10 min read

Breaking down the Hunter Biden charges

Hunter Biden isn’t going to jail. And there’s no evidence he committed bribery. But there’s a mushy — still unsavory — middle that continues to haunt his father.
Breaking down the Hunter Biden charges
The president, first lady, and Hunter Biden hugging at the elder Biden’s 2021 inauguration. (Defense Department)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, June 21, 2023. The 2024 elections are 503 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

After a five-year-long investigation — during which his legal and personal troubles have dogged his father’s political fortunes — Hunter Biden, the son of President Joe Biden, reached a deal with federal prosecutors on Tuesday to plead guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges and avoid prosecution on a felony gun charge.

Here are the specifics on the three charges:

  • Two charges of failing to pay his taxes. Hunter Biden pleaded guilty to failing to pay federal income tax in both 2017 and 2018. He owed more than $200,000 between the two years, which he later paid back to the government in 2021.
  • One charge of illegally possessing a handgun. In October 2018, the younger Biden purchased a .38-caliber Colt revolver, which required filling out a federal form attesting that he was not using drugs. However, according to his own account in a 2021 memoir, he was “smoking crack every 15 minutes” during that time period.

Biden did not formally plead guilty to the gun charge, but instead reached an arrangement with prosecutors known as a pretrial diversion agreement. According to the agreement, Biden acknowledges the facts of the charge; as long as he remains drug-free for the next two years and never owns a firearm again, prosecutors will dismiss the charge at the end of the 24-month period.

A federal judge still has to approve the agreement, but if one does, Hunter Biden will likely avoid spending any time in federal prison.

The deal was struck with prosecutor David Weiss, the U.S. attorney in Delaware, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and kept on during the Biden administration so he could continue the investigation.

Weiss told Republican lawmakers in a letter earlier this month that he had been granted “ultimate authority” over the Hunter Biden probe by Attorney General Merrick Garland, “including responsibility for deciding where, when, and whether to file charges.”

Hunter Biden is expected to sentence to authorities and be arraigned in the coming days. Although many presidential relatives have faced legal headaches, he is the first child of a president to face criminal charges.

Was it a “sweetheart deal”?

Republicans began criticizing the plea agreement almost immediately, with Trump comparing it to a “traffic ticket” and House Oversight Committee chairman James Comer (R-KY) calling it a “slap on the wrist.”

“If you’re Biden’s leading political opponent, the DOJ will try to put you in prison,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said. “If you’re Biden’s son, the DOJ will give you a sweetheart deal.”

However, there is little point in comparing the Hunter Biden tax and gun charges to Donald Trump’s charges for refusing to return classified documents to the federal government. They are very different crimes, with very different contexts.

If you compare Hunter Biden’s plea agreement with other people in his same situation, it does not appear that he received an especially unique deal.

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, only 370 tax fraud offenders were sentenced in 2021 — a number that includes people charged with more serious crimes beyond evasion. Generally, if someone lacks a broader pattern of criminality and agrees to pay the IRS back (as Hunter Biden did in 2021, with the help of a Democratic megadonor), they are spare prosecution.

According to the Justice Department, in 2019 — the year Hunter Biden purchased his gun — prosecutors received 478 referrals for lying on the gun form Biden did and filed just 298 cases. The New York Times has reported that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) officials were “skeptical of bringing charges” against Biden, “especially considering that he had sought treatment and had no prior criminal history.”

To the extent the Trump and Biden situation have anything in common, it is this: Trump too almost certainly could have avoided charges if he had opted to negotiate with prosecutors. In Trump’s case, a guilty plea might not even have been necessary: he likely could have simply returned the documents he was being asked for, and gotten off scot-free.

Recall that Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, did exactly that and avoided any charges.  

“Trump’s indictment is not the result of unfair government persecution,” Bill Barr, Trump’s former attorney general, wrote in an op-ed this week. “This is a situation entirely of his own making.”

The mushy middle

It is unclear if the younger Biden is out of the woods completely.

When the charges were first announced, it was broadly assumed that the federal investigation into Hunter Biden (which has also examined his business ties) would now be closed: Politico reported as much, and Biden’s lawyer said that was his “understanding.”

But Weiss, the U.S. attorney, later released a statement indicating otherwise: “The investigation is ongoing,” he announced.

In addition to any continued federal probe, Hunter Biden will also certainly face continued investigations from House Republicans. “We will not rest until the full extent of President Biden’s involvement in the family’s schemes are revealed,” Comer, the Oversight Committee chair, promised on Tuesday.

Comer’s panel has been investigating allegations by an anonymous source who told the FBI that President Biden was paid a $5 million bribe by an executive at Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company where Hunter Biden once sat on the board.

No evidence has emerged to support the bribery claim.

But in between that explosive allegation and the relatively minor charges Hunter Biden faces from prosecutors, there lies a mushy — less shocking, but still unsavory — middle.

After all, Hunter Biden’s position on the Burisma board — for which he was sometimes paid as much as $50,000 a month — came despite the fact that he never visited Ukraine during that period and had no previous experience in the energy sector.

Biden’s father, at the exact same time, was overseeing Ukraine policy for the Obama administration — all while Burisma was under investigation by the Ukrianian government.

A Republican-led Senate panel found no evidence that Hunter Biden’s corporate role led to any changes in U.S. policy — but no bribery needs to be proven for that line of facts to be concerning. The Senate panel also concluded that Hunter Biden “cashed in” on his father’s vice presidency, something that is obvious even if it wasn’t illegal.

Sometimes the real scandal, David Graham wrote in the Atlantic yesterday, “is what’s legal.”

Hunter Biden will likely will not go to jail for “cashing in”; instead, his punishment will be that his choices will continue to haunt his father for the rest of his political career.

The younger Biden’s murky past has existed in the shadows of American politics for the past four years: Trump’s fixation on his role at Burisma sparked the former president’s first impeachment in 2019; his recovered laptop caused a furor in the final days of the 2020 election.

With Comer and other Republican lawmakers still digging, Hunter will likely figure into the 2024 contest as well, federal prosecution or not.

President Biden — who told an interviewer in May that his son “did nothing wrong,” just weeks before he would plead guilty — told reporters on Tuesday that he was “very proud” of Hunter.

“The President and First Lady love their son and support him as he continues to rebuild his life,” the White House said in a statement. “We will have no further comment.”


Donald Trump in a Tuesday video on the Impoundment Control Act. (Trump campaign) 

Donald Trump’s policy pronouncements rarely receive as much attention as his legal troubles or insulting nicknames. But he has made a number of proposals during the 2024 campaign that signal a second Trump term as president — surrounded by a different set of aides and feeling less constrained by certain guardrails — would go much farther than the first.

The latest such signal came on Tuesday, when Trump announced that, if elected, he would attempt to challenge the Impoundment Control Act in the courts. The 1974 law limits the president’s ability to unilaterally refuse to spend federal dollars appropriated by Congress; as president, Trump was accused of violating the law by holding up military aid to Ukraine, a controversy that led to his first impeachment.


Sonia Sotomayor has joined a surprising number of majority opinions. (Gage Skidmore)

So far, the Supreme Court justice who has most often been in the majority this term is Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal, Politico points out. The justice who has dissented most is Samuel Alito, a conservative. But don’t expect that trend to last: even though liberals have scored some wins in lower-profile cases (and in a prominent voting rights dispute), the court’s conservative wing has its biggest opportunities in cases the court has yet to decide.

Per Politico, the court has yet to issue a 6-3 decision along ideological lines this term; upcoming opinions on affirmative action, student loans, and religious liberty could change that.  

Speaking of Alito: ProPublica is reporting this morning that Republican megadonor Paul Singer flew Alito in 2008 on a private jet to Alaska, where they stayed with other conservatives at a luxury long. “In the years that followed, Singer’s hedge fund came before the court at least 10 times in cases where his role was often covered by the legal press and mainstream media,” according to ProPublica.

Alito did not recuse himself from the cases or disclose the fishing trip. In an unusual move, Alitio pre-butted the ProPublica report with a Wall Street Journal op-ed last night. The justice wrote that he had spoken to Singer on “no more than a handful of occasions” and had “no good reason to be aware” Singer’s company was involved in any of the cases he had a role in.


A polling average for the GOP presidential primary. (FiveThirtyEight)

A new CNN poll shows Trump’s lead in the Republican presidential primary notably slipping. According to the survey, Trump still towers over the rest of the GOP field — but with 47% support, down from the 53% he commanded in CNN’s poll last month. In addition, his favorability rating among Republicans has dipped from 77% to 67%, and the share of GOP voters who say they have ruled out supporting him has climbed from 16% to 23%.

Was this just a particularly Trump-averse sample of Republicans, or a sign of potential movement away from Trump after his second indictment? It’s too early to tell. As I always advise, it’s best to watch the polling average — more than any singular poll — and see if other surveys come out with similar results. So far, Trump remains above 50% in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, as he has since April 21.


Delaware Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester is running for Senate. (Agriculture Department)

Judge rules Arkansas ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors violates U.S. Constitution / AP

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester announces Senate bid in Delaware / CNN

U.S. is rejecting asylum seekers at much higher rates under new Biden policy / LA Times

Almost a third of Americans still believe the 2020 election result was fraudulent / NBC

Marianne Williamson loses second campaign manager in two months / Politico


Indian prime minister Narendra Modi will visit the White House today. (Kremlin)

All times Eastern.

President Biden will return to Washington from San Francisco today. Later tonight, he will welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to the White House and host Modi for dinner. Biden and Modi are set to meet tomorrow, with major topics like China and Russia looming.  

First Lady Biden will accompany Prime Minister Modi for a visit to the National Science Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, where they will meet with students from the U.S. and India and participate in a moderated conversation.

The Senate will vote on a resolution to overturn Biden’s veto of a bill rolling back his administration’s emission standards for heavy-duty trucks. The chamber will also vote to confirm Natasha Merle to be a U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of New York and to advance a tax treaty with Chile.

The House is expected to again vote on a proposed resolution to censure Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) for behaving “dishonestly and dishonorably” while leading investigations into Trump as House Intelligence Committee chairman. When the House voted on a similar resolution last week, 20 Republicans voted against the measure, enough to defeat it. This time, language calling for Schiff to be fined $16 million — which some of the GOP defectors had called unconstitutional — has been stripped out, with the hope of gaining unanimous Republican support.

Other measures set to be voted on: A bill to make it easier for companies to reimburse employees for individual health insurance plans rather than offering group insurance plans... A resolution to overturn Biden’s veto of a bill to cancel his student debt relief plan.  

House committee hearings: Special Counsel John Durham, who recently concluded his four-year-long investigation into the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, will testify before Judiciary... Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell will testify before Financial Services.

The Supreme Court has nothing on its schedule.


One of the newborn cotton-top tamarins with its parents. (Walt Disney World)

Here’s some lighter news: A pair of rare cotton-top tamarin monkeys were born at Walt Disney World last week for the first time since 2001.

Cotton-top tamarins — which are native to Colombia — are critically endangered, making the newborn twins a welcome addition to the species.

They are also among the smallest primates in the world; the babies are currently measure about four inches long and weigh about as much as a chicken egg. They will grow to be around the size of a squirrel. The twins have not been named, as their genders have not yet been determined.

Read more via NPR. Thanks to reader Michael B. for sending in this story. If you come across a feel-good story for this section, make sure to send it my way!  

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