WASHINGTON — Hunter Biden was indicted Thursday on federal firearms charges, the latest step in a long-running investigation into the president's son that puts the case on track toward a possible high-stakes trial as the 2024 election looms.
Biden is accused of lying about his drug use when he bought a firearm in October 2018, a period when he has acknowledged struggling with addiction to crack cocaine, according to the indictment filed in federal court in Delaware by a special counsel overseeing the case.
The indictment comes weeks after the collapse of a plea deal that would have averted a criminal trial and weeks or months of distracting headlines for President Joe Biden.
The court fight may be an extended one: His defense attorney argued Hunter Biden didn't violate the law and remains protected by an immunity provision that was part of the plea deal. The charges, meanwhile, are rarely filed as stand-alone counts and a recent appeals court decision called the law itself into question.
President Biden's son has also been under investigation for his business dealings, and the special counsel has indicated that tax charges could be filed at some point in the future in Washington or in California, where he lives.
Political pressure has also escalated as the House has formally opened an impeachment inquiry into the Democratic president, seeking to tie the elder Biden to his son’s businesses and divert attention away from former President Donald Trump’s own legal woes.
Over the yearslong probe, federal prosecutors have not indicated Joe Biden is connected. And so far, Republicans have unearthed no significant evidence of wrongdoing by the elder Biden, who as vice president spoke often to his son and stopped by a business dinner with his son’s associates. The White House maintains Joe Biden was not involved in his son’s business affairs.
The prosecutor who has long overseen the Hunter Biden investigation, Trump-appointed Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, was elevated to special counsel last month, giving him broad authority to investigate and report out his findings.
The three-count indictment says Hunter Biden lied on a form required for every gun purchase when he bought a .38 Colt Cobra Special at a Wilmington, Delaware, gun shop.
He's charged with two counts of making false statements by checking a box falsely saying he was not addicted to drugs and giving it to the shop for their federally required records. A third count alleges he possessed the gun for about 11 days despite knowing he was a drug user.
The counts are punishable by up to 25 years in prison, upon conviction, a statement from Weiss and the Justice Department said.
Rep. James Comer, the lead Republican pursuing an impeachment inquiry into the president, called the indictment Thursday “a very small start.” But, he said in a statement, unless the Justice Department pursues the claims Republicans have put out regarding whether the president was involved in his son’s business dealings, “it will be clear President Biden’s DOJ is protecting Hunter Biden and the big guy.”
A felony gun charge against Hunter Biden, 53, had previously been part of a plea deal that also included guilty pleas to misdemeanor tax charges, but the agreement imploded during a court hearing in July when a judge raised questions about its unusual provisions.
The agreement would not have included a guilty plea on the gun charge, but spared him formal prosecution if he stayed out of trouble for two years.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell argued that part of the deal remains in place, including its immunity provisions against other potential charges. He said in a statement that Hunter Biden “possessing an unloaded gun for 11 days” presented no threat to public safety and slammed “'MAGA Republicans’ improper and partisan interference in this process,” a reference to Trump's “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Lowell took over after Hunter Biden's previous lawyer in the case, Christopher Clark, withdrew, saying he might be called to testify about the immunity provisions.
Prosecutors maintain the agreement never took effect and is now invalid. They telegraphed new gun charges were coming in a court filing earlier this month.
Charges related to gun possession by drug users are rare, especially when not in connection with other crimes. Of all the people sentenced for illegal gun possession in 2021, about 5% were charged due to drug use, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data.
Most those cases are brought against people accused of some other crime as well, said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor and expert in gun policy at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “It’s relatively rare to prosecute someone for being a substance abuser in possession of firearms, absent other criminal activity, or unusual circumstances,” he said.
A federal appeals court, meanwhile, recently found the longstanding ban didn’t stand up to new standards for gun laws set by the Supreme Court.
Republicans had denounced the plea agreement as a “sweetheart deal.” It would have allowed Hunter Biden to serve probation rather than jail time after pleading guilty to failing to pay taxes in both 2017 and 2018.
His personal income during those two years totaled roughly $4 million, including business and consulting fees from a company he formed with the CEO of a Chinese business conglomerate and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, prosecutors have said.
Congressional Republicans have continued their own investigations into the Justice Department's handling of the case as well as nearly every aspect of Hunter Biden’s business dealings, seeking to connect his financial affairs directly to his father. Republicans have obtained testimony about how Hunter Biden used the “Biden brand” to drum up work overseas, but they have not produced hard evidence of wrongdoing by the president.