Who is Hunter Biden?

Who is Hunter Biden?
Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

For a time, it appeared as though Hunter Biden could be one of the central political figures of the 2020 election. If it had been up to President Donald Trump, there undoubtedly would have been far more media attention on the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Instead, election-year coverage has been almost entirely focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest in major American cities.

The president’s largely unsuccessful efforts to turn Hunter’s international business dealings into a political liability for his father led to the president’s impeachment in late 2019. Even as most media outlets have moved on, though, many of Trump’s allies and supporters have continued to insist the Biden family has engaged in illegal, potentially disqualifying acts of corruption.

Certainly, there are those who still believe Hunter was involved in corrupt dealings in China or Ukraine. Some anticipate new revelations from The New York Post could constitute an “October surprise” this election, though there’s little indication the former vice president has so far faced any lasting political backlash from the alleged scandals.

More likely, if his father does win the presidential election, Hunter will continue to receive intense scrutiny, especially from conservative politicians and journalists.

The early years of Hunter Biden

Robert Hunter Biden was born in February 1970 in Wilmington, Delaware. The year he was born, his father won his first political election, as a member of the New Castle County Council. Hunter was the second son of Joe and Neilia Biden (neé Hunter), after Beau Biden. Less than a year later, Beau and Hunter were joined by a sister, Naomi.

In November 1972, their father was elected to the United States Senate for the state of Delaware. A month later, tragedy struck the Biden family when the three children and their mother were involved in a car accident. Both Neilia and Naomi were killed, while the boys were severely injured, but survived.

Five years later, Joe Biden married his current wife, Jill Biden (neé Jacobs).

Hunter would go on to study history at Georgetown University in 1988. That was a year after his father launched his first unsuccessful campaign for president (Joe would run again in 2008 before dropping out and becoming President Barack Obama’s VP).

In 1996, Hunter completed a law degree at Yale Law School. He took a job with the Delaware-based bank, MBNA America, which had been a donor to his father’s political campaigns. Though he rose quickly at the bank and earned a substantial salary, Hunter abandoned the job a few years later to become an Internet policy director for William Daley, the US Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton.

In 2001, Hunter co-founded Oldaker, Biden & Belair, a Washington lobbying firm that lobbied on behalf of such companies as Napster. Five years later, then-President George W. Bush appointed Hunter to the board of Amtrak, the intercontinental railway company that is subsidized by the government. When his father became vice president in 2009, Hunter left Amtrak and ended his lobbying career.

In the summer after his graduation from Georgetown in 1992, Hunter met his first wife, Kathleen Buhle, with whom he had three children before their divorce in 2017. A court case and paternity test determined Hunter has another child with a woman from Arkansas. That child, whose name is not known to the public, was born in August 2018.

Hunter’s older brother, Beau, died in May 2015 due to brain cancer. Beau’s death has been given as the reason his father did not run for president in 2016. Two years later, Hunter began dating Beau’s widow, but they broke up in April 2019. A month later, Hunter met Melissa Cohen, a South African filmmaker. They married shortly afterward.

Influence peddling and nepotism

Though much of the current controversy around Hunter relates to business dealings he took on after his father became vice president, his work raised concerns even when his father was a senator. In fact, some critics have claimed Hunter’s often lucrative career was the result of political nepotism to at least some degree.

As reported in the July 2019 issue of The New Yorker, though Joe intentionally distanced himself from Hunter’s career to avoid the appearance of inappropriate influence, the family connection was unavoidable. Robert Weissman, the president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, told the magazine “Hunter’s foreign employers and partners were seeking to leverage Hunter’s relationship with Joe, either by seeking improper influence or to project access to him.”

Whether real or just assumed, the appearance that Hunter could use his connection to his father for personal advantage – and his business associates could do the same – only intensified once Joe was in the Obama administration. Much of Hunter’s business dealings over the last decade have been at the root of right-wing accusations of scandal.

Before joining Burisma, the oil company at the center of the Ukraine scandal that resulted in Trump’s impeachment, Hunter helped form a private equity firm, BHR Partners, with Chinese partners. Trump and his media allies have claimed Hunter personally pocketed more than a billion dollars through the firm. They have further alleged Joe was using his position in the Obama administration to enrich his family.

Fact-checkers have repeatedly knocked down both claims. While BHR Partners, which was created to invest Chinese capital, did receive substantial financing from the Chinese government, Hunter, who only had a partial stake in the firm, was not a beneficiary of that investment, nor was his father. Hunter has made a profit from BHR Partners, but only in the years after his father left office.

Hunter Biden and Burisma

The biggest Hunter Biden-related controversy (or, alternatively, the biggest “nothing burger”) of the 2020 campaign is related to the Ukraine oil company, Burisma Holdings, whose board Biden joined in 2014.

Though it is a complex story, the essentials can be broken down thusly: Hunter was on the board of Burisma when the Ukrainian government was looking into corruption at the company. According to one alleged version of events, Joe used his position to get Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s top prosecutor, fired, thereby shutting down the investigation.

No one disputes that the former vice president had a part in having Shokin removed. In fact, there is video of him stating he did just that in front of the Council on Foreign Relations back in January 2018.

What is disputed is the reason for Shokin’s removal. Biden has insisted Shokin was removed because he was a fraudulent prosecutor general who was not investigating corruption in Ukraine. This is supported by the European Union, which heralded Shokin’s ouster because he was alleged to be protecting allies and blocking investigations.

The Post’s smoking gun

Nonetheless, the alleged scandal around Burisma continues to get traction in right-wing spheres. On October 14, the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post claimed to have discovered a “smoking-gun email” from a laptop believed to belong to Hunter. The email allegedly proves Hunter helped put his father in contact with “Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma.”

An email from Pozharskyi, sent on April 17, 2015, states, “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together.” No further details on the meeting are provided, but this has been taken as evidence the vice president was collaborating with Burisma.

In May 2014, another email from Pozharskyi, who the Post describes as “Burisma’s No. 3 exec,” describes a “blackmail” attempt by government figures, including the general prosecutor (Shokin), against the company. Pozharskyi writes, “We urgently need your advice on how you could use your influence to convey a message / signal, etc. to stop what we consider to be politically motivated actions.”

The Post reports Hunter responded to the email, however, there is no indication Hunter made any reference to his father or any actions he could take.

Beyond those two emails, the recovered laptop includes video and photo evidence of Hunter doing illicit drugs. Hunter’s struggle with drug addiction has been widely reported and was at the root of a contentious interaction during the first debate between his father and Trump.

On October 15, the Post followed up their Burisma story with another story related to the emails, this one relating to Hunter’s business dealings in China in 2017 (after his father was no longer in office).

According to the Post, the emails appear to show Biden trying to “cash in big” with the Shanghai-based conglomerate CEFC China Energy Co. The former chairman of CEFC, Ye Jianming, was taken into custody by the Chinese government in 2018 and hasn’t been seen since. CEFC has since gone bankrupt.

Hunter’s personal lawyer, George Mesires, dismissed the Post’s stories, saying, “There is no need for comment on any so-called information provided by Rudy Giuliani. He has been pushing widely discredited conspiracy theories about the Biden family, openly relying on actors tied to Russian intelligence. His record of dishonesty in these matters speaks for itself.”

As the Post noted in the first Hunter email article, the laptop was originally obtained by Giuliani’s lawyers from a computer repair shop owner based in Delaware. (Giuliani is the personal lawyer of President Trump.) The owner says he does not know who dropped off the laptop in April 2019, but it was never picked up.

In 2019, Fox Business reported Biden was living in Los Angeles, California, not Delaware.

Defenders of the Bidens have reiterated that, despite efforts to make it a scandal, there is no underlying wrongdoing related to Burisma. They insist the expulsion of Shokin was due to his corruption, not any alleged corruption at the oil company. Furthermore, as a private citizen, Hunter is permitted to pursue business dealings in China.

Despite these refutations – and some questions around the Post’s story, including how the paper attained the laptop and why it is only now being released – Hunter’s presence in Eastern Europe continues to be a focus of conservative critics.

Recently, Trump has latched onto a new angle, focusing on an investment firm, Rosemont Seneca Thornton, that received a US$3.5 million payment from Elena Baturina, the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. Hunter is alleged to be a co-founder of the firm, though his lawyer has denied he has any financial ties to it and made no money from the deal.

Once again, fact-checkers have looked into the claim, which originated in a Republican Senate committee report. As of now, there remains uncertainty around what if any ties Hunter has to Rosemont Seneca Thornton. That firm is separate from Rosemont Seneca, which Hunter did co-found.

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