Hunter Biden

April 30, 2021
Hunter Biden on Back From BrokenHunter Biden on Back From Broken

Hunter Biden’s struggle with addiction has been intense — and very public. His battle with alcohol and cocaine addiction came under scrutiny as his father, Joe Biden, ran for president. But with the support of his family, Hunter found the help he needed. His recovery story, which he shared in his book “Beautiful Things,” offers hope to those who are still struggling.

Back from Broken is a show about how we are all broken sometimes, and how we need help from time to time. If you’re struggling, you can seek help through a list of resources we've compiled.

Host: Vic Vela
Lead producer: Brad Turner
Editor: Dennis Funk
Producers: Jo Erickson, Luis Antonio Perez, Rebekah Romberg
Music: Daniel Mescher, Brad Turner
Executive producers: Brad Turner, Rachel Estabrook

Thanks also to Hart van Denburg, Jodi Gersh, Clara Shelton, Matt Herz, Martin Skavish, Kim Nguyen, Francie Swidler.

On Twitter: @VicVela1

Transcript

Vic Vela:
In three, two, one.

Joe Biden:
And, speaking of my son, the way you talk about the military…

Vic Vela:
Okay. It's September of 2020. Democratic candidate Joe Biden is debating Republican President Donald Trump on national TV. And all of a sudden, things turn personal. Biden's son Hunter, who's struggled with addiction for years, becomes the focus of the debate.

Donald Trump:
Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged…

Joe Biden:
That's not true. He wasn’t dishonorably discharged—

Donald Trump:
…for cocaine use and he didn't have a job until you became Vice President. And—

Joe Biden:
None of that is true.

Donald Trump:
Once you became Vice President, he made a fortune in Ukraine, in China, and Moscow—

Joe Biden:
That is simply not true.

Donald Trump:
And various other places.

Joe Biden:
My son—

Donald Trump:
And he didn’t have a job.

Joe Biden:
My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people, you know, at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it. He's, he's, he's fixed it. He's worked on it, and I'm proud of him. I’m proud of my son.

Donald Trump:
But why was he given tens of millions… [FADES OUT]

Vic Vela:
Hey Hunter. How’s it going?

Hunter Biden:
Hey Vic, how are you? It's good to talk to you.

Vic Vela:
What did that moment mean to you after all the hell your addiction put your dad through?

Hunter Biden:
Well, you know, in the moment, it's exactly what I knew that he would say. Not because it was some rehearsed thing. Because the one thing I do know from suffering from addiction, but also from being in recovery, is that I don't know anybody, Vic, that doesn't have someone in their life — if it's not them personally — who has gone through at least a part of the hell that my family and I have gone through around addiction. I had never met anyone, and I don't know if you have, that hasn't come up to me and said, “Thank you for telling your story because my son or my dad or my uncle” — everybody has an experience with it. And when he looked into that camera and said, “I'm proud of my son,” I think a lot of people saw their dad and hopes that their dad would be that same person.

Vic Vela:
Today on the podcast, how Hunter Biden faced down his personal demons, despite an intense political spotlight, and how he did it with the help of his family. I'm Vic Vela, I'm a journalist, a storyteller and a recovering drug addict. And this is “Back from Broken” — stories about the highest highs, the darkest moments and what it takes to make a comeback.

Hunter Biden:
I’ve been wanting to do your show. I've listened to all of, almost all of them. And what you're doing is amazing. I really appreciate you having me on. I got a message through a friend of a friend that they’re interested in having me come on the show. And I told everybody the only thing I want to do is this show.

Vic Vela:
Wow. [LAUGHING]

Hunter Biden:
Because I listened to your story and there are so many parallels and it felt like the first time I walked into a room, at a meeting and heard other people talk so openly and honestly about what they'd gone through. It gives me, it gave me so much hope. And I know you've given a lot of other people a lot of hope.

Vic Vela:
Oh man, that means a lot. And I got to tell you… [FADES OUT]

Before we get into Hunter's story, I just want to remind you that this is a show about recovery, not politics. So all the stuff Donald Trump was bashing Hunter for in that debate clip? We're not going to get into any of that. Look, I've been to hundreds of recovery meetings and not once has anyone talked about politics or asked who you voted for. We only care about getting better.

Hunter recently published a memoir called “Beautiful Things.” In it he covers more about his addiction struggles than we can possibly touch on in our interview. And there's so much personal heartache in it, too, including where he opens up about a car crash that killed Hunter's mom and sister when he was a child. What resonated most for me, as someone in recovery, was how Hunter's family was there for him through it all, including his dad, who's now the president of the United States and Hunter's brother Beau Biden, former attorney general of Delaware, who also won the bronze star for his military service in Iraq. Beau was always there to help Hunter through some of the lowest moments in his life, until Beau died of cancer in 2015.

Hunter Biden:
It's hard to even talk about Beau — thinking of me as any, as separate from him in any way, to tell you the truth. We were, we were that close. We talked almost every day of our lives, except for maybe the period of time that Beau was serving in Iraq. And he was just a constant. He was always there, as I was for him too. And he was always there to say, okay, let's get back up. We can, we can do it together. Just constantly.

Vic Vela:
We hear it all the time when we're in the throes of addiction and the people who love us, the first thing they ask is why, why, why, but Beau didn't do that.

Hunter Biden:
No, and I think it's the, the most frustrating question that you can ask an addict, because there's no good answer. And he never, he never asked because he knew that. He knew me so well that he knew that I wouldn't consciously be making a choice to harm myself in the way that I was, whether it was through alcohol or crack or whatever drug that was, you know, that I could get my hands on at the time.

Vic Vela:
Beau Biden was instrumental in getting Hunter help for alcoholism in 2003. Hunter was 33 years old at the time and it was his first attempt at getting sober.

He actually took you to your first AA meeting and took you to rehab, right?

Hunter Biden:
Yeah. He became, actually became really close with all the people that were in my home meeting, and—

Vic Vela:
That's amazing.

Hunter Biden:
Yeah. And I said to my dad, one time, I said, “Why did you make us love each other so much?” And it’s, I think, an incredible compliment to my dad, but also it was a real question. Like, God, it’s hard when you feel the same level of emotion when another person is in pain, as I did when my brother was sick.

Vic Vela:
And pain was just a thread throughout your family, right? It was just— the tragedies that your dad had to endure, that you had to endure.

Hunter Biden:
Yeah. You know, I always say that there's, you know, there's one universal thing that every human will experience, and unfortunately, that's pain. But not only was I lucky enough to have the love of my family, but I had the love of a community, too. That when my mom and my little sister died in that car accident Beau and I were in, you know, an entire community rallied around us, and not many people get that. So many people have to suffer alone. And I, I sometimes feel guilty because of the fact that we had so much love that was given to us.

Vic Vela:
Hunter Biden stayed sober for seven years after Beau helped him in 2003. He was married and had a family and his life was stable, but things changed when his dad became vice president of the United States. This was a new challenge for Hunter. He'd been working as a lobbyist, but the Obama team didn't like the idea of the vice president’s son doing that kind of work. So, he had to change careers and shifted his focus on investing in natural resource and tech companies. By 2010, the stress of starting his career all over derailed his recovery.

Hunter Biden:
Well, number one, it's just, it's stressful. It's stressful in any, anytime in your life. I mean, everyone has probably gone through it and figuring out, you know, how are you going to pay the bills? And it was difficult, but it wasn't an excuse to start drinking again. But what I did was what everybody told me in my meeting, and the guys that I was sober with and talk to on a daily basis, that I did exactly what I was told from the very beginning not to do, is I stopped going to meetings as much. I always, you know, at the end had an, you know, an excuse, well, I can't go because it's, you know, the anonymity is, you know, difficult now that my dad is vice president. I can't go because I have so much work to do to figure out how I'm going to pay the bills. There was always an excuse. And, you know, I found myself on a plane back from Europe after a business trip. And I was sitting alone and a flight attendant came by — and I was just about seven years sober — and asked me if I wanted a drink and, you know, without even thinking, I said, “Sure, I’ll have a bloody Mary.” And then it was off to the races.

Vic Vela:
You know, that began, you know, kind of a long back-and-forth of, you know, relapses and rehab trips. It was a real hard time for you. And then of course, Beau got sick. You write — and this really jumped out at me, Hunter — that you actually told him, you told him that you, you promised you would take care of yourself and you would stop drinking when he was in the hospital, right?

Hunter Biden:
Yep. Yeah.

Vic Vela:
How hard was, how difficult was that, you know, knowing that, what happened afterward, where it just became harder for you?

Hunter Biden:
I still have an enormous amount of guilt over it, and it's still hard to think back to that promise and realize, and know that I, that I broke it. And I think that part of the reason that I knew I had to write this book is that it's not only important that you get honest with the people around you when you're an addict, but it is absolutely necessary that you get honest with yourself. And one of the things I need to be honest with is that I broke a promise to the person that meant more to me in the world than anything, my brother, who I, I never broke a promise to. And the trick is, is that guilt is an appropriate feeling to have when you do something wrong. But if you allow it to morph into shame, it can be incredibly toxic, particularly to an addict.

Vic Vela:
Yeah, that's exactly right. And did you carry that shame for awhile?

Hunter Biden:
Oh, God. I drank over it and used over it and stayed hidden over it for years until I got clean, close to two years ago. I mean, it was, it was the constant, that shame more than anything else.

Vic Vela:
Well, let's talk about what the, the drinking looked like after Beau passed away. You wrote something in the book that said, “I was scared to death of what Beau's passing was going to do to” Joe, your dad and, and Joe Biden was scared to death of what it was going to do to you. How did your addiction worsen after Beau passed away?

Hunter Biden:
Well, grief is an incredibly complicated thing. And when I— I know that we were all grieving before the day that Beau actually died because of the inevitability of the disease that he had, which is glioblastoma multiforme, or brain cancer, for short, but it's a death sentence. And when Beau died, there was such an outpouring of love, just such an outpouring of love from thousands, literally thousands and thousands of people stood in line at his casket.

Vic Vela:
Wow.

Hunter Biden:
And the stories that each and every one of them had about my brother, or my brother and me, or my dad and my brother and me. But after that period of euphoria, for lack of a better phrase, after Beau died, in the sense of just feeling so enveloped by love, and it begins to fade, and the realization of just how alone in your grief you are, just like everyone is, and the way in which the family and the people closest to me were dealing with the same thing that I was dealing with. And I did what addicts are prone to do. I reached for the thing that I knew that would push the pain away and, you know, and I, I went out and bought a bottle of vodka and then that was the beginning of a relapse that lasted for far too long and did far too much damage.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. You talked about walking into a liquor store and your hands are shaking.

Hunter Biden:
Yeah. Yeah. You know, you're talking about it right now, and I can feel that feeling, that flutter in your stomach, that, the, the rush of adrenaline, the idea that, you know, in, in one fell swoop, you're not going to feel anymore. And there is a part of the brain that, at least the way that my addict's brain is wired, that says, you know the answer, you know the answer, go do it. And it's so important to me in my life right now to just remember that that is the biggest lie. And I am doing everything in my power, on a daily basis, to remind myself of that.

Vic Vela:
You know, you and I have something in common, which is obviously cocaine. I get it. You reached a point that probably I did, where alcohol was boring for me without cocaine. And they're such different drugs. What led you to smoking crack and how did it consume you?

Hunter Biden:
You know, it is a series of events that just, I, I can't explain. And I was in an outpatient clinic and I came in and I told the counselors that I had, that I had relapsed. I told them what I'd done. I used cocaine and I drank, and they said that they wanted me to get tested. And I did not want to get tested because I didn't, knowing that, which is something that should change, is that recovery centers aren't necessarily governed by HIPAA and that it was information that could be, that, that could be leaked. And, and I was a public figure and just said, well, I just told you what I did. I don't want to be tested. And they said, well, you can't come back to the program unless you get tested. And I said, even though I've admitted to it, and they said, no, you can't come back into the program. And I walked out and I'm walking down the street. And I see someone that I know, I’ve known, being in D.C. for years and years, was a crack smoker and her name, which I use in the book, was Rhea. And I flagged her down and said, “Hey,” you know, “this is what I want.” She looked at me and said, “No, you don't.” I said, “Yeah, I do.” And, and she got it.

Vic Vela:
And we never think to put the pipe down, do we.

Hunter Biden:
Oh, God, isn't it the most insidious? And I — talk about giving me chills — is I remember listening to your story about how, you know, going out behind the dumpster and in meetings. I was still trying to function to a certain degree in normal society. And I would be, you know, holding a board meeting for the World Food Program and I'd have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom to smoke crack. And it became something that was literally every 15 minutes. It's just the most powerful drug in terms of the compulsion, I just, constantly to go back to it, constantly.

Vic Vela:
But luckily the other constant in Hunter Biden's life, his family, was about to come through for him. More on that after the break.

From 2016 to 2019, Hunter Biden's life was a mess. He and his wife divorced, and he drank and smoked crack just about every day. His attempts to get clean just weren't working. At one point, Hunter drove from the East Coast to Arizona to check into a wellness clinic there, but his drive basically became a 14-day, crack-fueled bender. In 2018, he spent the spring in Los Angeles, holed up at the Chateau Marmont. That's the hotel where actor John Belushi died from an overdose. Hunter would party with strangers, smoking all day. Occasionally, he would take drives through LA’s Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and he'd write poignant letters to Beau as he watched the sunrise from Runyon Canyon. Then he would go back to the hotel, where he would cook and smoke crack all night. Hunter ended up moving back east in the fall of 2018. His family, especially Joe Biden and his stepmother, Jill, were desperate to get him help.

Hunter, take us back, and it was probably around this time, back to a period in either late 2018 or early 2019, when you got a call from your mother, Jill Biden, inviting you to dinner at your parents' place in Delaware. What happened when you got there?

Hunter Biden:
She was imploring me to come see them because they missed me so much. I had been living in, unbeknownst to them, in motels up and down 95 between Wilmington, Delaware, and Boston. And for some reason I, I picked up the phone. My dad would call me every day and still does, and always has. And if he doesn't get me, text me 32 times, but I was ignoring them all. But for some reason I answered my mom's call and, and somehow, she got through to me and I said, “Okay, I'll come down.” I was only a couple hours away. And I drive down the driveway and I walk in and immediately see my three daughters, who're all adults now — 27, 22 and 20, Naomi, Finnegan and Maisy. And my niece and nephew, Hunter, who's named after me, and Natalie. And two counselors and my mom and dad.

And I just said, you know, screw this. I, are, you have to be kidding me. I'm not, I am not doing this. And I just walked back out of the house, intending to go to my car. And my daughters came running out after me, and I, and one of them grabbed my keys and was begging me, “Dad, please, please, please.” And I said, “Honey, I can't, I'm not doing this. I can't believe that you guys did this to me. This is so wrong.” It's so I, I felt such the victim, and I literally decided, okay, take the keys. I'm going to walk out of here.

And I started up the driveway and my dad ran after me and put his hand on my shoulder and turned me around and just put me in a bear hug and said, “Honey,” and just started to cry. He said, “I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do. Please, please help me. Tell me what to do.” And I said, “Okay, dad, all right, I'm going to figure it out. I'm going to go get help. I'll do it. I'll do it tonight.” And I, I knew that, that I had no intention whatsoever to do what I just told him. And that's how powerful my addiction was, because I don't know a greater love than that.

Vic Vela:
What do you suppose was going through your dad's mind as he held you and cried?

Hunter Biden:
I think I know exactly what was going through his mind, which was that he just lost his oldest son and he was about to lose his only living other son. And I know that there's nothing more important to my dad, above everything, than his family.

Vic Vela:
One thing I always say when I tell my story is that, you know, while my addiction was very painful, personally, of course, it was much worse on my parents.

Hunter Biden:
Oh, and everybody that loves you around you. And I just, I keep it at the top of my brain. That pain that I caused, just that, the, the frustration, beyond frustration, the despair that people that are trying to save someone feel when they try and try again and try again and just can't get through, and so often erroneously think that it has anything to do with their, their deficiencies, because it doesn't.

Vic Vela:
Even the most heartfelt intervention doesn't always lead directly to recovery. When Hunter arrived at rehab in March of 2019, he called an Uber before he even checked in. The driver then dropped Hunter off at the airport where he boarded a plane to California. Hunter was committed to only one thing: vanishing for good. It was around this time that Hunter started to become a punching bag for conservative critics, who were on television asking the world, where's Hunter? At that time, Hunter was holed up in an Airbnb in Malibu, drinking and smoking crack. He says he didn't really notice those attacks on TV.

Hunter Biden:
Vic, I was smoking crack every 15 minutes. I was sleeping maybe 10 hours a week, maybe.

Vic Vela:
Oh my gosh.

Hunter Biden:
And these attacks that started to come in from, you know, the right-wing media and Rudy Giuliani and others, to tell you the truth, there's a part of me that could have cared less. If it didn't have to do with where I was going to find my, my next hit, how I was going to smoke my next hit, and who was going to be there, it didn't enter my consciousness.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. So it sounds like they didn't make matters worse for you because you were already there.

Hunter Biden:
Oh, I was already there. I think that they intended to make matters worse. But, but I think the opposite actually ended up happening.

Vic Vela:
What happened next changed everything for Hunter. It was May 2019 and he had just been kicked out of his hotel because of all the people going in and out at all times of the day. He was sitting near the pool to plan out his next move. That's when a guy in a lounge chair next to him struck up a conversation. He took a liking to Hunter and suggested that he may hit it off with his friend, Melissa Cohen. And he was right. Hunter vividly remembers walking into the restaurant where he and Melissa met for their first date.

Hunter Biden:
And I saw in her eyes something that I fully recognized, for some reason, and that was the unconditional love that had been given to me my whole life, primarily by my brother and my dad and my three daughters. And I saw that, and, and I reached for it. In a moment that it doesn't have anything to do with any rational thought, I knew that this was a person that if I got honest with that could made me help me save myself, and I did.

Vic Vela:
Yeah. And then, you know, you, you start dating and she's helping to nurse you back to life, deleting every number in your phone that didn't contain the word Biden, and—

Hunter Biden:
Yeah.

Vic Vela:
You ended up getting married shortly after she saved you.

Hunter Biden:
Yeah. Yeah. And I, and one thing I, I know is that she saved me by reminding me of all of the people that had been trying to save me for my, for my entire life, in the moments in which I needed it. And I allowed her to do things that I would never allow anybody else to do, like take my keys, take my phone, take any electronic device that I had and get rid of it, delete all of the contacts in my phone. I mean, at one point, you know, I mean, Melissa took all my clothes and that's what I needed because I was absolutely bargaining with her on a hourly basis when I could lift my head off the pillow to say, Hey, I, you know, what about just a drink? What if, what if I only drink vodka between the hours of 8:00 AM and 10? And it’s a really, really hard job, as you know, to wrangle a hardcore addict like that. It takes an enormous amount of love, but it also takes an enormous amount of stamina and, and strength. And she has all of those things.

Vic Vela:
And in May 2019, just days after meeting her, Hunter and Melissa got married. At the same time, Hunter's dad was campaigning for the country's highest office. Now, your dad's running for president. Did your dad's campaign, did you fear that the stress would be too much for you to handle so early in your sobriety?

Hunter Biden:
No, but I still have a healthy fear of anything that, that causes stress, in that I know that I can't afford to, to allow that to, to run wild. And when you're so stripped down to the bone, focusing on what is in front of you, at the outset, is a necessity. And what Melissa did for me was she put in front of me things that were beautiful, beautiful things. She put in front of me the possibility of a life, she put in front of me my paints, so that I could start painting again. She put in front of me the time and the space to write, like I'd always done in my life. And I just started to focus on that. I started to focus on rebuilding the relationship with my three girls, in trying to make amends for all of the pains, just by my absence, that I caused. All the other stuff seemed like nothing more than a, then an enormous, incredibly consequential distraction. You know, somebody just said, the one thing you realize in, in recovery is that the world does not revolve around you, but there were days in which, during the last couple of years, in which it seemed like the rest of the world hadn’t gotten that message.

Vic Vela:
What was it like your, you know, through the campaign, and even now after the election, you're still a regular target for people on conservative media. When you're just trying to get through the day sober and people are questioning your character, digging up your past on a daily basis, how do you handle it?

Hunter Biden:
Well, part of it's easy because I know the truth and I, and the truth has revealed itself in very stark terms about some of the more scurrilous and pointed attacks against me, that try to implicate my dad in some way. And so having the truth on your side is, is an advantage that I've had from the outset, but the other stuff is something that I just don't pay attention to. I don't read Twitter. I don't read the tabloids. I really don't. And I, and I, and, but by the way, it's not like that's an easy thing to do, if you pick up your phone and you have an Apple news feed, but I make a conscious decision that, that doesn't bear any resemblance to the reality that I'm limited. And I say this to everybody, that is, that is, that when I, when I was actively, before the pandemic, but when in, in my past recoveries, when I was really active in, in the program, and I would say, getting sober is easy, all you have to do is change everything. And part of changing everything, for me, was realizing that, that I can only control the things that I have dominion over. And that's not much, but I do know this: is that I can control how I wake up in the morning and think about what I have to be grateful for every morning and set the table for the day that way. And then when the attacks start coming in, in a way that obviously I have to engage in some way, I just try to remain centered in that gratitude.

Newscast Announcer:
That's a man who has been running for office since the age of 27 as the rest of his family comes out to celebrate as well. His son Hunter, the target of so many, gets a hug from his dad. Joe Biden never wavered in that love, no matter what was thrown at his son.

Vic Vela:
The night the election was called for Joe Biden, Hunter and the rest of his family stood on stage at a victory rally with the president-elect. Hunter was holding his young son, who he named after Beau. It was a historic moment.

And you were sober. What was that experience like? What were you feeling on stage?

Hunter Biden:
I was in mixed emotions and I say that because my brother wasn't there. And, and that overwhelming sense of not having literally just his physical presence. I know that he was there in a, in a way that I very much believe, and I felt that, but not being able to turn and, and hug him in that moment was, was really difficult, difficult is a vast understatement. But I, but I was, I was so proud that, that not just by the achievement, but by this: is that not just with my dad standing there and not just that he had me next to him, but my entire family, all of us, never once wavered. We always stuck together. Because that's the most important thing I know, not just to my dad, but to all of us, is that we're together.

Vic Vela:
The very last page of Hunter Biden's book, “Beautiful Things,” features an old photo of Hunter as a boy catching a football. The pic was inscribed by his dad on Christmas Day 2018. It reads, “Hunt, the bravest boy and man I've ever known. I love you more than the whole sky. -Dad.” What do you think Beau would say about you today?

Hunter Biden:
Oh, I think that he, I know what he would say. He'd say I'm proud of you, buddy. I knew you could do it. You know, Bo gave me this strength and I know that the thing that I always had was my brother's unconditional love and pride in me. And I'm absolutely certain that today he would just be filled with that same amount of pride and love, and I’m certain a lot of relief that where we are at, at this moment.

Thank you, Vic. And I so appreciate you for having me on, but I so appreciate you for what you're doing. I think that it is so important to remind people that we have a disease. But God, there's so many people in recovery out there that have so much to offer.

Vic Vela:
Yeah, isn't that right? You know, I, I proudly label myself a recovering drug addict, but I, because I'm proud of the fact that I'm in recovery, but I'm also proud of the fact that I'm much more than just a drug addict.

Hunter Biden:
Yeah, exactly, man. That's exactly right. And I keep reminding people is that, God almighty, the most brilliant and creative and, and often tenacious people I've ever met are recovering addicts. And, and it's all part of who I am. I hope that I'm able to show people that you don't have to be ashamed of it.

Vic Vela:
Hunter lives with his wife, Melissa, and his son, Beau Jr. He says he talks to his dad, the president of the United States, every day. And when we spoke, he was coming up on two years of sobriety.

“Back from Broken” is a show about how we are all broken sometimes and how we need help from time to time. If you're struggling with addiction, you could find a list of resources at our website backfrombroken.org.

And hey, this is actually our final episode of season two. Thank you so much for listening and to everyone who shared their story with us. If you like what you hear, please review the show on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show and it lets us know that you want us to come back for future seasons. “Back from Broken” is hosted by me, Vic Vela. It's a production of Colorado Public Radio’s Audio Innovations Studio and CPR News. Our producers are Jo Erickson, Luis Antonio Perez and Rebekah Romberg. Find a list of everyone who helped make this episode in the show notes. This podcast is made possible by Colorado Public Radio members learn about supporting “Back from Broken” at cpr.org.