During last week’s state dinner at the White House, Hunter Biden seemed to be everywhere. Lively and sociable, he worked in the pavilion with smiles and gusto, shaking hands and hugging other guests.
One guest who surely didn’t want to chat with him, however, was Merrick B. Garland, the attorney general whose Justice Department just two days earlier reached a plea deal in which the president’s son will likely avoid prison.
The younger Biden’s presence at such a high-profile event so soon after the plea deal proved to be the stir of the night. It was all the more striking given the risk of an accidental encounter with the nation’s top law enforcement official, who would rather cut off his thumb than be caught looking friendly for the purpose of an investigation he had guaranteed police would carry out. book.
It also did not go unnoticed when, just a few days later, Hunter Biden was hopping on and off Marine One with the president going to and from Camp David over the weekend.
In the nation’s capital, where such things are rarely accidental and always noticeable, such public appearances were interpreted as a message of direct defiance from a president determined to show his son’s backing in the face of relentlessly toxic attacks. However, some Democrats, including current and former Biden administration officials, privately viewed it as an unnecessary bear-push gesture.
“He knew exactly what he was doing and was willing to put up with appearance issues to send a message to his son that he loves him,” said Norman Eisen, who was President Barack Obama’s White House ethics czar when Biden was vice president.
If he had been advising Biden, Eisen said, he would have warned him about “the criticism they were going to get,” but added that it would be a matter of optics, rather than rules. “That’s probably more of a question for a etiquette czar than an ethics czar,” he said. “Certainly, there is no violation of any ethics rule as long as the case is not discussed.”
The White House said that Biden was simply being a father.
“In all administrations, regardless of party, it is common for members of the presidential family to attend state dinners and accompany presidents to Camp David,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said Tuesday. “The president and first lady love and support his son.”
Footage from the White House in the week since Hunter Biden’s plea deal was announced highlights the thorny situation of a president with a 53-year-old son traumatized by a family tragedy and a devastating history of alcohol and crack addiction. While Democrats despise the far-right’s conspiratorial fixation on Hunter’s problems, some of the president’s allies complain privately that, understandably, he turns a blind eye when it comes to his son. They regret that he did not intervene more assertively to prevent the young man from using the family name in business dealings.
It is not an issue that advisers easily raise with Mr. Biden, if at all, and many of them are sticking around to see how he handles it and react accordingly. They console themselves with the belief that many Americans understand a father’s love for his son, even one who makes mistakes, and with the assumption that it won’t significantly hurt Biden’s re-election bid next year any more than it hurt his victory. about President Donald J. Trump in 2020. And they acknowledge that no matter what the family does, Hunter will be a target for the next 16 months.
Last week’s plea deal was tense for many reasons. It meant the president’s son was admitting to criminal behavior by not filing his taxes on time and would be subject to a diversion program for felony illegal gun possession, but would be spared time behind bars if approved by a judge. Republicans immediately denounced it as a “sweet deal” by the Biden team.
In fact, the decision was announced by a Trump appointee, David C. Weiss, a US attorney who was hired by Biden’s Justice Department not to appear to interfere in its investigation into Hunter Biden. Mr. Garland and Mr. Weiss have insisted that Mr. Weiss had what he called “ultimate authority” over the case.
There is no evidence that the president or the White House played any role, unlike Trump, who while in office openly and repeatedly lobbied the Justice Department to prosecute his perceived enemies and drop cases against his allies.
But congressional Republicans have been promoting two IRS “informants” who claim the Justice Department restrained Mr. Weiss, despite his own denial. The Republicans plan to call Weiss to testify in the next few days and threaten to impeach Garland.
One of the IRS agents produced a message sent by Hunter Biden in 2017 invoking his father, then out of office, to pressure a potential Chinese business partner into accepting a deal. While he repeated that the president was “not in business with his son,” the White House did not dispute the authenticity of the message or comment on the impression that Biden, as a former vice president, may have been used to secure business.
Asked by a reporter Monday if he had lied when he said earlier that he did not discuss Hunter’s business with him, the president simply said, “No.”
Hunter Biden has appeared with his father since the start of his presidency, including previous trips to Camp David or the family home in Delaware. Hunter attended the first state dinner of the Biden presidency in December and accompanied his father on a trip to Ireland this spring.
So in that sense, it might not have been all that surprising that he turned up last Thursday for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state dinner. But it quickly angered Republicans and the conservative media.
“Hunter and Merrick hanging out at Joe’s?” Representative Andy Ogles, Republican of Tennessee, wrote on Twitter. “Classic Biden crime family.”
Representative Jason Smith, Republican of Missouri, said on Fox Business: “We watched a fancy state dinner at the White House, and you have the person accused of these criminal complaints and also the department that has made these complaints, the head of that department, sitting and eating dinner at the same table. This all stinks.”
Hunter Biden, dressed in a tuxedo, appeared in high spirits at the dinner, touring the pavilion set up on the South Lawn. He put his arm around Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator and former senator from Florida, and gave Andy Moffit, the husband of Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary, a friendly shake of the shoulders. Unlike Mr. Smith, Mr. Garland was not at the same table and stood resolutely on the other side of the pavilion, at least while reporters and photographers were there to watch.
Although Mr. Garland was invited weeks earlier, some who know him suspected that he must not have known Hunter Biden would be there and would likely have been annoyed at being in such an awkward position. A person familiar with the dinner said non-White House staff were not given the guest list in advance. White House and Justice Department representatives did not say whether the president’s staff tipped off the attorney general.
Still, even Democrats who would have preferred it if Biden hadn’t made a public display of his son immediately after the plea deal bristles at criticism from Republicans who have shown little interest in the nepotism involving Trump, who put his daughter and son-in-law on the White House staff and whose children have benefited from her name for years.
David M. Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to Obama, said the state dinner made clear what Biden wanted to make clear: that he would not walk away from his son. “That can get him in trouble, but it also reinforces the truth about a man who has suffered a great loss in his life and loves his children,” he said.
Richard W. Painter, who was the top White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, later ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Democrat and has at times criticized the Biden team’s ethics decisions, said the president is forced to balance his personal and campaign imperatives.
“These are the political calls that the president makes,” said Mr. Painter, who, according to media reports, has been consulted by Hunter Biden’s lawyers about creating a legal defense fund. “He wants to protect his political position by running for re-election. He also wants to be a good father. That was his decision. You are going to be hot. But I understand why he made the decision ”.
glenn thrush contributed reporting.