What’s Next in the Hunter Biden Investigation

6 minute read

The legal hardship facing Hunter Biden appeared to be nearing an end last month. He had just reached a plea deal with prosecutors that would keep him out of jail, settled a child support case with the mother of a child he fathered, and started making regular public appearances with his dad again. It seemed like he would finally turn the page on his troubled past.

But it didn’t quite work out that way. The judge presiding over his criminal case refused to sign off on the plea deal and Attorney General Merrick Garland later made the prosecutor in the case a special counsel, giving the lawyer a greater degree of independence from the Justice Department and heightening the legal peril facing President Joe Biden’s son as his father campaigns for re-election.

The federal probe into Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings, drug use, and finances could now go on for months, with prosecutors expecting the case to go to trial.

Here’s a look at what happens next in Hunter Biden’s long-running legal woes.

What are prosecutors investigating?

The criminal investigation into Hunter Biden began in 2018 and originally centered on his finances related to business dealings and lucrative consulting work on behalf of companies in Ukraine and China during a period when he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. But after interviewing witnesses and reviewing financial documents, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware, led by David Weiss, the Donald Trump-appointed prosecutor in charge of the investigation, shifted its focus to whether Hunter Biden failed to report all of his income and whether he lied on a form for a gun purchase by denying that he was a drug user.

The Justice Department ultimately charged Hunter Biden in June 2023 with two misdemeanor tax offenses for failing to pay more than $200,000 in income taxes in 2017 and 2018 and a felony firearm offense for making a false statement related to a gun purchase. According to The Washington Post, Hunter Biden allegedly answered “no” to a question on a federal form about whether he was using illicit drugs, even though he wrote in his own memoir that he was using crack cocaine that year.

The decision to file charges against the President’s son brought national attention to the topic, with Republicans seeking to tie Hunter Biden’s legal woes directly to his father. In response, Hunter Biden reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid jail time and a trial that would likely generate months of distracting headlines for the White House. In exchange for pleading guilty to the two tax charges, going to an addiction counseling program, staying clean for two years, and not owning guns, the Justice Department agreed to not prosecute Hunter Biden on the gun charge.

Why did the plea deal fall apart?

Despite reaching an agreement with the Justice Department, Hunter Biden’s plea deal on two tax charges fell apart in late July after the federal judge hearing his case expressed legal and constitutional concerns over the immunity provisions and her role in enforcing the terms of the agreement.

U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said she was concerned about language that would have offered Hunter Biden broad immunity against the possibility of future prosecution in connection with the long-running government investigation into his business dealings. The agreement would have effectively given Hunter Biden some legal protection in the event that he’s prosecuted by the special counsel or a future Republican president seeks to reopen the case, a scenario that Trump has vowed to make happen if he wins the 2024 election.

Noreika also expressed concern over the diversion program on the gun charge, in which she would be called on to determine whether Hunter Biden was meeting the terms of the deal. She noted that diversion agreements are meant to be forged between prosecutors and defense attorneys, and as such do not need to be approved by a judge. At the time, Judge Noreika seemed to remain open to the deal if more explicit terms were fleshed out. “I’m not in a position to accept or reject it. I need to defer,” she said before sending the parties home to hash out the details.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers have since been trying to shore up the language in the plea deal but have not come to an agreement on the extent of immunity from future prosecution that Hunter Biden would receive. His lawyers said in a court filing on Aug. 13 that the plea deal reached with the Justice Department is still “valid and binding,” though Weiss countered that the deal was never approved by a probation officer and therefore is not binding.

What happens next?

With negotiations to revive the plea deal seemingly at a standstill, the Justice Department is expecting the case to go to trial over the charges filed against Hunter Biden. The two sides had been hoping to salvage the deal and avoid a politically charged trial, but the effort has been held up by Hunter Biden’s demand for blanket immunity from future prosecution.

Weiss, whose new special counsel status gives him greater autonomy in the probe, has said that he plans to indict Hunter Biden on the tax charges, with his office filing court papers on Aug. 11 indicating that they had reached an impasse with Hunter Biden’s lawyers over the proposed plea deal. Some legal analysts viewed his recent appointment as special counsel as a procedural step to enable him to take the case against Hunter Biden to trial since it gives Weiss the authority to pursue charges in jurisdictions outside Delaware.

Weiss could also use his authority to levy additional charges in the case, such as a potential violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, which requires lobbyists for foreign governments or companies to disclose their assistance to the Justice Department. It’s unclear how Weiss will proceed, but the standoff likely ensures that the President’s son will remain under scrutiny by the Justice Department while Joe Biden’s re-election campaign is underway.

What does the case mean for Joe Biden’s 2024 campaign?

A potential trial in the Hunter Biden probe would cast a long shadow in Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, distracting voters from his message and potentially drawing attention away from Donald Trump’s own mounting legal problems.

Ever since Joe Biden announced he was running for President in 2019, Republicans have come to see Hunter Biden as a proxy for their ongoing political pursuit of his father, scrutinizing his son’s bouts with drug addiction and his business dealings in Ukraine and China. Trump’s first impeachment was tied to a phone call in which he pressured Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into the Bidens.

Some Democrats worry that Trump will try to exploit the Hunter Biden saga the same way he weaponized Hillary Clinton’s private email server during the 2016 presidential campaign, using it to sow doubts about her character and drain energy from her campaign. That could damage Joe Biden, who holds a slim lead over Trump in most polls.

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Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com