In just over 48 hours this week, President Biden faced a double-barreled onslaught of political and personal setbacks, as his son’s business dealings and personal struggles created new turbulence at a time when his advisers wanted to focus attention on the problems of former president Donald Trump and House Republicans.
On Thursday, Biden’s son Hunter was indicted on charges of making false statements and illegally possessing a handgun, paving the way for a criminal trial that could unfold as Biden pursues reelection. That came two days after House Republicans opened a formal impeachment inquiry centered on whether the president benefited from his son’s business dealings, although they have produced little, if any, evidence to that effect.
Neither the inquiry nor the indictment was unexpected, but the back-to-back developments underscored the challenges Biden faces as he runs for a second term. He faces no serious competition for the Democratic nomination, but some Democrats are growing increasingly concerned about his vulnerabilities, including his age, as polls show a tight race between him and Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
The legal and political clouds hanging over Hunter Biden now add to those troubles. “It’s always a concern,” former senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.), a Biden ally, said of Hunter Biden’s indictment. “It’s weighing on him and the entire family. The fact of the matter is, this president has made a point of letting the Justice Department do its work and not interfere. The chips will fall where they are going to fall.”
Trump’s criminal trials stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and his alleged mishandling of classified documents have largely overshadowed Biden’s challenges to this point. But an impeachment inquiry and the indictment of an immediate family member, especially in such rapid succession, represent a striking pair of setbacks for a president, a reality that may become more evident with the formal launch of proceedings in the courtroom and the Capitol.
Jones said he thinks the court case will end up with a favorable resolution for Hunter Biden. In the meantime, he predicted, the president will stay focused on selling his record to voters.
“It’s significant and it’s historic,” the former senator said of Biden’s accomplishments. “That’s what he’s going to be running on. I don’t think the American people are going to give a damn if a son has been charged with a gun offense.”
Some Republicans see more of a problem for the president.
“Biden has had a very difficult time gaining any sort of momentum as he heads into his re-election bid,” said Jesse Hunt, a Republican strategist and the former communications director at the Republican Governors Association. “This is another troubling development for him when voters already questioned his competence. It gives them yet another reason to look at him in a negative light.”
Hunter Biden’s indictment follows the collapse of a deal in which he would have pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor tax violations while admitting to illegal possession of the gun but not pleading guilty to that felony offense.
The deal probably would have allowed him to avoid jail time. Instead, Hunter Biden could now stand trial in the middle of his father’s reelection campaign, and it remains possible he will face additional indictments on tax charges.
Hunter Biden’s legal team argues that the plea deal collapsed because of pressure from right-wing Republicans who complained that the president’s son was getting off easy.
“As expected, prosecutors filed charges today that they deemed were not warranted just six weeks ago following a five-year investigation into this case,” Abbe Lowell, Hunter Biden’s lawyer, said in a statement. “The evidence in this matter has not changed in the last six weeks, but the law has and so has MAGA Republicans’ improper and partisan interference in this process.”
In the House, it is not clear whether the inquiry will lead to an actual impeachment of Biden. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ordered the inquiry on his own authority when Republicans appeared to lack the votes in the full House to initiate the move.
Even so, such an inquiry is a rarity in American history. Three presidents have been impeached — Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Trump, who suffered the indignity twice. None of them was convicted by the Senate, which acts as the jury in such cases.
Similarly, presidential relatives have caused problems before, but rarely in this way. “Having a son or daughter who gets into trouble is nothing new,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “Billy Carter and Roger Clinton never really loomed large in the White House, whereas the Hunter Biden story is about trying to connect the link to dad.”
Billy Carter, President Jimmy Carter’s brother, faced a Senate investigation into alleged influence-peddling. Roger Clinton,Bill Clinton’s half brother, had drug problems and received a controversial pardon from his brother for a drug-related conviction.
Biden is known to worry deeply about his surviving son, who a few years ago was in the throes of a major drug addiction. Hunter Biden stayed at the White House for two weeks this summer, and most of the president’s aides avoid discussing his son’s troubles with the president, believing their contributions and ideas would not be welcome, even as they worry about the personal toll it is taking on him.
Senior aides to the president informed him of his son’s indictment shortly after it became public and less than an hour before he departed the White House on Thursday for an economics speech in Maryland, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Biden did not address the indictment on Thursday, and officials said there are no plans for the White House to do so, as they want to emphasize that the Justice Department’s case against Hunter Biden is independent.
But as a father, the president — whose other son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015 — is particularly sensitive to Hunter’s legal troubles. When Hunter Biden’s plea deal collapsed in July, the president was blindsided and frustrated, since he had believed his son’s legal troubles were largely behind him, according to people familiar with his reaction.
“The legal status of his son has got to be extremely painful for him, but he’s going to have to endure,” said former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who served with Biden in the Senate.
Both father and son have spoken about Hunter’s struggles with addiction, and the president has often related how proud he is of his son’s recovery.
Republicans have not presented any direct evidence indicating the president benefited from his son’s foreign business dealings, but many of the most conservative House Republicans had been pressuring McCarthy to formally open an impeachment inquiry. Some even said they would not support funding the government unless McCarthy acquiesced.
“They have no evidence, so they’re launching the next phase of their evidence-free goose chase simply to throw red meat to the right wing so they can continue baselessly attacking the president to play extreme politics,” Ian Sams, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
But as in any inquiry, there are risks for the president. Congress is likely to have expanded authority to dig into Biden’s finances and could spend more resources investigating the president and his family.
“Going through an impeachment hearing is never a badge of honor,” Brinkley said. “It’s not something the president coveted or wants to happen, but it’s part and parcel of our new civil war going on between Democrats and Republicans.”
He added: “The weaponization of impeachment has now come to full blossom. It was always the fear of double impeachment of Trump that this day would happened. You don’t really need evidence to get an impeachment inquiry going — you just need the political will to do it. It’s just another manifestation of toxicity in our politics.”