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Joe Biden, left, with Hunter Biden, right. (AP) Joe Biden, left, with Hunter Biden, right. (AP)

Joe Biden, left, with Hunter Biden, right. (AP)

Noah Y. Kim
By Noah Y. Kim October 1, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • Hunter Biden has said he received an administrative discharge after he tested positive for cocaine.
     ​
  • A “dishonorable discharge” is reserved for service members who have engaged in what the military considers the most reprehensible conduct. It is handed down following coviction by court-martial for a serious offenses like desertion, sexual assault, or murder.

In one of the most contentious exchanges of the first 2020 presidential debate, President Donald Trump interrupted Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as he spoke of his son Beau, who served in Iraq and died of brain cancer in 2015.

"I don’t know Beau. I know Hunter," Trump interjected, before invoking Hunter Biden’s issues with substance abuse. "Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use."

"That’s not true," said Biden. "He wasn’t dishonorably discharged." 

The exchange confused some of our readers, who were wondering which of the two candidates to believe. "I was hoping to see something about whether Biden's son received a dishonorable discharge from the military," one reader emailed us. "They said opposite things, and it maligned someone's reputation, perhaps unjustly."

Hunter Biden was pushed out of the military after testing positive for cocaine. The best reporting into the circumstances of that discharge indicate that his discharge was administrative, however, not dishonorable. Biden was 44 at the time and serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve. 

The Navy doesn’t release the discharge status of low ranking officers.

Hunter Biden revealed in a 2014 statement to the Wall Street Journal that he had been administratively discharged, saying it was "the honor of my life to serve in the U.S. Navy, and I deeply regret and am embarrassed that my actions led to my administrative discharge."

Here’s the difference between an administrative discharge and a dishonorable discharge:

Dishonorable discharges are reserved for service members who have engaged in what the military considers the most reprehensible conduct. This discharge is handed down to servicemembers who have been convicted by court-martial for a serious offense like desertion, sexual assault, or murder. 

A dishonorably discharged veteran faces severe penalties, losing the right to any veterans’ benefits and the right to own firearms. In most cases, dishonorably discharged veterans cannot vote, obtain bank loans or college grants, work at the state or federal level, or receive government assistance of any kind. Experts say the social stigma attached to a dishonorable discharge often makes it difficult to obtain employment after service.

Administrative discharges are handed down for transgressions the military deems less serious, like — in Hunter Biden’s case — failing a drug test. Biden could have received one of two types of administrative discharges: general (under honorable conditions) and other than honorable. Veterans with general administrative discharges still receive hiring preference for civil service jobs but are not eligible for GI Bill benefits. Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges receive neither.

Biden hasn’t clarified which of the two administrative discharges he received, and his spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Philip D. Cave, a military law specialist who has represented many discharged service members, said that commanding officers often have latitude in determining which administrative discharge to hand down to service members who test positive for drugs. 

Cave said his best understanding of how drug offenses are treated would lead him to guess that Biden’s offense, if it involved cocaine, would probably qualify him for an other-than-honorable discharge.

Hunter Biden, now 50, is the former vice president’s youngest son. He has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for much of his life. 

He relapsed in early 2013 shortly before he was assigned to a Naval Reserve unit, according to 2019 reporting in the New Yorker. Biden had been prescribed painkillers to help him cope with shingles, and he resumed drinking after he used up the prescription, the story said. 

The New Yorker story said that Biden wrote a letter to the Navy Reserve at the time suggesting that he involuntarily ingested cocaine through a cigarette he bummed off strangers outside a bar the night before his first weekend of Reserve duty.

The drug showed up in a urine test he took the next day, he said, and he received an administrative discharge. ​

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