Hunter Biden worked for years to cultivate high-level relationships in China, flying to the country with his father on Air Force Two and serving as a board member of a Chinese investment firm. As he did, he understood the new relationships he was building did not come from his charm alone.
“It has nothing to do with me,” he wrote in 2011 about some of his developing connections with Chinese investors, “and everything to do with my last name.”
The blunt acknowledgment, in an email to his close friend and business associate Devon Archer, was a recognition of the built-in advantages the younger Biden had as he grew his Washington-based business. When he was building a new consulting firm during his father’s vice presidency, he — and particularly his partners — showed little hesitancy in using a coveted last name to open doors that could provide financial opportunity.
At times they would hand out books autographed by Joe Biden, emails and interviews show. They would provide vice-presidential cuff links or challenge coins to friends, associates or prospective clients. They secured tickets to White House events, including dinners, holiday parties and the annual Easter Egg Roll, at times strategizing over which business associates should receive them.
House Republicans have launched an impeachment inquiry attempting to show that Joe Biden improperly benefited from his son’s work or used his office to assist the younger Biden, and have subpoenaed Hunter and his uncle James Biden to testify next month. But they have not produced any direct evidence, and their own witnesses at one hearing said the impeachment threshold had not been met.
A Washington Post review of Hunter Biden’s career found no sign the family patriarch was an active participant in his son’s business efforts.
But interviews with former Hunter Biden associates, along with information drawn from congressional testimony and a review of emails found on a copy of Hunter’s purported laptop that have been authenticated by The Post, illustrate how the president’s son and his partners benefited from his last name. There is also limited evidence that the now-president asked his son to be careful or expressed qualms about how Hunter was wielding the name he made famous.
Hunter Biden’s legal team referred to past statements that he and his lawyers have made, including from his current lawyer Abbe Lowell, who has said that “Hunter Biden did not involve his father in, nor did his father assist him in, his business” and that “it’s been five years of investigations into Hunter Biden and his legitimate business activities, and still Republicans have nothing to show for it.”
The White House declined to comment.
Over the years, Hunter’s relationship with his own last name has been complex and even tortured. He has been proud of it, relied on it, benefited from it. But it has also invited burdens and scrutiny. And while his business life has been closely bound up with his father’s world, he has at times been protective of the Biden name and shied away from taking advantage too directly.
“We would come to him with ideas, and he would say all the time, ‘No, we’re not doing that. That’s too close to the edge,’” said one former business partner, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about private conversations. “He would say constantly, ‘The Biden brand is not mine to f— up.’”
For the second presidential election in a row, Hunter is expected to be a focus of the campaign. The president’s son has faced a multiyear criminal investigation, resulting in charges related to a gun purchase and more charges potentially to come on tax issues.
These developments put Hunter’s business deals under renewed scrutiny and shine a spotlight on a business strategy that, as Archer recently testified, revolved around a central pillar: leveraging the Biden brand.
At first Hunter, after graduating from Yale Law School in 1996, pursued a relatively traditional career for an up-and-coming Washington lawyer.
He worked as a senior vice president at MBNA America. He joined the U.S. Commerce Department to focus on e-commerce policy. He was appointed to the board of Amtrak. He was a registered lobbyist and a founding partner of Oldaker, Biden and Belair.
By 2008, Hunter’s firm was thriving. He was sober, he had a $1.6 million home in Washington, and his three daughters were enrolled at Sidwell Friends School.
In his telling, all of that was abruptly derailed when Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate and imposed strict lobbying restrictions on family members. “Then,” Hunter wrote in his memoir, “Dad joined the Obama ticket, and I had to find new work. Some Obama advisors vehemently opposed my lobbying and made it clear it would have to end.”
He scrambled to start a consulting firm to advise small and midsize companies on domestic and international expansions. He named it Seneca Global Advisers, after one of the Finger Lakes near his late mother’s hometown.
He soon partnered with Archer and Chris Heinz, former senator John F. Kerry’s stepson, to form a new firm called Rosemont Seneca (Heinz did not respond to a request for comment). Hunter would steer clients toward lobbyists if needed, according to business partners and emails, but he himself sought to avoid directly lobbying federal agencies or officials.
Instead, he used relationships forged over a politically active life the way other people with famous names have done — to bring in business, give advice, make connections.
“The stuff he was doing was completely normal,” said one former business associate, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid controversy. “A lot of it was him trying to find a new line of work but leveraging what he knew well, which was people and his network.”
But attracting clients to his new venture proved daunting. Hunter, by then in his mid-40s, at times seemed out of his depth, according to those close to him. He described it as “riding the escalator without an exit.”
“What people get wrong about him is assuming he had a plan,” said another person familiar with his business, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment. “He was a fish out of water trying to figure out how to do anything outside of D.C. He grew up around politics and was very, very familiar inside D.C. — but doing anything outside is foreign to him.”
Archer, a friend of Heinz’s from Yale, saw potential in the Biden brand. “Devon immediately was like, ‘Oh man, that last name could help’ — and off they went,” the person said.
Archer declined to comment, and his attorney pointed to congressional testimony his client provided earlier this year.
“Devon Archer shared the truth with Congress when he met with them in July, and if called upon to do so again, he will answer all of the questions put to him truthfully,” Matthew L. Schwartz, Archer’s attorney, said in a statement. “Mr. Archer has always cooperated with all investigations of the Biden family, and he leaves it to the investigators as to what, if anything, they should do.”
As Hunter grew his business, he often sought to give potential clients the impression that he could get things done because of his connections, but he avoided promising any particular actions by his father, one of the former associates said. “If there is anything here, it’s an abuse of soft power,” the person said.
With his father ensconced as vice president, Hunter and his business partners scoured the globe for business opportunities. They looked at oil in Kazakhstan in 2014, signed an engagement with a Romanian firm in 2015, and sought deals with wealthy Mexican business executives in 2016, according to business partners and emails.
Hunter also entered into business deals in China, and took a seat on the board of Burisma, an energy company in Ukraine. That position came at a time when Joe Biden was the face of the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down on corruption in Ukraine — a push that Republicans later argued without evidence may have benefited his son.
It did showcase, however, the ways in which Hunter pursued business abroad at a time when his father was serving as a globe-trotting statesman, overlapping in ways that worried Biden advisers about a perceived conflict of interest. As Hunter prospected for clients, there were times when he looked for ways that his father’s travel could intersect with his own, The Post review of emails shows.
When one of his associates, Eric Schwerin, emailed a news story on Nov, 12, 2015, about the vice president planning a visit to Croatia for a summit with southern European leaders, Hunter responded, “Let’s see if it makes any sense for me to do some of my own stuff on the down low.”
Schwerin wrote back, “I am quietly checking to find out which other leaders are attending.”
Schwerin did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Hunter was often seen by people close to his father — and those who wanted to be — as an important conduit to his tightknit family.
“Here’s my direct email,” future California Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote to him in June 2014 from a private Gmail address. (Newsom declined to comment.)
When Joe Biden had breakfast with then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York in 2010 and golfed with him in Washington in 2012, Hunter was invited. (A spokesman for Bloomberg declined to comment.)
When Jack Markell, then governor of Delaware, attempted to secure a meeting between Joe Biden and a group of Chinese business executives considering an investment in Delaware, Markell tried to enlist Hunter’s help in reaching his vice-presidential father. But Hunter, appearing a bit baffled, was not sure he could assist.
“I don’t know how to handle — JRB is not going to meet with 4 Chinese Nationals — at least I don’t think he will,” Hunter wrote, using his father’s initials in an email to Dennis Toner, a longtime former aide to Joe Biden. “And clearly they can’t be at a [fundraiser] with him. What do you suggest?”
Markell the next day asked Hunter if his father could at least write a letter apologizing for being unable to meet with the business executives. “If that doesn’t work, perhaps a letter from Hunter referring to his dad or something … i think you get the point,” he added.
Toner said he did not recall any conversations about the email. Markell, who is the U.S. ambassador to Italy and San Marino, said he did not remember the exchange or any letter materializing. Of an engagement with the vice president, he said, “I’m confident no such meeting took place.”
It was not unusual for Hunter to travel abroad with his father, giving him access to high-level officials, although former associates say he reimbursed the government for the flights.
Early in his father’s vice presidency, Hunter made a point of emphasizing certain ethical lines. He admonished some of his White House guests that they were not to discuss business on-site. He rejected some business deals, saying they overlapped too closely with his father’s activities.
“My concern is that my Dad is point person for administration on Russia — I want to make sure there is no conflict here,” he wrote to one of his business partners in 2011.
Several times, Hunter was asked to help set up meetings or contact a senator on someone’s behalf, but he demurred because he feared it would constitute lobbying, which he was prohibited from doing.
“Do people with influential fathers get things done? All day long. That’s how it works,” one of his former business associates said. “Hunter knew that there were lines that could be crossed and he wasn’t willing to cross them.”
Hunter even expressed frustration in 2014 when Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager, began doing private work that Hunter viewed as benefiting from his connection with Obama’s political operation.
Messina had formed a consulting firm, which Hunter argued was bolstered by his political connections, and Hunter railed against the effort in an email to some of his father’s advisers as well as his brother. “Can anyone explain?” he asked.
The efforts by Messina, who declined to comment, seemed particularly to grate on Hunter because Obama’s ethics rules had forced him to alter his own work.
“Isn’t this a huge slap in the face of every Obama donor and volunteer who built OFA for the exact purpose of ending this ‘revolving door’ bullshit,” Hunter wrote, referring to Organizing For America, Obama’s grass-roots operation. “How is this story not titled Obama campaign manager and former WH assistant to the President sells out on everything this Administration supposedly stood for?”
But over time, it appears that Hunter shed some of his caution.
That was evident in 2014 and 2015, when his brother Beau, suffering from a brain tumor, got sicker and eventually died. Hunter had long wrestled with addiction, and his brother’s cancer sent him into his biggest spiral yet, according to former associates as well as Hunter’s memoir.
Some of Hunter’s associates believe his addiction drove him to drop some of the ethical restraint he had exercised when his father first became vice president.
“When Hunter fell off the wagon, all the wheels came off,” said one former business associate.
Others suggested his addiction prompted a need for more funds. “You see a guy who is desperate for money because of those issues, and a dad very much trying to keep him on track, but who from every single interaction I had with them was never going to mix any of that stuff or help Hunter with business partners,” another former business associate said.
Still, the person acknowledged that, from Hunter’s end, “There was certainly a bunch of stupid emails and texts” as he grew more desperate.
He joined the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company, in the spring of 2014, despite warnings from some Biden advisers about a potential conflict since his father was Obama’s point man on Ukraine.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Joe Biden told his son at the time, according to interviews he, as well as his son, later gave in one of the only known instances in which his father questioned his business pursuits. Hunter responded by telling his father that he did.
Hunter also attempted to gain the favor of some of the wealthiest and most influential business executives in Mexico, a country where he saw tantalizing business opportunities, including as a potential site for Burisma to expand its oil and gas exploration.
A Biden family friend, Jeff Cooper, was meanwhile pursuing online gambling operations throughout South America. He and Hunter joined forces to connect with several Mexican business executives and, at least twice, Hunter secured meetings between some of those business executives and his father.
In early 2014, at Hunter’s request, a vice-presidential photographer sent images of a meeting in Biden’s office that included Joe, Hunter, Cooper and two Mexican business executives, Miguel Alemán Velasco — whose father was president of Mexico from 1946 to 1952 — and his son, Miguel Alemán Magnani, who ran the Mexican budget airline Interjet.
Nearly two years later, in November 2015, Hunter set up a breakfast at the Naval Observatory with the same group, along with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
Slim, as well as Alemán Velasco and Alemán Magnani, did not respond to requests for comment, and Cooper declined to comment.
One person familiar with the encounters, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the meetings were not substantive. “It was way more, ‘My friends are in town. Is it all right if we come up for breakfast?’” the person said. “It was, ‘Yeah, of course.’”
The vice president seemed to welcome the chance to speak with Slim, who had built one of the largest telecom companies in the world and was a major shareholder of the New York Times Co. Hunter, for his part, was able to show off his proximity to his father to his prospective business partners.
In early 2016, Hunter and Cooper joined the vice president on Air Force Two for a trip to an economic summit in Mexico City. It was the setting for one of Hunter’s most volatile eruptions, and one of his clearest demands for a favor from someone he’d cultivated.
Hunter emailed Alemán Magnani, asking him to bring his dad, the son of the former Mexican president, to greet them when Air Force Two landed, and he was angry that Alemán Magnani was ignoring him. They had been talking about business deals and partnerships for seven years, Hunter wrote, and yet “I haven’t heard from you since I got you a mtg for Carlos and your Dad.”
“I have brought every single person you have ever asked me to bring to the F’ing White House and the Vice President’s house and the inauguration and then you go completely silent — I don’t hear from you for months,” Hunter wrote in an email sent on the afternoon of Feb. 24, 2016, hours before they were to arrive in Mexico. “I don’t know what it is that I did but I’d like to know why I’ve delivered on every single thing you’ve ever asked — and you make me feel like I’ve done something to offend you.”
Alemán Magnani did not show up at the airport, but he and Hunter met for dinner in Mexico. The vice president’s son spent much of that dinner berating the Mexican business executive to the point where Alemán Magnani excused himself to go to the bathroom and never returned, according to a person familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private event.
In the end, any dealings with Alemán Magnani seemed to fall apart in part due to Hunter’s erratic behavior, the person said, and the younger Biden never did any business in Mexico.
Archer testified recently before Congress that Hunter’s approach was to sell the illusion, rather than the reality, of access to his father. The two Bidens would speak on a daily basis, and at times Hunter would put his father on speakerphone in the middle of business meetings.
They were in a restaurant in Paris with executives from a French energy company, Archer testified, when Hunter put his father on speakerphone. Archer recalled another instance in China, meeting with a business executive, when something similar happened. Altogether, he estimated, he heard Hunter speak with his father on about 20 occasions while in business meetings.
“It was, you know, just general niceties and, you know, conversation in general,” Archer said. “You know, about the geography, about the weather, whatever it may be.”
Archer said he knew of no instance when Joe Biden took official action on Hunter’s behalf.
“At the end of the day, part of what was delivered is the brand,” Archer said. “That’s what we’re talking about, is that there was brand being delivered, along with other capabilities and reach.”
“Obviously,” he added later, “the brand carried.”
Lowell, Hunter’s lawyer, has emphasized that the phone calls were routine and did not reflect any engagement in Hunter’s business.
“It’s well known that Hunter and his father speak daily,” he said in response to Archer’s testimony in late July. “And what Mr. Archer confirmed today was that when those calls occurred during Hunter’s business meetings, if there was any interaction between his father and his business associates, it was simply to exchange small talk.”
Another Hunter Biden business partner, Rob Walker, provided a description similar to Archer’s. In an interview with FBI and IRS agents, Walker said the younger Biden was “real careful about not crossing any sort of lines.”
But he also recounted a business lunch between Hunter and a group of Chinese business executives at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington in 2017. Joe Biden, who was then out of office, stopped by.
“He literally [just] sat down — I don’t even think he drank water,” Walker said, according to a transcript of the interview released by House Republicans. “I think Hunter said, ‘Um, I may be trying to start a company, ah, or tried to do something with these guys and could you …,’ and I think he was like, ‘If I’m around,’ and he’d show up.”
The FBI agent asked: “So you definitely got the feeling that that was orchestrated by Hunter to have, like, an appearance by his dad at that meeting just to kind of bolster your chances at making a deal work out?”
“Sure,” Walker replied.
Walker did not return messages seeking comment.
Walker was among the recipients of a May 2017 email that has been repeatedly cited by Republicans suggesting that a prospective deal with Chinese executives would include 10 percent set aside for Joe Biden, referred to in the email as “the big guy.”
Walker testified that the author of the email, James Gilliar, included that notion as a bit of “wishful thinking.” He added, “It looks terrible, but it’s not. I certainly never was thinking at any time that the VP was a part of anything we were doing.”
Gilliar did not respond to a request for comment, but in 2020 told the Wall Street Journal that “I am unaware of any involvement at any time of the former vice president.”
Hunter and his uncle James Biden separately signed an agreement with the business executives, who represented a Chinese energy conglomerate called CEFC, and over the course of 14 months CEFC and its executives paid $4.8 million to entities James and Hunter controlled. In a review of that arrangement, The Post did not find evidence that Joe Biden personally benefited from or knew details about the transactions with CEFC, which took place after he had left the vice presidency and before he announced his intention to seek the White House in 2020.
More broadly, Hunter’s legal team has denied Republican charges that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s business deals, or that Hunter did anything improper in them.
“There is not a single financial transaction between President Biden and his son related to or involving any of Hunter Biden’s business ventures or prior private commercial dealings,” they wrote in a recent memo. “Hunter Biden’s business transactions were legitimate and well-documented in written agreements, and transactions legally tracked in his businesses’ bank statements.”
House Republicans have searched for ways to show that Joe Biden benefited from his son’s business dealings, but have so far largely come up empty.
They recently targeted one of Joe Biden’s private email addresses, asking the National Archives to provide messages from an account in which Biden used the alias “Robin Ware.” In response to a separate lawsuit seeking similar emails from the account, the Archives recently said it had identified approximately 82,000 pages of potentially responsive documents.
A small slice of those emails between Joe and Hunter Biden were authenticated by The Post, and they deal far more with personal matters than business deals. Joe Biden would forward news articles, send photos or remark about how tall a granddaughter had grown. He passed along messages to his children about their ancestors, or about how many miles he’d flown as vice president.
“Just leaving Ankara going to Istanbul. 4:45 pm here,” he wrote in a brief message from Turkey in 2011. “Miss you guys. Love Dad”
Mostly the emails convey the elder Biden’s concern for Hunter, shining a light on the delicate line he has tried walking in pursuing a highflying political career while dealing with a troubled son.
In July 2011, he wrote an email whose message was contained entirely in the subject line: “We are lucky fathers Love Dad”
“I’ve loved and admired your loyalty and fearlessness, even when I tried to chastise you,” Biden wrote to his son on Nov. 24, 2012. He wrote that “from the time you were a child you’ve had extraordinary courage.” He quoted Hunter’s grandmother, who in his telling often said, “Courage is the foundation block for character and character is destiny.”
The then-vice president recalled a moment when Hunter jumped into a crowd to defend his father when a “frat boy” yelled at him after Joe Biden dropped out of the 1988 presidential campaign. “I hoped I would have done the same for my dads honor,” Biden wrote. “You are my son blood of my blood bone of my bone.”
In a similar message, with the subject line “My beautiful son,” he wrote, “You’ve been a man since you were a child.”
By early 2019, Joe Biden was beginning to plan his presidential campaign. Hunter’s foreign business deals had largely faded. His lucrative partnership with Chinese energy executives had dissolved, and he would soon resign his Burisma position.
He was in the depths of addiction, by his own later account, and many of his business relationships had collapsed. Archer had been facing criminal charges in a case that did not involve Hunter, and, by March 2019, Archer was depressed and a little bitter.
“Why did your dad’s administration appointees arrest me and try to put me in jail? Just curious,” Archer asked in a text message, in an exchange found on a copy of Hunter’s hard drive and verified by a person familiar with it. “Why would they try and ruin my family and destroy my kids and no one from your family’s side step in and at least try to help me. I don’t get it.”
Archer declined to comment on the exchange.
“Buddy are you serious,” Hunter responded, going on to explain the role of an independent Justice Department and the need for checks and balances.
“It’s democracy. Three co equal branches of government,” he wrote. “You are always more vulnerable to the overreach of one of those Co equal branches when you are in power.”
In a message that predated his own legal problems, he wrote of the obligations of those in power.
“Every presidents family is held to a higher standard [and] is a target. It’s the price of being the most powerful group of people in the world,” Hunter wrote. “It’s why our democracy remains viable. It’s unfair at times but in the end the system of justice usually works and like you we are redeemed and the truth prevails. The unfairness to us allows for the greater good.”
His family always sticks together in dark moments, he said — “That’s the way Bidens are different and you are a Biden” — but Hunter, himself in a low place, also urged Archer not to blame him the way that others in his life had done.
“I’m somehow the source of all their disappointments. I’m beginning to believe all of them,” Hunter wrote. “And we aren’t a banana republic buddy. The powerful are targets in this country the more powerful they become. But the truth prevails if you have the stamina and guts and enough love to stay the course.”