Hunter Biden plea deal in jeopardy, lawyers huddle to try to salvage agreement

A plea agreement between federal prosecutors and Hunter Biden was in jeopardy Wednesday as the judge refused to sign off on a deal that would have seen the president’s son enter guilty pleas to two misdemeanor tax charges and enter a diversion program in lieu of pleading guilty to a felony gun possession count.

The hearing is continuing, and the judge, Maryellen Noreika, has given prosecutors and Biden’s defense attorneys the opportunity to resolve her concerns, which relate specifically to including a diversion program agreement while he remains under investigation.

Government and defense lawyers were seen huddling during a break in the hearing after being given the opportunity to salvage the deal.  

The president’s son had agreed as part of a deal to enter guilty pleas on the counts of willful failure to pay income tax, and admit to felony gun possessionThe agreement made it unlikely the president’s son will face prison time, which had angered Republicans. It’s not yet clear if Hunter Biden will also be sentenced Wednesday.     

Noreika had early questions about the outside claims that the investigation was insufficient but both sides (government and Hunter team) that they did not see evidence of that. Hunters lawyers said that would be resolved in the “political process.”

In court, a clean-shaven Biden appeared alert, but appeared nervous.

What was Hunter Biden charged with and what is the plea deal? 

Hunter Biden was charged with two misdemeanor tax offenses and a felony firearm offense.  

The deal included an acknowledgement that drug use was a contributing factor in his gun possession charge. A source with knowledge of the agreement said the diversion plan is expected to mean that for two years, Hunter Biden must remain drug-free and can’t commit additional crimes. If he fulfills this successfully, the gun count would be dismissed. This does not amount to a guilty plea.

Judge Maryellen Noreika on Wednesday asked both Biden’s attorneys and prosecutors questions related to the the gun diversion agreement, and indicated she wanted to be sure he isn’t only pleading guilty because of that program. 

The two misdemeanor tax charges relate to Hunter Biden’s willful failure to pay taxes for 2017 and 2018. A filing indicates Hunter Biden earned more than $1.5 million in income each year. He has since fully repaid back taxes and fines, including $2 million reportedly paid to the federal government last year, with the help of a loan from his personal attorney. The felony gun charge relates to his possession of a handgun by a drug user in 2018. The filing identifies the gun as a Colt Cobra 38SPL, and Weiss said in a statement that Hunter Biden had it for 11 days in October 2018.

Hunter Biden arrives at court
Hunter Biden (L), son of U.S. President Joe Biden, arrives at the J. Caleb Boggs Federal Building in Wilmington, Delaware, on July 26, 2023, for his plea hearing. 

RYAN COLLERD/AFP via Getty Images

What has the reaction been from Republicans? 

The plea hearing came amid intense scrutiny from Republicans in Congress, who have raised questions about how the case was handled and whether Hunter Biden received special treatment or leniency. 

In an unusual move, House Republicans submitted a court filing on the eve of the hearing, asking the judge to consider recent statements from two IRS officials who worked on the case.

On July 19, the two IRS whistleblowers testified to the House Oversight Committee about the tax probe. Joseph Ziegler, the tax agency’s lead case agent in the investigation, described himself as a Democrat and said he recommended prosecutors charge Hunter Biden with multiple felonies and misdemeanors in 2021.

Ziegler said he believed evidence showed Hunter Biden had improperly claimed business deductions for a number of personal expenses, including his children’s college tuition, hotel bills and payments to escorts, but that their efforts to investigate further were stymied. 

“When you’re prevented from going down certain roads, I guess I don’t know what could have been found if we were not hamstrung or not handcuffed,” Ziegler said last week in an interview with CBS News.

Republican Jason Smith, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, filed a brief with the court Wednesday asking the judge to consider the IRS whistleblowers’ testimony when deciding whether to approve the agreement.

Hunter Biden attorney Christopher Clark, urged the court to disregard Smith’s filing, saying in a letter that Smith had no standing to file, and was attempting to introduce “grand jury secret information and confidential taxpayer information” into the public record.

“In addition, you have not identified (nor could you identify) any legal basis for your attempt to intervene as amicus in tomorrow’s proceeding,” Clark wrote.

Clark said in a July 19 statement to CBS News that “any suggestion the investigation was not thorough, or cut corners, or cut my client any slack, is preposterous and deeply irresponsible.” 

“The [Justice Department] investigation covered a period which was a time of turmoil and addiction for my client. Any verifiable words or actions of my client, in the midst of a horrible addiction, are solely his own and have no connection to anyone in his family,” Clark said.

The judge is likely to read and consider briefs filed in the case by outside parties, but is unlikely to be influenced by other outside factors like media coverage and politics, according to former Justice Department official Thomas Dupree.

“They’re aware of outside events. They won’t turn a blind eye to it, but it would be unusual for a judge basically to say … either just in my own investigation or by things I’ve seen on TV or in the papers, I have some questions,” Dupree said in an interview with CBS News.

Noreika on Wednesday asked questions early on in the hearing about the outside claims that the investigation was insufficient but prosecutors and Clark said they did not see evidence of that. Biden’s lawyers said those concerns would be resolved in the “political process.”

What has the White House and Justice Department been saying? 

The White House and Justice Department have denied any political interference in the probe.

“President Biden has made clear that this matter would be handled independently by the Justice Department, under the leadership of a U.S. attorney appointed by former President Trump, free from any political interference by the White House,” the White House said in a statement shared previously. “He has upheld that commitment.”

Weiss has also pushed back against Republican claims his investigation was impeded, stating in a letter last month that he had ultimate authority on these matters and was “never denied the authority to bring charges in any jurisdiction.” 

On Monday, the Justice Department sent a letter to lawmakers stating that Weiss will be able to testify before Congress to answer their questions and address what they say are “misrepresentations” about their work in the Biden probe “…that could unduly harm public confidence in the evenhanded administration of justice, to which we are dedicated.” 

From the start, the effort to dissect the business dealings of a man whose father served as a senior U.S. senator, vice president, and candidate for the presidency, faced unusual challenges. 

The investigation unfolded as Hunter Biden became the subject of repeated political attacks from the right, including the leaking of his laptop computer into the public sphere, and continued as Hunter Biden waged a counter-offensive, filing civil lawsuits against his political critics. 

At an event in California the day the plea deal was first announced, President Biden responded to questions about Hunter Biden by saying, “I am very proud of my son.” 

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