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The potential indictment of Hunter Biden, explained

A charging decision is expected soon. Here’s what we know about the investigation.

Hunter Biden, son of US President Joe Biden, and Valerie Biden, sister of US President Joe Biden, board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, US, on Tuesday, April 11, 2023.
Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, and Valerie Biden, sister of President Biden, board Air Force One on April 11, 2023.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Hunter Biden will soon learn his legal fate. Federal prosecutors’ investigation into the president’s son is nearing its conclusion, recent reports claim, and an indictment is a real possibility.

There are four possible charges in the mix, according to CNN. Two of these are misdemeanor charges about Hunter’s failure to file taxes, and a third is a felony tax evasion charge that would allege he over-reported business expenses. The fourth potential charge is about a false statement on a federal form Hunter filled out when buying a gun in 2018 (he claimed he was not a drug user).

The charges grew out of a years-long investigation that focuses on Hunter Biden’s well-compensated work for foreign interests over the past decade or so, particularly for businesses or tycoons in Ukraine, China, and Kazakhstan. Ethical questions have long swirled about this work, which he began as his father was set to become vice president and continued amid tumultuous years for Hunter as he struggled with addiction. This investigation from the US Attorney’s Office in Delaware (headed by a holdover Trump appointee, David Weiss) explored whether Hunter had broken foreign lobbying or money laundering laws.

But the investigation eventually “narrowed” and no charges are expected on those fronts, per NBC News. And while Republicans have argued for years that Hunter’s foreign work implicated Joe Biden somehow, by all accounts this investigation has remained focused on Hunter, not the president.

Naturally, some in the GOP are already complaining that the potential indictment won’t go far enough — House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer said on Fox News this month that “what they’re looking at charging Hunter Biden on is a slap on the wrist.”

Some FBI and IRS agents involved in the investigation, meanwhile, have been unhappy with the Justice Department’s handling of it, making allegations it has been slow-walked or politicized both to reporters and to congressional investigators. It is unclear whether these agents have strong evidence of political interference, or whether this is simply about prosecutors disagreeing that the case is as strong and clear-cut as these agents think.

With prosecutors’ ultimate conclusion unclear, most of the political discourse around Hunter Biden’s legal woes so far has been about how the media should cover them — with Republicans demanding more coverage and Democrats maintaining it’s not that important a story.

But the possible indictment of the president’s son would be at the very least a PR problem for his administration, and potentially a threat to his reelection as well.

Why is Hunter Biden being investigated?

It’s long seemed that Hunter’s relationship with the law from the mid-to-late 2010s — a period when he both raked in massive sums of money from foreign interests and struggled with serious drug addiction — was rather strained.

For nearly his entire adult life, Hunter was in the business of being Joe Biden’s son, monetizing his perceived access and connections to a powerful senator and then the vice president of the United States as a lobbyist and consultant. These clients included a Ukrainian gas company, a company controlled by a Kazakh oligarch, and a Chinese energy company, and Hunter raked in millions from them.

There is nothing inherently illegal about accepting money from foreign interests if you are a private citizen and your dad is a famous, powerful person. But you do have to pay taxes on it. And according to the New York Times, a federal inquiry into whether Hunter had properly paid his taxes began back during the Obama administration. Then, in 2018, the tax inquiry became a broader federal criminal investigation into Hunter.

Meanwhile, Hunter’s personal life was tumultuous. He progressed from alcohol to hard drugs, including crack cocaine. His older brother, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Hunter then split from his wife, who would later accuse him in a court filing of “spending extravagantly” on “drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, strip clubs, and gifts for women with whom he has sexual relations.” He began dating Beau’s widow, until that relationship collapsed too. He fathered a child with a different woman who later sued him for paternity (their legal fight over child support is still unfolding in Arkansas court). He repeatedly went in and out of rehab. He was a mess.

Much of this personal drama was publicly known (though the federal investigation wasn’t, yet). And as Joe Biden prepared to launch a presidential bid in 2019, Hunter became a particular fixation of Trump and his allies, who hoped to damage the elder Biden politically. Their great hope was to link Hunter’s foreign work to action taken while Biden was vice president, but they never succeeded in doing so.

Their efforts became a saga that ultimately resulted in Trump’s first impeachment — remember, it was Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine to dig up dirt on Hunter that started it all — and, eventually, the “October surprise” release of Hunter Biden’s private emails, texts, and other documents said to be from a laptop abandoned at a Delaware computer repair store.

The federal investigation into Hunter preceded all this partisan drama. It’s being led by the US attorney for Delaware, David Weiss, a Trump appointee left in place by President Biden (due to a desire not to interfere with this specific investigation). Weiss has worked in various capacities in that office since 2007 and isn’t known to be a partisan or a Trump crony. Attorney General Merrick Garland testified in a Senate hearing that Weiss is “not restricted in his investigation in any way.”

What are the possible charges?

Though the investigation did delve into Hunter’s foreign work, the latest reports indicate no charges are expected on that front. Instead, prosecutors have zeroed in on two main issues: Hunter’s taxes, and that gun form he filled out.

Regarding taxes, one question appears to be whether Hunter properly paid taxes on all those millions he made from foreign sources. It certainly seems like the answer might be “not at first,” since he belatedly coughed up over $1 million to pay off his tax liability in 2021, per the Times.

That wouldn’t get him off the hook for past criminal conduct, though. NBC News recently reported that prosecutors are considering charging Hunter with “two misdemeanor counts for failure to file taxes” and “a single felony count of tax evasion related to a business expense for one year of taxes.” (The Wall Street Journal had previously reported prosecutors were examining whether Hunter “moved funds in a way to obscure his tax liability.”)

Then there’s the gun thing. In 2018, during a period in which Hunter has admitted to having a serious drug addiction (he wrote a book about it), he bought a gun. In connection with that purchase, he filled out a federal form and attested that he was not a drug user. The gun became an issue when his sister-in-law became concerned he might harm himself and threw it in an outdoor trash can, where it was discovered and reported to police. Texts from his laptop make clear he was not particularly stable at the time, but no one was hurt.

This seems to be an open-and-shut crime — he said on the form he wasn’t a drug user, but he was. Still, prosecutors have discretion about whether they think such a case would be worth charging. And it’s noteworthy that after such a sprawling, years-long investigation, this is one of the few things agents believe they can prove. Many long probes into purported corruption end this way, with a false statement on a federal form — with something clear and written-down, rather than something murky and hard to establish.

Has the investigation been politicized?

The Hunter Biden investigation has been both lengthy and leaky, with some grumblings of behind-the-scenes discontent getting out to the press and to members of Congress.

Back in October, the Washington Post reported that “federal agents” on the case “have gathered what they believe is sufficient evidence to charge” Hunter — and that they had in fact concluded “months ago” that they had “a viable criminal case.” That same month, the Wall Street Journal reported that investigators “had expected a case to be brought” by the end of summer 2022.

Some commentators read between the lines of these stories and concluded that disgruntled agents were leaking to pressure Justice Department prosecutors to file an indictment, wondering why things were taking so long.

Prosecutors have a different institutional role than agents, though. Per DOJ, they’re tasked with assessing whether “the admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction.” Agents and prosecutors often come to different views on this — with agents typically believing their case is strong, and prosecutors feeling more cautious. The Journal also reported that prosecutors were “struggling” with whether “certain facts,” such as Hunter’s “drug addiction,” could make convicting him difficult (since his attorneys could argue he was not of sound mind).

There are a couple of Justice Department bureaucratic wrinkles to charging Hunter. Tax charges would have to be approved by the head of DOJ’s Tax Division, but there is currently no Senate-confirmed leader for that division. Additionally, Hunter’s taxes were filed in Washington, DC and he lived in California, so Weiss would need special approval to get charges filed outside Delaware — but Garland testified that Weiss would have “my full authority to do that.”

Then, in April, an IRS agent sought whistleblower protections from Congress, reportedly to argue that there had been political interference with the investigation. According to CNN, “the whistleblower alleges that Delaware US Attorney David Weiss’s ability to bring charges in the case is being thwarted by political appointees,” and is disputing some aspects of Garland’s testimony. This agent’s attorneys met with Congress last week, but we do not yet know the details of these allegations.

So the situation here is murky. Has the investigation been held up due to politics, or some combination of bureaucratic slowness and honest disagreement from prosecutors on the strength of the case? Are the unhappy agents good-faith whistleblowers, or do they have their own political motives? More information is necessary to come to an informed conclusion on these questions.

What does it all mean?

The Hunter Biden story has been a thorny one for the media and political system in part because of all the other scandals both Democrats and Republicans still have grievances with the media about.

Democrats deeply resent how the mainstream press covered the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices in 2016, believing the underlying issue was never all that important, but that the media gave it comparable time to Trump’s many scandals and extreme positions, which contributed to Trump’s victory. They also still seethe over the media’s coverage of the Democratic emails that were hacked by Russian intelligence officers that year, which they argue weren’t all that scandalous.

Meanwhile, Republicans remain furious that the mainstream media spent so much time covering the investigation into whether Donald Trump secretly conspired with Russia to impact the 2016 election, which never ended up being proven or charged. They believe the media was happy to assume the worst of Trump and that, to try and ensure Trump’s defeat in 2020, they swept stories about Hunter Biden’s corruption under the rug.

Liberals have tended to argue that while Hunter Biden may perhaps be kind of corrupt and very much a denizen of the grubby world of DC influence-peddling, the story just isn’t that important and should not be the focus of much media attention; he’s not even a public official.

They also argue Republicans’ concerns about corruption are insincere, since the Trump family business also accepts large amounts of money from foreign interests that may well be motivated by a desire to curry favor with a powerful politician. Also, he tried to steal the election! (Conservatives fire back that all this is excuse-making to downplay a story that makes Democrats and President Biden look bad.)

There may be no perfect answer to how much media coverage an investigation into — or an indictment of — the president’s son should get. It surely merits some. And if Hunter committed crimes he should face justice. But so far as we know, the charges under consideration here fall far short of the vast Biden crime conspiracies that have consumed the GOP.