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Hunter Biden’s plea deal unravels after surprise move from judge

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Hunter Biden has pleaded not guilty to tax and firearm charges after a judge said she was not prepared to sign off on his plea agreement with prosecutors during a court hearing on Wednesday.

US president Joe Biden’s son last month agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanour counts of wilful failure to pay federal income tax. He was accused of not paying income tax in excess of $100,000 on annual income of more than $1.5mn earned in 2017 and 2018, according to court filings.

He had also agreed to enter a “pretrial diversion agreement” in relation to a separate charge accusing him of possessing a firearm as an unlawful or addicted user of a “controlled substance”. Under this type of deal, defendants are typically redirected to community services. 

News of the initial plea deal had come as a relief for Hunter Biden and allies of the president. His personal and legal troubles have at times cast a long shadow over his father’s presidency. He has spoken openly about his problems with drug addiction and has been the target of several long-running investigations from the justice department and on Capitol Hill, where Republican lawmakers have been probing his overseas business dealings.

But in a surprise move, a judge in Delaware questioned the terms of the deal during a hearing on Wednesday, after raising questions about the firearm offence, according to the Associated Press. An ongoing probe into potential violations of US foreign lobbying laws also threatened the agreement, according to CNN.

Hunter Biden ultimately entered a not-guilty plea for the tax and gun charges, according to entries on the court docket. His lawyers and prosecutors have 30 days to brief the judge further on why she should sign off on a plea agreement.

A lawyer for Hunter Biden last month had said the agreements “resolved” a five-year probe targeting his client. But the Department of Justice had said in a statement at the time that the investigation was ongoing.

Neither Hunter Biden’s lawyer nor the DoJ immediately responded to requests for comment.

Joe Biden did not accompany his son to the courthouse on Wednesday, nor did first lady Jill Biden, who is travelling in France.

“Hunter Biden is a private citizen and this was a personal matter for him,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “The president, the first lady, they love their son and they support him as he continues to rebuild his life.”

She said the case was handled independently by a prosecutor appointed by former president Donald Trump and referred other questions to the DoJ and Hunter Biden’s legal team.

The president’s relationship with his son has for years left him vulnerable to controversy and criticism from across the political aisle, and the latest unanticipated twist in his legal saga stands to further complicate his father’s efforts as he gears up for a re-election campaign in 2024.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House, suggested earlier this week that House Republicans were getting ready to launch an impeachment inquiry against Joe Biden over Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings. McCarthy told Fox News: “I believe we will follow this all the way to the end, and this is going to rise to an impeachment inquiry.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have held several hearings relating to Hunter Biden this year, and released interview transcripts from two whistleblowers from the Internal Revenue Service who alleged that the DoJ slow-walked and stymied the investigation into Hunter Biden’s tax affairs.

The Biden administration has sharply rejected the claims, and David Weiss, the attorney who was appointed by Trump and led the criminal probe into Hunter Biden, earlier this week offered to testify at a public congressional hearing to address “misrepresentations”.

But Hunter Biden’s legal troubles are nevertheless likely to remain central to Republicans’ political messaging, as Trump and his allies argue there is a “two-tier” system of justice that allows the current president’s son to strike a plea deal and avoid prison, while Trump stares down possible jail time for a range of criminal charges relating to his own business dealings and the mishandling of classified documents. The former president is also the target of a further grand jury investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

A Morning Consult poll conducted earlier this month showed 46 per cent of Republican voters said investigating Hunter Biden’s finances should be a “top priority” for Congress.

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz


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