They thought it was over, that they could put it in the rearview mirror. All that Hunter Biden had to do was show up in a courtroom, answer a few questions, sign some paperwork and that would be it. Not that the Republicans would let it go, but any real danger would be past.
Except that it did not work out that way. The criminal investigation that President Biden’s advisers believed was all but done has instead been given new life with the collapse of the plea agreement and the appointment of a special counsel who now might bring the president’s son to trial.
What had been a painful but relatively contained political scandal that animated mainly partisans on the right could now extend for months just as the president is gearing up for his re-election campaign. This time, the questions about Hunter Biden’s conduct may be harder for the White House to dismiss as politically motivated. They may even break out of the conservative echo chamber to the general public, which has largely not paid much attention until now.
It remained unclear whether Hunter Biden faces criminal exposure beyond the tax and gun charges lodged against him by David C. Weiss, the prosecutor first appointed in 2018 to investigate him by President Donald J. Trump’s attorney general. It may be that Attorney General Merrick B. Garland’s decision to designate Mr. Weiss a special counsel with more independence to run the inquiry means that there is still more potential legal peril stemming from Hunter Biden’s business dealings with foreign firms.
Yet it may amount to less than meets the eye in the long run. Mr. Weiss’s announcement abandoning the plea agreement he originally reached with Hunter Biden on the tax and gun charges means he could take the case to trial in states other than Delaware, where he is U.S. attorney and has jurisdiction. Some analysts speculated that requesting special counsel status may be about empowering him to prosecute out of state.
“Friday’s announcement feels more like a technicality allowing Weiss to bring charges outside of Delaware now that the talks between sides have broken down,” said Anthony Coley, who until recently served as the Justice Department’s director of public affairs under Mr. Garland. “It will have limited practical impact.”
Even if so, a trial by a jury of Hunter Biden’s peers would be a spectacle that could prove distracting and embarrassing for the White House while providing more fodder to the president’s Republicans. The president’s advisers were frustrated as a result and resigned to months of additional torment, even if they were not alarmed by the prospect of a wider investigation.
“After five years of probing Hunter’s dealings, it seems unlikely that Weiss will discover much that is new,” said David Axelrod, who was a senior adviser to President Barack 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.”
As it happened, Mr. Garland’s appointment of Mr. Weiss as special counsel did not solve part of the problem it was meant to address. A special counsel designation is intended to insulate an investigation from politics, but the attorney general’s decision still drew fire from Republicans who derided the choice of Mr. Weiss because he had signed off on the original plea agreement, which they had described as a “sweetheart deal.”
Never mind that Mr. Weiss was a Trump administration appointee whom the Biden administration kept on to show that it was not attempting to tilt the case in favor of the president’s son. Since Mr. Trump and his allies did not like the apparent outcome of the investigation, some have painted Mr. Weiss as a lackey of the Biden administration and have showcased whistle-blowers who said the prosecutor had been hamstrung even though he insisted he was not.
“This move by Attorney General Garland is part of the Justice Department’s efforts to attempt a Biden family cover-up,” said Representative James R. Comer of Kentucky, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee who has led congressional investigations into the president’s son.
Such attacks also serve the purpose of discrediting Mr. Weiss in advance if in the end he does not confirm their unsubstantiated charges of corruption against the Biden family. Testimony and news accounts have indicated that Hunter Biden traded on his name to make money and a former business partner has said that his father was aware. But no evidence has emerged that the president personally profited from or used his power to benefit his son’s business interests.
Still, other Republicans said the party should welcome the appointment of Mr. Weiss as special counsel. There would be no need for one if there was nothing to investigate, they argued, and it was Mr. Biden’s own attorney general now saying there was a need.
“It shows that there is more than just smoke,” said Douglas Heye, a longtime Republican strategist. “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 up.”
For the White House, the attorney general’s Friday afternoon announcement was an unpleasant surprise, a head-snapping reversal from just seven weeks ago, when the president’s team thought it had turned a corner with Hunter Biden’s agreement with Mr. Weiss to plead guilty to two tax misdemeanors and accept a diversion program to dismiss an unlawful gun possession charge.
The Biden camp was deeply relieved that five years of investigation had added up to nothing more serious. The president made a point of inviting his son, who has struggled with a crack cocaine addiction, to a high-profile state dinner two days later in what was taken as a spike-the-ball moment declaring victory over the family’s pursuers. The fact that Mr. Garland was also at the state dinner, hanging out just across an outdoor tent from the man his department was prosecuting, left even some Democrats feeling uncomfortable.
But any sense of relief was premature. When Hunter Biden showed up at the Federal District Court in Wilmington, Del., on July 26 to finalize the plea deal, it all unraveled under questioning from a judge in just a few hours. At the heart of the matter was a disagreement over what the agreement meant. Hunter Biden and his lawyers thought it ended the investigation, while prosecutors made clear it did not.
The Hunter Biden legal team wants certainty that a guilty plea would end the matter, given that Mr. Trump has vowed to prosecute him if elected president. But as Mr. Weiss revealed on Friday, subsequent negotiations intended to iron out the disconnect have reached an impasse, making a trial all but certain to be the next step and making it easier for Republicans trying to shift attention from Mr. Trump’s three indictments.
They are, of course, hardly comparable cases. Hunter Biden was never president and never will be president, and even the most damning evidence against him does not equate to trying to overturn a democratic election in order to hold onto power. But it has been a useful strategy for Republicans to complain about what they call a “two-tier justice system.”
Three-quarters of Republicans believe the president’s son got preferential treatment in the plea deal, compared with 33 percent of Democrats, according to a poll by Reuters and Ipsos in June. But most voters indicated that they thought Mr. Biden was “being a good father by supporting his son,” and only 26 percent said they were less likely to vote for him as a result of Hunter’s legal troubles.
The president’s strategists have argued that Republican attacks on Hunter Biden did not work in the 2020 election when Mr. Biden beat Mr. Trump or in the 2022 midterm elections when Democrats did better than anticipated. Nor, they added, has the issue resonated with voters who will be important to the president’s re-election in 2024, meaning independents and disappointed Democrats.
That is an assumption that in the months to come will be put on trial, in effect, at the same time as the president’s son.