A few weeks ago, the legal clouds around Hunter Biden were clearing after years of personal and political turmoil. He had arrived at a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, one that would keep him out of jail while putting some of his past misdeeds behind him. He had settled a child support case in Arkansas. He began making regular public appearances with his father.
But on Friday afternoon, amid a flurry of court filings and solemn public remarks from Attorney General Merrick Garland, any sense that the legal woes of the president’s son were concluding quickly vanished.
The plea agreement collapsed, and prosecutors said that “a trial is therefore in order.” Garland granted special counsel status to U.S. Attorney David Weiss, signaling that the investigation that recently seemed to be concluding is very much ongoing.
The upshot: President Biden faces the prospect that his reelection campaign will unfold at the same time his son faces trial, possibly in a federal courthouse a few blocks from the White House. The legal proceedings could weigh on the president politically, and the fact that the case involves his surviving son — one with a history of drug and alcohol addiction, one he speaks with almost every day, one most of his advisers avoid discussing with him — is also likely to weigh on him personally.
Beyond that, Hunter Biden could face trial at a time when Democrats were hoping the focus would be on Donald Trump’s own trials and legal problems.
The situations are much different: Trump is charged with mishandling classified documents and attempting to overturn the 2020 election, while Hunter Biden faces misdemeanor tax charges and allegations of lying about his drug use when purchasing a gun. Most crucially, Trump is a former president who is seeking a return to the White House, while Hunter Biden is a private citizen.
Even so, the developments inject an element of uncertainty into the White House.
“On balance, I’m sure that this did not land well at the White House,” said David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant who was President Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “There are elements of it that complicate things for the Republicans as well, but it’s fair to say that nobody on Team Biden is eager for Hunter’s case to be extending into the election year.”
Weiss becomes the second special counsel investigating matters related to Biden and his family. Garland appointed Robert Hur this year to probe the handling of classified documents found at Biden’s home and former office.
Biden has generally tried to avoid commenting on the ongoing investigation of Hunter Biden, but he has on occasion declared his son’s innocence.
“My son did nothing wrong,” Biden said during a presidential debate in October 2019.
“I’m proud of my son,” he said during a news conference in December 2020, adding when asked about the likelihood that his son would be cleared in the tax investigation, “I’m confident.”
As of this May, his feelings had not changed. “My son has done nothing wrong,” he told MSNBC. “I trust him. I have faith in him.”
Biden held no public events Friday, and he did not speak to reporters shouting questions about his son as he walked to Marine One en route to a weekend at his vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
“I don’t think he’s really in a position to be commenting on all of this. But it’s an awkward problem,” Axelrod said. “He also, as he’s shown, doesn’t want to undercut his son. But it’s hard to say [Hunter Biden] has done nothing wrong when he’s already tried to plead guilty. It’s not a helpful situation for him.”
While Democrats have tried to talk about Hunter Biden as little as possible, Republicans bring him up as often as they can, something that will probably only escalate if the legal case drags on.
Several GOP presidential candidates, including those who commented only cautiously about Trump’s indictments, went before cameras on Friday to discuss Hunter Biden’s case. “The American people deserve answers, and I welcome the appointment,” former vice president Mike Pence said at the Iowa State Fair.
White House aides have emphasized that Biden has had no role in the investigation of his son and note that Weiss, who was appointed by Trump as U.S. attorney in Delaware, was left in place to continue the investigation. The White House was not told in advance that Garland was naming Weiss a special counsel, according to a White House official.
There is certain to be more legal maneuvering, and it is possible that prosecutors will reach a new plea deal with the president’s son. But there is little question that Friday’s developments undercut the relief Hunter Biden’s allies felt in recent weeks.
The now-defunct plea agreement had focused on a far narrower slice of Hunter Biden’s activity than investigators initially scrutinized in their four-year investigation. The ultimate charges had little to do with Hunter Biden’s foreign business deals in countries like Ukraine and China, instead involving poor decisions on taxes and guns. They also had no connection to his father.
The tax charges were fairly minor, resulting in misdemeanor charges for two years of not paying taxes, a bill that his attorneys have said he has since paid. The final charge accused Hunter Biden of lying about his drug use at the time of a gun purchase, something he essentially admitted in his memoir.
It is unclear whether investigators will now pursue other avenues — special counsel investigations can spiral in many directions — or whether the collapse of the plea deal will simply mean a change in venue and a trial on the same tax charges that were part of the plea agreement. Prosecutors said the proper venue would be in California or D.C., where Hunter Biden was living at the time.
Hunter Biden’s attorney, Chris Clark, said on Friday that Weiss has had broad authority all along and that giving him special counsel status would not change much.
“Whether in Delaware, Washington, D.C., or anywhere else, we expect a fair resolution not infected by politics and we’ll do what is necessary on behalf of Mr. Biden to achieve that,” Clark said.
When the legal clouds appeared to be lifting several weeks ago, Hunter Biden had hopes of becoming a more public presence in his father’s presidency and campaign. He had regularly participated in Biden’s past campaigns but was largely absent from the 2020 race, as by his own description he was in the throes of a drug addiction.
But if he has hopes of regaining his old role as one of his father’s advisers, strategists and surrogates, that could be much harder if he faces a trial.