Republicans were never going to be satisfied with the outcome of the Hunter Biden investigation. The troubled son of President Joe Biden struck a plea agreement with the Justice Department on Tuesday to resolve charges of unpaid taxes and illegal gun possession. After complaining in recent weeks that federal prosecutors were ignoring Hunter’s alleged crimes while prosecuting former President Donald Trump, Republicans quickly switched gears.
“If you’re Biden’s leading political opponent, the DOJ will try to put you in prison,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill. “If you’re Biden’s son, the DOJ will give you a sweetheart deal.” Trump himself claimed on Truth Social that the Justice Department had given Hunter the equivalent of a traffic ticket. “Hunter Biden gets a slap on the wrist for federal tax and gun crimes but they want to give Donald Trump a death sentence,” South Carolina Representative Nancy Mace complained on Twitter, referring to the unlikely possibility that Trump would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
There are obvious differences between the two cases. 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 with investigators and sought to make amends; 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. (In fact, as my colleague Alex Shephard has pointed out, Trump probably could have avoided prosecution entirely by just returning the documents, as other top officials who still had classified material in their possession have done.)
But such comparisons obscure a deeper truth about Republican frustration over the Hunter Biden plea agreement. 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. To their immense frustration, Republicans haven’t yet succeeded in that enterprise against Biden.
Under the plea agreement, Hunter would serve two years of probation in exchange for pleading guilty to the misdemeanor tax charges and repaying roughly $1.5 million in back taxes. The felony gun charge—possession of a firearm by a person who is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance—is more serious. Federal prosecutors agreed to place him in a pretrial diversion program, which is designed to help nonviolent defendants with substance-abuse issues.
Completing the program would allow Hunter to avoid being charged with a felony. He has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for years, which the senior Biden has occasionally noted as a candidate and as president. “The president and first lady love their son and support him as he continues to rebuild his life,” the White House said in a statement. “We will have no further comment.” A federal judge must formally approve the agreement before it can go into effect, but such approvals are typically routine.
The investigation, which commenced in 2018 under the Trump administration, became public in December 2020 when Hunter announced that federal prosecutors in Delaware had informed him they were probing his taxes. David Weiss, the U.S. attorney who oversaw the case, is a Republican and a Trump appointee who stayed on as a holdover when the Biden administration took office in 2021.
Tuesday’s announcement did not address other allegations Republicans have leveled against Hunter over the years, including persistent claims of corruption involving his consulting deals with Ukrainian and Chinese businesses, though Hunter’s unpaid taxes stem from payments he received from the latter.
Right-wing allegations about Biden and Ukraine in particular usually insinuate that, while serving as vice president, the elder Biden pressured a Ukrainian prosecutor into resigning to stop an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter sat at the time. This allegation has some factual basis: Hunter did serve on the company’s board, and his father did pressure the Ukrainian government about the prosecutor in charge of corruption cases.
But it is wrong in one critical way: Then–Vice President Biden pressured Ukraine to crack down harder on corruption, not go easier on it. His push came as part of a broader effort by the Obama administration and the European Union to root out corruption in the Ukrainian political and economic system. None of this was secret: Major news outlets covered Biden’s trip to Ukraine in 2015 and the reason why it was happening. (By contrast, Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into smearing Hunter and his father by withholding military aid from Ukraine actually was corrupt, leading to his first impeachment in 2019.)
This reality has not deterred Trump, his allies, and other prominent Republicans from pushing the narrative that Biden was trying to protect his corrupt son. But again, their goal is not to determine whether either Biden actually did anything wrong, although they would be thrilled to find evidence to that effect. These investigations’ real purpose is better understood as a smear campaign against political opponents and future Democratic presidential candidates.
You do not have to take my word for it. 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. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he boasted. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”
While his fellow Republicans punished McCarthy for his honesty by denying him the House speakership when he sought it in 2015, their bad-faith efforts ultimately paid off. None of the investigations found any evidence of wrongdoing on Clinton’s part. But she nonetheless entered the 2016 campaign with abysmal likeability numbers, and a secondary issue that emerged from the various inquiries—Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state—led to a criminal investigation that damaged her even further. Former FBI Director James Comey’s decision to reopen that investigation on the eve of Election Day arguably placed Trump in the White House.
To paraphrase The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, the last seven years have produced a single big metascandal. It flows through the Mueller investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia and the hacking of Clinton’s email server, to his first impeachment over coercion and Ukraine, to his second impeachment over the January 6 coup attempt: an illicit (if not sometimes illegal) campaign to smear Democratic political rivals with false or inaccurate corruption allegations so that Trump could take or hold onto power.
Since the playbook worked seven years ago, Republicans have little reason not to use it against Biden this time as well. The task was far more formidable in 2020 thanks to Biden’s general popularity, Trump’s immense unpopularity, and the crushing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the latter’s political standing. But that didn’t stop figures such as Rudy Giuliani from drumming up narratives about Biden, bribery, and Ukraine. Republican lawmakers now refer to the president’s family as “the Biden crime family” with a strange casualness, and Trump has openly vowed to order the Justice Department to prosecute Biden and his children if he wins again in 2024. They’ll decide on the exact crime later.
And since the actual goal of these “investigations” isn’t really about proving specific criminal offenses in a court of law, Republicans can be flexible with how they respond to setbacks. Kentucky Representative James Comer, the Biden-hunting chair of the House Oversight Committee, demanded assurances in December 2020 that Biden would not fire Weiss. “Will Joe Biden commit to not interfering with the ongoing investigation by replacing the Delaware U.S. Attorney?” he asked. Three years later he changed his tune. When asked Tuesday about Weiss’s status as a Trump appointee, Comer remarked to a reporter, “I think that even Trump himself admitted he made some mistakes in hiring.” This effort cannot fail; it can only be failed.