Why Hunter Biden Can’t Turn the Page

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When Hunter Biden walked into a squat concrete federal courthouse in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, he thought he had a deal with prosecutors that would help him turn the page on his troubled past. In exchange for paying back two years of delinquent and sloppy income taxes, going to an addiction counseling program, staying clean for two years, and not owning guns, he’d get lenient terms from the justice system for tax violations. Biden had already paid a $100,000 tax bill back in 2021, and he is no stranger to counseling, having been in and out of rehab more times than he cared to tally in his memoir about addiction. A gun he owned had already been taken from him by his romantic partner at the time, clearing that up for him albeit complicating matters when it went missing.

But when you’re a Biden, nothing is ever that easy. And when you’re Hunter Biden, it’s doubly complicated. Even that courthouse where Hunter Biden tried to take responsibility was named for the three-term Senate incumbent his father ousted back in 1972. In Delaware, being a Biden is everything. And having profited from the family name for much of his life, Hunter Biden is now finding it hard to escape it.

What was expected to be a routine proceeding stretched more than three hours. Federal Judge Maryellen Noreika seemed uneasy about the terms the parties had agreed to. The deal mentioned the potential gun crime—namely, that Hunter Biden lied on a form when he said he was not using drugs when he bought it—but didn’t charge him or explicitly condition the plea on it. 

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Noreika also poked enough to reveal a misunderstanding between the prosecutors and defense about whether this closed the door on future cases involving firearms, Hunter Biden’s business dealings, or his potential foreign lobbying. Biden’s lawyers thought so, but prosecutors didn’t share that view. Frustrated with the holes being poked in their deal, Biden’s lead lawyer sniped across the courtroom to his government counterpart: “Just rip it up.”

When Noreika asked prosecutor Leo Wise if he knew of any precedent for such an open-ended immunity in perpetuity, he was candid: “No, your honor.”

At one point, Hunter Biden sat alone at the defense table while his lawyers, the government, and the judge all talked about his fate without him in earshot. It was about as perfect a snapshot of life as Hunter Biden as you could imagine.

Ever since his mother and sister died in a car crash days before he turned three years old, Hunter Biden has been in the center of an ever-unfurling tragedy that is the Biden political mythology in Delaware. When Joe Biden defeated Cale Boggs in 1972, the Biden clan guaranteed its place in the state history books alongside the likes of the du Ponts. (The Bidens even bought a dilapidated du Pont estate they could ill-afford just to hammer home the point of a dynasty in the making.)

Fast forward to today. Hunter Biden is nominally a private citizen, a former bank exec, Commerce Department aide, Amtrak vice chairman, and hedge funder. He’s also the son of a 36-year Senate insider, an eight-year Vice President, and the incumbent Commander in Chief. Hunter Biden’s consulting services drew millions to his family’s bank account, stood to make him rich, and give him a measure of independence from his broader family that can be overwhelming with its unconditional love and endless scrutiny.

But Hunter Biden’s professional resume masks a darker CV. He was booted from the Navy for testing positive for cocaine in 2014. He is a recovering crack addict who has been painfully open about his struggles. At one point, his drug dealer moved into his Logan Circle condo so he had constant access to his supplier. He fathered, with a former assistant at his consulting firm, a child no one in his family has ever met. His divorce papers from his first wife allege tons of debt on drugs and prostitutes. He knew his current wife just six days before getting hitched.

Hunter Biden’s efforts to stand on his own drew scrutiny and derision alike for lucrative consulting fees with foreign companies, including a Ukrainian energy company that paid him more than $80,000 a month to serve on their board. Little wonder he’s looking to move on.

Republicans have come to see Hunter Biden as an easy proxy for their ongoing political pursuit of his father. Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine is what keeps House Republicans drooling about its drag on President Joe Biden’s re-election bid. An unverified claim that the Bidens pushed for a $10 million payout from a Ukrainian oligarch is catnip for conservatives. Nebulous, billion-dollar allegations about China hang out there, too, without evidence. Convinced that Joe Biden is also on the take from foreign governments, House Republicans are moving ahead—with mixed enthusiasm—potential impeachment proceedings against the President. House Republicans even went so far this week as to ask Noreika, the judge reviewing Hunter Biden’s plea agreement, to hold off until they could rustle up more evidence why he should face bigger charges.

It was merely the latest reminder that as much as Hunter Biden looked to move beyond his past, there was no chance of that. Especially not with the hyper scrutiny of a plea deal sending it crashing, both sides scrambling for hours to find some agreement on a revised effort, and an entire political party trying to sink it. Whistleblowers are alleging the Justice Department pumped the brakes on the investigation, slow-walked subpoenas, and blocked felony charges. House oversight chiefs are even going back through records to make his divorce even more acrimonious in hindsight. 

Complicating matters even further, Hunter Biden’s former business partner Devon Archer is set to meet behind closed doors with House investigators next week. The New York Post is reporting Archer will tell House lawmakers that the younger Biden put the elder one on speaker phone with their business associates at least two dozen times, lending their consultancy the prestige of the then-Vice President.

Five years of a federal probe later, Hunter Biden is ever-so-slightly closer to putting his legal woes behind him. Judge Noreika seemed to remain open to the deal with some more details fleshed out. “I’m not in a position to accept or reject it. I need to defer,” she said before sending the parties home to hash out more explicit terms.

But his political haunting is far from over. With 15 months before Election Day 2024, it’s smart betting that Republicans will keep lashing Hunter Biden at every chance they can summon. No matter how much Hunter Biden would prefer to put his past misdeeds behind him, he can never escape the shadow of his family.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com