Why Hunter Biden’s Plea Deal Wasn’t Approved

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Hunter Biden leaves federal court in Wilmington, Del., on July 26, 2023.

Hunter Biden walked into court in Delaware expecting to plead guilty to two minor crimes and avoid jail. But that plea deal ended up on hold, at least temporarily, and if prosecutors and defense lawyers can’t work out some structural problems, Biden could face a criminal trial. Here’s what happened to the president’s son and what could happen next:


How Hunter Biden’s plea deal deteriorated

On Wednesday, Hunter Biden headed to a courtroom not far from where he grew up expecting to plead guilty to failure to pay taxes and to accept a complicated “diversion agreement” with prosecutors where he admits but doesn’t have to plead guilty to illegally possessing a gun. He reached a tentative plea agreement in June to keep the gun charge off his record and avoid jail time – provided that he meets conditions over a two-year period including staying drug free and not buying a firearm.

But the agreement quickly fell apart in court for two reasons:

1. The plea deal initially did not protect Hunter Biden from prosecution for other potential charges in connection with a long-running government investigation into his business dealings. When the federal judge asked Hunter Biden if he would plead guilty knowing he could still face additional charges, he said no. Prosecutors in the courtroom maintained this was part of the agreement all along. “Then we misunderstood, we’re ripping it up,” Biden lawyer Chris Clark snapped at them. The two sides then quickly reworked the deal to include immunity for certain tax, drug and gun charges between 2014 to 2019, essentially the main time period covered by the investigation.

2. The judge then raised constitutional questions. She noted that the immunity provisions were tucked into the agreement involving the gun charge, which she does not actually have to approve. That’s because diversion agreements are forged between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Plea agreements, on the other hand, must be approved by a judge. But the diversion agreement includes language saying the judge could revive the gun charge if Hunter Biden violated the terms of the agreement. The judge said she did not think she has the power to do so.


So what happens next?

The judge told the two sides to work on how the deal was structured and resubmit it when it can pass constitutional muster. In the meantime, Hunter Biden had to enter a plea one way or another. With no plea agreement in place, he pleaded not guilty.

If his lawyers and the prosecutors can’t figure out a way to resurrect the plea deal, he could eventually face a criminal trial on the tax charges. He could also theoretically be charged with illegally purchasing a firearm.


How the Hunter Biden investigation got started

Since his father was vice president, Hunter Biden has appeared to trade on his father’s name to do business deals in countries where his father was working. The Justice Department started investigating Hunter Biden’s foreign business deals while Donald Trump was in the White House. When Joe Biden became president, he kept the Trump-appointed investigator on the job and let the investigation play out. Over five years, that investigation narrowed in scope to the following charges:

– Failure to pay taxes: Hunter Biden was planning to plead guilty to failing to pay more than $100,000 in taxes in both 2017 and 2018 after making more than $1.5 million each year. He has struggled with debt but has paid the IRS back taxes thanks to a loan from a wealthy friend.

– Illegal weapons possession: Hunter Biden was also prepared to admit to illegal possession of a weapon, based on him having lied on a form for a gun he bought in 2018. The form asked whether he was “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.” He checked no, but he’s written a book saying at the time he was addicted to crack cocaine, smoking it as often as “every 15 minutes.” Prosecutors agreed not to prosecute Hunter Biden on this charge as long as he agreed to avoid using drugs or buying a firearm for two years. It’s a deal called a diversion program that is typically applied to nonviolent offenders with substance use problems.


Why there is so much attention on Hunter Biden in the first place

Starting with the 2020 election, critics of Joe Biden have latched onto every salacious detail about Hunter Biden’s life to paint a picture of an unsavory, corrupt family.

Hunter Biden has struggled with debt and addiction. He had a relationship with his deceased brother’s wife. And Republicans have combed through texts, emails and even nude photos from a laptop he apparently left in a Delaware repair shop before the 2020 election that quickly made its way into the hands of Trump allies.

Republicans maintained that Hunter Biden got off too easy – and they have made the comparison to former president Donald Trump, who is twice-indicted (with more charges potentially coming in various investigations) and faces years in prison if convicted. (Biden’s treatment aside, his criminal investigation and those into Trump are very, very different.)


This is all happening as Republicans talk about impeaching Biden

Republicans have spent more than a year investigating Hunter Biden. They recently talked to a whistleblower at the IRS who alleges the government delayed the investigation.

Just this week, House Republican leaders have started seriously talking about a potential impeachment of President Biden over his family’s business deals. But so far, allegations of more serious crimes about Hunter Biden lack context and, crucially, evidence; especially anything that ties his business dealings to his father.