A legal drama involving Hunter Biden on Wednesday showed how a presidential race already reeling from a possible third criminal indictment of Donald Trump is being defined more by courtroom action than campaign trail fireworks.
President Joe Biden’s son – and a White House gearing up for a reelection bid – had hoped Wednesday would bring legal closure. But a judge balked at Hunter Biden’s plea deal agreed to with prosecutors, igniting new political rocket fuel for Republicans who claim that the younger Biden got a sweetheart deal from his dad’s Justice Department.
But the surprising twist to what had been seen as rubber stamp court hearing in Delaware is not the most critical legal intrigue playing into one of the strangest presidential campaigns in history.
Washington is braced for a possible third criminal indictment of Trump in special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the run up to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. The grand jury from which any charges will emerge is expected to meet again in Washington on Thursday – about a week after Trump said he received a target letter from the special counsel, which is a step that often precedes criminal charges.
Trump is already the first former president to be criminally charged. His previous indictments – one in Manhattan on business fraud charges related to a hush money payment to an adult film star, and the other in federal court related to alleged mishandling of classified documents – have sent a shudder through the 2024 campaign since he’s also the front-runner for the GOP nomination. An indictment over events leading up to January 6 would mark a unique moment in America’s story, since for the first time, the United States could be putting an ex-president on trial for an attempt to destroy its democratic system.
Republicans seize on Hunter Biden as a smokescreen for Trump
Republicans have long been looking for a way to distract from Trump’s extraordinary thicket of scandals. And they’ve seized on Hunter Biden’s troubles to try to weave a narrative about what they call the “Biden crime family.” (In the original plea agreement, which fell apart on Wednesday, Hunter Biden was poised to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and strike a deal with federal prosecutors to resolve a felony gun charge.)
A campaign that is already embroiled in accusations of legal cover-ups, the weaponization of justice and unpredictable legal proceedings is also taking another tense turn after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy warmed this week to the possibility of an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden. The idea of impeaching the president looks like an effort from the GOP’s most radical factions to seek revenge for the double impeachment of Trump. Some House Republicans are trying to find links between Hunter Biden’s business ventures in places like China and Ukraine and decisions made by his father when he was vice president. They also accuse the current Justice Department of offering Hunter Biden an overly lenient deal and of interfering in the prosecution of the president’s son.
But while Congress has the right to scrutinize all such questions, House Republicans have so far failed to provide conclusive evidence to stand up any of their accusations, fueling an impression they are playing dirty politics. President Biden has denied all wrongdoing, has said he had nothing to do with Hunter Biden’s business career and has publicly kept his distance from his son’s case.
Hunter Biden’s appearance in Delaware on Wednesday had been expected to be routine. But it quickly degenerated into a disaster as the plea deal that was expected to see him avoid jail time began to crumble. Judge Maryellen Noreika – a Trump appointee confirmed with Democratic support – exposed a stunning flaw in arrangements when she discovered that Hunter Biden believed the agreement protected him against possible additional charges for foreign lobbying but that the prosecution disagreed. It was remarkable that such a fundamental question in such a high-profile case was not resolved before the parties went to court.
As the hearing turned into a debacle, Noreika was also concerned about the constitutionality of a separate agreement resolving a charge that Hunter Biden illegally owned a firearm when he was using drugs. The unraveling of the arrangement means both the defense and the prosecution must think again before a new appearance before the judge. With his case in limbo, a suddenly anxious Hunter Biden had to enter a not guilty plea in a pro-forma move, before leaving court with his future still deeply uncertain.
The plea deal is now on hold, and the parties have 30 days to work out what is next. CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig said that if they can agree to a new plea agreement that eases the judge’s concerns, she would likely approve it. “If not, this could head to trial, and when I say head to trial, I mean the tax charges. I also mean that gun charge, which could carry jail time. … There is a lot of risk for Hunter Biden here if they don’t get a deal done.”
The prospect of a prolonged legal process would be harrowing for Hunter Biden and his family as he seeks to rebound from drug and alcohol addiction that he told the judge was now firmly in his past. It would also represent an unwelcome distraction for his father – and an opening for Republicans – as he accelerates his bid to win reelection.
The judge’s moves did not directly validate previous Republican criticisms of the Justice Department’s handling of the Hunter Biden case, which is being led by a Trump-appointed US attorney and has dragged on for five years. This is because the judge appeared to be trying to ensure that Hunter Biden knew exactly what he was signing up to – a more stringent deal than he apparently believed he had secured. She was also uncertain whether the unusual role assigned her by the parties to monitor the deal was within her powers.
But the nuances of the case mattered little to Republicans, who seized on the fiasco in an attempt to turn it into a political disaster for the White House.
“It collapsed because it was a sweetheart deal from a family that has been protected, Hunter Biden being the main character,” South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman told CNN’s Manu Raju. “It shows the American people there are consequences, and that the government’s not for sale.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement that “what happened today in federal court regarding the Hunter Biden plea agreement was astonishing, unnerving, and unprecedented.” And the key Trump ally narrowed in on one of the most worrying aspects of Wednesday’s hearing for the Biden campaign – the revelation that the Justice Department is still investigating whether Hunter Biden had broken lobbying laws. This is a question that could prolong the legal exposure of the president’s son, even if a new plea deal can be agreed to, and is likely to hang over the campaign until it’s resolved.
It is too early in the 2024 presidential campaign to tell exactly how Trump’s indictments and the Hunter Biden case will affect the candidacies of the former and current presidents. In the Republican primary, Trump seems to have used his indictments to engineer a fundraising and popularity surge, but if he wins the GOP nomination, the prospect of a future president on trial may worsen his already tarnished appeal to moderate and swing-state voters in a general election.
Every new turn in the Hunter Biden case, meanwhile, invigorates Republican attacks even in the absence of concrete evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of the president. Hunter Biden’s legal fate and any perceived missteps by the Justice Department in the case will play into a House Oversight Committee investigation into the Biden family’s financial affairs and into the House Judiciary Committee’s attempt to prove that Joe Biden has weaponized the government against Trump – even if the ex-president frequently polarized the Justice Department when he was in power.
And days like Wednesday will only fuel impeachment fever in the House, despite the failure of the GOP so far to establish clear links between Hunter Biden’s business dealings and his father’s political decision making.