Hunter Biden's 'Sweetheart' Plea Deal Falls Apart During Hearing

Hunter Biden's plea agreement fell apart halfway into a court hearing on Wednesday, a shocking twist that cost the president's son the "sweetheart deal" he had secured with federal prosecutors—only for a revised, more limited deal to be agreed on later but put on hold.

Under the initial plea deal, Biden was expected to plead guilty to two misdemeanors for failing to pay his federal taxes on time in 2017 and 2018, while avoiding being prosecuted for a felony gun charge—illegally possessing a firearm as a drug user.

But both sides said the bargain was off the table after U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika, who is presiding over the case in Wilmington, Delaware, questioned if the deal offered the president's son blanket immunity from prosecution in his plea dealings or only for his tax offenses. After the top prosecutor said it would not offer sweeping immunity, Biden's attorney declared the agreement "null and void."

The agreement had been widely criticized by Republicans, who called it a "sweetheart deal" offered to Biden only because he is the president's son.

Biden's team asked Noreika, a Donald Trump appointee who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, for a recess to see if both sides could salvage the deal.

In a second twist, the two sides were able to put a deal back together, although the revised agreement is much more limited in scope, covering only charges related to tax offenses, drug use and gun possession between 2014 and 2019. As part of the new deal, Biden would be covered for any tax-related conduct stemming from three years before the evasion he was charged for. But the deal would not shield him from any potential future charges.

At the time that the original plea deal was announced, Biden's lawyers had said they understood the federal investigation to be over. The revised agreement, however, makes it clear that the probe is still "ongoing."

Then, in a third surprise, Noreika called the deal "unusual" and told both sides she was not ready to accept the bargain, leaving it on hold. The lengthy three-hour hearing ended with Biden pleading not guilty for the time being, although he could change that plea should the agreement be redone.

Hunter Biden Arrives for Court
Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, arrives Wednesday at a federal courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, to plead guilty to two federal misdemeanors for not paying federal taxes on time and a gun possession charge. During the hearing, the plea agreement collapsed over the question of blanket immunity from prosecution. A revised, more limited deal was agreed to later but put on hold. Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Federal prosecutors told the court on Wednesday that Biden did have the funds available to pay his 2017 taxes on time but instead continued to "spend wildly" on personal luxuries. Biden failed to pay between $1.1 million and $1.5 million in federal taxes before the deadlines, prosecutors said.

The deal would have made Biden the first son of a sitting U.S. president to plead guilty to a federal crime.

Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department began investigating Biden in 2018. Led by another Trump appointee, U.S. Attorney David Weiss, the probe expanded to examine Biden's overseas business dealings and whether they violated federal money laundering and foreign lobbying laws. After Joe Biden was inaugurated in January 2021, he kept Weiss on as the lead investigator.

Noreika, Biden's lawyers and federal prosecutors all agreed that the judge did not have the power to order a "redo" on the probe if she believed the "investigation was lacking."

During the hearing, Noreika did not get into the last-minute dispute hanging over the case. On the eve of Biden's court appearance, Noreika issued a brief order on a bizarre clash between GOP Representative Jason Smith, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Biden's defense lawyers.

Noreika threatened to sanction a Biden attorney on Tuesday afternoon over accusations that the lawyer allegedly misrepresented herself in a phone call to the court. But she did not mention the dust-up during the hearing.

Noreika's Tuesday order came after the court clerk informed the judge that Jessica Bengels, an employee at Latham & Watkins, the firm representing Biden, called the clerk's office claiming to be working with the House Republicans' legal team. During the call, Bengels allegedly asked that documents submitted by Smith, in a last-minute amicus aimed at derailing the plea deal, be removed from the public docket because they included Biden's sensitive personal tax information.

"It appears that the caller misrepresented her identity and who she worked for in an attempt to improperly convince the Clerk's Office to remove the amicus materials from the docket," the judge wrote.

Biden's attorneys have denied those allegations and chalked up the incident to "unintentional miscommunication."

Ahead of Biden's plea, some legal experts questioned whether the call to the court clerk would cause an issue for Biden on Wednesday.

"The entire matter could be a misunderstanding, but the clerk clearly did not think so," legal commentator Jonathan Turley wrote in a blog post. "The problem for Hunter could be a delay in accepting the plea bargain. It is not clear what additional evidence the Court could secure on the issue, but it could want interviews on the record."

The hearing also comes on the heels of new allegations made by two IRS whistleblowers who helped lead the investigation into Biden. The IRS agents have testified before Congress in recent weeks, telling lawmakers that the Biden administration's Justice Department blocked Weiss from filing felony tax evasion charges that they had recommended.

The allegations from the two veteran agency officials bolster the criticisms from House Republicans.

Update 7/26/23, 12:44 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information about the Hunter Biden plea agreement, which was restored and revised after collapsing earlier in the court hearing.

Update 7/26/23, 2:03 p.m. ET: This story was updated with additional information about the plea agreement, which was put on hold at the end of the hearing.

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