In 2017, President Trump nominated David Weiss as U.S. Attorney for Delaware. Weiss, the Trump White House declared, shared his vision for “Making America Safe Again.” In 2018, Weiss began to investigate allegations of criminal behavior by Hunter Biden.
More than five years later, in June 2023, Weiss announced a deal in which Biden agreed to avoid jail time by pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges for failure to pay federal taxes in 2017 and 2018, and a probation arrangement for lying about his use of drugs on an application to purchase a gun.
“The corrupt Biden DOJ just cleared up hundreds of years of criminal liability by giving Hunter Biden a mere ‘traffic ticket,’” Trump posted on his social media site. Rep. James Comer, chair of the House Oversight Committee, denounced the agreement as a “sweetheart deal.” Rep. Elise Stefanik asserted that giving “a slap on the wrist” to Hunter Biden “is the epitome of the politicization and Weaponization of Joe Biden’s Department of Justice.” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy claimed that if you compare Hunter Biden “to other individuals in America that have the same accusations against them, same crimes that they have been guilty of … I think there’s a difference of justice.”
Hunter Biden is certainly not a paragon of virtue. But the accusations by Republicans about him and Weiss’s handling of the investigation are unsullied by facts.
Refuting claims that Attorney General Merrick Garland and DOJ officials constrained him, Weiss informed Congress that “I have been granted ultimate authority over this matter, including responsibility for deciding where, when and whether to file charges.”
Since 2018, the number of federal government tax fraud offenders sentenced under federal government guidelines has decreased by 22.4 percent, in part because Republicans have cut appropriations for IRS investigators. First-time offenders, who pay back taxes and penalties, as Hunter Biden has, are rarely prosecuted.
For example, in 2020, after asserting that billionaire private equity investor Robert F. Smith “knowingly and willingly” concealed income for 15 years in one of the largest tax fraud cases in U.S. history, the Trump DOJ allowed him to pay $140 million in unpaid taxes and penalties and avoid a trial that would likely result in a prison sentence. Last year, the Biden DOJ negotiated a tax fraud settlement in which Roger Stone, a close Trump ally, and his wife paid $2 million in a civil case that never resulted in a criminal indictment.
Criminal prosecutions of individuals who lie (about felony convictions, domestic abuse, drug use or addiction) on the ATF gun purchase Form 4473 are extremely rare. In 2017, the year before Hunter Biden purchased his gun (which he retained, unloaded, for only 11 days), 112,000 applications were denied, 12,700 were investigated, and 12 individuals were prosecuted — in a year in which over 25 million gun background checks were run in America. In 2019, three Form 4473 violations were referred to the U.S. Attorney in Delaware, who opted not to bring charges on any of them. ATF officials and prosecutors concentrate on “straw buyers” seeking to acquire a firearm for someone who would not pass a background check, and not nonviolent individuals who do not pose a danger to public safety.
Moreover, the vast majority of Republican critics of Hunter Biden’s “sweetheart deal,” probably agree with the National Rifle Association that some background check provisions “deprive individuals of due process of law” and their Second Amendment rights. They likely applauded a recent decision of a three-judge panel of the 5th District Court of Appeals striking down a law restricting gun purchases by “nonviolent drug users.”
The Hunter Biden plea deal fell apart in July, amidst disagreement about whether it included a promise that the Justice Department would not file additional charges against him. In September, the president’s son was indicted for lying on Form 4473.
Although the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees have not uncovered any credible evidence that Hunter Biden has committed a crime, Republicans doubled down on their click-bait diatribes. “Getting Hunter on the gun charge is like getting Jeffrey Dahmer on littering,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz. “Where are the indictments for tax fraud, FARA abuse, money laundering, and sex trafficking?” asked Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Belittling the indictment as a “small step,” Rep. Comer maintained that “mountains of evidence reveal that Hunter Biden likely committed several felonies,” and accused the DOJ of continuing to protect the “big guy” as well as his son.
Is Hunter Biden getting “a sweetheart deal”? By feeding fake news to their MAGA base, hyperpartisan Republicans are preventing him from getting what all Americans are entitled to: a just result based on what he actually did or didn’t do.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”