politics : The Problem With the Hunter Biden Verdict

Wednesday 12 June 2024 10:45 PM

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As Joe Biden was preparing for his first debate against Donald Trump over the summer of 2020, staying largely secluded in his Delaware home as he and the country marathoned through the Covid-19 pandemic, he looked down to see his son, Hunter, calling.

Hunter told the man he called “Pop” that he knew the younger Biden’s struggle with drugs and alcohol were certain to come up when he faced the then-President Trump. Hunter Biden was direct: he knew what he had stared down, appreciated the challenges of staying sober, and understood that staying silent on his demons was not going to make them any less lethal. All the while, the junior Biden reminded the elder what is often left unsaid: tens of millions of families across the nation faced the same struggles as the Bidens, replete with stints in rehab, cruising through blackouts, and stretches of complete withdrawal from loved ones. Addiction is a tormentor that cares little about adjoining credentials, after all.

Joe Biden, the patient father, had little to say in those pre-debate days. So much of it had been said already through the years of Hunter Biden’s troubles that left him booted from the Navy and his home, kicked at his lowest and beyond, and made into a pariah or punchline by his father’s enemies. But the former Vice President understood the assignment, nodded along, and made clear that this part of his family brief wasn’t one for focus groups or workshopping.

“My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Joe Biden said in measured tones when he met with Trump, then the incumbent White House resident with a job Biden had coveted since the days of eight-tracks. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”

It was about as solid a defense as possible, disarming Trump as his planned attack on the Biden family’s suitability for continued public life flopped. It fit the model of the Biden family’s posture when it came to the Hunter saga in recent years: honesty, accountability, recovery.

On Tuesday, a federal court in Delaware found that Hunter Biden’s bracing honesty and efforts at holding himself accountable for his recovery were not sufficient grounds to exonerate him of a felony crime. Relying in no small measure on Hunter Biden’s own admissions made in his shockingly honest memoir, Beautiful Things, a jury decided that the junior Biden was guilty on all three criminal charges on the table in this, the first of at least two criminal cases against him. The fact that Hunter Biden recorded an audiobook of the confessional made it all the easier for prosecutors to leave it to the jury to judge in the son-of-privilege’s own voice.

The development was a stunning turn for a Georgetown and Yale Law graduate who took his life sideways while battling addictions. The core of the case against Hunter Biden was that Biden had lied on a federal form in 2018 when asked if was on drugs or addicted to them when he legally purchased a Colt .38 revolver. Prosecutors said Hunter Biden knowingly lied on the form, citing a text message to a lover—and then some. 

"I can be sober, but I'll always be an addict," Hunter Biden wrote to one sexual partner. Defense lawyers said it was rhetoric common to recovery programs, not an admission that he was addicted to drugs and thus being untruthful on his federal gun application. That 12-step branding didn’t work for jurors.

Other embarrassing details emerged in open court, including an account of Hunter Biden’s drug-buying patterns, his sex life, and his chaotic existence blazing through one bad choice after another. Unlike his memoir, which was honest but couched in his recovery, the unspooling of the tape in court with regard to his private life left much less of a sympathetic silhouette. 

The whole trial made public the very messy lives of the Biden family in the years between Joe Biden’s two terms as VP and his White House run in 2020. For instance, prosecutors called Hunter Biden’s late brother’s widow and then his lover Hallie Biden, who testified that she found the gun in his unlocked truck, chucked it into a trash can, and then was unable to recover it. CCTV from the shopping center parking lot backs up part of the story, including a forager who found the gun and took it. Oh, and the bag she used to toss that gun in the first place? It seemed to have cocaine in it.

For their part, the defense lawyers were left arguing a narrow rejoinder: because Biden was not actively using drugs at the time he filed his gun paperwork, he was technically telling the truth. In evidence, no one testified that they witnessed Hunter Biden using cocaine or crack cocaine or similar substances in the weeks leading up to the gun purchase. Still, defense lawyers decided against offering Biden as a witness, realizing that he was far from a sympathetic figure after his dead brother’s widow-turned-his lover and his daughter alike told unflattering moments of his experiences, not to mention the various characters who corroborated that Biden’s unyielding addiction was its own shade of hell. 

The verdict came quickly. The jury began deliberations on Monday after lunch, and they took three hours to decide the younger Biden’s fate before midday on Tuesday. The judge didn’t set a sentencing date, but that usually comes in about four months. Lost on no one: Election Day in slightly less than five months from today, and the family patriarch wields the power of federal pardon. (President Biden says he will not avail himself of the privilege, although much can be made of that debate as he heads toward Election Day or beyond.)

Still, this much has to be said: Hunter Biden, in his memoir and limited public interviews and then in his silent court scolding, took responsibility for his actions while struggling with his addictions, usually at the cost to his very public family and often at the expense to his close circle of loved ones. He worked the steps of personal recovery in a manner that most addicts weather in private. He took ownership of his choices—and had them thrown back at him in federal court.

None of which absolves him, but if the public health and consequences of such rebuilding efforts are to be judged by what comes next, hurling such attempts at self-awareness back via public recriminations might be worth a second look at whether they serve the community, the victims, or the defendant in the best possible way. Undoubtedly that will be a factor under consideration in Hunter Biden’s sentencing, as it should be.

The younger Biden’s allies may argue that it should also give Joe Biden and his team at the White House ample justification to consider a pardon or commutation, to set an example here for what might be best modeled for other addicts. The President’s political acumen will likely keep him away from such action, but his sudden jump up to Delaware after the verdict suggests he’s listening to his gut and to his family.

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