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Collapse of Hunter Biden Plea Deal Could Be a Liability for the President

They believed it was all over and that they could leave it in the past. Hunter Biden just had to show up in court, answer some questions, sign some paperwork, and that would be the end of it. While Republicans wouldn’t let it go, the real danger seemed to have passed. But things didn’t go as planned. The criminal investigation that President Biden’s advisors thought was almost finished has been revived with the collapse of the plea agreement and the appointment of a special counsel who could potentially bring Hunter Biden to trial. What was once a politically charged scandal primarily confined to right-wing partisans could now extend for months, coinciding with the president’s re-election campaign. This time, the questions about Hunter Biden’s actions may be harder for the White House to dismiss as mere political motivations. They may even break through the conservative echo chamber and reach the general public, who have largely paid little attention until now.

It’s still uncertain whether Hunter Biden faces additional criminal charges beyond the tax and gun charges brought against him by David C. Weiss, the prosecutor initially appointed to investigate him by President Trump’s attorney general in 2018. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s decision to designate Weiss as a special counsel with more independence in running the investigation suggests that there may be more legal jeopardy stemming from Hunter Biden’s business dealings with foreign companies.

However, in the long run, it may not be as significant as it seems. Weiss’s announcement of abandoning the initial plea agreement means he could take the case to trial in states other than Delaware, where he is the U.S. attorney. Some analysts speculate that requesting special counsel status may empower him to prosecute the case outside of Delaware. “Friday’s announcement feels more like a technicality, allowing Weiss to bring charges outside of Delaware now that the talks between the parties have broken down,” said Anthony Coley, former director of public affairs at the Justice Department. “It will have limited practical impact.”

Nevertheless, a trial by a jury composed of Hunter Biden’s peers could be a spectacle that distracts and embarrasses the White House, while providing ammunition to the president’s Republican critics. The president’s advisors are frustrated and resigned to months of additional turmoil, even if they’re not alarmed by the possibility of a broader investigation.

“After five years of investigating Hunter’s dealings, it seems unlikely that Weiss will uncover anything new,” said David Axelrod, senior advisor to President Obama. “On the other hand, anything that draws more attention to Hunter’s case and extends the story into the campaign year is certainly unwelcome news for the president’s team.”

The appointment of Weiss as special counsel by Attorney General Garland didn’t solve part of the problem it was meant to address. While a special counsel designation is intended to shield an investigation from political influence, Republicans criticized the choice of Weiss because he approved the initial plea agreement, which they viewed as a “favorable deal.” Disregarding the fact that Weiss was a Trump appointee retained by the Biden administration to demonstrate impartiality, some critics painted him as a tool of the Biden administration and highlighted whistleblowers who claimed the prosecutor’s hands were tied, despite his insistence otherwise.

“This move by Attorney General Garland is part of the Justice Department’s efforts to attempt a Biden family cover-up,” said Republican Representative James R. Comer of Kentucky, the chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee who led congressional investigations into the president’s son.

These attacks also aim to discredit Weiss in advance if he fails to substantiate their baseless corruption claims against the Biden family. Testimony and news reports suggest that Hunter Biden capitalized on his name for personal gain, and a former business partner has claimed that his father was aware. However, no evidence has emerged indicating that the president personally profited from or abused his power to benefit his son’s business interests.

However, some Republicans argued that the party should welcome Weiss’s appointment as special counsel. They believe that if there was nothing to investigate, there would be no need for a special counsel, and it was Biden’s own attorney general who deemed it necessary.

“It shows that there is more than just smoke,” said longtime Republican strategist Douglas Heye. “It makes it impossible to define this now as simply a House Republican or MAGA thing. This has to be covered differently now. And as we’ve learned from other special counsel investigations, where a special counsel starts is not necessarily where it ends.”

For the White House, the attorney general’s announcement on Friday afternoon was an unwelcome surprise. Just seven weeks earlier, the president’s team believed they had turned a corner with Hunter Biden’s agreement to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and participate in a diversion program to dismiss an unlawful gun possession charge. They were deeply relieved that five years of investigation had not resulted in anything more serious. To celebrate this victory against the family’s pursuers, the president invited Hunter Biden, who has struggled with a crack cocaine addiction, to a high-profile state dinner. The fact that Mr. Garland was also present at the state dinner, in close proximity to the man his department was prosecuting, made even some Democrats uncomfortable.

However, their sense of relief was premature. When Hunter Biden appeared in the Federal District Court in Wilmington, Del., on July 26 to finalize the plea deal, it quickly unraveled under questioning from a judge within a few hours. The core issue was a disagreement over the meaning of the agreement. While Hunter Biden and his lawyers believed it would end the investigation, prosecutors made it clear that it would not.

The Hunter Biden legal team wants assurance that a guilty plea will bring an end to the matter, especially considering Trump’s promise to prosecute him if elected president. But as Weiss revealed on Friday, the subsequent negotiations aimed at resolving the misunderstanding reached an impasse, making a trial nearly inevitable. This provides an opportunity for Republicans to divert attention from Trump’s three indictments, although the two cases are hardly comparable. Hunter Biden was never president and will never be one, and even the most damning evidence against him does not equate to attempting to overturn a democratic election to cling onto power. However, it has been a strategic maneuver for Republicans to complain about what they perceive as a “two-tier justice system.” A Reuters-Ipsos poll conducted in June revealed that three-quarters of Republicans believe Hunter Biden received preferential treatment in the plea deal, compared to 33% of Democrats. However, most voters view Mr. Biden as “being a good father by supporting his son,” and only 26% said they were less likely to vote for him due to Hunter’s legal troubles.

The president’s strategists argue that Republican attacks on Hunter Biden failed to sway voters in the 2020 election, which Mr. Biden won, or during the 2022 midterm elections, where Democrats performed better than expected. Furthermore, they argue that the issue hasn’t resonated with crucial voters for the president’s potential 2024 re-election, such as independents and disenchanted Democrats. This assumption will be put to the test in the coming months, simultaneously with the trial of the president’s son.