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The truth about Hunter Biden’s conviction

Hunter Biden’s trial may be over, but the political spin war over it is nowhere near ending. On Tuesday, the president’s son was convicted on three counts related to his purchase of a gun in 2018. During the purchase, Hunter filled out a form stating he was n…

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The truth about Hunter Biden’s conviction
The truth about Hunter Biden’s conviction
Hunter Biden’s trial may be over, but the political spin war over it is nowhere near ending. On Tuesday, the president’s son was convicted on three counts related to his purchase of a gun in 2018. During the purchase, Hunter filled out a form stating he was not a user of illegal drugs, but his addiction struggles around that time have been well-documented. So prosecutors accused him of violating three different laws — two false statements laws, and one law banning firearm possession by a drug user — and a Delaware jury agreed. A prison sentence for Hunter is possible, but generally believed to be unlikely, given that it was a nonviolent offense and it is his first criminal conviction. As I wrote recently, the backstory to this trial is messy: It’s been a years-long, sprawling federal probe beset by accusations of political bias from both directions. But the trial itself was fairly straightforward. Some jurors told CNN that they questioned the importance of the case — after all, no one was hurt with the gun, and Hunter has apparently been clean since 2019 — but they felt the evidence was clear that Hunter broke the law. So what does this tell us about the rule of law and politics under President Joe Biden’s administration? Let’s evaluate three common claims that commentators have been making since the verdict dropped. 1) The Democratic take: This proves Joe Biden respects the rule of law. Many Democrats have argued that the outcome debunks Republican claims that Biden has corrupted the justice system to persecute Donald Trump. After all, if the president’s son got convicted, clearly he’s not putting his thumb on the scale. This seems largely correct. When Biden took office, he chose to leave US Attorney David Weiss, a Trump appointee overseeing the probe, in place. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, promised Weiss would have independence to conduct the investigation. And that’s what happened. Despite disagreements among investigators about how aggressively to pursue the case, there’s been no indication that Biden or Garland themselves obstructed Weiss in any way. They let him have a free hand. 2) The MAGA Republican take: Prosecutors brought a weak case to cover up for the real crimes. Trump’s allies have been obsessed with Hunter Biden for years, asserting (without evidence) that his business and foreign lobbying activities were connected to some larger Biden family corruption scheme. With those expectations, the eventual charges against Hunter were underwhelming: the gun case in Delaware, and a tax case in California that is scheduled for trial in September. So, disappointed that such a scheme was never charged, some Republicans are now claiming that Weiss must be in on the cover-up. Of course, the idea that charging and convicting the president’s son of crimes is a scheme to help the president is absurd on its face — rambling conspiracy theory nonsense. Far more likely is that Weiss simply did not find any basis for corruption charges. 3) Another take: This conviction only happened because prosecutors were shamed — or pressured — into doing it. The complication in any straightforward narrative of the DOJ being above politics is that prosecutors’ behavior in this case abruptly changed last year. Though Weiss’s team conducted an extensive investigation into Hunter’s business affairs, by late 2022, Weiss had reportedly concluded that the case was not strong enough to justify an indictment. So he hoped to strike a plea deal with Hunter’s team. But in May 2023, two IRS officials who had been involved in the probe went to Congress as whistleblowers, arguing that prosecutors had been too cautious and risk-averse — that they were going soft on the president’s son. A torrent of Republican criticism ensued. A plea deal came together anyway the following month. But when it went before Judge Maryellen Noreika, she refused to accept it, telling both sides to clarify it since Hunter’s team and prosecutors did not appear to be on the same page about what it entailed. After that, prosecutors apparently took the deal’s initial promise of sweeping immunity to Hunter off the table, and Hunter refused to accept a reworked deal lacking that provision. So prosecutors indicted him in Delaware and California. It does indeed seem to be the case that Hunter would have gotten the plea deal he preferred if not for criticism from the whistleblowers, Judge Noreika, and the GOP. But that can be interpreted in two ways. One could argue that prosecutors wanted to give Hunter Biden a lenient “sweetheart deal” until the whistleblowers and the judge called them out. Or one could argue that prosecutors belatedly went overly hard on Hunter due to politicized criticism from the whistleblowers and Republicans. We haven’t yet heard an explanation from Weiss and his team on why they changed course — on why he belatedly decided the earlier plea deal was insufficient. But that’s the key to understanding what really happened here, and the role politics played. This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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