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President Joe Biden’s Hunter Biden dilemma grows

Anthony Zurcher,North America correspondent

Getty Images Joe and Hunter Biden seen together in April 2024Getty Images

As jury selection in Hunter Biden’s gun possession trial began on Monday, his father released a statement that illustrated the fine line he is trying to walk in the midst of his re-election campaign.

“I am the president, but I am also a dad,” said Joe Biden.

His statement goes on to express support for his son, who could face up to 25 years in prison for allegedly lying about his drug addiction when filling out background documents for a 2018 handgun purchase.

“As president, I don’t and won’t comment on pending federal cases,” he continues. “But as a dad, I have boundless love for my son, confidence in him and respect for his strength.”

Hunter Biden’s struggles with drug addiction are common knowledge at this point. He has discussed them publicly and written about them in his memoir – revelations that will soon act as evidence in his trial and fodder for public consumption.

Joe Biden has previously publicly addressed his son’s tumultuous personal life. In the first presidential debate with Donald Trump in 2020, he said he was “proud” of his only surviving son.

“My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” he said. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it.”

Four years ago, President Biden was responding to Trump’s attacks on the debate stage. Now, however, his statement could be an attempt to defuse what is shaping up to be a politically fraught moment, where his son’s troubled past – and, by extension, that of the entire Biden family – will be on full display.

Hunter Biden’s ex-wife, Kathleen Buhle, is expected to testify about her former husband’s drug habit. Hallie Biden, the widow of Hunter Biden’s brother Beau – with whom Hunter would later be romantically involved and who discarded the handgun in question in a Delaware trash can – is also on the prosecution’s list of witnesses.

“It’s definitely not a good look,” says Kate Andersen Brower, who has written several books on US presidents, their families and first ladies. She says presidents have had to deal with family turmoil in the past. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter faced sibling embarrassments, for instance.

For a president’s child to face a criminal trial is completely unprecedented, however, and it has left the elder Biden walking a tightrope.

He spent time with his son in Delaware this weekend, and he stayed in Wilmington – where the trial will take place – on Sunday night. During jury selection on Monday, the Biden family was well represented.

But the president had already returned to Washington by then. While he has noted his support for his son, he is also keeping his distance from the case itself.

Getty Images Jill Biden seen arriving in court flanked by security guards and policeGetty Images

But First Lady Jill Biden attended and sat behind Hunter. The two embraced during a morning break in court proceedings and again after the day concluded. She was joined by Hunter’s current wife, Melissa Cohen Biden – who held his hand as he walked out of court – and his half-sister, Ashley Biden, and her husband.

Jill Biden married the president after his first wife, Hunter Biden’s mother, died in a 1972 car accident in which Hunter and Beau were injured. The accident also took the life of their infant sister, Naomi.

The president regularly speaks about the closeness of his family – and has made this devotion part of his political identity.

He talks about how he would take the train home from Washington to Delaware each night as a US senator so he could say goodnight to his children. He wrote a book about dealing with grief following Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer in 2016 and has discussed the emotional trauma he experienced in the aftermath of his first wife’s passing.

Now, the more tawdry aspects of the Biden family story will be on public display, such as text messages between Hunter Biden and his family – including intimate communication with Beau’s widow.

There will also be photographs and other details of Hunter Biden’s crack cocaine use. Some of that was likely gleaned from laptop computer, whose existence and contents became a controversial part of the final days of the 2020 presidential election.

The Hunter Biden trial comes on the heels of one of the biggest stories of the 2024 presidential election so far – Trump’s conviction on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records. While the two cases are substantially different – charges against a candidate versus a candidate’s son – the rhythm of the two trials will unavoidably lead to comparisons.

Getty Images Hunter Biden looks at reporters outside the Delaware courthouse on MondayGetty Images

Hunter Biden looks at reporters outside the Delaware courthouse on Monday

At the very least, the attention focused on the Biden family drama, and Hunter Biden’s legal troubles, will shift the media focus from Trump. And the legal issues surrounding his son could make Mr Biden more reluctant to lean in to attacks on Trump’s criminal conviction.

It may also be a significant distraction for the president heading into the last campaign of his political career.

“It’s going to be very difficult on a personal level for Biden,” Brower says. “He has experience trying to wall off his personal life from his public life, but it’s his only living son. It’s got to be very taxing.”

There’s another way Hunter Biden’s legal drama differs from Trump’s. The former president’s three other criminal cases will probably not happen before November’s election.

Hunter Biden, however, is also under indictment on federal tax charges, with a trial scheduled for September.

That case, dealing with an alleged failure to pay at least $1.4m in taxes over four years, might be more politically damaging for the president, given that it involves financial crimes rather than ones connected to his drug addiction.

“Tax evasion is much harder to make excuses about,” says Bower.

If Hunter Biden is convicted in either federal trial, it is within his father’s presidential power to pardon him.

Such a move would have been politically toxic in the past, but Trump exercised his pardon authority for a slew of controversial figures who worked for him and seems to have paid little price for it.

While that is an action that Joe Biden the dad might find appealing – he has insisted his son is innocent – the White House has insisted it is not under consideration.

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