Opinion | After Hunter Biden plea deal, Joe Biden shouldn’t live in denial

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No father ever wants to believe the worst about his child. And Hunter Biden has apparently come face to face with every vice, temptation and opportunity for consequential misjudgments in life — and failed the test far too many times. The president’s notorious son seems to have a self-destructive streak that could scare hard-partying rock stars straight. It must be extraordinarily difficult to be the second son of a powerful and influential man, with an older brother who must have seemed perfect in comparison, struck down by cancer far too soon.

As a father, I found it completely understandable that President Biden insisted to MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in May, “My son has done nothing wrong. I trust him. I have faith in him. It impacts my presidency by making me feel proud of him.”

But what Biden said wasn’t true — in fact, it was absurd. His son’s dubious behavior was well-known long before news broke this week of his plea deal with the Justice Department over unpaid taxes and illegal gun possession. Hunter Biden’s 2021 memoir detailed his crack-cocaine addiction. Also publicly aired: his long-running battle with a former stripper over child-support matters involving their 4-year-old daughter, after his paternity was established in January 2020. Now, with the plea deal, the world knows he didn’t pay more than $100,000 in taxes in both 2017 and 2018, and he lied on a form for a gun he bought in 2018 by denying he misused drugs.

It’s easy to understand a father’s being in denial about his son’s serious problems, but that doesn’t make it responsible or right. It reflects a flaw that has long bedeviled Joe Biden and continues to during his presidency.

In July 2019, New Yorker writer Adam Entous wrote a detailed profile of Hunter Biden, who was interviewed for the story. One anecdote concerned Biden’s meeting with business partners in December 2013 in China, where he had joined his father — the vice president at the time — on a trip to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping. The episode illustrated the impenetrable wall of denial that surrounded Joe Biden and his son.

As Entous reported, Biden’s advisers “worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit,” would open the vice president to criticism that his son was exploiting their relationship for personal gain. Entous said former staffers told him they had been too intimidated to raise the issue with the vice president — one told the writer that “everyone who works for him has been screamed at.”

Entous: “Others said that they were wary of hurting his feelings. One business associate told me that Biden, during difficult conversations about his family, ‘got deeply melancholy, which, to me, is more painful than if someone yelled and screamed at me. It’s like you’ve hurt him terribly. That was always my fear, that I would be really touching a very fragile part of him.’”

For a moment, put aside what’s going on with the Bidens right now. For years, people in their orbit, including members of the Obama administration, could see the problems around Hunter Biden: his shady business dealings, his reckless judgment, likely skewed by serious drug addiction. But Joe Biden didn’t want to hear about it, as his advisers knew all too well. Again, it’s understandable when parents can’t face the truth about their children and prefer to live in a state of denial. Yet it could help explain why Biden’s younger brother, James, has been able to cash in on the family name for years — and why James, Hunter and an array of other family members were recently revealed by the GOP-led House Oversight Committee to have received millions of dollars over the years from a motley collection of foreign companies and individuals.

At some point, Biden needed to tell his family members, “You have to stop doing that. It is bad for you, bad for me and bad for the country” — both to protect his own reputation and simply because it was wrong. It seems Biden has never been able to bring himself to do that.

For years, he has simply asserted the did-nothing-wrong defense, getting angry and defensive in interviews, defiant on the debate stage.

The vital question, though, is how Biden’s blinkered approach to his family problems is reflected in a similarly blinkered approach to policy. When confronted with bad news as president — on the border mess, on inflation and the economy, on Afghanistan, on Chinese espionage — Biden’s reflexive response is denial: The questioner is wrong, the problem isn’t really a problem, everything is going fine. Maybe his advisers are afraid to tell him the truth?

But then inescapable facts are revealed, as they were about Hunter Biden this week, and the president has to adjust to a new reality. This bears watching as the 2024 campaign begins.

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