WASHINGTON — During the period between his vice presidency and presidency, Joe Biden was often asked about the campaign he didn’t run. In explaining why he passed on a White House bid in 2016, Biden would describe how the death of his eldest son, Beau, weighed heavily on him and his family.
“No man or woman should announce for president of the United States unless they can look the public in the eye and say, ‘I promise you I am giving 100% of my attention and dedication to this effort,’” he said in a 2017 public appearance.
Biden has said he is committed to seeking a second term. But even as he ramps up his campaign, with new efforts to contrast his record in office with the positions of his would-be GOP rivals, people close to the president are increasingly worrried about how the legal troubles of his remaining son, Hunter, could divide his attention at a time when he needs to be fully focused on what’s expected to be a razor close election.
A distracted president, perhaps more prone to mistakes or missteps, is the political toll people close to Biden worry could hurt him in 2024 as his son faces at least one indictment and potentially trials in multiple jurisdictions stemming from his conduct during the height of his drug addiction. Biden himself now faces an impeachment inquiry as House Republicans seek to connect him to his son’s business interests, including with foreign entities.
The White House has repeatedly denied wrongdoing by the president, and Biden himself has said he is proud of his son’s strength in taking responsibility for a dark period in his life.
“It impacts my presidency by making me feel proud of him,” Biden told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle this year when asked how potential charges might affect him.
But at the very least, developments this week are crowding the president’s message in public and his focus in private.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s a huge, huge concern for the president — as it would be for any parent. Especially a parent who lost a child too early in life,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who spent time with Biden on Thursday just moments after the indictment was announced.
Hoyer said in an interview that the president was generally “upbeat” but also offered that he was “ticked off” about the House Republicans’ move to open an impeachment inquiry this week, seeing it as a distraction from the issues facing the nation.
“He’s got to be worried about it. But he also has obviously an ability to compartmentalize his personal challenges with his public duties and his public vision,” Hoyer said.
Just three months ago, things appeared to be on a more hopeful path for the Biden family. The U.S. Attorney in Delaware had announced an agreement with Hunter Biden that would have resulted in prosecutors recommending probation in return for a guilty plea on tax charges. The gun charge, in turn, would have been on a path toward dismissal in two years if Hunter Biden abided by the terms of a separate agreement with prosecutors.
The White House at the time issued a brief statement saying that the Bidens “love their son and support him as he continues to rebuild his life.”
But rather than the beginning of the end, the deal unraveled just weeks later. The president’s son acknowledged, under oath in a federal courtroom, his battles with alcohol and substance abuse, and a judge picked apart the terms of the deal, revealing a rift about whether it represented the end of a multiyear investigation. Biden left the courthouse pleading not guilty to tax and gun-related charges.
Days later, the president set off to Rehoboth Beach for a weeklong getaway that was meant to help recharge him for the looming campaign. Instead, despite cheery public appearances — a date night out with the first lady, bike rides and time on the beach — both the president, and particularly Jill Biden, were consumed with worry, not just over the legal challenges facing their son, but with the unwelcome public spotlight shone on his personal life, and whether they should publicly acknowledge a daughter he fathered with an Arkansas woman during the peak of his struggles with drug addiction.
Hunter, his wife and their young son, Beau, joined the president and first lady during a separate getaway last month in Lake Tahoe as Hunter’s legal team sparred with Delaware prosecutors over the next steps in his case, and House Republicans continued taking steps to ramp up their investigations.
The emotional toll continues to weigh heavily on the president and first lady, who approach the most sensitive family matters as a father and mother above all else, according to a source familiar with their thinking. But the recent shift in their outlook has been dramatic, the source said.
Biden, 80, has even since lamented aloud that he might be dead before his son’s case would be resolved, according to another source close to the Bidens. The president and first lady are even more reluctant to hear about any of the political implications from close aides and are resigned to the fact that Hunter’s legal problems will likely worsen in the months ahead, this person said.
So sensitive are White House aides about the matter that “everybody walks around on eggshells in the West Wing” and are loath to raise the topic, another source familiar with the matter said.
“Every day, this president wakes up and thinks about his deceased son and probably cries every day. And the weight of [Hunter’s legal troubles] is equally emotionally taxing,” said Michael LaRosa, a former press secretary to first lady Jill Biden. Both Bidens “are incredibly protective of Hunter. Very much so, because he’s been unfairly made a target, but also because they’re protective of all their children and grandchildren, the way most people are. Obviously, it’s more amplified because Hunter is a political target.”
The president relies most heavily on his wife at these moments, and they were apart for about a week with her Covid diagnosis and his trip to India and Vietnam, which came hours after the news that Hunter would be indicted by the end of the month.
Both the president and first lady have insisted, though, that they will not be distracted.
Just hours after the gun-related indictment landed, Biden traveled just outside Washington to deliver his most pointed and direct attack on former President Donald Trump on an issue that would typically be a defining one in the campaign — the economy.
The night before, he addressed a possible impeachment inquiry for the first time behind closed doors at a reception in Virginia with campaign donors.
“I get up every day — not a joke — not focused on impeachment. I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to deal with the issues that affect the American people every single solitary day,” he said.
Other Biden allies note that this is not new territory for the family. The Bidens decided as a family in 2019 to go ahead with the presidential campaign knowing that Trump would not hesitate to target not just his opponent but his son, and even use the power of his office in the process. Family members fully supported Biden’s decision to run again in 2024, they note.
“In 2020, Donald Trump’s calling card was standing on a rally stage screaming, ‘Where’s Hunter?’ like a drunk fraternity girl. It was a huge piece of the debates, and it was something [Biden] addressed,” a close Biden ally said. “It backfired on Trump, and the American people empathized with the president and his family who had gone through challenges that families all over the country go through every single day.”
Whatever understandable concern the president has for his son now, it’s a markedly different situation than when he chose not to run in 2016, the ally said.
“He is laser focused on doing the job as president, winning re-election, and at the same time [he] can be a patriarch, a loving father and grandfather that he has been throughout his career,” the Biden ally said.
In his 2022 book, Hunter Biden wrote about how the attacks on him during the campaign two years earlier had only helped draw him and his father closer.
“Whenever I apologized to him for bringing so much heat onto his campaign, he responded by saying how sorry he was for putting me on the spot, for bringing so much heat onto me, especially at a time when I was so determined to get well. That’s the biggest political debate my dad and I had for months: Who should apologize to whom?” he wrote.
A source close to the Bidens say that Hunter, 53, is now similarly “steeling his spine” for both the legal and political sparring to come.
“The president would be in anguish if Hunter was really struggling from this. But Hunter is ready to fight,” the source said. “He’s taken accountability for his actions, his addiction, and the horrors that come along with it.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com