Is Hunter Biden being prosecuted because of politics? (2024)

Hunter Biden’s first trial, which began this week, isn’t about conservatives’ assertions that he’s at the center of some sprawling Biden family corruption saga. It’s instead focused on one specific messy incident: Hunter’s purchase of a gun in 2018.

That year, Hunter had struggles with drug and alcohol addiction that are now well-documented, but when buying the gun, he checked a box on a form stating that he did not use drugs. For this, prosecutors have charged him in Delaware with violating three different laws: two false statements laws and one law banning firearm possession by a drug user. (They’ve also indicted him for tax charges in California, where he’ll face a separate trial in September.)

The gun charges stand out as unusual, experts have said. They focus on a nearly six-year-old incident where no one was hurt, and on a defendant who got sober nearly five years ago.

Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said this week: “​​I don’t think the average American would have been charged with the gun thing” (though his opinion may also reflect a general Republican lack of desire to strictly enforce gun laws).

So is Hunter Biden actually kind of getting a raw deal? Is the Justice Department coming down on him more harshly than would be typical — perhaps because they’re anxious to avoid criticism from Republicans and tout their independence from politics?

The tangled backstory of the investigation suggests there’s something to that, that prosecutors came down hard on Hunter after the politics of the situation grew ugly for them. But that history also reveals a more complicated story in which prosecutors at many points did not seem particularly eager to indict Hunter, and in which Hunter’s refusal to take a revised deal helped get him to this point.

The core question is similar to one that’s come up about Trump’s New York trial and conviction: Did prosecutors go much harder on him because of politics? Defenders of the case argued that falsifying business records charges were common in Manhattan, but critics argued that many specific aspects of the Trump charges were quite unusual and highly unlikely to have been employed against anyone other than Trump.

Hunter was certainly a legitimate target for investigation, and it’s not uncommon for prosecutors to come down hard on a defendant who won’t agree to their preferred plea terms. But politics is impossible to disentangle from this case: It influenced it from the very start.

Politics has long loomed over the Hunter Biden investigation

In 2018, Hunter Biden — who had long worked as a lobbyist and then an adviser and consultant to high-paying foreign clients — was seriously addicted to drugs, living large, and often behaving unstably.

That year, bank records involving suspicious transactions of his drew the attention of both the Justice Department and the IRS, which began investigating him. Almost immediately, Hunter’s notoriety affected things. The IRS agent who opened the case said he was motivated in part by media articles about Hunter’s messy divorce, which involved allegations that he spent lavishly on drugs and prostitutes.

But it became clear this was very much not a normal case in 2019 and 2020, as:

  • Joe Biden became the frontrunner and then the Democratic nominee to challenge President Trump
  • Trump and his allies began publicly demanding investigations of Hunter and the Bidens, both from the own Justice Department and from the government of Ukraine, in a push that eventually led to his (first) impeachment
  • A computer store repairman turned over a laptop containing Hunter’s personal information to the FBI — and, eventually, to Rudy Giuliani, who began leaking its contents to the press

Hunter also sobered up during this period and stopped doing work for foreign clients.

Despite Trump’s desire to prosecute the Bidens while he was in office, the 2020 election was approaching and prosecutors were cautious about taking overt investigative steps that could leak and influence the outcome. Then, once Biden was in office, the new president kept US Attorney for Delaware David Weiss, who was overseeing the case, in his post (to avoid criticism of interfering with the investigation). The new Attorney General, Merrick Garland, promised Weiss would have independence.

Investigators conducted a sprawling probe of Hunter’s business affairs, but after exploring many possibilities, they decided their best evidence was on two fronts.

First was taxes. Hunter had failed to file or pay taxes for several years, and investigators believe he lied on his tax forms for one year.

Second was the gun incident. On October 12, 2018, Hunter bought a gun in Wilmington, Delaware. As part of the purchase, he filled out a form stating he was not a user of illegal drugs. The gun became an issue when Hallie Biden (his late brother’s widow, who Hunter then dated) learned of it, became concerned he might harm himself, and threw it in an outdoor trash can. Texts he sent at the time made clear he was not particularly stable, but no one was hurt.

The gun incident was never the centerpiece of any investigation into Hunter, but it was a seemingly clear case of an open-and-shut crime: He said on the form he wasn’t a drug user, but he was. 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. The gun charge always remained in the mix throughout the lengthy investigation as some leverage prosecutors had on Hunter.

But by late 2022, US Attorney Weiss believed that the case was not strong enough to justify an indictment, according to the New York Times. So he hoped to strike a plea deal with Hunter’s team.

From plea deal to double indictment

As the investigation seemed over, leaks from officials dissatisfied with its course began to trickle out, to the media and to congressional Republicans. Two such officials, with the IRS, eventually came forward as whistleblowers, giving public interviews and testifying extensively to Congress, arguing that the DOJ had gone soft on the president’s son. Much Republican criticism ensued.

Despite all this, Weiss’s team and Hunter’s did eventually reach a plea deal, which was announced in June. As per the deal, Hunter would plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges, admit to illegally possessing a firearm while a drug user, and likely avoid any jail time.

But when the deal went before Judge Maryellen Noreika for her approval in July, her questioning revealed that the prosecution and defense didn’t actually agree on what the deal meant.

The key disagreement was on the scope of immunity that would be given to Hunter. The defense insisted they understood it to entail a broad grant of immunity for any prosecution involving his business affairs from 2016 to 2019. Prosecutors said, no, they didn’t mean it that way. So Judge Noreika blocked the deal and told the two sides to work it out.

In the ensuing weeks, though, it became clear they could not work it out. Weiss offered the same basic deal again — without the immunity guarantee. Hunter’s team refused. Weiss then indicted him for the gun incident in Delaware and on tax charges in California (where he lived at the time).

One interpretation of why the deal collapsed is that prosecutors suddenly became unreasonable, altering the terms of an immunity deal they had originally seemed comfortable with, probably in response to political criticism.

It does seem pretty clear that Weiss’s thinking changed as the whistleblowers went public and criticism from Republicans intensified. There were changes in his office as well. The assistant US attorney who negotiated the plea deal, Lesley Wolf, suddenly seemed to take on a reduced role, while Leo Wise, a prosecutor with an aggressive reputation, joined the team.

Another interpretation, though, is that Hunter also pushed for too much. Rather than settling for a deal that would close the tax and gun case against him, Hunter’s team demanded broader immunity for other potential crimes as well. It’s true that prosecutors initially seemed willing to give him that and only later changed their posture. But it was still Hunter’s choice about whether to take the altered deal and he refused, choosing to gamble on his chances in court.

So, is the case against Hunter defensible, or has it been politicized? Yes and yes.

The evidence against Hunter in the gun case appears strong, but it would be very unlikely to have been brought if his name was Hunter Smith. Politics has clearly affected the prosecution’s decisions. But that doesn’t mean their decisions are indefensible, and Hunter’s choices mattered here too.

Is Hunter Biden being prosecuted because of politics? (2024)
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