Hunter Biden’s plea deal, explained

11 months ago 19

Hunter Biden is going to court. The president’s son is expected to plead guilty to failing to pay taxes for two years and admit to unlawfully buying a gun at his arraignment Wednesday morning. The plea will come as part of a deal Hunter struck with prosecutors in the US attorney for Delaware’s office last month.

Prosecutors will not recommend he serve any jail time, according to the Washington Post, though a judge will determine Hunter’s actual sentence. Yet David Weiss, the US attorney for Delaware, has said that the “investigation is ongoing” — suggesting Hunter’s legal issues may not yet be entirely resolved.

The charges grew out of a years-long investigation that focuses on Hunter Biden’s well-compensated work for foreign interests over the past decade or so, particularly for businesses or tycoons in Ukraine, China, and Kazakhstan. Ethical questions have long swirled about this work, which he began as his father was set to become vice president and continued amid tumultuous years for Hunter as he struggled with addiction. This investigation (headed by Weiss, a Trump appointee) began in earnest in 2018 and explored whether Hunter had broken foreign lobbying or money laundering laws.

While Republicans have argued for years that Hunter’s foreign work implicated Joe Biden somehow, this investigation remained focused on Hunter, not the president. And the charges eventually brought were not about the foreign influence angle at all. They are instead about the simpler matter of whether Hunter paid his taxes properly in 2017 and 2018. Prosecutors also zeroed in on a federal form Hunter filled out when purchasing a gun in 2018 — he claimed he was not a drug user at the time, when he has since admitted he was.

Yet not everyone who was involved with the investigation is happy with the outcome. Two IRS officials, Gary Shapley and Joseph Ziegler, came forward to Congress as whistleblowers in recent months, arguing that prosecutors weren’t aggressive enough in making the case.

So far, the charges that have resulted from this lengthy investigation have fallen far short of the vast Biden crime conspiracy theories that have consumed the GOP. And reports in recent months suggested Weiss’s prosecutors had narrowed their focus away from the foreign influence angle. Yet Weiss’s disclosure that the investigation is ongoing suggests Hunter may not be entirely out of the woods just yet.

Why was Hunter Biden investigated?

It’s long seemed that Hunter’s relationship with the law from the mid-to-late 2010s — a period when he both raked in massive sums of money from foreign interests and struggled with serious drug addiction — was rather strained.

For nearly his entire adult life, Hunter was in the business of being Joe Biden’s son, monetizing his perceived access and connections to a powerful senator and then the vice president of the United States as a lobbyist and consultant. These clients included a Ukrainian gas company, a company controlled by a Kazakh oligarch, and a Chinese energy company, and Hunter raked in millions from them.

There is nothing inherently illegal about accepting money from foreign interests if you are a private citizen and your dad is a famous, powerful person. But you do have to pay taxes on it.

According to testimony by Ziegler, one of the IRS whistleblowers, he pushed to open an investigation in 2018 after Hunter’s name came up in another case, about a social media company that served as a porn and prostitution platform. Per the agent’s testimony, the reports “identified Hunter Biden as paying prostitutes related to a potential prostitution ring,” and contained evidence he was “living lavishly through his corporate bank account.” The case was soon merged with another probe from the office of the US attorney for Delaware.

At that time, Hunter’s personal life was tumultuous. He progressed from alcohol to hard drugs, including crack cocaine. His older brother, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Hunter then split from his wife, who would later accuse him in a court filing of “spending extravagantly” on “drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations.” He began dating Beau’s widow, until that relationship collapsed too. He fathered a child with a different woman who later sued him for paternity (their legal fight over child support is still unfolding in Arkansas court). He repeatedly went in and out of rehab. He was a mess.

Much of this personal drama was publicly known (though the federal investigation wasn’t, yet). And as Joe Biden prepared to launch a presidential bid in 2019, Hunter became a particular fixation of Trump and his allies, who hoped to damage the elder Biden politically. Their great hope was to link Hunter’s foreign work to action taken while Biden was vice president, but they never succeeded in doing so.

Their efforts became a saga that ultimately resulted in Trump’s first impeachment — remember, it was Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine to dig up dirt on Hunter that started it all — and, eventually, the “October surprise” release of Hunter Biden’s private emails, texts, and other documents said to be from a laptop abandoned at a Delaware computer repair store.

The federal investigation into Hunter preceded all this partisan drama. It’s being led out of the Delaware US attorney’s office by Weiss, a Trump appointee left in place by President Biden (due to a desire not to interfere with this specific investigation). Weiss has worked in various capacities in that office since 2007 and isn’t known to be a partisan or a Trump crony. And Attorney General Merrick Garland testified in a Senate hearing that Weiss is “not restricted in his investigation in any way.”

However, Shapley and Ziegler raised questions about whether Weiss was truly independent. They were told, they testified, that Weiss had to ask permission to bring charges outside of Delaware — and that US attorneys in both Washington, DC, and southern California declined his requests. Weiss disputed this, writing that he had “never been denied the authority to bring charges in any jurisdiction.” He has offered to testify to Congress on the matter this fall.

What are the charges?

Though the investigation did delve into Hunter’s foreign work, no charges have yet materialized on that front. Instead, prosecutors have zeroed in on two main issues: Hunter’s taxes, and that gun form he filled out.

Regarding taxes, it does not seem that Hunter properly paid taxes on all those millions he made from foreign sources — he belatedly coughed up over $1 million to pay off his tax liability in 2021, per the Times.

As prosecutors weighed an indictment, they considered charging Hunter with two misdemeanor counts for failure to file taxes and “a single felony count of tax evasion related to a business expense for one year of taxes,” per NBC News.

But as part of the reported plea deal, prosecutors will not charge the felony count. Hunter will instead plead guilty to the two misdemeanor tax charges focusing on 2017 and 2018, per the Post.

Then there’s the gun thing. In 2018, during a period in which Hunter has admitted to having a serious drug addiction (he wrote a book about it), he bought a gun. In connection with that purchase, he filled out a federal form and attested that he was not a drug user. The gun became an issue when his sister-in-law became concerned he might harm himself and threw it in an outdoor trash can, where it was discovered and reported to police. Texts from his laptop make clear he was not particularly stable at the time, but no one was hurt.

This seems to be an open-and-shut crime — he said on the form he wasn’t a drug user, but he was. Still, prosecutors have discretion about whether they think such a case would be worth charging. And it was noteworthy that after such a sprawling, years-long investigation, this was one of the few things agents believe they can prove. Many long probes into purported corruption end this way, with a false statement on a federal form — with something clear and written-down, rather than something murky and hard to establish.

According to the Post, Hunter will admit the facts of the gun false statement but will not technically plead guilty to it. Instead, he has agreed to enter a pretrial diversion agreement (diversion is a process that lets some defendants avoid the court system if they agree to abide by certain conditions, and is often used for nonviolent offenses stemming from addiction).

The upshot of the felony tax count not being charged and the gun count being handled as diversion means that Hunter will likely avoid jail time. Prosecutors will instead recommend two years of probation and diversion, according to the Post’s sources.

Has the investigation been politicized?

The Hunter Biden investigation has been both lengthy and leaky. Grumblings of behind-the-scenes discontent have frequently gotten out to the press and to members of Congress.

But these complaints have spilled out into public view with recent testimony, both behind closed doors and in public, from the two IRS officials, Gary Shapley and Joseph Ziegler.

The testimony reveals that the investigation collapsed into bitter acrimony and finger-pointing, with these IRS officials repeatedly pressing for more aggressive action, while the DOJ prosecutors they worked with during both the Trump and Biden administrations counseled caution.

Shapley and Ziegler, in their telling, repeatedly pushed for speedier and more aggressive action in the investigation, while DOJ prosecutors, both in Delaware and in the department’s Tax Division, were constantly telling them no or slowing things down. One sticking point was the DOJ’s desire to avoid taking actions that could leak in the sensitive periods before elections, a concern the whistleblowers seemed not to share.

Shapley has argued he was on the trail of a bigger scandal, one involving Joe Biden himself, until he was waved off it. The investigation “could have been much more,” Shapley testified. “It could have been much bigger. There could have been income streams, more income streams, to other people associated with it, to include the president.”

These tensions came to a head in October 2022, when the Washington Post published an article describing how unnamed “agents” concluded long ago there was sufficient evidence to charge Hunter, implying the holdup was prosecutors’ fault. After this, Weiss held a meeting with Shapley and other officials. The leak was at the top of the agenda, but Shapley then expressed his grievances about how the investigation have been handled. (Shapley and Ziegler have denied leaking the story.)

Soon after, the IRS team was removed from the case. The Justice Department has not publicly explained why, and Shapley argues this was pure political retaliation. But there are signs something else may have been going on. “We were told that the prosecutors had found some emails that concerned them if they could actually charge the case,” Ziegler testified.

We don’t yet know the full story here, but it is possible that the pre-midterms leak destroyed the DOJ’s trust in the IRS team, and in which, after investigating, they found concerning emails of some unspecified nature.

The whistleblower allegation that has gotten the most play, though, pertains to Weiss’s independence. Shapley says Weiss told him that his request to be named special counsel was denied, and that US attorneys in other districts denied his requests for charges against Hunter in those districts.

This, Shapley argues, puts the lie to Garland’s claims that the investigation was independent. Weiss has disputed Shapley’s claims, but hasn’t yet answered them in detail — saying he can’t do so yet because the Hunter investigation is ongoing.

What does it all mean?

Conservative media has spent years spinning theories about the influence-peddling “Biden crime family,” centering on Hunter in particular, yet this particular plea deal validates none of these theories. Naturally, they will argue that the only explanation for this is a biased Justice Department.

“The corrupt Biden DOJ just cleared up hundreds of years of criminal liability by giving Hunter Biden a mere ‘traffic ticket.’ Our system is BROKEN,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. The news about Hunter’s plea deal comes shortly after Trump’s own indictment on charges related to his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

Yet it should be noted that Hunter was not let off the hook — he admitted to committing federal crimes and will plead guilty. In exchange, some more serious charges will not be brought and prosecutors will recommend a lighter sentence than they otherwise might have. That is how the system often works. Furthermore, the investigation into him isn’t yet over.

President Biden, meanwhile, is also facing an investigation related to classified documents found at his residence and office, headed by special counsel Robert Hur. Biden’s team says that they informed the government and returned the documents shortly after they discovered them. Hur’s investigation appears to be ongoing, but there has been little news from it in recent months.

Trump, on the other hand, has shown no sign that he ever seriously considered admitting any criminal behavior or agreeing to any plea deal in the documents case. If he had simply returned the documents when repeatedly asked by government officials, he would likely have been spared charges. But he did not do so.

The right also has a larger narrative of a purportedly biased Justice Department that went out of its way to spare Hillary Clinton from classified information mishandling charges in 2016, before subjecting Trump to intense scrutiny in the Russia investigation. Yet despite the second-guessing of various decisions made in both probes, both did end essentially the same way: in no charges for the main subject.

Update, July 26, 11:15 am ET: This article was originally published on May 12 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include additional details from the whistleblowers’ testimony.

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