Dec 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden's Hunter trigger: President feels guilty, sad, angry when son attacked

President Biden, in a blue suit, blue shirt and blue- and red-striped tie, and wearing sunglasses.

President Biden departs the White House on Monday for a trip to Pennsylvania. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In private, no issue is more likely to anger or sadden President Biden than attacks on his son Hunter, according to people close to the president who have seen his moods shift when there's bad news about Hunter.

Why it matters: For Biden — who privately has expressed guilt over Hunter's ongoing legal and political fights — the next year will be emotionally fraught as Hunter faces new criminal charges and will be at the center of the Republican-led impeachment inquiry.

  • The 81-year-old president has suggested to close associates that if he hadn't run in 2020, Hunter wouldn't be facing criminal prosecutions or be the target of daily stories by conservative media — all while trying to stay sober and rebuild his life.

The ongoing criminal investigation into Hunter Biden has strained President Biden's relationship with his attorney general, Merrick Garland, who appointed a special counsel in August to oversee the federal investigation into Hunter after the prosecutor requested that status.

  • Only a few long-serving aides feel free to discuss Hunter's situation with the president, and only at certain moments — knowing that it can prompt both fury and dejection.

Driving the news: Hunter, 53, could face up to 17 years in prison if convicted of three felony and six misdemeanor charges — including filing a false tax return — that were included in an indictment released Friday.

  • Hunter also faces a felony gun charge in Delaware and could face contempt of Congress proceedings if he fails to appear at a closed-door deposition Wednesday before the GOP committees leading the impeachment inquiry into his father.

Between the lines: It's unclear whether the GOP's focus on Hunter will be politically damaging to the president. But aides fear it will be emotionally grueling.

  • President Biden's bond with Hunter is particularly deep and complicated, people close to Biden told Axios.
  • After Beau Biden, Hunter's older brother, died of cancer in 2015, Hunter became the only living person from the 1972 car accident that killed Joe Biden's wife and daughter. Joe Biden has clung tightly to Hunter ever since, at times referring to him as "my only surviving son."
  • While Hunter was struggling with addictions — particularly from 2017-2019, after his father left the vice presidency — current and former aides described Joe Biden as despondent and worried that he'd lost both of his sons.

Hunter appears to know how the attacks and investigations have affected his father.

  • "What they're trying to do is they're trying to kill me, knowing that it will be a pain greater than my father could be able to handle — and so therefore destroying a presidency in that way," Hunter told the musician Moby in a podcast released last week.
  • Things could get uglier: Even some of Biden's fellow Democrats have expressed concern about Hunter's conduct. Over the weekend, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the most recent charges "legally justified."

Zoom in: President Biden often jokes that people think he's not Irish because "I don't hold a grudge." That doesn't apply when it comes to Hunter.

  • Biden's relationship with Garland — which was already tense — has become more frigid amid Biden's frustration at the lengthy criminal investigation and now prosecution of Hunter by the Justice Department.

People close to Biden also have fumed at Garland for appointing a special counsel in August — a move U.S. Attorney David Weiss requested after a plea deal with Hunter fell apart.

  • Those close to Biden argue that Garland is trying in vain to satisfy bad-faith GOP critics — and that the special counsel is a way of deflecting a difficult decision under the guise of objectivity.
  • One person close to the president unflatteringly compared Garland to former FBI Director James Comey, claiming they both have been obsessed with the appearance of having integrity rather than just trying to make the right decision — a reference to Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
  • At a reception in August, a few weeks after Garland appointed the special counsel, Biden spotted Garland at a White House event and icily quipped: "Attorney General Garland — I haven't seen you in a long while. It's good to see you."
  • A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. A White House spokesperson also declined to comment.

Zoom out: The GOP's attacks on Hunter have blown up some of Biden's longest political relationships.

  • Biden and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) used to be close Senate friends — Graham said in 2015 that Biden was "as good a man as God ever created."
  • But today the two have almost no personal relationship because of Graham's investigations into Hunter during the 2020 campaign and since, people familiar with the situation told Axios.
  • Biden believed Graham violated an unspoken rule of the Senate by going after his family in an effort to please then-President Trump. Graham has argued that Hunter's overseas business dealings are a legitimate line of inquiry — as painful as it may be for Biden.
  • In November 2020, as it became clear Biden had won the election, Graham called the president-elect and Biden blew up at him, The New York Times first reported. Biden later told people that Graham suggested lunch at the White House, which Biden rejected.

Biden has continued to vent about Graham privately.

  • That anger occasionally has flashed publicly. Last year at a fundraiser, Biden said: "He used to be a friend; I don't know what happened to him — Lindsey Graham."
  • A spokesperson for Graham did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden's temper also can flare at reporters when they ask about his son.

  • Last week when asked about the congressional investigations into him and his son, Biden angrily responded: "I'm not going to comment on that. I did not, and it's just a bunch of lies."
  • In a 2019 interview with Axios' Mike Allen, Biden got chippy on the topic and shook his head in frustration, fuming about the press: "You guys are amazing."
Go deeper