The charges against Hunter Biden, explained

Hunter Biden
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The Department of Justice's investigation into Hunter Biden appears to have reached its conclusion after years of probing into President Biden's son's personal and professional history. On June 20, U.S. Attorney David Weiss announced that Hunter Biden had agreed to plead guilty to two counts of tax evasion, and would likely avoid prosecution for having illegally purchased a firearm while addicted to crack cocaine. The disclosure by Weiss, a Trump administration appointee, came eight months after The Washington Post first reported that Justice Department officials believed they had enough evidence to charge Hunter Biden on several related counts.

Because of his father's position, any move against Hunter Biden could have political consequences, especially as the elder Biden has recently launched his campaign for reelection. The president, though, has been steadfast in his support of his son, saying in a brief statement after the agreement was disclosed that he loves his son and will "support him as he continues to rebuild his life." Republicans, who have made investigating disparate allegations of Hunter Biden's foreign corruption a feature of their legislative agenda, have nevertheless vowed to continue probing the Biden family in spite of the Justice Department agreement. Politico notes that the White House has been "bracing for the political fallout" after being convinced "that Republicans will attack them over it whether President Biden's son is criminally indicted or not."

What did Hunter allegedly do wrong?

The president's son, 53, has had well-publicized troubles with drug addiction, which play a part in the potential charges. The gun charges, for example, stem from a period when he was, "by his own account … smoking crack cocaine," the Post reports. That was in 2018, when Hunter Biden purchased a handgun and allegedly answered "no" to a question about whether he had unlawfully used drugs.

The younger Biden's taxes have also been under scrutiny for years, The New York Times reported in March. That investigation began during the Obama administration but "widened in 2018 to include possible criminal violations of tax laws, as well as foreign lobbying and money laundering rules." The paper reported that Hunter paid off his tax liability, which he told friends amounted to more than $1 million, but that might not save him from legal trouble. Prosecutors argue that "the crime happens when the return is falsely filed or not filed at all."

Are there other problems?

Hunter Biden has arguably been drifting toward trouble for much of his adulthood — "the guy who even into his 40s keeps needing dad to send the search-and-rescue party," Matt Yglesias wrote for Vox in 2020. He has made a living as a lawyer, a lobbyist and, more recently, an artist, but it's not clear he could have done much of that work over the years without his dad's name and connections. In addition to his drug problems, he also attracted attention when in 2014 he joined the board of Burisma, a controversial Ukrainian oil and gas company. "Hunter had no apparent qualifications for the job except that his father was the vice president and involved in the Obama administration's Ukraine policy," wrote Yglesias. When President Donald Trump was impeached in 2019, it was because he pressed Ukraine's president for dirt on Hunter and Joe Biden and withheld U.S. military aid to give him leverage.

Hunter also made a cameo appearance at the end of the 2020 presidential campaign, when a Delaware computer shop owner emerged with a report that Joe Biden's son had abandoned his laptop computer at the shop, which Slate's Mary Harris recently described as containing "a whole lot of selfies, some homemade pornography, and email messages hinting at cozy relationships between him and businesspeople from China and Ukraine." The circumstances seemed improbable enough that Twitter and Facebook put the kibosh on the story, and Republicans have used this incident to suggest the media and Big Tech helped elect Joe Biden. But it now seems likely to be legit, and it may also play a role in the federal investigation.

What are Republicans doing?

Republicans have long been planning a congressional investigation of Hunter, and this began once Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. It's clear they want to use this investigation not just to take down Hunter Biden but also to damage his father. "I think the American people are going to be shocked with what they find out the Biden family's been doing to profit off Joe Biden's name over the past decade," Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) told Fox Business. However, as many pundits have noted, the investigation has so far been unable to move the needle, though pressure on the president's son by the GOP is continuing to mount. Following Hunter's plea deal, Comer renewed his commitment to investigating the Bidens, vowing in a statement to "not rest until the full extent of President Biden's involvement in the family's schemes are revealed."

What's going to happen next?

In spite of Hunter's agreement with the Justice Department to effectively wind down their investigation into his past, the concurrent Republican investigations mean this story probably isn't going to go away for the next few years, especially as the presidential election inches closer. However, given public polling, it is possible that criminal charges against Hunter Biden wouldn't have a devastating effect on his father's campaign. Jennifer Palmieri, who served as former President Barack Obama's communications director, tells Politico that "Republicans have failed, both in the 2020 campaign and in their 2023 congressional hearings, to have questions about Hunter Biden impact public opinion, and I don't think they will succeed now."

Updated June 20, 2023: This story has been updated throughout.

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