Hunter Biden
Hunter Biden is under investigation by the Department of Justice over his business interests, but he has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing © Susan Walsh/AP

Rick Melby, a retired construction worker from Wyoming, considers the US president a traitor to his country.

“Joe Biden has sold us out — he sold our oil to China and just for his son to benefit,” he tells the Financial Times from the shade of a back porch.

Melby’s anger stems from a conspiracy theory involving the recent release of US oil from its strategic petroleum reserve.

The story, which has picked up steam in rightwing circles in the past two weeks, is based largely on a misreading of US oil policy. It is also symptomatic of an increasing fixation by conservatives on one figure: Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

Hunter Biden has been the focus of Republican attacks since the 2020 election, when former president Donald Trump repeatedly targeted his rival’s son over his foreign business dealings.

An analysis for the FT by the media monitoring company Critical Mention shows Hunter Biden has been named on Fox News nearly 9,000 times over the past two years. That is nearly double the number of mentions for Hillary Clinton, a previous focus of attack for the conservative news channel.

In recent weeks the focus on Hunter Biden, who declined to comment for this story, has intensified.

Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden
Then-vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter attend an NCAA basketball game between Georgetown University and Duke University in Washington in 2010 © Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Republicans have accused the president of prioritising electric vehicles because an investment firm his son founded once helped a Chinese conglomerate buy a company that mines cobalt, a crucial ingredient in electric car batteries. Hunter Biden was not involved with the firm at the time and Democratic officials point out that promoting electric vehicles is a long-term policy with broad support across the party.

When asked recently about passing gun control measures, Ron Johnson, the Republican senator from Wisconsin replied: “Before we pass anything new, let’s enforce the laws we already have. Let’s start with Hunter Biden.”

Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host, is presenting a four-part documentary entitled Who is Hunter Biden? that promises to delve into the “unhinged” life of the president’s son.

There are aspects of Hunter Biden’s life that make him an obvious target for political attacks.

In 2014, he took up a lucrative board position at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Trump later alleged it was this that caused Joe Biden, then-vice president, to push in 2016 for the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor-general Viktor Shokin, who claimed he had been removed because he was investigating the company. The president says his efforts were part of a wider international push to oust Shokin because he was reluctant to pursue anti-corruption cases.

Trump’s push for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, to investigate the issue led to his first impeachment. But it also fuelled wider conservative suspicion over Hunter Biden’s international business dealings.

Further details about those activities were found in documents obtained from a hard drive in a laptop Hunter once owned. The New York Post was suspended from Twitter for reporting on the contents of documents on the grounds that they were unverified, triggering conservative allegations of censorship. The documents have since been more widely reported as other outlets have authenticated them.

Hunter Biden is under investigation by the Department of Justice over his business interests, but has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing. He has also talked openly about his struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and was accused by his ex-wife of infidelity, which she said played a part in their break-up and divorce.

He has previously said he showed “poor judgment” in his business activities in China and Ukraine, which left his father open to political attack. But he has denied doing anything wrong.

While many conservatives are convinced of a cover-up, Democratic strategists say the recent focus on the president’s son is largely about this year’s midterm elections.

“It is no surprise that the right is focusing on Hunter again now — they are desperate to find something to fire up their supporters come November,” one Democratic strategist said.

The story that has angered Melby, the retired construction worker, has its roots in the recent decision by the Biden administration to release about 180mn barrels of oil from the strategic oil reserve in a bid to bring down global oil prices and curb rampant inflation.

Under US law, the government has to accept the highest bids for the oil from any non-sanctioned company. In April, that included a bid for 950,000 barrels from Unipec, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec.

Hunter Biden once had business dealings with Sinopec, though he was not an employee of the company. That led the conservative Federalist to publish a story headlined “Biden Sold Oil From Emergency Reserves To Chinese Gas Giant Tied To His Scandal-Plagued Son”.

It set off a flurry of tweets from Republican members of Congress, including a call from Marjorie Taylor Greene, an ally of Trump, for the president’s impeachment.

Harriet Hageman speaks with children at a meet-and-greet in a coffee shop in Pinedale, Wyoming, Friday July 8 2022
Harriet Hageman has called for a congressional investigation into Hunter Biden as she campaigns for a House of Representatives seat in Wyoming © Natalie Behring/FT

The issue has emerged on the campaign trail. In Wyoming, Melby nodded in agreement as Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed challenger for the state’s seat in the House of Representatives, called for a congressional investigation into Hunter Biden and the oil sale.

During a campaign stop in the small town of Pinedale, Hageman told supporters: “We’re finding out an awful lot about Hunter Biden — including the fact that a million barrels of our oil have been sent to China through the company that he worked for.”

Pollsters said, however, that while such messages chimed with loyal Trump supporters, they were unlikely to gain traction with the broader electorate.

In a poll in April by Morning Consult, only 28 per cent of voters said a congressional investigation into Hunter Biden should be a top priority, including only half of Republican voters.

Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, said: “I ask people what the most important issue is in America and Hunter Biden does not even rank in the top 10.”

“Some people don’t like it that their president [Trump] was held accountable [by being impeached and losing office] and so they take out their hostility on the child of his successor.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
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