President Biden’s son Hunter was indicted Thursday for allegedly making false statements and illegally possessing a handgun – setting the stage for a possible criminal trial for the younger Biden in 2024 while his father campaigns for re-election.
The felony charges follow the collapse in July of a plea deal that lawyers for Hunter Biden had negotiated with Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, in which Biden would have pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor tax violations while admitting to illegal possession of a gun but not actually pleading guilty to that felony offense.
A separate Hunter Biden indictment on tax charges is also possible, though the timing was unclear, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case.
Thursday’s indictment marks another tremor in what has already been a tumultuous 2024 presidential campaign. The current front-runner for the GOP nomination, Donald Trump, is facing four separate indictments on a host of allegations, including two from the same Justice Department that has charged Hunter Biden, and could also find himself on trial before the next presidential election.
Polls indicate Trump’s lead over his Republican rivals has only grown with his indictments in New York, Florida, D.C. and Georgia. He and other top Republicans have repeatedly tried to link President Biden to his son’s legal and tax troubles, accusing the first family of corruption and the Biden administration of stonewalling the investigation. The Republican claims are a key element of the impeachment inquiry of the president that the House launched Tuesday.
The White House declined to comment on Thursday, referring questions to the Justice Department and Hunter Biden’s lawyers. A spokesman for Weiss declined to comment beyond a written announcement of the charges. Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, said that in charging the president’s son, Weiss caved to improper pressure from Republicans.
“Hunter Biden possessing an unloaded gun for 11 days was not a threat to public safety, but a prosecutor, with all the power imaginable, bending to political pressure, presents a grave threat to our system of justice,” Lowell said.
The four-page indictment accuses Biden of making two false statements in filling out the paperwork to purchase a gun on Oct. 12, 2018. He claimed to not be addicted to or using illegal drugs, the indictment says, “when in fact, as he knew, that statement was false and fictitious.”
Count three of the indictment charges Biden with unlawfully possessing that gun, a Colt revolver, for 11 days following the purchase. That charge is based on a federal law making it illegal to possess a weapon while a person is using illegal drugs. If convicted, the maximum sentence for the most serious crime in the indictment is 10 years in prison, but under federal sentencing guidelines Biden, who has acknowledged being addicted to drugs at the time of the gun purchase, would probably face far less time.
While the basic facts alleged in the indictment are fairly straightforward, winning this particular case at trial could be difficult for prosecutors, given significant disputes that have emerged among federal agents and officials involved in the case, and the slew of interviews some of those individuals have already given to congressional committees.
Lowell signaled Thursday that he will seek to use that material to attack the indictment. He also fired off an angry letter to Republican Reps. James Comer (Ky.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), and Jason Smith (Mo.), who chair three committees that have been pursuing Biden and details about the investigation. The letter blamed those lawmakers for trying to drum up a criminal case that would help Republicans in the 2024 election.
“It is not that Mr. Biden was given a ‘sweetheart deal.’ Just the opposite: Mr. Biden was and will be charged for conduct no one else would be charged for because, as the President’s son, he has been subject to your relentless efforts to inject partisan Republican politics into the process,” Lowell wrote.
Biden’s legal team has long argued that prosecutors very rarely indict people on such gun violations unless the charge can be tied to more serious crimes.
Weiss, who launched the investigation into Hunter Biden as the Delaware U.S. attorney during the Trump administration, indicated earlier this month that he planned to seek an indictment. After the plea deal fell through, Weiss sought and received special counsel status from the Justice Department, which gives him the authority to seek charges outside Delaware – something he would have needed special permission to do as U.S. attorney.
Part of Biden’s failed plea deal would have required him to enter a pretrial diversion program, an option typically applied to nonviolent offenders with substance abuse problems. In all, Biden would have spent about two years on probation but avoided jail time if he kept to the terms of the deal, which included not owning a gun or engaging in criminal conduct.
Lowell argued Thursday that the diversion deal remains in effect, and said prosecutors therefore should be barred from filing the new charges. “He did not violate that law, and we plan to demonstrate all of that in court,” Lowell said.
The plea deal collapsed at a July court hearing in Wilmington, Del., under basic questioning by a federal judge who found the two sides had very different understandings of whether the agreement meant Biden could still be charged for possible financial or lobbying registration crimes. Since that hearing, prosecutors have said the proper place to file any tax charges against the younger Biden would not be in Delaware, but in D.C. and California.
President Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, kept Weiss as the U.S. attorney in Delaware so he would remain in charge of the probe. Republicans have repeatedly attacked Weiss – a Trump nominee who has deep roots in the Bidens’ home state – as being unable or unwilling to pursue the politically sensitive case.
The saga of the investigation took another strange turn in the spring. Two IRS agents involved in the case became whistleblowers and told a congressional committee that Weiss and his office had stymied and drawn out the investigation over many months, frustrating the agents, who said they had wanted to pursue tougher charges in the case. A senior FBI agent who is supervising the investigation has pushed back on some – but not all – of the agents’ claims.
Garland had long resisted calls by congressional conservatives to appoint a special counsel in the Hunter Biden case, saying Weiss was best suited to handle it and that he had autonomy to file whatever charges he wanted. But after the plea deal fell apart, Weiss asked to be named special counsel, and Garland agreed.
Lying on the government forms needed to purchase a firearm represents a small percentage of the nation’s overall firearm-related prosecutions.
Between October 2022 and March 2023, federal prosecutors filed 3,863 cases in which the unlawful possession of a firearm was the lead charge, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC database, which gathers federal data.
In 130 of those cases, or about 3 percent, the lead unlawful-possession charge was related to making a false statement to acquire the weapon.
During that same six-month period, federal prosecutors in Delaware filed nine cases in which unlawful gun possession was the lead charge, according to the TRAC data. One of the nine involved making a false statement to acquire the weapon.
Even after the indictment, congressional Republicans on Thursday continued to question whether the Justice Department was adequately pursuing the case.
Comer, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said he thought the gun charges were “the one crime you can’t tie back to Joe Biden.”
“This doesn’t do anything to make me think that justice is being served, or anything else,” he said. “I’m still skeptical.”
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Tyler Pager and Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.