conflict of interest might have riled critics had the public known who owned Burisma, but most Ukrainians did not — Zlochevsky had shielded his stake by registering Burisma through a shell company in Cyprus. 

Zlochevsky was almost certainly self-dealing, but he had nothing on his boss, Viktor Yanukovych, one of the least trusted and most corrupt presidents in Ukrainian history. Yanukovych was ousted in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, fled, and was eventually sentenced, in absentia, to thirteen years in jail for high treason. The new government claimed that Yanukovych had bankrupted Ukraine. Under his watch, tens of billions in state assets had been transferred into private foreign accounts. A month later, Zlochevsky was implicated in the plunder, when a U.K. fraud office froze some of his bank accounts holding $23 million on suspicion of money laundering. 

The timeline of Hunter’s hiring is noteworthy: Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014; Zlochevsky’s assets were frozen in late April; Hunter joined Burisma’s board on May 12. But the younger Biden didn’t see the role as image rehab. As he recounts in Beautiful Things: “Zlochevsky wanted to lure more U.S. and European investors, both as a way to grow his business and as a show of solidarity with the West,” which he wanted on his side as “a bulwark against Russia’s aggression.” The oligarch sought a board of “non-Ukrainians with name recognition and global contacts” — a list that wound up including the former president of Poland, an erstwhile CIA director under George W. Bush, Zlochevsky’s own daughter, and, of course, Hunter Biden. Hunter would also be making a lot of money: up to $50,000 per month. 

The board position was immediately controversial. Hunter had accepted it alongside Archer, and promptly Heinz began distancing himself from his two cofounders’ appointments, eventually cutting business ties altogether. At this time, Joe Biden had just become the public face of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in Ukraine, personally leading a campaign to rid the country of Yanukovych-era corruption. And now here was his son, taking a position from an apparent Yanukovych crony. At least two officials raised concerns about the potential conflict to the vice president’s staff. One of them, senior State Department official George Kent, told a Senate committee in 2020: “For me, it’s preparing everybody for ‘what about-ism’… and we have to be prepared for people who are critics, who are opponents, to say ‘What about Hunter Biden?’” 

In the characteristic trajectory of any Hunter news story, the right-wing delirium that dominated the 2020 election cycle quickly escalated some legitimate concerns into the realm of conspiracy. They folded in the elder Biden’s role in helping replace Ukraine’s controversial prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was appointed in 2015 but had a reputation for crushing dissent and an unwillingness to prosecute old regime hands. Within a year, there was widespread support for Shokin’s firing, both domestically and internationally, from the E.U., the IMF, and Joe Biden himself, who threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Shokin remained in power. By March of 2016, Shokin was gone.

The theory coming from the Trump campaign was that Joe Biden had abused his position to stop Shokin from investigating Burisma and, by extension, his own son. The evidence for this is slim. It’s true that the prosecutor general’s office (PGO) had been involved in a Burisma-related probe: the U.K. had requested its cooperation while investigating Zlochevsky’s frozen bank accounts. But that case had collapsed before Shokin took office. What’s more, it wasn’t external pressure that stagnated the prosecution; it was the PGO’s internal reticence to cooperate with the U.K. court. After a year of waiting for the Ukrainians to provide evidence against Zlochevsky, a British judge dismissed the charges and returned his money. 

The bulk of known facts about the firing suggests, in fact, that Shokin’s office had stonewalled the Burisma case, along with nearly every other corporate probe. Notably, none of Shokin’s successors would investigate Burisma either — likely not because of Hunter, but because it is run by an influential oligarch. (Kent alleged that Zlochevsky had bribed the PGO as much as $7 million to blow off the U.K.’s case against him, but this was never confirmed). Neither a Ukrainian police investigation into Shokin’s ousting nor a GOP-led Senate inquiry into Hunter Biden found hard evidence of wrongdoing by Joe Biden. Per the Senate committee: “The extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected U.S. policy toward Ukraine is not clear.”

Kent referred to Hunter’s board position as “very awkward,” a phrase the committee latched onto, repeating it eight times. As with the laptop saga, the Hunter media machine got to work. The right’s specific claims about Ukraine were likely incorrect, which allowed centrist media to run various “debunkers,” rather than more deeply considering what Hunter was actually up to on a Ukrainian gas company’s board. 

An Awkward Age

 

Most of Hunter’s foreign dealings in the years during and after his father’s vice presidency were, indeed, awkward. It was awkward, for example, that a subsidiary of Hunter’s old investment firm received a “consulting agreement” payment for $3.5 million in 2014 from Elena Baturina — the billionaire wife of the former Moscow mayor who had been fired four years earlier for granting contracts, generating “multi billion-ruble profits,” to her plastics and construction companies. It was also awkward when, a year later, Baturina sent nine more wire transfers to the firm, totaling nearly $250,000, which was promptly transferred to a shell entity. A Washington Post report clarified that Hunter did not receive income from any of these transactions. (One might also ask why the public kept having to look these things up.)

It was awkward that BHR Partners, the private equity fund Hunter and Archer helped launch with a Chinese asset management group in 2013, spent years investing Chinese capital in foreign, often American, companies of significant geopolitical importance. It was awkward that, on a trip to Beijing, Hunter arranged for his BHR business partner to shake hands with his father in a hotel lobby. (They claimed it was just a “social meeting.”) Hunter’s lawyer announced in late 2019 that he planned to divest from the company before his father took office, but he still hadn’t as of February 2021. So it was again awkward this year, when Hunter’s father, now the president, sold emergency U.S. oil reserves after Russia’s Ukraine invasion to a subsidiary of a Chinese company, Sinopec, in which BHR had a stake, and in which Chinese corporate records still listed Hunter as an investor.

The wells of Hunter-adjacent awkwardness run so deep that this piece hasn’t even broached the probes of three official bodies — the FBI, as well as attorney generals’ offices in Delaware and New York — into his taxes, his foreign business ties, and his possible links to an Eastern European sex-trafficking ring. It hasn’t delved into his legal work defending a Romanian real estate mogul on bribery charges; or his attempts at soliciting investments from a Kazakh oligarch tied to the country’s former president, whose alleged corruption was so brazen he once tried to legalize money laundering; or his failed deals with a state-backed Chinese energy conglomerate called CEFC, which sent him and his uncle $3.8 million in consulting fees, gifted him a 2.8-carat diamond, and paid him a $1 million legal retainer to represent an associate, one who has since been sentenced to three years in federal prison over, per The Washington Post, “a multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe leaders from Chad and Uganda.”

It was in setting up the latter venture in 2017 that one of Hunter’s associates sent a notorious email, reported by the Post and corroborated in Ben Schreckinger’s 2021 book, The Bidens, sketching out an equity split. The message allotted financial stakes to Hunter, James Biden, and three other partners before asking, “10 held by H for the big guy?” The implication was that Hunter would hold a ten percent stake on his father’s behalf, lending a shade of credibility to conservatives’ unproven claim — as Carano spells out in My Son Hunter: “Joe? He’s in on it.”

These incidents clearly add up to something, but it’s unclear precisely what. Sifting through Hunter’s opaque professional history yields many suspicious pieces, yet no obvious nefarious frame. That’s one reason My Son Hunter fails so spectacularly on the level of plot: even with an entire laptop at its disposal, the movie struggles to explain its central scandal. The script tries to simplify things by staging Joe as the mastermind and Hunter as his willing accomplice. (This is an obvious conflict with conservative depictions of the president as a bumbling dementia patient and his son as a crack-addled lothario.) But here’s how one character tries to pithily summarize the film’s grand thesis about the Bidens’ wrongdoing: “Hunter has been using his father’s name to make deals with foreign government-connected businesses. Joe gets a percentage cut of the deals, and he influences foreign policy decisions in favor of those companies and governments.” Needless to say, it lacks the simplicity of “steel beams.” 

The story is hard to tell because there’s still so much we don’t know. But while loose ends make for mediocre cinema, they are the beginnings of bombshell reporting. If Joe Biden had knowingly accepted a stake in one of Hunter’s business ventures, that would be worth investigating. None of the Bidens have offered a full explanation of what transpired, and few outlets have delved beyond their routine refusals to comment. Most coverage of the “big guy” email has been in the conservative media. Mainstream outlets, aside from Schreckinger’s book, tend to skirt over it. The liberal caution concerning Hunter is at least somewhat a product of circumstance — the delays in confirming the laptop story stemmed partly from the Post’s refusal to share its source material —  but it’s also one of editorial discretion. The New York Times, for instance, confirmed the veracity of the laptop data earlier this year in a piece headlined “Hunter Biden Paid Tax Bill, but Broad Federal Investigation Continues.” The revelation is buried 23 paragraphs in. 

Vice-Induced

 

For all of Hunter’s glaring financial failings, he is not precisely a sleaze pioneer — even in his own family. (Joe’s brothers Frank and James had conflict of interest issues decades earlier.) As long as America has had politicians, it has seen their relatives attempt to profit. It’s a tradition going back to George Washington’s nephew, the playboy Bushrod, and brother, the indebted Charles. Ulysses S. Grant’s problem brother Orvil took kickbacks and used his association to steal money from a widow. In recent decades, we’ve had the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons, and of course, the Trumps — no one need look far to find the black sheep accused of impropriety, or the critics willing to weaponize their misconduct for political advantage.

What is novel, though, is the instant availability of information about political relatives, the hyperpartisan environment into which that information is absorbed, and the phenomenon — brought on by the collapse of print media, the rise of low-budget blogs, and the decline in institutional trust — of so-called disinformation. There is indeed some disinformation about Hunter Biden: the Shokin scandal, or the dossier on Hunter’s China connections put out by an “intelligence firm” that did not exist. There is also a lot of accurate information about him. (“This is not a true story, except for all the facts.”) To date, right-wingers have sabotaged their own anti-Biden plots by failing to distinguish clearly between the two. “Because Trump was so untrustworthy and Giuliani so sloppy,” Schreckinger writes, “their efforts created the impression that there was nothing to the Hunter Biden fuss beyond a smear campaign.” The Democrats benefited from that sloppiness. But it serves no one to deploy the term “disinformation” when it does not apply; it’s a form of the deception the term itself describes.  

The real question for any investigation conducted in good faith is not whether Hunter leveraged his last name into lucrative foreign deals, associated with shady, sometimes indicted executives, or prompted apparent conflicts of interest. A preponderance of evidence suggests each of those things is true. The question is whether Joe Biden abused his power to shield his son from repercussions. And for all the Post’s “smoking guns,” it’s not clear that any revelations about Hunter’s business seriously implicate his father. 

Even Peter Schweizer, the conservative pundit credited with disseminating the Ukraine conspiracy, admitted as much in The New York Times. In 2019, he wrote an op-ed titled “What Hunter Biden Did Was Legal — And That’s The Problem,” in which he made a fairly mild claim: that a loophole allowing foreign positions for political family members creates the “opportunity to effectively ‘offshore’ corruption and cronyism.” He called for Congress to pass a law barring such hiring practices or, at minimum, mandating greater transparency in foreign deals. In response, the Biden campaign sent a two-page letter to top Times editor Dean Baquet blasting the paper for lending credibility to a “smear campaign” and “conspiracy” previously relegated to the “likes of Breitbart” and “Russian propaganda.” The Biden campaign, and Democrats more broadly, couldn’t accept the argument, because the specters of broader, all-encompassing conspiracies — the right’s bogeyman of Ukrainian corruption, and the liberals’ of Russian disinformation — have blinded both sides from seeing the blunter facts of the situation. 

If the Democrats looked, they might see they don’t only stand to lose by engaging with the story. The obstinance to investigating Hunter has already bred a kind of backlash among those less interested in partisan feuds. There are no approval ratings for the degenerate First Son, but a considerable portion of the online world seems to view him with a sort of amused ambivalence, as a tragicomic hero whose uncountable scandals mostly serve as meme fodder. These trollier fans can be found on both 4chan (“He’s a terminator robot under the synthetic flesh,” one user wrote. “[You] cannot kill him or even hurt him, but you can make fun of him online”) and TikTok. As NBC News reporter Kat Tenbarge tweeted in July, “The Hunter Biden laptop leaks simply created a huge Hunter Biden stan community of teens and posters who think he’s a relatable king.”

What can often go overlooked is that throughout most of Hunter’s scandals, he was openly suffering and rarely sober. That particular sadness is one to which millions of Americans, brought to their knees by the opioid epidemic, can relate. It’s also one through which the elder Biden’s trademark sympathy comes into starkest relief. Among the leaked laptop texts, for example, was Hunter’s now-famous exchange with his father — Hunter calling himself “a fucked up addict that can’t be trusted,” the then-candidate writing, “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad.” This was the Joe Biden the Post called “raw and intimate”; the Joe Biden about whom Sen. Lindsey Graham once asked, “I mean, how mad can you get at Joe Biden?”; the Joe Biden who digested personal tragedy into professional tenderness. Joe Biden has begun to embrace this approach publicly. In a September interview about the GOP plan to target Hunter, he said: “I love my son, number one. He fought an addiction problem, he overcame it, he wrote about it. There’s not a single thing that I’ve observed at all that would affect me or the United States relative to my son Hunter.” If the Democrats want to win in the court of public opinion, they could try a similar tack — one that is both more honest and more endearing than offshoring blame to Putin. 

It is difficult to say what will happen if the House takes a Hunter hearing to primetime, other than another step towards an increasingly televised democracy. The spectacle could play out like the January 6 hearings — well-produced and highly rated. It could likewise resemble Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against Amber Heard, another saga in which right-wing media seemed to have an outsize stake. Depp managed to win in both the actual court and the court of public opinion, not so much due to the strength of his case as to shored-up goodwill from years of beloved roles and sheer charisma. Hunter has his own appeal, if one derived primarily from his ability to laugh at himself. Consider his interview with CBS correspondent Tracy Smith, where he described hunting on “hands and knees picking through rugs” for any crumbs resembling crack. “I probably smoked more parmesan cheese than anyone,” he told Smith, laughing, “anyone that you know, I’m sure.” Recently, Hunter said he plans to paint one of his own leaked selfies on stained glass. That’s the kind of self-effacing charm the Democrats can’t buy. 

Hunter is also, both for terminal posters and the normies in their periphery, a figure whose sheer messiness cuts against the credentialism of the liberal political establishment. To the younger generation — reactionary and progressive alike — the Democrats look like a party filled with many Pete Buttigieges but few John Fettermans, a party of wonks and Hillary Clintons, of the Harvard Westlake-to-Harvard-to-Wells Fargo pipeline, a party so pious and P.R.-trained they seem to move as little as Gavin Newsom’s hair. The Republicans are, of course, many of those things and more, but they are better at hiding it. And in a sense, Hunter is too. His resume is a roundup of private schools and corporate consulting gigs; he is also an unambiguous catastrophe who can’t help but broadcast, in an almost Trump-like manner, the gnarly particulars of his personal foibles. Hunter’s vice-induced chaos, in any of its forms — corporate grift, substance abuse, boning his late brother’s wife — sends technocrats into spontaneous combustion. That is part of his appeal, at least for those reclaiming him with a degree of ironic distance. He is radioactive. He is taboo. He is, as the admin of a fanpage told Tenbarge, “an elephant in the room.”

Tarpley Hitt is a writer at Gawker and an editor at The Drift.

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