The White House says no, but questions about Joe Biden pardoning his son persist

WASHINGTON — The White House’s answer is a hard no: President Joe Biden will not pardon his son Hunter.

But the question isn’t going away, and the issue seems far from settled. Wouldn’t a loving father do what he could to spare his lone surviving son a possible jail term that might send him spiraling back into life-threatening addiction?

Joe Biden doesn’t need to decide just yet. The most opportune moment to choose whether to use sweeping presidential pardon powers to make Hunter Biden’s federal criminal prosecution disappear may come after the November 2024 election. Win or lose, Biden won’t be on the ballot ever again, and if he did decide to pardon Hunter, he wouldn’t need to worry about a voter backlash.

The bond between father and son is deep enough that some Democratic lawmakers and fundraisers believe a pardon may be inevitable, despite the denials coming from the White House.

Biden has referred to his 53-year-old son as his “heart.” In his memoir, “Beautiful Things,” Hunter Biden wrote that “the love between me and my father and Beau” — his older brother, who died of brain cancer in 2015 — as “the most profound love I’ve ever known.”

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., proposed a constitutional amendment earlier this year that would bar presidents from pardoning themselves and family members, among others. It has gone nowhere, Cohen said, leaving the president’s pardon power unchecked for the foreseeable future.

“I wouldn’t recommend it politically,” Cohen said in an interview, in reply to a question about whether Biden might pardon his son. “It is within his power, and he loves his son, so, what are you going to do? I suspect he could.”

Until recently, a possible pardon for Hunter Biden seemed a moot point. A long-running federal investigation into his business dealings had culminated in a proposed plea deal in which he began the process to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of failing to pay taxes. He would have avoided any jail time under the agreement. But the deal fell apart in a court hearing in July.

Hunter Biden instead pled not guilty and earlier this month, special counsel David Weiss issued an indictment alleging that Hunter Biden avoided paying taxes and instead used the money to fuel an “extravagant lifestyle.” Hunter Biden’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, said in a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the prosecutors’ shift from a plea deal to a 56-page indictment arose from “Republican political pressure.”

If convicted, Hunter Biden faces a maximum of 17 years in prison. As his legal jeopardy grows, reporters have been asking the White House if the president would pardon him.

“I’ve been very clear; the president is not going to pardon his son,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a briefing this week. (The White House did not respond when asked if Joe Biden himself has said publicly he would not pardon Hunter Biden).

President Biden wouldn’t need to justify a pardon. A vestige of England’s monarchical power, pardons can be issued for any reason and take place at any point while a president holds office. But Joe Biden believes in his son’s innocence. Speaking to MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle in May, Joe Biden said that “my son has done nothing wrong.” He told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a podcast this month that Hunter Biden is a “better man than I am.”

Other presidents have pardoned family members, friends and political allies on their way out the door. On his final day in office in 2001, Bill Clinton pardoned his brother Roger over a cocaine possession case in the 1980s.

What can’t be discounted as Hunter Biden’s case unfolds is the stress and even guilt that some presidents feel when family members face legal peril. They may believe that had they not run for office, their families would never have faced the scrutiny that has landed them in trouble.

Former President George H.W. Bush is a case in point. He was so upset over his son Neil Bush’s entanglement in a savings and loan scandal that he considered not running for re-election in 1992.

In her biography of the former president’s wife, Barbara Bush, author Susan Page quoted from diary entries in which the then-first lady wrote: “I know he [George H.W. Bush] has the children on his mind. He is consumed with worry about Neil and a guilty feeling. He knows that Neil never would have been in this trouble if he hadn’t been the son of the president.”

Three decades later, similar family dynamics may be at work.

In a recent podcast, Hunter Biden suggested that Republicans were trying to force him into a relapse that would kill him, “knowing it will be a pain greater than my father could be able to handle.” (Besides the death of Beau Biden, the president lost his first wife and a daughter in a car crash in Delaware in 1972).

“The latest indictment had to sting him [Joe Biden],” said a Democratic fundraiser, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk freely about the Biden family. “It is serious and to me, how can you not start thinking about a pardon? He has lost two children.”

However tempting a pardon might be to a family that has already suffered a grievous loss, Democratic lawmakers have said it’s an action Joe Biden should avoid.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who sharply criticized then-President Donald Trump for “dangling pardons” during his term, told NBC News that the elder Biden “should not be Donald Trump.”

“Pardons should not be used for personal purposes,” she said. “They should only be used in the interest of the United States public.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., was even more specific about the question of pardoning family members.

“I believe the pardon power in the Constitution was provided for extraordinary circumstances, with assuming unstated mitigating circumstances,” Connolly said. “It was not provided to provide relief for family members. So, no, I don’t think it should be used for that purpose.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said he also wants Biden to avoid pardoning his son, adding that he believes the president presumes the justice system will work its course.

A wildcard in any discussion is Hunter Biden’s mother. First lady Jill Biden has the president’s ear and is extraordinarily devoted to her son.

“From the moment I first started working with Dr. B., she was instinctively protective of Hunter in the natural way any mom would be of their son, but her loyalty and love for Hunter was also so unflinching,” said Michael LaRosa, former press secretary to Jill Biden.

Her office did not immediately respond to a question about where she stands on the issue of a pardon. But it’s not hard to infer how she would feel if Hunter Biden were to be convicted and sent off to prison.

“Everybody and their brother has investigated Hunter,” she told NBC News last year in an interview. “They keep at it, and at it, and at it. I know Hunter is innocent.”