A Justice Department special counsel indicted Hunter Biden on gun charges Thursday, deepening his legal jeopardy while raising the possibility of a politically fraught prosecution of the president’s son while his father runs for reelection in 2024.
The charges add another layer of complexity to a presidential campaign that was already likely to be intertwined with explosive legal proceedings, as GOP frontrunner former President Donald Trump faces federal charges and starts criminal trials next year.
At the same time, House Republicans are pursuing impeachment proceedings against President Biden in an attempt to link the current U.S. chief executive to the younger Mr. Biden’s foreign business dealings.
The president’s son is accused of lying on a government form when he bought a handgun in Delaware in October 2018, according to the three-count federal indictment. Asked on the form if he was currently using drugs, he said “no.” He has subsequently acknowledged that during that period of his life he struggled with addiction to crack cocaine.
In one sense the indictment is unsurprising. In July, a plea deal that Mr. Biden had struck with Justice prosecutor David Weiss on the gun charge and separate tax matters fell apart in a federal courtroom: Prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed about whether the deal ruled out later financial or lobbying registration charges.
Since then, Mr. Weiss has been appointed as special counsel by Attorney General Merrick Garland. The Justice Department has faced increasing pressure from Republicans, who charge that the plea agreement was a sweetheart deal meant to shield the president’s son.
Today’s indictment was “a very small start,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, Republican of Kentucky.
The charges against Mr. Biden are fairly straightforward, say some legal experts. He is accused of two counts of alleged false statements while purchasing his pistol, and one count of possessing the gun while addicted to drugs.
But prosecutors could face difficulties in bringing those charges to trial and convicting Mr. Biden, experts added.
The first is whether other defendants in similar situations are charged with felonies and taken to courtroom trial, rather than plea deals or diversion agreements.
Charges of owning a gun while on drugs are rarely brought, according to Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. Charges focused on false statements in this context are also rare.
“It is very unlikely that Hunter Biden would be charged with any of these crimes if his last name wasn’t Biden,” wrote Mr. Mariotti on X, formerly known as Twitter, following the indictment.
Defense attorneys are likely to argue that the possession charge in particular is in violation of recent court decisions regarding the Second Amendment. Earlier this month, an appeals court in New Orleans ruled that a law prohibiting drug users from owning firearms is unconstitutional, though that ruling does not cover Delaware.
Even so, the son of a Democratic president may thus argue for gun-rights protections in a federal courtroom.
The defense is also likely to argue that Mr. Biden has continued to abide by the signed plea agreement, in particular by staying drug-free and entering a diversion program for gun offenders.
In that context, Mr. Biden is facing double jeopardy of a sort, his attorneys may say.
In a court filing earlier this month, Mr. Biden’s attorneys called the gun diversion deal “valid and binding.”
Special Counsel Weiss argued the plea deal is no longer in effect.
Mr. Biden may still face tax charges on nearly $4 million in income he earned in 2017 and 2018 from a Chinese business conglomerate and the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Congressional Republicans have continued their own investigations into the Justice Department’s handling of the case and Mr. Biden’s business dealings, seeking to connect his financial affairs directly to his father.
They have failed to produce evidence that the president received any financial rewards from his son’s business interests, or that he used his vice-presidential powers to do anything to promote Hunter’s financial dealings, though he sometimes had dinner with his son’s clients or said hello to them on calls.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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