The Burisma board, a laptop scandal and struggles with addiction: What to know about Hunter Biden's legal troubles

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There are two layers — at a minimum — to Hunter Biden’s troubled life: There’s what he has done, and there’s what his father’s political opponents said and did about it.

On Tuesday, one chapter neared a close, as federal prosecutors revealed a plea deal that will resolve a yearslong criminal investigation into Hunter Biden’s tax issues and his purchase of a gun. But Republicans’ scrutiny over the president’s son stretches beyond that criminal probe, and it is sure to persist once the plea deal is finalized.

Here is a guide to the prominent struggles and scandals Hunter Biden has faced.

Early life

Hunter Biden was born Feb. 4, 1970, the second child of Joe Biden and his first wife, Neilia Hunter Biden. Hunter’s old brother, Beau, was born in 1969, and his sister, Naomi, was born in 1971.

In 1972, Neilia and Naomi Biden died in a car crash on the way to buy a Christmas tree. Beau and Hunter were in the car as well. Hunter’s skull was fractured in the accident, but he and Beau both survived.

Biden got his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and his J.D., in 1996, from Yale Law School.

For much of his life, he has struggled with substance abuse. In 2013, he joined the U.S. Navy Reserves in a White House ceremony attended by his father, who was then the vice president. But he was discharged after testing positive for cocaine on his first day at the naval base. Hunter has said he believes he accidentally consumed the cocaine when smoking a cigarette laced with the substance.

Two years later, his brother, Beau, died of brain cancer.

Throughout his career, Hunter Biden has had a wide variety of business dealings. His work with Chinese and Ukrainian companies has drawn the most attention.

Ties to Chinese businesses

Hunter Biden has drawn media scrutiny over the years for connections to a scandal-plagued, now-bankrupt Chinese energy giant, CEFC China Energy. According to a Washington Post report, the company and its executives paid $4.8 million to entities controlled by Hunter Biden and James Biden (the president’s brother) in the years between Joe Biden’s time as vice president and president.

The company was founded by Ye Jianming, a Chinese national who was deputy secretary for several years in a Chinese military organization that has been called a front for a unit of the People’s Liberation Army responsible for intelligence-gathering and propaganda, according to The New York Times. Ye also reportedly “sent a gift” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the paper reported, and his company hired many former military officers and received billions of dollars in loans from government banks. A CNN report said the firm “aligned itself so closely with the Chinese government that it was often hard to distinguish between the two,” and that Ye “appeared to be China’s unofficial energy envoy.”

Hunter Biden met Ye in May 2017, according to the Times, and offered to help him “identify investment opportunities” in the U.S. energy sector. Biden told The New Yorker that Ye gave him a 2.8-carat diamond worth about $10,000 after the meeting. Biden said he “knew it wasn’t a good idea to take it,” and he gave it to his associates. He kept working with Ye, though, and told the magazine he “did not consider Ye to be a ‘shady character at all.’” He started negotiating a deal for the Chinese energy conglomerate to invest in a Louisiana liquefied natural gas project.

Ye recruited Hunter Biden to provide legal advice to another CEFC official, Patrick Ho. Biden signed an engagement letter on Sept. 18, 2017, agreeing to a $1 million retainer, according to the Post.

In November 2017, Ye and Biden agreed on the Louisiana deal, according to The New Yorker. The same month, FBI agents arrested Ho, who immediately called James Biden. James Biden thought Ho was trying to reach Hunter, he later told The New York Times.

Ho was convicted of seeking to boost CEFC’s prospects in Africa by bribing officials in Chad and Uganda. He received a three-year prison sentence for the offense March 25, 2019. The Louisiana investment deal fell through. Hunter Biden told The New Yorker it was “bad luck.” The Wall Street Journal reported that a review of related corporate records showed “no role” for now-President Joe Biden in connection to his son’s relationship with CEFC.

And Ye vanished. On Oct. 12, 2018, Reuters reported that Chinese prosecutors accused him of bribing a top Communist Party official. That official pleaded guilty. The Chinese government aggressively censored references to Ye on Chinese social media network WeChat, and researchers at the University of Hong Kong concluded Ye was one of the most censored topics of 2018.

Hunter Biden’s work with Ye and Ho wasn’t his only China-linked business work. He also helped start a private equity fund, known as BHR, with a number of partners, including Chinese businessman Jonathan Li. Biden and two other American board members controlled 30 percent of the firm, according to The New York Times, and Chinese investors — including the state-owned Bank of China — controlled the rest. The New Yorker reported that Hunter “did not take an equity stake in BHR Partners until after his father left the White House.”

Hunter traveled with his father, then the vice president, to China in December 2013. On the trip, he helped arrange for Li and the vice president to shake hands, as The New Yorker detailed. The fund helped “a subsidiary of a Chinese defense conglomerate” buy a Michigan auto parts maker, the Times reported, and it helped a Chinese company buy “one of the world’s richest cobalt mines” in 2016. Cobalt is an essential ingredient in batteries for electric cars. The Times noted that Joe Biden’s administration has warned that “China might use its growing dominance of cobalt to disrupt America’s retooling of its auto industry to make electric vehicles.”

A Ukrainian energy company — and a Trump impeachment

In 2014, Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company helmed by Mykola Zlochevsky who previously served in the government of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly former president, Viktor Yanukovych. At the time, Joe Biden was helping lead the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. Some U.S. officials raised concerns internally about the business relationship. And The New York Times wrote in a 2015 editorial that Hunter undermined his father’s Ukraine work by sitting on Burisma’s board.

While Hunter was on Burisma’s board, his father — along with a host of European allies — pushed the Ukrainian government to oust prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Shokin’s office had been investigating Burisma, and Joe Biden indicated that Ukraine wouldn’t receive a financial aid package until Shokin was out. So the Ukrainian government — which has long relied heavily on Western aid — fired him.

Biden wasn’t alone in pushing for Shokin’s ouster; a host of European allies and international institutions also called for his removal. No evidence has emerged that Hunter Biden ever pushed his father to seek Shokin’s firing. But Trump’s allies charged that the vice president pushed for Shokin’s firing to protect the company linked to his son.

In 2019, as the next U.S. presidential election neared, then-President Donald Trump and his allies homed in on Hunter Biden’s Ukraine dealings. Specifically, Trump wanted Ukrainian authorities to investigate the Biden family and the firing of Shokin — and he wanted the world to know about it.

On a July 25 phone call, Trump pushed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to “look into” the Bidens. The call came as the Trump administration had paused the delivery of military aid to Ukraine. Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, testified to Congress that he believed Trump sought a quid pro quo: If Zelensky wanted U.S. military aid and a White House meeting with Trump, he would need to announce a Biden investigation. 

The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump over the effort, but the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him. The saga drew global attention but was quickly eclipsed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

DOJ opens an investigation

A secret irony hung over the impeachment saga: Unbeknownst to Trump and just about everyone else, the Justice Department was already quietly investigating Biden’s son. News broke of the probe’s existence about a month after Trump lost his reelection bid to Biden.

In the years since, the probe simmered away, with investigators focusing on tax violations and Hunter’s purchase of a gun in 2018 — a year when he has said he regularly used crack cocaine. The plea deal revealed Tuesday concludes the investigation and will likely allow Hunter Biden to avoid prison if he complies with the terms of the agreement.

The laptop saga

In the final weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump’s allies obtained information from a laptop they said Hunter Biden had abandoned at a Delaware computer repair shop. Rudy Giuliani shared the material with the New York Post, which reported on the laptop’s contents. Some of those contents related to Hunter Biden’s dealings with CEFC China and Burisma. Other materials included sexually explicit photos of him, as well as pictures that appeared to document his use of illegal drugs.

The Post’s reporting garnered aggressive pushback, including from dozens of former intelligence officials who signed a letter saying the laptop had “all the classic earmarks” of a Russian disinformation campaign. Twitter then blocked tweets about the story and suspended the New York Post’s account for over two weeks before reversing itself. Facebook also temporarily blocked users from sharing the reporting.

But years passed, and no evidence emerged that the reporting on the laptop sprung from a Russian disinformation operation, as Vox has noted. POLITICO, The New York Times and The Washington Post all reported on its contents. Twitter’s former head of safety and integrity told Congress this year that the social network shouldn’t have blocked the story. And Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook’s parent company, also expressed regret about the move.

His father becomes president, and Republicans keep up scrutiny

Since the 2020 election, Hunter Biden has been a prime focus of House Republicans.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have reviewed an FBI document from 2020 memorializing investigators’ conversations with a trusted anonymous source. That source told the FBI they spoke years ago with Burisma chief Mykola Zlochevsky about Hunter Biden’s work with the company. The source said that Zlochevsky claimed to have paid a $5 million bribe to then-Vice President Joe Biden and that he had audio recordings related to it. No evidence has emerged that the bribe was paid, and any such recordings have yet to see the light of day. But Trump has pointed to the FBI document as proof that Biden took a bribe, which it isn’t.

David Brock, a Democratic operative and the head of Facts First USA, issued a statement calling GOP scrutiny of the president’s son a “shameless inquisition.”