WILMINGTON, Del. – The plea deal in Hunter Biden’s criminal case unraveled during a court hearing Wednesday after a federal judge raised concerns about the terms of the agreement that has infuriated Republicans who believe the president’s son is getting preferential treatment.
Hunter Biden was charged last month with two misdemeanor crimes of failure to pay more than $100,000 in taxes from over $1.5 million in income in both 2017 and 2018 and had been expected to plead guilty Wednesday after he made an agreement with prosecutors, who were planning to recommend two years of probation. Prosecutors said Wednesday Hunter Biden remains under active investigation, but would not reveal details.
U.S. District Court Judge Maryellen Noreika, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, raised multiple concerns about the specifics of the deal and her role in the proceedings. The plan also included an agreement on a separate gun charge — Biden has been accused of possessing a firearm in 2018 as a drug user. As long as he adhered to the terms of his agreement, the gun case was to be wiped from his record. Otherwise, the felony charge carries 10 years in prison.
The overlapping agreements created confusion for the judge, who said the lawyers needed to untangle technical issues — including over her role in enforcing the gun agreement — before moving forward.
“It seems to me like you are saying ‘just rubber stamp the agreement, Your Honor.' … This seems to me to be form over substance," she said. She asked defense lawyers and prosecutors to explain why she should accept the deal. In the meantime, Hunter Biden pleaded not guilty to the tax charges.
The collapsed proceedings were a surprising development in the yearslong investigation, and a resolution that had been carefully negotiated over several weeks and included a lengthy back-and-forth between Justice Department prosecutors and Biden's attorneys.
The plea deal was meant to clear the air for Hunter Biden and avert a trial that would have generated weeks or months of distracting headlines. But the politics remain as messy as ever, with Republicans insisting he got a sweetheart deal and the Justice Department pressing ahead on investigations into Trump, the GOP’s 2024 presidential primary front-runner.
Trump is already facing a state criminal case in New York and a federal indictment in Florida. Last week, a target letter was sent to Trump from special counsel Jack Smith that suggests the former president may soon be indicted on new federal charges, this time involving his struggle to cling to power after his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden.
Republicans claim a double standard, in which the Democratic president's son got off easy while the president's rival has been unfairly castigated. Congressional Republicans are pursuing their own investigations into nearly every facet of Hunter Biden's dealings, including foreign payments.
“District Judge Noreika did the right thing by refusing to rubberstamp Hunter Biden’s sweetheart plea deal,” said House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. “But let’s be clear: Hunter’s sweetheart plea deal belongs in the trash.”
Wednesday's hearing quickly veered into confusion, with Hunter Biden at one point answering “yes” when asked if he was pleading guilty of his own free will, before later pulling back in moving forward with the plea.
The judge said she was concerned about a provision in the agreement on the gun charge that she said would have created a role for her where she would determine if he violated the terms. She argued such a role doesn't exist for judges; the lawyers said they were only asking for the court to play a factfinding role as a neutral party in determining if a violation happened.
“We wanted the protection of the court,” Biden's attorney Chris Clark said.
She also raised concerns that the agreement included a non-prosecution clause for crimes outside of the gun charge.
The attorneys appeared to squabble over the deal's terms, too, retreating to their corners to discuss the issues, before they met at the prosecutors' table and, at one point, could be heard yelling at each other. “Well, we’ll just rip it up!” Clark was heard shouting.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The judge also asked Biden to be more specific about his business relationships and to discuss his substance use issues as she combed through the plea agreement. She asked him to name the Ukrainian and Chinese entities referred to without name in the agreement.
She also asked him the last time he used alcohol or drugs and whether he was currently receiving treatment.
Biden answered June 1, 2019, and said he was not currently in treatment, though he did say he was in an anonymous support program for his substance abuse issues.
“Hunter Biden is a private citizen, and this was a personal matter for him," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “As we have said, the president, the first lady, they love their son, and they support him as he continues to rebuild his life. This case was handled independently, as all of you know, by the Justice Department under the leadership of a prosecutor appointed by the former president, President Trump.”
President Biden, meanwhile, has said very little publicly, except to note, "I'm very proud of my son."
___ Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.