A plea agreement between federal prosecutors andfell apart Wednesday after the judge refused to sign off on a deal that would have seen the president's son enter guilty pleas to two misdemeanor tax charges and enter a diversion program in lieu of pleading guilty to a felony gun possession count.
After the deal collapsed, Hunter Biden entered a not guilty plea.
The judge, Maryellen Noreika, deferred the decision on the plea deal, saying "you are telling me to rubber stamp the agreement." The parties have 14 days to brief her and the ruling could now be delayed for weeks.
Earlier in the hearing, Noreika questioned Biden on topics ranging from his history of addiction to his business ventures, both foreign and domestic.
Biden, in a blue suit, white shirt and a dark tie, appeared visibly frustrated as Noreika deferred the agreement.
U.S. Attorney David Weiss was present in the courtroom gallery, directly behind the prosecution team. When Hunter Biden arrived, he shook hands with each prosecutor, and waved to Weiss.
Soon after the hearing began, Noreika said she was confused by the deal's diversion agreement, which called for Biden to remain drug-free without committing additional crimes in order to see the gun charge dismissed.
While the defense lawyers and prosecutors wanted to keep that agreement separate from the tax matters, Noreika wanted to know if it was all part of a "package deal." Biden acknowledged that without the provisions of the diversion deal he would not be pleading guilty.
After the deal appeared to break down, the prosecutors and defense attorneys took three separate breaks to huddle and discuss ways forward. Inside the courtroom, Hunter Biden's attorney, Christopher Clark, at one point blurted out: "This was all negotiated!"
"I don't know what you're trying to accomplish," Clark said, speaking to prosecutors. "We'll rip it up!"
The effort was, in essence, high-stakes negotiation in real time, with a federal judge and a gallery full of reporters standing by. It failed.
Both sides had motivation to reach an agreement. For Hunter Biden, this was a chance to close the books on a tax investigation that has been hanging over him for years. For prosecutors, the deal avoided the risks of trying a case in Biden-friendly Delaware, against a defendant who failed to file taxes while in the throes of addiction.
The judge acknowledged the day's events had thrown the case a "curveball."
"I have concerns about the agreement," Noreika said. "I can't let him plea to something if he thinks he has protection from something and he doesn't."
The president's son had previously agreed to enter guilty pleas on the counts of willful failure to pay income tax, and admit to felony gun possession. Under the original agreement, it was unlikely the president's son would face prison time, which had angered Republicans.
Clark called the deal "null and void" after a prosecutor told the judge that Hunter Biden isn't immune from future charges in the investigation, including potential counts under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said as the hearing was wrapping up that "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," Jean-Pierre said. "So for anything further, as you know and we've been very consistent from here, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice and to Hunter's representatives who is his legal team obviously, who can address any of your questions."
What is Hunter Biden charged with and what was the plea deal?
Hunter Biden is charged with two misdemeanor tax offenses and a felony firearm offense.
The deal prior to Wednesday's court session included an acknowledgement that drug use was a contributing factor in his gun possession charge. A source with knowledge of the agreement said the diversion plan was expected to mean that for two years, Hunter Biden would have had to remain drug-free without committing additional crimes. If he fulfilled that successfully, the gun count would have been dismissed without a guilty plea.
The two misdemeanor tax charges relate to Hunter Biden's alleged willful failure to pay taxes for 2017 and 2018. A filing indicates that he earned more than $1.5 million in income each year. He has since fully repaid back taxes and fines, including $2 million reportedly paid to the federal government last year, with the help of a loan from his personal attorney. The felony gun charge relates to alleged possession of a handgun by a drug user in 2018. The filing identifies the gun as a Colt Cobra 38SPL, and Weiss said in a statement that Hunter Biden had it for 11 days in October 2018.
Who is Judge Maryellen Noreika?
Noreika was confirmed for her post in 2018 after being nominated by Republican former President Donald Trump in 2017. Her nomination was supported by Delaware's two Democratic senators, Tom Carper and Christopher Coons. She previously worked in patent litigation for a Wilmington, Delaware law firm.
In March, Noreika dismissed part of a defamation lawsuit filed by a Delaware computer repair shop owner who claims Hunter Biden left his laptop in the store in 2019. She dismissed claims in the suit made against Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, and determined that allegations against others, including Hunter Biden, would be handled by Delaware civil courts.
What has the reaction been from Republicans?
The plea hearing came amid intense scrutiny from Republicans in Congress, who have raised questions about how the case was handled and whether Hunter Biden received special treatment or leniency.
In an unusual move, House Republicans had submitted a court filing on the eve of the hearing, asking the judge to consider recent statements from two IRS officials who worked on the case.
On July 19, the two testified to the House Oversight Committee about the tax probe. Joseph Ziegler, the tax agency's lead case agent in the investigation, described himself as a Democrat and said he recommended prosecutors charge Hunter Biden with multiple felonies and misdemeanors in 2021.
Ziegler said he believed evidence showed Hunter Biden had improperly claimed business deductions for a number of personal expenses, including his children's college tuition, hotel bills and payments to escorts, but that their efforts to investigate further were stymied.
"When you're prevented from going down certain roads, I guess I don't know what could have been found if we were not hamstrung or not handcuffed," Ziegler saidwith CBS News.
Republican Jason Smith, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, filed a brief with the court Wednesday asking the judge to consider the IRS whistleblowers' testimony when deciding whether to approve the agreement.
Clark urged the court to disregard Smith's filing, saying in a letter that Smith had no standing to file and was attempting to introduce "grand jury secret information and confidential taxpayer information" into the public record.
"In addition, you have not identified (nor could you identify) any legal basis for your attempt to intervene as amicus in tomorrow's proceeding," Clark wrote.
Clark said in a July 19 statement to CBS News that "any suggestion the investigation was not thorough, or cut corners, or cut my client any slack, is preposterous and deeply irresponsible."
"The [Justice Department] investigation covered a period which was a time of turmoil and addiction for my client. Any verifiable words or actions of my client, in the midst of a horrible addiction, are solely his own and have no connection to anyone in his family," Clark said.
The judge is likely to read and consider briefs filed in the case by outside parties, but is unlikely to be influenced by other outside factors like media coverage and politics, according to former Justice Department official Thomas Dupree.
"They're aware of outside events. They won't turn a blind eye to it, but it would be unusual for a judge basically to say ... either just in my own investigation or by things I've seen on TV or in the papers, I have some questions," Dupree said in an interview with CBS News.
Noreika on Wednesday asked questions early on in the hearing about the outside claims that the investigation was insufficient but prosecutors and Clark said they did not see evidence of that. Biden's lawyers said those concerns would be resolved in the "political process."
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, chair of the Republican-led House Oversight Committee —which isthe Biden family's business dealings— told reporters Wednesday that the collapse of the plea deal "doesn't impact my investigation because the Department of Justice, FBI, haven't done a darn thing to help me."
What have the White House and Justice Department been saying?
The White House and Justice Department havein the probe.
"President Biden has made clear that this matter would be handled independently by the Justice Department, under the leadership of a U.S. attorney appointed by former President Trump, free from any political interference by the White House," the White House said in a statement shared previously. "He has upheld that commitment."
Weiss has also pushed back against Republican claims his investigation had been impeded, statingthat he had ultimate authority on these matters and was "never denied the authority to bring charges in any jurisdiction."
On Monday, the Justice Department sent a letter to lawmakers stating that Weiss will be able to testify before Congress to answer their questions and address what they say are "misrepresentations" about their work in the Biden probe "...that could unduly harm public confidence in the evenhanded administration of justice, to which we are dedicated."
From the start, the effort to dissect the business dealings of a man whose father served as a senior U.S. senator, vice president, and candidate for the presidency, faced unusual challenges.
The investigation unfolded as Hunter Biden became the subject of repeated political attacks from the right, including the leaking ofinto the public sphere, and continued as Hunter Biden , filing against his political critics.
At an event in California the day the plea deal was first announced, President Biden responded to questions about Hunter Biden by saying, "I am very proud of my son."
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