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The Puke Test
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The Puke Test

Joe Biden’s shabby treatment of Hunter’s daughter is inhumane.

Hunter Biden in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 2023. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

There are two challenges when writing about Hunter Biden.

One is the number of unreliable narrators you’ll encounter in your search for the truth. There’s Hunter himself, of course, a ne’er-do-well former crackhead whose chief talents are getting rich off his surname and avoiding prison. (Oh, and “art.”) Around him are a phalanx of lawyers, spin doctors, fixers, and presidential fathers sporadically preoccupied with managing the fallout from whatever his latest sordid exploit might be.

On the other side, the House Republicans investigating Hunter belong to a party in which no conspiracy theory that casts liberals in a bad light is too wacky to be entertained. The 2020 election was rigged. January 6 was a false flag. How seriously can one take an accusation made by the Inspector Javerts in Kevin McCarthy’s caucus, knowing what sort of constituency they’re pandering to? Already some of the key witnesses in their Biden probe have allegedly gone missing or died, conveniently leaving Republicans unable to prove their suspicions of corruption. Only a fool or a propagandist would follow a trail of breadcrumbs left by these yutzes.

The other challenge is that not every “Hunter problem” is a “Joe problem.”

Hunter Biden might be a deadbeat in paying his taxes and a liar when purchasing guns but neither of those faults can be laid at Joe Biden’s feet. (Although it is funny that a famous Democrat’s son would be into guns and tax-dodging.) Even The Case of the Cocaine Cubbyhole probably won’t hurt Joe much if Hunter turns out to be the culprit. As disgraceful as it would be to have the first son using drugs in the White House, only the most hardened Trump cultist would surmise that he was doing so with the president’s approval.

There are Hunter problems that are also Joe problems, though. If Joe Biden was privy to Hunter’s attempt to shake down a Chinese businessman in 2017, as Hunter’s text to that businessman alleged, that would be a Joe problem. And if the lead prosecutor in Hunter’s federal criminal case was in fact thwarted by a lack of cooperation from other U.S. Attorneys—a charge for which the New York Times claims independent sourcing—that’s also a Joe problem. A big one.

To write about Hunter, then, is to gamble with an unusual degree of uncertainty about the facts and sometimes even the basic political salience of the subject at hand. I doubt the average Republican voter can explain coherently which wrongs, precisely, they think he committed in his business dealings overseas. For most, asking “Where’s Hunter?” or muttering about the laptop seem to be empty rhetorical talismans aimed at impugning Joe Biden without needing to provide specifics. Who wants to enable that by scrutinizing his son?

Yet Hunter Biden is a sleazy enough character that truly scandalous malfeasance really might be going on. Who wants to enable that by refusing to scrutinize him?

All of which brings us to the story of Hunter Biden’s daughter, a case of truly scandalous malfeasance where for once the truth is certain. And where a Hunter problem is now very much a Joe problem.

Three days ago the Times reported that John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, stated under oath that Trump once asked him about siccing the IRS on two of his antagonists in the FBI, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.

That story didn’t get traction over the weekend, and not just because the right these days is a coalition of people who don’t care about Trump’s corruption and people who actively support it. The story was overlooked because it’s dog-bites-man. Of course Trump wanted to grossly abuse federal power to torment his enemies. If you hadn’t seen it reported in the Times, you would have simply assumed that it had happened.

The story of Joe Biden pretending that his 4-year-old granddaughter doesn’t exist is man-bites-dog, and also gut-wrenching as a human matter in a way that a vindictive sociopath plotting political revenge is not. And so it has gotten attention lately, not just from conservative commentators but from a liberal as reliable and widely read as Maureen Dowd.

It was Dowd’s paper, the New York Times, that lit the fuse on the subject. Recently the Times reported on a settlement in the lawsuit between Hunter Biden and Lunden Roberts, the mother of his 4-year-old child. Hunter had been paying Roberts $20,000 per month in child support, as one might expect of a man who commands multimillion-dollar book advances for some reason. Under the settlement, his contribution will allegedly be reduced to $5,000 and his daughter will receive a selection of her father’s paintings, which may or may not be worth a dime now that they won’t be used by the artist himself as a way to launder influence peddling.

Roberts also agreed to drop her petition to change her daughter’s last name to “Biden,” something Hunter opposed despite the fact that a DNA test has confirmed his paternity. It wouldn’t be in the girl’s best interest to bear the burden of being a Biden when “disparagement” of the family is so common, he argued. “What absolute crap from a man whose entire existence has been propped up by nothing but the Biden name,” wrote Mary Katharine Ham of Hunter’s newfound allergy to nepotism. “He just doesn’t want to split the proceeds.”

Hunter Biden has a 3-year-old son with his current wife, incidentally. As far as I’m aware, despite the supposed risk of “disparagement,” his son does carry the famous surname.

After the settlement, the Times caught up with Roberts to see how her daughter is doing. Among numerous haunting passages in their report, this one sticks: “The girl is aware that her father is Hunter Biden and that her paternal grandfather is the president of the United States. She speaks about both of them often, but she has not met them.” Ignoring her is a family tradition that dates to before she was born. A source told the paper elsewhere that Hunter stopped responding to texts from Roberts at some point during her pregnancy, “including one informing him of the child’s birth date.”

All of this in isolation might be dismissed as a Hunter problem, not worthy of coverage in a political publication. Joe Biden has made it a Joe problem.

Since they entered the White House, President Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, have centered their family lives around their grandchildren, and have given them the benefits that come with living in close contact with the White House.

Naomi Biden, 29, is Hunter’s eldest child, from his first marriage, to Kathleen Buhle, which ended in 2017. Ms. Biden was married on the South Lawn of the White House last year in a Ralph Lauren dress that she called the product of her “American(a) dreams.” She and her sisters have taken trips around the world with the president and first lady. Hunter married Melissa Cohen in 2019. His youngest child, who is named for Beau and was born in 2020, is photographed frequently with his grandparents.

In April, President Biden told a group of children that he had “six grandchildren. And I’m crazy about them. And I speak to them every single day. Not a joke.”

Weirdest of all, “in strategy meetings in recent years, aides have been told that the Bidens have six, not seven, grandchildren, according to two people familiar with the discussions.” Distorting objective reality for the sake of political convenience is a foible of Biden’s predecessor, yet here he is guilty of that sin too—at the expense of an innocent 4-year-old member of his own family. Dowd was so mortified by the cruelty of the pretense that she rebuked it in the title of her column: “It’s Seven Grandkids, Mr. President.”

Seven, not six. Why does he have such trouble saying so?

The only limit to how cynical Joe Biden’s motives might be is your own imagination. To a MAGA devotee, playing along with Hunter’s ongoing effort to disown his child is something Joe is obliged to do to prevent his son from revealing to prosecutors who “the big guy” is. It’s blackmail, explicit or otherwise.

I share the suspicion that the relationship between Joe and Hunter is something of a hostage crisis but tend to think it’s more emotional than professional. Joe Biden lost a child in infancy, then lost his eldest son a few years ago to cancer, and now is seemingly willing to treat his remaining son with limitless indulgence so as not to send him spiraling back into addiction and an early death. There will be no “tough love” here, no matter how much Hunter takes advantage.

If that means letting him live in the White House or inviting him to the same state dinners as the man who prosecuted him or playing along with his attempt to non-person a little girl he never wanted, the president will dutifully play along. If he were to invite Lunden Roberts and her daughter to the White House and the shame of it ended up knocking Hunter off the wagon, how would Joe forgive himself?

If in fact the Bidens have let themselves be drafted into ostracizing a child for the sake of humoring Hunter, understand what it means. It means they’re willing to trade her happiness for his, knowing all that might mean for her in adulthood. Hunter Biden has blamed his own problems with addiction on the trauma he suffered as a young boy when his mother and sister were killed; how Hunter’s daughter will cope with the trauma of being known as the Biden whom the Biden family didn’t want is anyone’s guess.

But the guesses aren’t hard to formulate.

Perhaps I’m giving Joe Biden and his family too much credit, though?

Conceivably they’ve ostracized the little girl not because Hunter put them up to it to spare himself from embarrassment but because they disapprove of her in their own right. They’re ashamed of her and they can’t be bothered to hide it.

Lunden Roberts was working as a stripper when Hunter Biden met her. Their relationship is aptly characterized as a fling. Scranton Joe loves to play up his blue-collar pedigree, the just-folks “common touch” celebrated in a thousand puff pieces about his devotion to Amtrak, but the thought of embracing a child produced by an affair with a stripper may have been too much for a “respectable” geriatric middle-class sensibility to bear—especially one cosseted by half a century spent as one of America’s elites.

That would be a strange hill for a seasoned politician to die on, though, knowing that 40 percent of all births in the United States these days are to unwed mothers. Many an American voter is happily raising a child who was the product of a fling or a “mistake” and many more have overcome youthful missteps far more grievous than stripping. A Dispatch colleague reminded me that Biden himself remains sufficiently pro-child to have told a crowd of Democrats recently that, being a Catholic, he’s “not big on abortion” (although his commitment to legalizing it is as strong as ever, rest assured). 

Would the Bidens have preferred that Lunden Roberts aborted her child, as their “six, not seven, grandchildren” talking point suggests? On what grounds do they turn up their noses at the two?

Apart from Roberts’ taste in men, I mean, which is admittedly unspeakable.

One wonders if this Joe problem, which began as a Hunter problem, might end up as an electoral problem.

I don’t think it will. But if I were Biden, knowing how close the next election will be, I wouldn’t take chances. I’d be looking to remedy this ASAP.

It would be more of a headache for him if his likely Republican opponent next fall were a person of rectitude, well-positioned to shame him for being so gratuitously callous.

That is not the sort of person Biden is likely to face, I gently remind you.

Trump will do what he can to make hay of it, in keeping with how he responded to the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016. He relishes his opponents’ moral failings not because they offend him but because they make his own seem marginally less offensive by comparison. 

But it’s hard to imagine how swing voters who already hate him might be moved by this scandal. Which Americans out there are currently inclined to oppose a guy who wants the IRS to harass his political adversaries but will regrettably support him once they discover that the current president is cold-shouldering the child of his sleazebag son?

The only thing that gives me pause is the fact that the New York Times has taken an interest in this. That’s not because it’s a political scandal in the traditional sense, affecting the president’s ability to do his job. It’s because, I suspect, the thought of a little girl asking repeatedly about her absent father and grandfather and being given endless excuses about why she can’t meet them is so repulsive as to fail “the puke test.”

The puke test” is a concept in law describing the tendency of some judges, most famously Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., to give Congress a wide berth on legislation. It’s a pragmatic idea: Only when the legislature produces policy that violates the Constitution so flagrantly as to make the court want to vomit should it be struck down, the theory goes. In such cases, lawyers would say, the statute failed “the puke test.”

Ostracizing a 4-year-old for the sin of being born to the wrong mother fails the puke test. I doubt it fails that test so horribly as to influence the election, particularly since Trump fails the puke test an average of once or twice a day, but there’s no way to follow the saga of Lunden Roberts and her daughter and look at Joe Biden the same way. Even the New York Times agrees, if only implicitly.

Hunter could help him fix that by putting his father’s interests ahead of his own for once and volunteering to bring his daughter into the family. If it’s too much to ask him to care about his child sincerely, caring about her insincerely for political reasons would be preferable to how she’s being treated now. But that would require a degree of selflessness that would be uncharacteristic, to put it mildly. A man willing to show his face at a state dinner days after copping a plea to federal offenses is a man who’s looking out for number one, always and everywhere.

Joe Biden will need to figure out a way to make contact with Roberts and his granddaughter on his own, without embarrassing Hunter overly much. Perhaps there’ll be a phone call or two, or a visit to his Delaware home the next time he’s on vacation. Inviting them to the White House with the rest of the family would be too much, it seems, given how shabbily they’ve been treated already. At some point, after treating someone much worse than they deserve, you want them out of sight not because you’re ashamed of them but because you’re ashamed of yourself.

He’d better do something to make this right, though. If an 80-year-old man can’t be persuaded for reasons of basic humanity to get to know his grandchild during the little time he has left, political expediency might twist his arm. Hopefully the feigned affection will be enough to prevent her from growing up to be too much like her old man.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.