For the past four years, President Joe Biden and the first lady took cues from their son Hunter on how to discuss the 4-year-old girl in Arkansas a paternity test had determined was their granddaughter.
That meant saying nothing about her at all.
Initially Hunter Biden denied paternity, and later said he had no memory of fathering her at a low point in his life. Hunter Biden asked his parents not to publicly acknowledge the girl as a lengthy child support battle played out in an Arkansas court, according to sources familiar with the matter.
But in recent months, that stance became increasingly uncomfortable, at odds with President Biden’s image as a loving family man and subject to criticism from his political rivals. The president began looking for the right opportunity to break the silence.
“They were following Hunter’s wishes. It’s hard to do that without throwing your son under the bus,” said one person involved in internal discussions about the matter.
Last week, the Bidens publicly acknowledged their grandchild, Navy Joan Roberts, for the first time ever. Significant as the moment was for the family, the Bidens played it low-key – issuing their statement late on a Friday evening, when most people have shut down their news consumption for the week. Likewise, President Biden made his first public utterance an oblique one; casually and without comment, he changed the count of grandchildren from six to seven in a podcast taped last week and released Monday.
But navigating these complicated family dynamics has always been a sensitive subject for political aides. The topic is particularly fraught when it comes to the Bidens, who are fiercely protective of their son and have shown little willingness in the past to accept political advice when it comes to their family, according to current and former officials.
Prior to last week, aides were told in meetings to refer to the Bidens’ six grandchildren, not seven. When the subject arose in public, the president and first lady stuck to that number.
“I have six grandchildren. And I’m crazy about them,” Biden told a group of kids on the White House South Lawn in the spring. The dedication to Jill Biden’s 2020 children’s book “Joey” read “to my grandchildren” — with six names listed.
In public, the White House routinely described the issue as a private matter in which they had no role. Behind the scenes, however, some on Biden’s team recognized the situation was eroding the carefully cultivated family image underpinning his political persona.
In recent years, some Democrats close to the White House have privately voiced concern at having Hunter so visible around his father, worried his myriad legal issues could prove to be a distraction. But the president and first lady have shown fierce loyalty to their son, and made clear family ties outweigh any political considerations.
Few, if any, advisers felt comfortable raising their concerns about the president’s son directly to Biden, according to one adviser, because of the deep family loyalty at play. Biden also trusts his son implicitly and sometimes relies on his support, the adviser told CNN.
When it came to the issue of his granddaughter, Biden also had his own family’s interests to navigate.
“There were also a lot of stakeholders involved – a lot of grandchildren, both children and adults – and a ton of sensitivities to navigate,” the person familiar with the strategy said. Hunter “never shirked his legal responsibility in taking care of the daughter financially, but there was never a relationship there. That’s why they continued to refer to six grandkids.”
After the paternity test determined Hunter Biden was the child’s father, he stopped contesting paternity and began paying child support.
In court filings in April, Navy’s mother Lunden Roberts said Hunter Biden “has never seen or contacted” his 4-year-old daughter and that President Biden and first lady “remain estranged” from their grandchild. Hunter had sought to reduce his monthly $20,000 payments, saying he couldn’t afford them. CNN has been unsuccessful in determining whether there has been any contact yet between the Bidens and their granddaughter.
The White House has not responded to the question, and neither have lawyers for Roberts or Hunter Biden.
The White House declined to comment beyond the president’s initial statement, reiterating its position that this is a private, family matter. Lawyers for Roberts and Hunter Biden have not responded to requires for comment.
Last month, Hunter Biden settled the child support case with Roberts. As part of the deal, he agreed to give some of his paintings to his daughter, who can either keep them or keep the money from any sales of the art.
Roberts also dropped her bid to change the girl’s last name to “Biden,” according to the court filing, a step Hunter Biden had sought to prevent.
As the lengthy child support battle concluded in Arkansas, Biden wanted to find an opportunity to make clear his views on his granddaughter, another person familiar with the discussions said.
Criticism had begun to mount over the president’s refusal to acknowledge Navy, including in a scathing New York Times column by Maureen Dowd that reverberated within the White House. Republicans also began to use the issue to malign Biden’s character.
“This is a guy who hasn’t even visited his granddaughter in Arkansas,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told a crowd last week, as he worked to find a winning message amid campaign struggles. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and US ambassador to the United Nations, quipped that the mental competency tests she proposes for politicians over age 75 could include a requirement for candidates to name their number of grandchildren.
Republicans view Hunter Biden as perhaps their strongest case against the president’s character, accusing father and son of profiting off their name and power. But Biden has continued to keep Hunter close despite the investigations, telling reporters that he’s “very proud” of his son. Hunter has remained a visible presence in his father’s life, including at a state dinner for India’s prime minister and on the Fourth of July.
The president has remained primarily concerned for his son’s well-being over the course of his legal issues, people familiar with the matter say, part of why he’s kept Hunter close.
Hunter, a recovering drug addict, acknowledged in his 2021 book he had no memory of the encounter with Roberts that led to Navy’s birth.
“That’s how little connection I had with anyone. I was a mess, but a mess I’ve taken responsibility for,” he wrote.
The Bidens hope if Hunter is able to resolve both the child support case and a separate federal investigation into tax and gun charges, the family can start to turn the page on a dark chapter in their history, one fueled by addiction.
People close to the family note that – much like drug addiction – issues of child support and custody are confronted by Americans every day.
“Thousands of families have faced similar circumstances, working it out in private, versus the spotlight,” another source familiar with the matter said.
Speaking last Wednesday to life coach Jay Shetty for his popular podcast, the president said out loud what he’d never said before: “I have seven grandkids.”
“Four of them, five of them old enough to talk on the phone. Every day I either text them or call them,” he told Shetty.
The podcast wasn’t set to air until the following week, but White House aides had already begun laying the groundwork for a public statement acknowledging Navy as the Bidens’ granddaughter.
The circle of advisers involved in the discussions was kept small, an acknowledgement of how sensitive the matter had become inside the White House. In a statement first released to People Magazine, Biden described the situation as “not a political issue” but “a family matter.”
“Jill and I only want what is best for all of our grandchildren, including Navy,” he wrote.
Whether the president will now meet Navy remains an open question. One source familiar with the matter said he’s remained open to a meeting when the time is right. But others downplayed the prospect.
“I just think being there is important, and it makes such a difference,” Biden told Shetty on his podcast. “I think knowing that someone’s going to be there for you just to listen, just to hold you, just to hug you.”