WASHINGTON — Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter talk every day, typically a fast check-in initiated by the Democratic presidential nominee, often from the back of a car between campaign stops. Although Mr. Biden tries to touch base with his two grown children and five grandchildren once a day, doling out “I love yous,” Hunter is a special case.
“My only surviving son,” is how the former vice president refers to his “Hunt,” whose battles with addiction have made for a long-running high-wire act within the Biden universe.
The stresses of Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign have made an already complicated father-son relationship even more so. From the outset of the race, President Trump and his allies have made Hunter Biden’s business dealings a centerpiece of their efforts to portray his father as an unscrupulous swamp presence.
Some of the attacks are unfounded, but the facts of Hunter Biden’s troubled life have provided the president with ample fodder. Hunter Biden took a highly paid position with a Ukrainian oligarch regarded by the United States as corrupt, and later acknowledged he most likely got the job because his father was overseeing U.S. policy in the country at the time. He went into business with a number of partners who have subsequently been convicted of unrelated crimes. And his struggles with addiction have contributed to the less admirable lines on his résumé, including his abrupt departure from the Navy Reserve in 2014.
Beyond the attacks, aides say the former vice president agonizes over how his hyper-public position has added to the formidable burdens of being his remaining son. If Hunter sounds down on the phone, Biden aides say, it can send his father into a funk and inflict a melancholy that lingers.
Mr. Biden will rarely bring up Hunter himself, they say, although others certainly will. When a reporter asks a skeptical question about Hunter, the mood in the room shifts. Aides become tense knowing that Mr. Biden might lash out. “You’re a damn liar, man,” Mr. Biden said, jarringly, at a December campaign event in Iowa after a voter suggested he had sent his son to Ukraine to “get a job and work for a gas company” in order to gain access to that country’s ruling class.
“It’s almost a cliché now,” said Ted Kaufman, Mr. Biden’s longtime chief of staff and short-term successor in the Senate after Mr. Biden became vice president in 2009. “Joe Biden used to say this all the time, and he meant it: ‘Delaware can always get another senator, but the kids can’t get another father.’ His rule was that if one of his kids ever called, we were told to get Biden no matter where he was.’’
In his more raw and vulnerable moments, friends say, Mr. Biden will let himself wonder if he might have fallen short as a parent. Despite all of his efforts, the nightly Amtrak commutes from Washington to Wilmington and the obvious mutual affection, they say he wishes he could have done more to protect his children and steer them clear of harm.
As is well known, Mr. Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash a few weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. Beau, then 3, and Hunter, 2, were badly injured but survived. Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, and Mr. Biden has described his late son — an Iraq War veteran and a former attorney general of Delaware — as his hero, inspiration and role model. He has spoken expansively of Beau’s example, military service and his own grief over his eldest son’s death.
Hunter, now 50, is a tougher subject. He has been the source of fatherly anguish as well as a Republican fixation. His struggles with drug and alcohol and messy family and business entanglements have been relentlessly chronicled. After Beau died, Hunter became romantically involved with his brother’s widow, Hallie, creating a tabloid-ready humiliation and internal family fractures.
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Mr. Trump now calls his opponent’s son a “criminal.” At campaign rallies, the mention of Hunter Biden prompts “lock him up” chants.
Publicly, Mr. Biden has been reluctant to discuss Hunter except to reaffirm his love and support, and to assert that his son did nothing wrong. “The good thing is, Hunter, God love him, he is the best he’s been since Beau passed away,” Mr. Biden said in an interview. This was back in January, a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Biden was in the back seat of a black Suburban heading from Des Moines to a rally in nearby Indianola.
In subsequent months, Mr. Biden’s campaign would be routed in the early primaries before being resurrected in South Carolina, grounded by the coronavirus and propelled to the Democratic nomination. Current polling gives Mr. Biden a better-than-decent shot at becoming the president-elect next week. All the while, Hunter Biden has made for unnerving background music, and a steady din of concern for the patriarch of a family that has seen its share of public grief.
“I’m saying sorry to him, and he says, ‘I’m the one who’s sorry,’” Hunter Biden said in a sprawling and confessional interview last year with The New Yorker. “And we have an ongoing debate about who is more sorry.” Hunter Biden declined to comment for this article.
For all of the pain surrounding Beau’s death, Mr. Biden is much more eager to publicly discuss him than Hunter. Beau is, in a way, a safer space — a source of pride and even an idealized version of himself. “I think Joe would be the first to acknowledge that Beau was an upgrade,” President Obama said to laughter in his eulogy for Beau Biden. “Joe 2.0.”
Friends wonder what it must be like for Hunter — in addition to his portrayal as a problem child — to hear his brother so repeatedly canonized as his father’s ideal. If Beau is a golden boy to be boasted about on a debate stage, what does that make Hunter if not an easy pivot to shame?
“He got the Bronze Star,” Mr. Biden said in his first debate with Mr. Trump, listing Beau’s accomplishments, as he often does.
“Really?” Mr. Trump said, interrupting. “Are you talking about Hunter?”
“I’m talking about my son, Beau Biden,” the former vice president shot back.
“I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter,” Mr. Trump said, then brought up Hunter’s drug use.
Mr. Biden was ready. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,’’ he said. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.”
When he talks about Hunter, Mr. Biden often speaks of him in terms of Beau and the survivors’ bond they shared. “Beau and Hunt and I, there was like a steel band that ran through our chests connecting us,” Mr. Biden said in the interview in January. “While Beau was literally taking his last breaths, we were sitting on his bed, me on one side, Hunter on the other, holding hands in a circle.”
Beau’s death was more devastating for Hunter than anyone else, Ted Kaufman said. “They were together all the time,” he said. “They had this incredible, remarkable bond.”
When the boys were young, Mr. Biden was either bouncing back and forth between Washington and Wilmington or taking them along with him. “As a single man, he never seemed to go anywhere without one of his boys,” said Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate majority leader. From his own experience, Mr. Reid said he was painfully aware of how complicated it could be for the adult children of public figures, especially those who entered or at least brushed up against the family business.
Over the years Hunter Biden took on roles that intersected with his father’s political career, including working with a Delaware-based credit card issuer, working at the Commerce Department under President Bill Clinton and working as a lobbyist on behalf of various universities, associations and companies.
After Mr. Biden became Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, Hunter Biden terminated his lobbying registrations, which included a company that had lobbied the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which his father had served, about online gambling issues.
Months after his father became vice president, Mr. Biden joined with Christopher Heinz, the stepson of John Kerry, then a senator, and Devon Archer, a Kerry family friend, to create a network of investment and consulting firms.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Archer pursued business with international entities that had a stake in American foreign policy decisions, sometimes in countries where connections implied political influence and protection.
Joe Biden’s all-purpose rejoinder to any criticism of Hunter is to simply reassert his fatherly devotion.
“It was the kind of love that you have when you’ve gone through a tragedy together,” said Robert Buccini, a close friend of the Biden family who was inseparable from Beau and Hunter. “The vice president and his boys were the three survivors. He would always look them in the eye and say, ‘I love you.’ And the boys would say ‘I love you Dad.’ I think in that generation, it’s really unique for a father to be that expressive.”
One of the recurring tropes around Biden’s candidacy is that the grief his family has suffered tends to put the slings of a campaign into perspective. In other words, what on a campaign could be crueler than what the Biden family has already faced?
Mr. Biden has said as much. “That’s true,” he acknowledged in January. “Look, the idea of losing an election, losing an argument, losing — I mean, Christ.”
Still, no one can deny the gravity of Mr. Biden’s current enterprise, least of all him. And it’s not as if he is above lofty rhetoric of his own, like casting this election as some epic “battle for the soul of America.” The presence of Mr. Trump on the ballot makes this election a different beast. “If I lose,” Mr. Biden said, “it’s not as if it’s just, ‘OK, so I lost a race to John McCain, or lost to whoever.’”