From collapsed plea deal to trial: How Hunter Biden has come to face jurors on federal gun charges

Jun 2, 2024, 5:20 PM

Photo: Hunter Biden arrives for a court appearance, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Wilmington, Del....

Hunter Biden arrives for a court appearance, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Wilmington, Del. (Photo: Matt Rourke, AP)

(Photo: Matt Rourke, AP)

President Joe Biden’s son was in federal court, prepared to plead guilty to misdemeanor tax offenses. The culmination of a sprawling investigation, the deal between Hunter Biden and prosecutors was going to spare him a politically explosive trial in the middle of his father’s reelection campaign and likely prison time.

But it all fell apart.

Now, Hunter Biden is headed to trial on federal gun charges in a case brought by his father’s Justice Department at a time when America’s political and legal worlds are colliding like never before. Dogged for years by investigations, scrutinized over his troubled personal life and vilified by Republicans, the younger Biden is now also confronting the threat of felony convictions and time behind bars.

The case opening Monday with jury selection in Delaware is not about Hunter Biden’s business dealings, which have been the focus of the yearslong federal investigation and Republicans’ fruitless impeachment inquiry into the Democratic president. It’s about a gun Hunter Biden had for about 11 days — a .38-caliber Colt Cobra Special. Prosecutors said he bought it illegally in October 2018 because he falsely swore on a federal form that he was not a drug user. He never fired the gun, according to his lawyers, and it ended up dumped in a trash can.

The trial will lack details about his foreign business matters that Republicans have seized on to try to paint the Biden family as corrupt, but it is expected to feature deeply personal and embarrassing testimony about dark time in the younger Biden’s life. And it probably will provide new political impetus for Donald Trump’s allies, who are eager to distract from the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s own legal problems after he was convicted of 34 felony counts in his hush money trial.

Allies of Joe Biden are worried about the toll the trial may take on the president, who already is concerned about the well-being and sobriety of his only living son and who must now watch as that son’s darkest moments are relived in public. They also are worried that the trial could become a distraction as the president tries to campaign while facing anemic poll numbers and is scheduled to prepare in Wilmington for a June 27 debate with Trump as the trial plays out nearby.

The deal that never was

It once looked like Hunter Biden was going to avoid prosecution in the gun case altogether.

The deal was announced last June. Nearly three years earlier, Hunter Biden had confirmed the federal investigation into his tax affairs in December 2020, shortly after his father was elected.

The younger Biden would have pleaded guilty to misdemeanor tax offenses; prosecutors would have recommended two years of probation. There was also a “diversion agreement” that would have allowed him to escape prosecution on a felony gun charge as long he stayed out of trouble for two years.

But the plea hearing quickly unraveled.

U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika, who was nominated to the bench by Trump, quizzed both sides with concerns about the deal. To her, it seemed unusual and required her to be involved in the case in a way most federal judges are not. The lawyers huddled, trying to salvage the deal. At one point they could be heard yelling at each other.

“Well, we’ll just rip it up!” Chris Clark, Biden’s then-attorney, shouted as tempers flared.

“So what do we do now?” the judge later asked the lawyers.

“Then there is no deal,” prosecutor Leo Wise told her.

A few weeks later, Attorney General Merrick Garland named David Weiss, the Trump-nominated U.S. attorney in Delaware who was leading the investigation, as a special counsel.

Hunter Biden was indicted a month after that on three gun counts. They are punishable by up to 25 years in prison, though first-time offenders do not get anywhere near the maximum and it is unclear whether the judge would actually give him time behind bars if he were convicted.

Courtroom tension

The bitterness between prosecutors and Hunter Biden’s legal team is glaring. It’s likely to be on display Monday.

Clark withdrew from the case, saying he might be called to testify in a potential legal dispute over the now-defunct deal. Another defense lawyer, Abbe Lowell, has accused Weiss of caving to political pressure to indict the president’s son after Trump and other Republicans blasted the “sweetheart deal.” The defense has noted that charges related to gun possession by drug users are rare when not in connection with a more serious crime.

“Mr. Biden is not being prosecuted for any sin that DOJ (the Department of Justice) believes he has committed. He is being punished for the perceived sins of his father — the sin of opposing Mr. Trump’s election to the president,” according to court papers filed by Lowell, who also has represented Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the former president’s daughter and son-in-law.

Prosecutors said Lowell’s contention is “fiction designed for a Hollywood script.”

“Contrary to his assertion, he has not established that the Special Counsel, appointed by and serving at the pleasure of President Biden and his Attorney General, is punishing the defendant ‘for the perceived sins of his father’ in order to capitulate to a former President because of his tweets,” Weiss’ team responded.

Weiss has said “political considerations” played no part in the investigation. He told lawmakers behind closed doors last year that no one at the Justice Department prevented him from pursuing charges or taking other necessary steps, disputing claims from two IRS whistleblowers that the department improperly interfered in the tax investigation.

A dark time

The case stems from a period where, by his own admission, Hunter Biden was addicted to crack.

In his memoir “Beautiful Things,” he described becoming consumed by drugs and alcohol after his older brother, Beau, died in 2015 at age 46 from brain cancer. The brothers were very close, having survived a car crash when they were young that killed their mother and baby sister.

Hunter Biden has said he has been sober since 2019. But prosecutors intend to use his memoir to make the case that he knew he was addicted to drugs when he denied it on the form that every person must fill out when buying a gun. They plan to show jurors text messages, videos and photos of Hunter Biden smoking crack, as well as details about cocaine residue that authorities said was found on the pouch he used to hold his gun.

“I’m a liar and a thief and a blamer and a user and I’m delusional and an addict unlike beyond and above all other addicts that you know and I’ve ruined every relationship I’ve ever cherished,” Hunter Biden wrote in one text message weeks after he bought the firearm, according to prosecutors.

Jurors are expected to hear testimony from his ex-wife and other former romantic partners, including Beau’s widow, Hallie Biden, with whom Hunter Biden had a relationship after his brother’s death. Hallie Biden found the gun in Hunter Biden’s truck and threw it in the trash. It was found by a man collecting recyclables who gave it to the police.

The defense has suggested it will attack the credibility of the gun shop employees, noting there were changes to the gun purchase form after the sale. Prosecutors said there were minor additions unrelated to the parts Hunter Biden filled out. His lawyers have suggested they may argue that Hunter Biden did not see himself as an addict when prosecutors say he checked “no” to the question on the form.

“The terms ‘user’ or ‘addict’ are not defined on the form and were not explained to him,” the defense wrote in a recent filing. “Someone, like Mr. Biden who had just completed an 11-day rehabilitation program and lived with a sober companion after that, could surely believe he was not a present tense user or addict.”

The case is expected to last a couple of weeks. He also is scheduled to stand trial in September in California in the case where he is accused of failing to pay at least $1.4 million in taxes over four years.

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From collapsed plea deal to trial: How Hunter Biden has come to face jurors on federal gun charges