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Son of a gun: The Hunter Biden cases that never were

Hunter Biden will stand trial next week on gun-related charges just as the GOP’s effort to untangle his web of foreign moneymaking fizzles out. While the political will to impeach President Joe Biden over any involvement in his family’s influence-peddling has all but disappeared, the belief that the Justice Department gave Hunter Biden favorable treatment has not. In this series, the Washington Examiner will look at where the saga stands on the eve of his first trial. Part one will look at the cases against him that never materialized.

Hunter Biden is preparing to defend himself against gun-related charges and, three months later, against charges of tax evasion.

But the first son does not have to answer allegations that he lobbied illegally for foreign powers, engaged in sex trafficking, lied to Congress, or played a role in campaign finance violations. 

And Republicans are still struggling to understand why.

A slow and stilted federal investigation into President Joe Biden’s son did not, in the eyes of his critics, result in the kind of accountability he deserved for the years he peddled influence while his father was vice president. 

Hunter Biden represented the interests of entities in Ukraine and China in ways that should have triggered disclosure requirements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, Republicans say. He paid for the travel of prostitutes across state lines in potential violation of the Mann Act, a sex trafficking law. And he accepted millions of dollars to settle his taxes from a friend who expressed a desire to make the issue disappear ahead of the 2020 election.

Investigators under the direction of then-Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, who was appointed special counsel in August, looked into each of those allegations during the course of their yearslong criminal investigation but did not pursue charges against Hunter Biden or others involved.

“Weiss never wanted to prosecute Hunter and tried very hard to make the case go away with minimal record, no scrutiny of President Biden’s complicity in the influence-peddling business, and no prison time,” Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Examiner. “The two pending cases happened only because Weiss was caught trying to orchestrate an indefensible guilty plea.”

Roughly one month before his appointment as special counsel last year, Weiss offered Hunter Biden a plea deal that would have spared the first son from any additional investigative scrutiny and keep him out of jail for the narrow tax and gun offenses to which he was prepared to plead guilty. The deal unraveled in spectacular fashion under questioning from a judge, setting off a chain of events that led to Weiss indicting Hunter Biden in Delaware and California on gun and more serious tax charges.

President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden arrives for a court appearance, Friday, May 24, 2024, in Wilmington, Delaware. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

So near and yet so FARA

“In my opinion, [Weiss] is trying to do reputation repair while still making sure the investigations are contained,” McCarthy said. “If, for example, they expanded into FARA, that would involve the lobbying of the Obama administration on behalf of Burisma. That gets right to the then-VP.”

Republicans have considered Hunter Biden’s alleged FARA violations the strongest case against him that never materialized. While Joe Biden served as vice president, Hunter Biden pocketed $83,000 per month starting in 2014 to serve on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma as its chairman fought off a corruption investigation in Ukraine.

Two IRS whistleblowers who came forward last year with records and testimony about delays in the Hunter Biden investigation said the Department of Justice effectively shut down the investigation into alleged illegal foreign lobbying.

Gary Shapley, an IRS agent who spent years on the case, said the refusal in 2022 of the Joe Biden-appointed U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., to partner with Weiss on an indictment for Hunter Biden allowed the statute of limitations to run out on alleged offenses from the start of Hunter Biden’s work with Burisma. 

“There were also potential FARA issues relating to 2014 and 2015,” Shapley told Congress last year. “The purposeful exclusion of the 2014 and 2015 years sanitized the most substantive criminal conduct and concealed material facts.”

IRS Supervisory Special Agent Gary Shapley, left, and Joseph Ziegler, an IRS agent with the criminal investigations division, are sworn in at a House Oversight and Accountability Committee hearing with IRS whistleblowers, Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

Shapley also said one of Weiss’s prosecutors, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Lesley Wolf, shut down a search warrant in the fall of 2020 for the emails of a Democratic firm that worked alongside Hunter Biden with Burisma.

“This was a significant blow to the Foreign Agents Registration Act piece of the investigation,” Shapley said.

The firm, Blue Star Strategies, was permitted to file a FARA registration in 2022, years after its work representing Burisma. A Justice Department investigation into Blue Star Strategies was subsequently closed. A lawyer who represented the embattled chairman of Burisma was allowed to file FARA disclosures for his foreign lobbying in January, nearly eight years after the fact.

“Weiss’s disappearing of the Blue Star investigation signaled that Hunter would not be pursued under FARA (and allowing the statute of limitations to lapse cinched it),” McCarthy said.

By contrast, the Justice Department took a far more aggressive approach to enforcing FARA against Trump associates. Former Trump advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were not allowed to file FARA disclosures retroactively and instead faced criminal charges for unregistered foreign lobbying; prior to their indictments, the Justice Department had only criminally enforced the law seven times in the previous five decades.

Tristan Leavitt, president of Empower Oversight and attorney for the IRS whistleblowers, said some of the delays in the case stemmed from a sense of caution within the Justice Department ahead of the 2020 election.

​​”Whether one likes it or not, I think there is a lot of sensitivity, or there certainly was, coming from 2020 after Crossfire Hurricane, after the Hillary Clinton investigations,” Leavitt told the Washington Examiner, referring to the code name the Justice Department gave the ill-fated investigation into former President Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia.

Hoping to avoid highly-publicized investigative steps that could have been perceived as hurting Joe Biden’s candidacy, Justice Department officials slowed the pace of the Hunter Biden investigation in 2020.

“They very much wanted to have it not come out before the election,” Leavitt said.

And those decisions came before Joe Biden placed his preferred personnel at Justice Department headquarters and in the two U.S. attorney offices that would later effectively block Weiss from pursuing indictments.

“The initial delays were during the [then-Attorney General Bill] Barr DOJ, so you had a different set of folks there anyway,” Leavitt said.

Lucky Mann

In October 2020, just days before the election, a Justice Department tax attorney circulated to prosecutors and investigators evidence they had gathered of Hunter Biden’s potential Mann Act violations. The Mann Act forbids the transportation of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”

The first son has not faced charges for conduct related to prostitution despite the details investigators gathered about flights Hunter Biden had funded for suspected escorts.

The Justice Department also appeared to close off further investigation of Hunter Biden’s friend and lawyer, Kevin Morris, for paying the first son’s tax bills ahead of the 2020 election. 

Morris wrote in a February 2020 email that Hunter Biden’s unfiled tax returns posed a “considerable risk personally and politically.” He went on to pay some of Hunter Biden’s tax bills that year in what investigators considered a possible campaign finance violation, as the email and interviews with other witnesses suggested the payments were intended to help Joe Biden’s campaign.

Shapley said Wolf, then a prosecutor in the Delaware U.S. attorney’s office, blocked investigators from digging into the campaign finance issue. According to an affidavit made public Wednesday, Wolf was summoned to the CIA in 2021 for a classified briefing and told Shapley upon returning that investigators could no longer pursue Morris as a witness.

Shapley said he never received an explanation as to why Morris was off limits and what role the CIA played in that decision.

Perjury puzzle

More recently, Hunter Biden has faced accusations of committing perjury during a deposition he gave to the House in February. Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee published documents last week to support their claims that Hunter Biden lied to Congress on multiple occasions, including by denying having control of a bank account for which he was listed as the beneficial owner and by denying ever having helped a foreign contact obtain a visa despite emails showing he tried to help Burisma’s chairman obtain one.

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But to date, neither Biden nor the associates with whom he worked most closely during his years working abroad have faced charges for that conduct, outside of the two indictments Hunter Biden now faces. Joe Biden, who as vice president repeatedly met with Hunter Biden’s foreign business partners, was never investigated; prosecutors shut down the ability of investigators to ask witnesses about his involvement.

“To me, the bigger question,” Leavitt said, “is … what are the Joe Biden cases that never were?”

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