President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden may be headed for a criminal trial, U.S. Special Counsel David Weiss said shortly after promotion into that role on Friday, in a sign that courtroom drama could play an outsized role in the 2024 presidential election.
A potential trial raises the possibility of an unprecedented spectacle in U.S. history: The son of a sitting president facing criminal charges while his father campaigns for reelection, likely against Republican Donald Trump, who faces at least three upcoming criminal trials of his own.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are also threatening an impeachment inquiry into claims that President Biden benefited from his 54-year-old son's business ventures.
Weiss, who has been investigating Hunter Biden since 2019, filed misdemeanor criminal tax and gun charges in June. But a federal judge refused to accept a plea deal that Weiss offered Biden in July.
Weiss said in a court filing on Friday that talks between the two sides have since broken down. "The Government now believes that the case will not resolve short of a trial," he wrote.
The filing came moments after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland elevated Weiss to special counsel status, giving him additional authority and independence to pursue the investigation. But Republicans remain skeptical that Weiss will lead an impartial investigation, citing his "sweetheart plea deal" with the president's son.
Hunter Biden in July pleaded not guilty to charges of failing to pay taxes on more than $1.5 million in income in 2017 and 2018 despite owing more than $100,000. He did not enter a plea in a separate case where he is charged with unlawfully owning a firearm while using illegal drugs, which is a felony.
As a special counsel, Weiss will be free from day-to-day supervision from the Justice Department and to file charges anywhere in the United States. Garland can overrule his proposed actions but must notify Congress if he does so.
Weiss said he might bring different charges against Hunter Biden in Washington or California, where the alleged criminal conduct took place.
A lawyer for Hunter Biden said he expected Weiss not to bend to political pressures.
"Whether in Delaware, Washington, D.C. or anywhere else, we expect a fair resolution not infected by politics and we’ll do what is necessary on behalf of Mr. Biden to achieve that," lawyer Chris Clark said in a statement.
Weiss will produce a report when his work is done, Garland said, and the Justice Department will make as much of it public as is possible.
"The appointment of Mr. Weiss reinforces for the American people the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters," Garland told a press conference.
Republicans have accused the elder Biden of profiting from his son's business ventures in Ukraine and China, though they have yet to produce any evidence of wrongdoing. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in July that the chamber might launch an impeachment inquiry in the autumn.
The White House declined to comment. Biden officials have previously dismissed Republican allegations as "insane conspiracy theories" and has said that Biden did not participate in his son's business affairs.
Hunter Biden has worked as a lobbyist, lawyer, consultant, and investment banker and has said he has struggled with alcoholism and crack cocaine use.
Republicans said Weiss lacked credibility to continue the investigation. "If Weiss negotiated the sweetheart deal that couldn’t get approved, how can he be trusted as a Special Counsel?" McCarthy said.
"David Weiss can't be trusted and this is just a new way to whitewash the Biden family's corruption," Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said in a statement.
Weiss is the third special counsel appointed by Garland to investigate politically sensitive matters.
One of those, Jack Smith, has filed criminal charges against Trump in two separate cases, while another, Robert Hur, is probing whether Biden mishandled classified documents after he left office as vice president.
In previous administrations, special counsels have investigated the outing of a CIA agent and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Hunter Biden has been a focus of several Republican congressional committees.
One former associate told the House Oversight Committee that Hunter gave an impression that he emphasized his family ties while he was doing business in Ukraine nearly a decade ago, while his father was vice president. That witness, Devon Archer, said Hunter spoke with his father daily but said the conversations did not involve business dealings.
Trump also has frequently mentioned the younger Biden in an attempt to tar his father as the two gear up for a possible rematch in the 2024 presidential election. His spokesperson Stephen Cheung said Weiss should "quickly conclude" that Biden and his son "should face the required consequences."
A June Reuters/Ipsos poll found half of Americans, including 75% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats, believed the younger Biden received preferential treatment from Weiss. But most said that would not affect their vote next year.
(Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Jeff Mason, Rami Ayyub, Moira Warburton, Jacqueline Thomsen, and David Ljunggren; writing by Andy Sullivan; editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)