Earlier this summer, President Biden was feeling hopeful.
His son Hunter’s lawyers had struck a plea deal with federal prosecutors on tax and gun charges, and it seemed to the president that the long legal ordeal would finally be over.
But when the agreement collapsed in late July, Mr. Biden, whose upbeat public image often belies a more mercurial temperament, was stunned.
He plunged into sadness and frustration, according to several people close to him who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships with the Biden family. Since then, his tone in conversations about Hunter has been tinged with a resignation that was not there before, his confidants say.
Now, as the Justice Department plans to indict Hunter Biden on a gun charge in coming weeks, White House advisers are preparing for many more months of Republican attacks and the prospect of a criminal trial in the middle of the 2024 presidential campaign.
Republicans have cast Hunter’s troubles as a stew of nepotism and corruption, which the Biden administration denies. But there is no doubt that Hunter’s case is a drain, politically and emotionally, on his father and those who wish to see him re-elected.
The saga reflects the painful dynamics of the first family, shaped by intense ambition and deep loss, along with anger and guilt. It is the story of two very different if much-loved sons, and of a father holding tight to the one still with him.
This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen people close to the Biden family who declined to speak on the record out of concern about jeopardizing their relationships with the Bidens, along with writings from Biden family members.
People who know both men say their bond is singular in its intensity. But even allies of President Biden, who prides himself on his political and human instincts, say he has at times been too deferential to his younger son, appearing unwilling to tell him no, despite Hunter’s problems and his long trail of bad decisions.
And that has created unexpected political peril for the president.
The Family Business
Hunter was born on Feb. 4, 1970 — a year and a day after his older brother, Beau.
The two boys were close growing up. Beau was seen as the future of the Biden political brand — the one who should be running for president, his father has said. President Biden has described Beau as “me, but without all the downsides.”
Beau was a natural leader, a student athlete and Ivy League-educated lawyer who rose to become the most popular political figure in Delaware. As President Barack Obama described him, Beau was “someone who charmed you, and disarmed you, and put you at ease.’’
Hunter grew up intelligent and artistic, sharing his father’s loquacious personality. After graduating from Georgetown University, he served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Portland, Ore., where he worked at a food bank in a church basement and volunteered at a socialization center for disabled people. He met a fellow volunteer, Kathleen Buhle, in the summer of 1992. Within months she was pregnant, and in July 1993 the two married. Hunter later graduated from Yale Law School.
By the early 2000s, living in Delaware with his wife and three young daughters, Hunter had begun drinking heavily at dinner, he has said, at parties and after work at Oldaker, Biden & Belair, a law and lobbying firm where he was a partner.
He moved away from lobbying around the time his father became vice president, after the Obama administration issued restrictions on lobbyists working with the government. But his later ventures drew scrutiny as well. In 2014 he joined the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that was under investigation for corruption, as Mr. Biden, then the vice president, was overseeing White House policy toward Ukraine.
When Hunter was discharged from the Navy Reserve in 2014 because of cocaine use, Mr. Biden’s email to his family about the news coverage was succinct. “Good as it could be,” he wrote. “Time to move on. Love Dad.”
As his father and brother showed a talent for public service, Hunter envisioned himself as the financier supporting the family business of politics.
For a time, it was work that made him proud, because it made him feel needed.
“I had more money in the bank than any Biden in six generations,” he wrote in “Beautiful Things,” his 2021 memoir, noting that when his lobbying career was steady in the late 1990s, he helped pay off his brother’s student loans, enrolled his three daughters in private school and covered the mortgage on a house where he and Beau were living.
Decades later, though, he was known to complain about the responsibility. A person close to Hunter said those complaints were exaggerated, expressed at a time when Hunter was feeling bruised.
Tragedy and substance abuse have stalked the Biden family for generations. Hunter was not quite 3 years old when his mother and baby sister were killed in a car accident that left him and Beau seriously injured and in a hospital for months. Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, at age 46. After that, Hunter descended further into alcoholism and a devastating addiction to crack cocaine.
President Biden’s father had bouts of drinking, according to people who knew him, and one of his brothers, Frank, has struggled with alcoholism. Mr. Biden’s daughter, Ashley, has sought treatment for addiction. On the campaign trail in 2008, when Mr. Biden was a candidate for vice president, he offered a blunt explanation for his own decision not to drink: “There are enough alcoholics in my family.”
As his problems with addiction worsened in recent years, Hunter’s life unraveled. His marriage to Ms. Buhle ended in 2017, and he had a romantic relationship with his brother’s widow, Hallie, that set off tabloid headlines and more family angst.
At times the elder Mr. Biden has seemed at a loss to respond, and worried about pushing Hunter away. At his son’s behest, Mr. Biden released a statement in support of the relationship between Hunter and Hallie. When that relationship ended soon after, Hunter cycled in and out of rehabilitation facilities and tried experimental therapies including ketamine and “the gland secretions of the Sonoran Desert toad,” according to his memoir. He was often not able to stay sober for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
Hunter has a fourth child, Navy Joan Roberts, who was conceived during an encounter in 2017 he says he does not remember. Hunter has said he does not have a relationship with the child. President Biden did not acknowledge the girl, who was born in Arkansas, until July, and only after Hunter gave him the OK, according to a person close to the president.
Mr. Biden’s devotion to his son means that he has long followed Hunter’s lead. At one point, after a family intervention over Hunter’s drug use, a distraught Mr. Biden approached his son in the driveway of Mr. Biden’s home in Delaware.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Mr. Biden cried out. “Tell me what to do.’”
Hunter has said he finally got sober after meeting his second wife, Melissa Cohen, in 2019.
A Father, Not a Politician
President Biden tries to keep his son close.
When Hunter accompanied the president on a trip to Ireland in the spring, he traveled on Air Force One and slept on a cot in his father’s hotel room. When Hunter flies to Washington from his home in Malibu, he stays at the White House, sometimes for weeks at a time. When he is on the West Coast, his father calls him nearly every day, sometimes more than once.
Hunter shares his father’s tendency toward effusiveness and intensity in interactions with people he loves, according to people who know both of them. They also share a quick temper.
“I’m like his security blanket,” Hunter told The New Yorker in 2019. “I don’t tell the staff what to do. I’m not there giving directions or orders. I shake everybody’s hands. And then I tell him to close his eyes on the bus. I can say things to him that nobody else can.”
Allies of the president have deep respect for the bond, but have privately criticized Mr. Biden’s apparent inability to say no when Hunter sought to pull him into his business dealings. Some allies of the president say his loyalty to his son — inviting him to state dinners, flying with him aboard Marine One and standing on the White House balcony with him — has resulted in wholly avoidable political distractions.
No hard evidence has emerged that Mr. Biden personally participated in or profited from the business deals or used his office to benefit his son’s partners while he was vice president. And Mr. Biden’s advisers have pointed to legal experts who argue that the tax and gun charges against the president’s son are rarely prosecuted.
Still, Hunter Biden’s business dealings have raised concerns because testimony and reports have indicated that he traded on the family name to generate lucrative deals. Devon Archer, Hunter’s former business partner, told congressional investigators that Hunter used “the illusion of access to his father” to win over potential partners.
Mr. Archer said that Mr. Biden had been in the presence of business associates of his son’s who were apparently seeking connections and influence inside the United States government.
But Mr. Archer’s testimony fell short of Republican hopes of a smoking gun to prove the president’s involvement in his son’s efforts to drum up business overseas. The elder Mr. Biden would occasionally stop by a dinner or a hotel for a brief handshake, Mr. Archer said, or engage in a few pleasantries over the phone.
Although many observers see the investigation as a darkening shadow over the presidency, President Biden and his son do not dwell on it in their daily phone calls.
They do talk politics occasionally; Hunter is an informal adviser who has helped his father brainstorm speeches. But mostly, the president shares updates from the rest of the family and simply asks how his son is doing, people familiar with the calls say.
Anger in California
Hunter Biden’s life in California is a world away from his father’s in Washington.
He lives with his wife and their toddler son, who is named for Beau, in a rental home high above the Pacific Ocean. It is a place that feels impossibly idyllic — except for signs that warn of wildfires that could burn the fragile paradise to the ground.
Most mornings, he sits in his home and paints, putting oils and acrylics to canvas in a ritual that he says helps keep him sober. Then he drives, Secret Service agents in tow, to the nearby house of Kevin Morris, a Hollywood lawyer who has become a financial and emotional lifeline since the two met at a fund-raiser for the Biden campaign in 2019.
That year, Hunter told The New Yorker he was making about $4,000 a month. He had moved to California, in his telling, to “disappear” as his father was running for the presidency. His new wife was pregnant. He had chosen to live in one of the most expensive areas of the country, and he was struggling to stay afloat. Mr. Morris, who made his fortune brokering entertainment deals and representing celebrities including Matthew McConaughey, saw an opportunity to help. He has lent Hunter millions to pay back taxes and support his family, according to people who know about the arrangement.
Friends of the family fear for Hunter’s well-being out in California because he is a recovering addict who is under pressure. He has said that his new career as a painter is a form of survival, keeping him “away from people and places where I shouldn’t be.”
Despite the concerns, people closer to Hunter say he is determined and resilient. But they also describe him as angry and spoiling for a fight.
These days, under the watchful eye of a drone that Mr. Morris uses to scan for photographers and intruders, he and the president’s son huddle together in anger and isolation, assessing the day’s damage. The collapse of a plea deal. A special counsel investigation. A looming indictment. A likely trial.
Every day, on and on, there is a new crisis.
President Biden only occasionally makes the trip out West to raise money or deliver remarks on his policy agenda. His political ethos is rooted more in middle-class Scranton, Pa., than in the wealth that surrounds his son’s home in the hills of Malibu.
There is tension between Mr. Biden’s allies, who favor a cautious approach in Hunter’s legal proceedings, and Mr. Morris, who prefers a more aggressive approach.
That tension reached a boiling point last winter, when Mr. Morris pushed to remove Joshua A. Levy, an attorney recommended by Bob Bauer, the president’s personal attorney, from Hunter’s legal team.
After Mr. Levy resigned, Mr. Morris replaced him with Abbe Lowell, one of Washington’s best-known scandal lawyers, who has a reputation for bare-knuckle tactics. (He had also recently represented Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of former President Donald J. Trump.) For now, the strategic command center is at Mr. Morris’s dining room table in Malibu, not in Washington.
Mr. Biden does not believe that Republican attacks on his son will hurt him with voters as he runs for re-election in 2024, and there is data to suggest that is largely true, at least for now. A June poll by Reuters and Ipsos found that 58 percent of Americans would not factor Hunter Biden into their decision in the presidential race.
The White House declined to comment for this article, as did Hunter Biden and his attorneys.
“Joe Biden’s been around politics all his life,” said the Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who noted that Mr. Biden’s decisions about Hunter were not made by advisers or consultants. “This is about him and how he feels and his relationship with his son.”
Mr. Biden told MSNBC in May that his son had done nothing wrong.
“I trust him,” he said. “I have faith in him.”
Last month, when asked by reporters at Camp David about the special counsel investigation into his son, Mr. Biden’s response was terse.
“That’s up to the Justice Department,” Mr. Biden said, “and that’s all I have to say.”
Mr. Biden then left Camp David and rode aboard Air Force One to Lake Tahoe for vacation. Hunter joined him there.
That time, the president’s son flew commercial.