Joe Biden's family is under the microscope. Here's what Republicans are looking to find
New congressional majority plans to probe foreign transactions. Their target is the U.S. president
Stories about U.S. President Joe Biden's son were actively suppressed and buried in a virtual information void before the 2020 election.
Now we're all going to hear about it, courtesy of the new Republican congressional majority and its plans to investigate.
A first hearing Wednesday started with the 2020 election: Former Twitter executives were grilled over their decision to delete posts about Hunter Biden's laptop. Few news organizations reported about that abandoned laptop in 2020, a marked contrast from the previous election, which produced countless headlines about Democrats' personal emails, allegedly hacked by Russians.
One reason for that scant attention: social media giants Facebook and Twitter deleted references to Hunter Biden stories; national security experts, meanwhile, mounted a public campaign to paint it as Russian misinformation.
Congressional Republicans are now out to probe the angles of the Hunter Biden story — from what his laptop revealed about family businesses, to what the current president knew.
The first hearing alternated between probing questions and partisan spectacle. Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene berated Twitter for suspending her account over alleged COVID misinformation. She told the four executives, since fired by new owner Elon Musk: "I'm so glad you lost your jobs."
Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bemoaned what she viewed as a waste of time better spent on health care, drug prices, or abortion: "This is an embarrassment."
Twitter executives made an admission: their actions were wrong. They said posts about Hunter Biden should not have been deleted. They called it an honest mistake, not a politically motivated act intended to help Joe Biden get elected.
Republicans' real target: Joe Biden
Republicans are transparent about their ultimate target. It's not the middle-aged son who's notoriously battled drug addiction.
"Let me be clear: We're not investigating Hunter Biden," James Comer, Republican chair of the oversight committee, told NBC's Meet The Press last month.
"We're investigating Joe Biden."
They say members of Biden's family drew lucrative salaries from foreigners; that their proximity to Joe Biden was why they got paid; that their work violated U.S. interests; that Joe Biden was well aware but lied; and that this compromised the president.
The allegations against Hunter Biden
Republicans suggest influence-peddling was the family business. The committee wants to probe lucrative foreign payments from China and Ukraine to members of the president's family, particularly his son, Hunter, and brother, Jim.
Comer says his committee wants to hear what, specifically, the Bidens did to earn millions in consulting fees from 2014 to 2017. In the Senate last year, Republicans produced what they called evidence of millions in payments to the president's son and brother from CEFC China Energy, a company with connections to Chinese officials.
CEFC had been a major private-sector booster of China's worldwide Belt and Road infrastructure project, before CEFC started to implode after 2017. The company's downfall began when an ex-Hong Kong cabinet minister was convicted in the U.S. for scheming to bribe officials in Uganda and Chad on behalf of the company.
After that, the company's chairman mysteriously vanished in China upon being accused of corrupting a senior Communist Party official.
This was right after Hunter Biden reportedly tried setting up a shared office for a company representative and his dad, at the time the former vice-president. Reports from different media that have examined Hunter Biden's emails say he requested, in 2017, keys for an office for his father, mother, uncle and Gongwen Dong, the emissary of the Chinese energy company.
He also reportedly requested a new sign be placed outside the office mentioning the Biden Foundation and CEFC China Energy. But CEFC fell on hard times; building management says Hunter Biden never followed up on the email, and never picked up the keys, according to the media reports.
Republicans want to see scores of Suspicious Activity Reports where U.S. banks reportedly flagged Biden family transactions, which, according to CBS News, occurred more than 150 times. Such SARs are rarely linked to crimes, but get filed when financial institutions see transactions that resemble tax evasion or money-laundering.
Republicans demanded that the Treasury Department release these reports and, in a letter, accused the department of breaking protocol by hiding them.
Republicans also have questions about Hunter Biden's artwork: they're wondering why his pieces are being priced as high as $500,000, according to what his art dealer told an art-market website, and they want buyers' names revealed.
As for Hunter Biden himself, he disclosed, two years ago, being under criminal investigation over his income taxes; CBS News also reported that he was also being investigated for unregistered foreign lobbying.
FBI agents believed they had sent federal attorneys sufficient evidence to charge Hunter Biden with crimes, CBS said last October.
A lawyer for Hunter Biden responded by accusing the FBI of illegally leaking details from a grand jury investigation.
Is there evidence of Joe Biden's involvement?
Joe Biden was asked about the coming investigations against him, after Republicans won the House of Representatives last fall.
"It's just almost comedy," Biden said. Another time in November, Biden taunted his foes: "Lots of luck in your senior year, as my coach used to say."
Biden repeatedly said he never talked to his son about business. But Biden did see many of his son's business partners while vice-president; one associate visited the White House 19 times, according to visitor logs, and reportedly met with Biden.
There was also a passing remark in a 2018 voice message to Hunter Biden, where Joe Biden reportedly alluded to a newspaper story about his son's business.
Republicans say that if the president is lying, and in fact did talk business with his son, he's recklessly left himself vulnerable to blackmail.
There's less evidence to suggest Joe Biden ever personally profited. Some stories alleging that he shared in his son's finances have eroded under scrutiny; others remain unproven.
In an example of the former, some outlets erroneously speculated that Hunter Biden paid exorbitant levels of house rent to his father — based on their misinterpreting a financial disclosure form. Others concluded from a 2010 email that father and son shared a bank account: this was based on an email from a family associate stating that Joe Biden owed his son money and would pay upon receiving his state tax refund.
In the category of unproven allegations, a British partner of Hunter Biden purportedly wrote, in a 2017 email, that a 10-per-cent stake would be set aside for "the big guy" in Hunter's joint venture with the Chinese company, CEFC.
Another business associate, Tony Bobulinski, appeared at a 2020 Trump campaign event to declare Joe Biden was the so-called big guy. But the partner who sent that email, James Gilliar, later said Joe Biden was never involved; in a subsequent draft agreement, there's no mention of a 10-per-cent stake, or Joe Biden.
Another attention-grabbing allegation involves a text message purportedly from Hunter to his daughter in 2019: it complained Hunter had been bankrolling the family for years and had to give his dad half his salary.
But evidence of that shared income, to date, is scant: news reports about Hunter handling relatively minor expenses at his dad's house like cable bills and landscaping.
The Canadian angle: Critical minerals
The New York Times reported in 2021 that a company co-led by Hunter Biden brokered the transfer of critical minerals to Chinese state-backed firms. The Times said Chinese state-controlled companies funded Hunter Biden's company as it paid $1.14 billion in 2016 to buy Lundin Mining of Canada's minority stake in cobalt deposits in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lundin Mining did not respond to CBC News' request for comment.
A former Hunter Biden associate disputed the importance of that transaction: he told The Times Biden played no role, his company earned a negligible fee, and the proceeds went into company revenues, not to him.
Republicans want to see government documents from that 2016 transaction. Last year, they called it a clear example of the president's family putting personal profit above the national interest.
At Wednesday's initial hearing, a congressman lamented that stories about the Bidens' foreign business ties were hidden from the electorate in 2020.
"Do you think the American people deserved to know that? I do," said Republican William Timmons.
On the probe's legitimacy
Is this probe legitimate? Potentially yes, says Tim Stretton, who trains congressional staff on investigations for the Washington-based Project On Government Oversight.
"Oversight is good," he told CBC News. "It's actually one of Congress's most important constitutional responsibilities."
He said it's fair to ask whether the country needs new conflict-of-interest laws and, in drafting new legislation, Congress has a duty to study the issue.
But he adds a caveat: Not if it's a partisan affair. If it's just one party attacking the other, Stretton said, it leads to worse hearings, worse recommendations, and lower chances of reforms ever passing into law.
"It begs the question: 'What's the point?'" he said.
It would have been more productive to broaden the probe, he said, to include business entanglements in the Trump family, and see if there's a systemic problem that needs addressing.
The committee chair from Kentucky insisted he wants his probe to lead to new conflict-of-interest legislation. But he insists the Trump and Biden family cases are different: "I know what business [Jared] Kushner was in," Comer said recently at the National Press Club.
"He's in the real-estate business. What business is Hunter Biden in? I would argue it's influence-peddling. I've got a problem with that."