By MEG KINNARD
The announcement that federal prosecutors have reached a plea deal with President Joe Biden’s son Hunter over tax and gun charges marks the likely end of a five-year Justice Department investigation that has dogged the Biden family.
It doesn’t, however, mean that congressional Republicans are done with their own wide-ranging probe into nearly every facet of Hunter Biden’s business dealings, including examining foreign payments and other aspects of his finances.
Some of the Republican candidates hoping to face off against President Biden in the 2024 election are decrying the deal as evidence of an unfair justice system, particularly in light of the recent federal indictment of GOP front-runner Donald Trump, though there are obvious differences between the two cases.
Here’s what to know about the charges, plea agreement, other probes involving the president’s son and the politics:
WHAT ARE THE CHARGES?
According to a letter filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware, Hunter Biden has been charged with misdemeanor charges of failing to pay federal income tax. Court documents allege that he failed to pay more than $200,000 in federal income taxes for 2017 and 2018.
The federal probe into Hunter Biden began in 2018, bursting into public view in December 2020 — one month after the presidential election — when he revealed that he had received a subpoena as part of the Justice Department’s scrutiny of his taxes.
That subpoena sought information on the younger Biden’s business dealings with a number of entities, including Burisma, a Ukraine gas company whose board he joined in 2014. That move sparked concerns about the perceptions of a conflict of interest, given the elder Biden was deeply involved in U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
An investigation by the then-Republican-controlled Senate did not identify any policies that were directly affected by Hunter Biden’s work.
At the time of that subpoena, Hunter Biden said that he was “confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately, including with the benefit of professional tax advisors.”
The younger Biden has also reached an agreement with the Justice Department on a charge that he illegally possessed a firearm while being a drug user.
Federal law prohibits people who use drugs from possessing firearms or ammunition, although a federal judge challenged the legality earlier this year. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, between 1998 and 2014, nearly 100,000 prospective gun purchasers went home empty-handed because they were flagged as using illegal drugs.
WHAT DOES THE PLEA AGREEMENT MEAN?
By entering a plea, Hunter Biden avoids a trial, and it’s unlikely that he will spend time in jail, although penalties are ultimately up to a judge.
Biden was charged under an information, a formal document that lays out the charges against him but doesn’t require a vote by a grand jury, which would be an indictment.
A person familiar with the investigation said the Justice Department would recommend probation for the tax charges. But the decision to go along with any deal is up to a judge. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
The charge of willful failure to file a tax return is rarely used as a primary charge by federal prosecutors, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. There were just 48 prosecutions in the last six fiscal years, according to TRAC.
The gun charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, but the Justice Department says Hunter Biden has reached a pretrial agreement on that charge, too.
It is somewhat unusual to resolve a federal criminal case at the same time the charges are filed in court, though it is not totally unheard of.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The agreement essentially means the case is over, unless Hunter Biden fails to abide by it.
A deferred prosecution is an agreement offered by prosecutors in which a defendant must adhere to strict conditions, which will be known after he appears in court. A date for that appearance hasn’t been set.
Usually a judge sets regular check-ins for the defendant to appear to ensure they are playing by the rules. If they don’t, their deal is revoked and the criminal charges reinstated, which in Hunter Biden’s case carry a maximum of a decade in prison. But if he does adhere to the rules, the case will be wiped from his record.
ISN’T THERE ANOTHER PROBE?
Yes. Congressional Republicans have been pursuing their own investigations into nearly every facet of Hunter Biden’s business dealings, including examining foreign payments and other aspects of his finances.
The misdemeanor tax crimes that the younger Biden is set to plead guilty to are far more limited in scope than the allegations that have been pursued for years by congressional Republicans. On Tuesday, Rep. James Comer, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, said that the “charges against Hunter Biden and sweetheart plea deal have no impact on” his panel’s probe.
Even before he ran for president in 2020, Joe Biden has faced questions about his son’s business dealings and drug addiction.
And there have been other controversies. While his father was vice president, Hunter joined the Naval Reserve and was discharged after testing positive for cocaine in his system, later revealing a yearslong struggle with addiction.
In the weeks before the 2020 election, Trump supporters used the existence of a laptop they said was connected to Hunter Biden — and the emergence of someone who maintains he had business discussions with him — to raise questions about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s activities in Ukraine and China. President Biden has said he did not discuss his son’s international business dealings with him and has denied having ever taken money from a foreign country.
WHAT ARE THE POLITICS?
News of the plea agreement comes days after Trump appeared in federal court on charges related to his retention of classified documents. In the wake of those 37 charges, Republicans across the country have levied criticism against the Biden administration, accusing the Justice Department of “politicization” and assailing Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
The Trump charges came from a special counsel, appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to conduct an independent investigation to avoid any potential conflict of interest in the Justice Department. The Hunter Biden charges, meanwhile, were filed by the U.S. attorney for Delaware, Trump appointee David Weiss.
Some of the Republicans competing to potentially face off with Biden in the 2024 general election wasted no time taking their critique of the plea agreement public.
On his Truth Social platform, Trump on Tuesday said “the corrupt Biden DOJ just cleared up hundreds of years of criminal liability by giving Hunter Biden a mere ‘traffic ticket.’
Biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy tweeted Tuesday that “it’s no accident that the farcical Hunter Biden ‘plea deal’ comes right after the Trump indictment,” calling it “the perfect fig leaf to pretend that ‘no one is above the law,’ while absolutely putting certain people above the law.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a tweet, also decried the “sweetheart deal” and said that, were Biden “not connected to the elite DC class he would have been put in jail a long time ago.”
Asked about the plea deal during a Tuesday night Fox News town hall, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina called perceptions of inequality in the justice system “dangerous” and implored voters “to thank God” for congressional Republicans’ ongoing inquiry into the president’s son.
Associated Press writers Lindsey Whitehurst, Colleen Long and Nomaan Merchant in Washington contributed to this report.
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