In the four years before his father became US president, Hunter Biden allegedly made more than $7mn from a variety of foreign sources, including a Ukrainian conglomerate, a Romanian businessperson and a Chinese energy group, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday.
The tax charges, which lay out the scale of Hunter Biden’s income between 2016 and 2020, add fuel to Republicans’ criticism about influence peddling by Joe Biden’s son as the president fights off calls for his impeachment in the face of a tough re-election campaign.
Joe Biden is not named or implicated in the charges. But his son’s legal woes will nevertheless be front and centre as the president seeks another four years in the White House, in what critics and allies alike say will be a damaging distraction for him.
“Biden’s core promise was that in a Biden presidency, you are not going to have to deal with all of that mess that surrounds Donald Trump. Well, this is some of that mess,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
The indictment charges Hunter Biden with the alleged failure to pay at least $1.4mn of federal taxes from the years between 2016 and 2019, a period that covered Joe Biden’s last year as vice-president and the start of his 2020 presidential campaign. During that time, federal prosecutors said, Hunter Biden was making substantial income from, among other things, serving as a board member of Ukrainian conglomerate Burisma, helping an individual fight bribery charges in Romania and identifying business opportunities for Chinese group CEFC China Energy.
Those allegations go to the heart of impeachment efforts being mounted by House Republicans, who allege that Joe Biden has lied about his awareness of and participation in his family’s business dealings. They expect to vote on whether to initiate proceedings as soon as next week.
James Comer, the Republican chair of the House oversight committee who has been leading an investigation into Hunter Biden’s overseas business matters, released a statement after the indictment crediting two IRS whistleblowers who had testified to his committee. Its probe “of the Bidens’ influence peddling schemes reveals how Joe Biden knew about, participated in, and benefited from his family cashing in on the Biden name”, Comer alleged.
The White House has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Comer’s statement.
Beyond the business dealings, the charges have also handed Republicans a number of embarrassing allegations about Hunter Biden’s spending. The 56-page indictment details $5mn in purchases ranging from home maintenance and sports to nearly $700,000 payments for “various women”.
More salacious items allegedly include a $1,500 Venmo payment to an “exotic dancer” at a strip club, a $10,000 sex club membership and “wages” for women with whom he had romantic or sexual relationships — all of which were allegedly mislabelled under accounting standards.
Federal prosecutors sought to focus on Hunter Biden’s “extravagant lifestyle” at a time when he allegedly failed to pay taxes, from a $275 dinner at high-end restaurant Nobu, to a nearly $4,000 Lamborghini rental and numerous luxury hotel stays, including $43,693 spent at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles.
As the Republican frontrunner to take on Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential election, Trump has made Hunter Biden’s travails a frequent talking point on the campaign trail. The latest public opinion polls suggest Biden would lose to him in a hypothetical rematch.
The White House has referred questions about the tax charges to the Department of Justice and representatives for Hunter Biden.
The president has for years stood by his son amid several scandals, including those stemming from a tumultuous personal life plagued by drug addiction and infidelity.
The latest indictment is a messy twist in a legal saga that initially seemed headed for a speedy resolution earlier this year, when Hunter Biden agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanour counts of wilful failure to pay federal income tax, and enter a “pretrial diversion agreement” on a separate charge of lying about his drug use when buying a gun.
But the plea deal fell apart, and negotiations between the two parties to reach a fresh resolution failed. In September, he was indicted separately on the gun charge in Delaware.
Abbe Lowell, Hunter Biden’s lawyer, on Thursday said: “Based on the facts and the law, if Hunter’s last name was anything other than Biden, the charges in Delaware, and now California, would not have been brought.”
It is unclear whether the charges brought this week were linked to the plea deal. But “it’s certainly possible that the failure to reach an agreement . . . gave the government an incentive to push forward and also subjected [it] to intense political pressure that I suspect it would say did not affect its judgment, but one never knows”, said Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School.
The charges display the “extent and intensity of the investigation” and also “convey to the broader public what tax evasion looks like”, Richman added. Tax evasion indictments are few relative to the extent of misconduct in the US, so “each one is intended to have a deterrent effect. This is one of those indictments that has the public’s attention, and I think they’re taking advantage of that.”
In a podcast released on Friday and hosted by musician Moby, Hunter Biden said the attacks against him were “not necessarily about me” and that Republican lawmakers were “trying to destroy a presidency”.
“They’re trying to kill me knowing that it will be a pain greater than my father could be able to handle,” he added. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his remarks.