WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, President Joe Biden realized that his silence was no longer tenable — that it was time for him to publicly recognize his 4-year-old granddaughter caught up in a bitter child support case involving his son Hunter Biden, people familiar with the matter said.
But before he could do so, he wanted to take one final step: getting the “green light” from his son, which he received last week, one source said. And on Friday, Biden finally spoke out about his seventh grandchild whom, for years, he wouldn’t so much as acknowledge in public.
Now, the president wants to meet little Navy Joan Roberts of Arkansas and dispel the notion that he was ignoring a vulnerable member of the Biden family tree that is at the root of his political identity, according to the people familiar with the matter.
Family dramas typically play out in private — though rarely when the nation’s first family is involved. A president who has wrapped himself in family throughout his career is now, in an improbable twist, having to explain why he publicly ghosted a young girl who is as much his grandchild as any of the others whose high school graduations he attends or who playfully call him “Pop.”
Publicly claiming Navy Joan as a member of his family may offer Biden a measure of peace. Politically, however, it also serves to blunt a GOP line of attack.
Republicans have shown that they plan to target Biden’s messy situation, betting the saga will engender so much distaste in voters that it will sully his image as someone who rededicated himself to family after losing his first wife and a young daughter in a car accident a half century ago. In doing so, they could chip away at a central part of his narrative as he runs for re-election.
Biden largely followed his son’s guidance in keeping quiet as the legal case unfolded, sources familiar with the matter said. With the dispute reaching a settlement, the president wanted to speak out and his son agreed he should do so, a source said, in part because, he told his father, it would help negate a Republican line of attack.
Yet Biden faced criticism from other quarters that got his attention. A July 8 column by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times weighed on him, a person familiar with his response said. Dowd, a journalist he has known for more than 30 years, wrote that “the president can’t defend Hunter on all his other messes and draw the line at accepting one little girl.”
White House aides put together a statement that sat for days, the people familiar with the matter said, and was released Friday, in the wake of a court filing detailing some of the terms of the settlement between Hunter and the mother, Lunden Roberts. More than three years after a DNA test confirmed the girl’s Biden bloodline, the president issued the simple, definitive statement that he had been withholding until that point: “Jill and I only want what is best for all of our grandchildren, including Navy.”
Biden’s belated affirmation that he has seven grandchildren — not six, as he had been saying in public appearances — hardly puts the matter to rest. Still to be worked out are the logistics of a potential visit.
Would it take place at the White House and would the child’s mother and father both be present? In June, Hunter Biden and Roberts both offered sworn depositions in the long-running child support case and afterward met privately, agreeing to move forward with a speedy resolution to avoid any further entanglement of their child in politics, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Hunter Biden has so far not publicly disclosed if he has met his youngest daughter. (He has three adult daughters with his ex-wife, Kathleen Buhle.)
Hunter Biden wrote dismissively of Roberts in “Beautiful Things,” his memoir: “The other women I’d been with during rampages since my divorce were hardly the dating type. We would satisfy our immediate needs and little else. I’m not proud of it. It’s why I would later challenge in court the woman from Arkansas who had a baby in 2018 and claimed the child was mine — I had no recollection of our encounter.”
The White House declined to comment on any of the family developments, including whether Biden wants to meet his granddaughter in person. Instead, a White House aide referred to Friday’s statement and called the issue a “private, family matter.” NBC News spoke to a representative for Hunter Biden and reached out to an attorney for Lunden Roberts, who did not respond.
Family looms large in Biden political lore. In a podcast interview with Jay Shetty that aired Monday, the president said that his own father had an expression: “Family is the beginning, middle and end.” In the same interview, he mentioned his “seven grandkids” — and said that he routinely talks or text with the older ones.
Republicans hope to turn what had long been a potent Biden asset into a vulnerability. Invoking his reticence about his youngest granddaughter, Biden’s Republican opponents are painting him as a hypocrite.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, tweeted last month that the Biden administration is “obsessed with Florida.”
“Maybe if Biden’s granddaughter moved to Florida, he’d actually visit her,” DeSantis wrote.
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted last month that Biden’s failure to recognize his grandchild was “abhorrent and heartbreaking.’
“Biden has no empathy,” she wrote.
These sorts of family-focused attacks aren’t necessarily a surprise to Democrats. During a debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump invited as guests women who had accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.
When Biden ran in 2020, aides considered the possibility that opponents would look to capitalize on the unacknowledged grandchild, a person familiar with the discussions said. They considered a response and decided then that they would say Biden had only six grandchildren and leave it at that.
At the time, the overriding focus was winning the election and Biden aides never “thought out fully” how to handle such an intimate family issue, the source said.
The question now is whether Biden will lose votes over it. He shows no sign of wanting to sideline his son, who is dealing with separate legal troubles — and has begun to embrace his estranged grandchild. Hunter Biden, who has struggled with drug addiction, accompanied his father on a trip to Ireland in April and showed up at a state dinner for the Indian prime minister in June.
“Parents don’t push away a child who has been through a health crisis,” said Marcia Taylor, founder of a drug policy consulting company and a former aide to Biden when he was in the Senate. “It is a parent’s instinct to draw them close.”
In the end, the White House hopes that Americans can sympathize with complicated family dynamics that may seem familiar from their own lived experiences. Campaign aides predict the election will hinge on the president’s record and the choice voters face in the general election — not a son’s offspring.
“Voters are consumed right now with survival issues and not the personal issues affecting the first family,” said Silas Lee, a pollster and sociologist who polled for Biden’s 2020 campaign. “They have other things on their mind.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com