Jun 21, 2023

The Hunter Biden plea deal.

Hunter Biden (right) stands by as his father Joe Biden is sworn in as president. Image: Rawpixel
Hunter Biden (right) stands by as his father Joe Biden is sworn in as president. Image: Rawpixel

Is this a sweetheart deal, or normal?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We're breaking down the Hunter Biden plea deal — with all the details and what to compare it to. Plus, a reader question about describing something as a "lie."

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Quick hits.

  1. The trial of former President Donald Trump on mishandling classified documents is scheduled to begin on August 14, though legal experts believe it will be moved back during the pretrial process. (The date)
  2. All five passengers aboard the submersible vehicle lost near the wreckage of the Titanic have now been identified, including Stockton Rush, who is the CEO of the company behind the excursion. A Canadian aircraft searching for the vehicle picked up banging sounds yesterday. The vehicle's oxygen is expected to run out by 6am EST tomorrow. (The latest)
  3. Andrew Tate, the popular social media influencer, was indicted with his brother in Romania on rape and human trafficking charges. (The charges)
  4. A federal judge struck down an Arkansas law that bans medical interventions for transgender minors, ruling it unconstitutional. (The ruling)
  5. China and Cuba are now negotiating a plan to build a joint military facility on the island, stationing Chinese troops roughly 100 miles off the coast of Florida. (The plans)

Today's topic.

The Hunter Biden plea deal. On Tuesday, a court filing revealed that Hunter Biden's lawyers and the Justice Department have struck a deal for him to plead guilty on two misdemeanor tax charges while avoiding further prosecution on a more serious gun charge, meaning he will likely avoid any prison time after a five year Justice Department investigation.

In 2017 and 2018, Biden earned over $1.5 million in taxable income but failed to pay $100,000 of the taxes he owed. In 2021, he paid the shortfall. Previous reporting indicated prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to charge him with tax evasion, a federal crime, but they ultimately opted for willful failure to pay federal income tax — a misdemeanor charge. 

The gun charges are related to the purchase of a firearm in 2018. Biden filled out a federal form indicating he was not using drugs in order to purchase the firearm, despite the fact he wrote in his memoir that he was smoking crack cocaine “every 15 minutes” for periods of time that year. The maximum sentence for lying on that federal form is 10 years in prison, though tens of thousands of the 25 million people who buy guns each year are suspected of doing so. Typically, charges tied to lying on those forms are only brought in conjunction with other gun-related crimes.

Biden and the Justice Department came to a pretrial diversion agreement, which is an option typically used for nonviolent offenders who have substance abuse problems. The reported deal is contingent on Biden remaining sober for 24 months and agreeing to never own a firearm again. While the deal must be approved by a federal judge, Biden is planning to appear in court this week to be arraigned on the tax charges.

“The president and first lady love their son and support him as he continues to rebuild his life,” White House spokesman Ian Sams said. “We will have no further comment.”

David Weiss, the Trump-appointed prosecutor in Delaware leading the investigation, posted a statement outlining the deal but also left one somewhat mysterious addendum, writing that the "investigation is ongoing." The New York Times said calls to his spokesperson went unanswered.

If prosecutors had proven Biden was intentionally evading taxes, rather than not paying them, they could have attempted to charge him with a felony and pursue prison time. However, in 2021, Biden paid off the debt he owed to the IRS, making tax evasion a more difficult charge to prosecute. Prosecutors ultimately settled on two misdemeanor charges for Biden’s late tax payments in 2017 and 2018.

In April, a lawyer representing an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) supervisor said there were longstanding concerns over irregularities in the Justice Department's handling of the investigation, which raised the prospect of political interference. The agent's lawyer said after those concerns were raised, his client was excluded from calls and meetings on the case, effectively being shut out. He has now spoken to congressional investigators under whistleblower protection.

Attorney General Merrick Garland testified to Congress that he had given Weiss broad independence to pursue charges as he saw fit. 

Separately, Republicans in the House are still pursuing an investigation into purported payments to President Biden and his family from foreign entities. House Republicans released financial records detailing how Hunter and his relatives took in $10 million from foreign sources between 2015 and 2017 through a web of shell companies, though no direct payments to President Biden were identified.

Today, we’re going to take a look at some reactions to the agreement from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is very critical of the deal, arguing that it is a "sweetheart" settlement and a grave injustice.
  • Some argue that Biden's case is the kind the Justice Department would typically prosecute someone for.
  • Others suggest there may be more coming, given other allegations of influence peddling.

In The Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer called it "so lenient as to be a travesty."

The felony charge, "which prohibits gun possession by someone who uses illicit drugs, can carry up to a 10-year prison sentence. The second gun charge, which involves lying on a federal firearms background check," can "carry up to a separate 10-year sentence" and "is prosecuted more than three-fifths of the times that federal agents received legal 'referrals' for it," Hillyer said. "Hunter Biden’s case involved serious violations of both statutory provisions,” and his drug use “was of exactly the extreme degree that makes firearm possession supremely dangerous."

Biden had "not one but two major violations" of the law and is "obviously guilty" of the two tax charges, yet he will "avoid the prosecution that three-fifths of such cases receives for only one offense." Stephen Nodine, a county commissioner in Alabama, was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after admitting "to smoking one joint of marijuana on a beach in Florida while he owned, unloaded in his house 90 minutes away in Alabama, a handgun never even suspected of being used in any crime." Biden is also accused of "multi-million dollar international influence peddling." If this plea deal includes dropping all other investigations into Hunter Biden, "it might be the worst case of illicit Justice Department favoritism in modern memory."

In National Review, Andrew C. McCarthy called it an "intentionally provocative" plea deal.

"Hunter Biden committed tax offenses that could have been charged as evasion, which is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment for each count," McCarthy said. "Furthermore, he made a false statement that enabled him to obtain a firearm; that’s a ten-year felony under legislation pushed through by then-senator Joe Biden to show how very serious Democrats are about gun crime. Biden apologists have tried to minimize that transaction as a 'lie and try' case, which they say is often not prosecuted.

"But such non-prosecution (though it shouldn’t happen) occurs because of what you’d infer from the 'try' part — i.e., the liar got caught and failed to obtain the gun," McCarthy said, but in Hunter’s case, "he got the gun. What’s more, he was then seen playing with it while cavorting with an 'escort'” Hunter then “managed to lose the gun near a school (it was later found by someone else). Those are the kinds of gun cases that get charged by the Justice Department even if the suspect hasn’t, in addition, committed tax felonies."

In The Federalist, Christopher Bedford said the plea deal is "a coverup disguised as justice."

"To summarize, Hunter Biden is accused of foreign influence peddling and taking (and coordinating) bribes for himself, his uncle, and his powerful father to the tune of millions of dollars." Bedford said. "He (and his father, who was then vice president) are accused of working to shut down an investigation into a Ukrainian oligarch’s oil company by getting the prosecutor fired. And today, the DOJ accepted a guilty plea on what The Washington Post calls 'two minor tax crimes,' and admitted to the basic facts around the gun case, agreeing to enter 'diversion programs' and serve two years probation."

"Maybe there’s more coming. After all, investigations take time. Indeed, the U.S. attorney for Delaware has contradicted Hunter’s team’s expectations, telling Fox News that 'the investigation is ongoing,'" Bedford noted. But the drudging investigation is probably over, and we can “expect today's ruling to serve as a cudgel for Biden partisans across the DOJ and the corporate media to hit outraged (and out-of-power) Republicans with. Justice served, indeed."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left argue that the charges are actually pretty harsh, and that Garland's attempts to be impartial have not even been acknowledged.
  • Some criticize the right for shifting its talking points from ‘Biden was never going to be charged’ to ‘Biden isn't being punished harshly enough.’
  • Others suggest this isn't about uncovering real criminal activity, but simply smearing the Biden family as corrupt.

Actually, Shan Wu wrote in The Daily Beast, Merrick Garland was "pretty harsh" on Hunter Biden.

The DOJ spent a "remarkably long time" investigating a tax evasion case and a false statement about not using drugs. Biden underpaid his taxes by $100,000 in 2017 and 2018, but paid the shortfall, which would make a tax evasion case an "outlier" since "prosecutors usually have little appetite for bringing criminal tax cases when the taxpayer has already paid the amount owing." His "self-admitted" drug addiction likely played a role in the pre-trial diversion, which is "frequently used as a means of holding drug addicts to accountability while not making them take a felony on the records in light of their addiction. In fact, it is rare for prosecutors to pursue criminal charges for this kind of false information on a gun ownership application form unless the gun was also used to commit some other crime."

"So the result of this five-year long investigation is that a recovering drug addict who paid his taxes late and lied about using drugs to purchase a firearm will be convicted of tax evasion, and be given pre-trial diversion for lying on his gun ownership application," Wu wrote. "It is likely that any other drug addict who was not the son of a sitting president would not have been prosecuted for these charges. But AG Merrick Garland—ever sensitive to accusations of DOJ looking political—kept the original prosecutor on the case to insulate DOJ from accusations of political partisanship, and refused to exercise what could easily be considered reasonable prosecutorial discretion in refusing to bring criminal charges for such minor offenses."

In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley criticized conservatives who went from claiming Hunter Biden would avoid charges to claiming he got a sweetheart deal.

"The premise that Joe Biden has 'weaponized' the Department of Justice to prosecute his political rivals and help his son avoid prosecution has long been a MAGA Republican talking point," Mathis-Lilley said. "With a Trump-appointed Justice Department attorney in the process of criminally convicting Hunter Biden, the accusation is shifting slightly; the new spin is that the plea is a toothless 'sweetheart deal' orchestrated in order to take pressure off both Hunter and Joe Biden for much more fantastical acts of 'Biden crime family' mega-crime that they’ve allegedly committed together—harvesting bribes from across the world, stealing the 2020 election, etc."

There is "essentially no evidence" that Joe Biden ever did anything like this, but "ironically, the New York Times has an extensive report out Tuesday” on a deal between the Trump Organization and a Saudi Arabian real estate firm at the behest of Oman. “The ex-president’s company, the Times reports, has already been paid at least $5 million in the deal—which happens to be the same amount that right-wing figures are currently claiming, with very little grounding, was given to Joe Biden during his term as vice president by a business executive in Ukraine."

In The New Republic, Matt Ford said Republicans are just trying to smear the Bidens.

"After complaining in recent weeks that federal prosecutors were ignoring Hunter’s alleged crimes while prosecuting former President Donald Trump, Republicans quickly switched gears," Ford wrote. There are obvious differences between Trump and Hunter Biden, as "misappropriating national secrets and showing them to random Mar-a-Lago guests is, generally speaking, a graver offense than failing to pay taxes. Hunter cooperated… Trump allegedly lied to a federal grand jury about returning all of the documents and continues to lash out at any attempt to hold him accountable for taking them."

"The point of the GOP-led investigations into his actions wasn’t to actually find evidence of criminal activity, as much as they would have welcomed it, but to create an aura of corruption and criminality around the 2020 and 2024 Democratic presidential candidate in much the same way they did against the party’s 2016 nominee," Ford wrote. “McCarthy, who was House majority leader in 2015, bragged to Fox News’s Sean Hannity about political damage that Republicans had inflicted upon former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the Benghazi investigations.” Republicans are running that playbook “against Biden this time as well.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • This doesn't end the other conversations about Hunter's alleged influence peddling.
  • It does seem like a fairly normal outcome to a case like this.
  • I'm not entirely sure what other outcome was wanted by critics of this agreement.

I want to start this with two big caveats: First, there are still questions about this investigation that need to be answered. Gary Shapley, the 14-year IRS veteran who oversees a team that specializes in international tax crimes, has complained under whistleblower protections that he witnessed deviations from the normal process while investigating Hunter. His team was then canned after he made those complaints.

Second, this plea deal doesn’t end the conversation about the Biden family’s alleged corruption. We know from Hunter’s emails that he claims to have had to share half his income with his dad, and that his father was also penciled in for a 10% cut of a Chinese-government-linked partnership Hunter was negotiating in 2017. Congressional Republicans claim to have bank records showing evidence of money coming from foreign entities. There are (increasingly flimsy) rumors about damning audio recordings that lend credence to some big influence peddling scheme. That’s a lot of smoke, but we are still looking for the fire. 

But on this case, related to these charges… the outcome seems fine.

Biden is clearly troubled. He has obviously committed crimes, and he has basically acted as the archetype of a corrupt son-of-a-famous-politician, gallivanting around the world taking jobs he is not qualified for and being paid handsomely for them, all while parading his dad in front of people he wants to court for half-baked business deals. There is, or should be, little doubt left about any of this.

He also seems incredibly irresponsible. Let’s start with the tax shortfall, which is less complicated than the gun charges. Biden made over $1.5 million of taxable income in 2017 and 2018, and didn't pay his taxes in full (he owed about $100,000). In 2021, he covered the shortfall by borrowing money from Hollywood lawyer Kevin Morris, a tactic legal experts on the left and right seem to accept is a good way to avoid going to prison for tax evasion. Presumably, after five years, the Justice Department and the Trump-appointed prosecutor David Weiss followed every lead on that money and decided they'd have a hard time getting a jury to convict him on tax evasion (or any other charge).

Frankly, I'm fine with the tax settlement. For all the talk of how easily he was let off, there are plenty of other examples of people in his position not facing any criminal tax evasion charges in similar cases. As Roger Sollenberger pointed out, Trump's former political advisor Roger Stone and his wife just settled a case for $2 million in unpaid taxes with the Justice Department last year. They weren't even criminally charged, and they didn't get probation. Even Erick Erickson, the attorney turned conservative radio host who took over for Rush Limbaugh, said it was a fairly standard deal.

In fact, the outcome on the tax charges here might actually be a good sign for Hunter Biden’s separate influence peddling charge. This case was investigated by David Weiss, who was both appointed by Trump but also enjoyed the support of Democratic senators in Delaware, who are presumably Biden allies. In other words, he has credibility on both sides. Weiss spent five years investigating these charges, looking directly at money Hunter Biden received from foreign entities. And yet, the investigation did not turn up any additional criminal charges so far.

The firearm charges are more complicated. Essentially, he bought a gun, which he owned and showed off in selfies for two weeks, before his then-girlfriend (the widow of his brother, Beau) threw it away in a dumpster across the street from a school, where it was later found by an old man in the neighborhood who had a habit of rummaging through trash for recyclables. All of this happened after Biden filled out a federal form to get the gun, in which he lied about not being a drug user, the central crime at hand.

Suffice it to say, lying about your habitual drug use while obtaining a firearm only to then "throw it out" near a school a few weeks later is incredibly dumb, careless, risky, and — yes — criminal. Based on discoveries from Hunter Biden’s laptop and his memoir, we know that this time period was a very dark one for Hunter — one in which he was using lots of drugs, partying with sex workers, pitching foreign business deals, and generally running amok.

The irony of the gun charge is, ideologically, both sides have basically flip-flopped. There is little doubt in my mind that if a drug-addicted Donald Trump Jr. had lied on a federal form to buy a handgun, flaunted the handgun in photographs, then tossed it in a dumpster near a high school so haphazardly that it was found by someone else, gun-control activists on the left would be screeching for him to do a few months (or years) in the can. At the same time, I'm sure conservatives would be up in constitutionally guaranteed arms if Biden's Justice Department robbed Donald Trump Jr. of his right to own a firearm for a crime thousands of other people commit a year, or some such other framing of the outcome here.

Pending final approval of this agreement, Biden is never going to be able to legally own a firearm again and will have to stay sober for two years to avoid facing prison time. That doesn't seem like a slap on the wrist for someone like Hunter Biden, and there is nothing novel about this kind of agreement for someone who committed this kind of crime in this kind of mental state.

Frankly, I'm starting to have a hard time discerning what critics of this outcome want here. First, nobody thought Hunter would even be charged or investigated. Then he got charged and investigated — for five years — by a Trump-appointed district attorney, who was kept on the case even after the administrations changed. Now people seem upset he isn't going to jail. But if Biden had been given six months in prison on these charges instead, would that have satiated conservative critics? I doubt it.

It feels like the only acceptable outcome for many on the right is Hunter Biden goes to jail, his father gets exposed as a corrupt politician who took millions of dollars from foreign adversaries, and the Biden administration gets riddled by mass impeachments and prison sentences. But for any of that to happen, investigators need to find actual evidence of the purported crimes.

Hunter Biden failed to pay $100,000 he owed in taxes and lied on a federal form to purchase a gun. For those crimes, he had to pay the money he owed, he will never be able to own a firearm again, and he has to stay sober and out of trouble for two years to avoid going to jail. That seems like a perfectly reasonable outcome to me. 

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why is the media so hesitant to use the word “lie” in connection with former President Trump? It’s always “untruth” or “falsehood” or something in that vein. I never hear “he lied,” when factually it has often been indisputable that he was lying about something. It was so prevalent in his presidency and it’s still going on. I never read “the ex-president lied…..” and I just can’t figure out why? Keep up the great work.

— Brad from Juneau, Alaska

Tangle: I think it mostly comes down to intent. The definition of a lie is "an intentionally false statement." For a reporter to use the word "lie," they need to be certain of intent, which is extremely difficult. Politicians say things that aren't true all the time. But do we know that they know their statements aren't true? That’s harder to answer.

Take Trump's claims about the 2020 election. Based on your question, I'm assuming you think it's a lie that the 2020 election was stolen. But what if Trump truly does believe the 2020 election was stolen, and believes there is evidence to prove it? What if he and nearly half the country also believe that? Is it a lie then? That is harder to answer. So reporters, if they believe the statement is false, will fall back on the less accusatory or intent-oriented language like "mistruth" or "misled" or "falsehood."

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Last year, 13-year-olds in the U.S. saw their worst decline in math scores in 50 years, according to new federal data. Reading scores also plummeted. The findings, derived from The Nation's Report Card which assesses students every year, showed the average math score for 13-year-olds falling nine points from the 2019-20 school year to the 2022-23 school year. Meanwhile, the average reading score fell four points in that time period. Scores have now been falling for a decade, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. Axios has the story


  • 67%. Trump's favorability among Republican-aligned voters, according to a new CNN/SSRS poll taken after his indictment for mishandling classified documents.
  • 77%. Trump's favorability among Republican-aligned voters in the same poll in May.
  • 53%. The percentage of respondents in a Trafalgar Group poll who said they believed the Biden family has accepted money to influence politics in Washington D.C.
  • 31.4%. The percentage who believe the Biden family is innocent of accepting money to influence politics in Washington D.C. 
  • 89.8%. The percentage of Republicans who believe the Biden family has accepted money to influence politics in Washington D.C.
  • 11.2%. The percentage of Democrats who believe the Biden family has accepted money to influence politics in Washington D.C.

The extras.

Have a nice day.

It isn't all floods and fires out west. According to a University of Washington study, the blue whale population on the West Coast has enjoyed a stunning comeback, with 97% of the area population returning since whaling was outlawed in the 1970s. Conservationists in the area have taken a multi-pronged approach to protecting the endangered population, which includes limits on large static fishing nets and flexibly planned shipping channels. And the efforts may not have just helped blue whales — scientists have also recorded a bounce back in humpback whale and northern elephant seal populations. “It’s not just one entity that is contributing to the success of the populations rebounding; it’s really the efforts of everyone,” said Jennie Dean, Vice President of Education and Conservation at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “When we’re able to take collective action and think about balance, such that people and the activities that we want to support like shipping, like recreational use, like commercial fishing, all of those things can coexist.” KTLA has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.