WILMINGTON, Del. — Hunter Biden pleaded not guilty to federal tax charges Wednesday after a plea deal he struck with the government unraveled when the judge raised questions about the terms of the agreement.
The surprise development came at a hearing in federal court here at which Biden had been expected to plead guilty to two charges of failure to pay taxes under a deal he struck with the government last month. Far from signing off on a done deal, he pleaded "not guilty" to those charges instead until the two sides can meet and address the questions posed by U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika.
At times, Noreika appeared almost upset that she believed she was being asked to act as a "rubber stamp" for the deal. The parties will reconvene later to hammer out the terms and provide Noreika more information, which could be within the next six weeks.
"Without me saying I'll agree to the plea agreement, how do you plead?" Noreika asked Biden.
"Not guilty, your honor," he responded.
Biden is expected to reverse his plea if a new agreement or the new information eventually satisfies Noreika.
Noreika, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, pressed both sides about the terms of the agreement struck with U.S. Attorney David Weiss of Delaware, another Trump appointee, whom President Joe Biden kept on to oversee the case. She expressed clear concern about how two separate deals, one regarding the unpaid taxes and the other about a gun possession charge, potentially intersected, as well as her purview over them.
Noreika quizzed the lawyers about whether the gun charge would be diverted until Biden fulfilled certain terms. The agreement would have her act as an arbiter if he violated the deal over 24 months. She said that she did not believe that the judiciary would normally oversee such an agreement and that it was the responsibility of the executive branch to bring charges.
Biden's lawyer, Chris Clark, said that because of tremendous political "Sturm and Drang" surrounding the case, that element of the agreement would help ensure it "wouldn't become more politicized" if the government targeted Biden again in the future.
While Noreika said she understood his argument, she said she worried that there was no case law to necessarily support the terms of the agreement.
Noreika also said she worried that the agreement on the tax charges did not give her the authority to reject or modify the deal and that the gun charge agreement could shield Biden against further prosecution over his financial and tax issues.
Though Noreika said it was possible all of those terms could be adopted, she wanted both sides to give her more information about their reasoning for her to study further.
There were numerous points of disagreement and requests for clarification throughout the hearing, which had been expected to take a little over an hour but lasted well over three hours.
At one point, Noreika asked whether the investigation was ongoing, to which Weiss responded that it was but said he could not share any further details.
Noreika also raised a hypothetical, asking whether Biden could face charges of failing to register as a foreign agent and whether the agreement blocks his prosecution on such a charge. The defense said it believed the agreement would prohibit him from being charged, and the prosecution then disagreed.
Clark was overheard telling a prosecutor, "Then we'll rip it up," most likely in a reference to the plea deal, as they discussed the disagreement during a brief break before he eventually relented.
In outlining the charges, Weiss’ office said in an earlier statement that “Hunter Biden received taxable income in excess of $1,500,000 annually in calendar years 2017 and 2018. Despite owing in excess of $100,000 in federal income taxes each year, he did not pay the income tax due for either year.”
The original deal included provisions that prosecutors would recommend probation for the tax violations, while a separate felony gun charge would be dropped if Biden met certain conditions laid out in court. It appears that now, the terms of his sentencing will be decided later.
Biden faced a separate gun charge, for illegally owning a Colt Cobra .38 Special handgun. He had conceivably reached a pretrial agreement about the issue that would delay the charges for 24 months, assuming he did not violate certain terms during that period — which included being added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, no use of controlled substances or alcohol and no violations of local, state or federal laws. If he followed the agreement, the charge would be dropped,
But there was some confusion about the gun charge, prompting the judge to pause Wednesday's proceedings so a resolution could be reached.
The affair has consumed the U.S. political world, particularly Republicans. They have argued Biden has received preferential treatment because of his father, saying he should have been charged for some of his other business dealings. Trump, members of his family and his political allies have weighed in regularly with numerous allegations about his actions. While the deal brought an end to a sweeping five-year investigation that involved federal prosecutors, FBI agents and IRS officials, it is unlikely to hinder the deluge of political commentary.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed the latest regarding the case at the start of her daily briefing Wednesday. Beyond a short statement, she referred all questions to the Justice Department and Biden's legal team.
"Hunter Biden is a private citizen, and this was a personal matter for him," she said. "As we have said, the president, the first lady, they love their son, and they support him as he continues to rebuild his life. This case was handled independently, as all of you know, by the Justice Department under the leadership of a prosecutor appointed by the former president, President Trump."
Hugh Hewitt, a conservative commentator, argued in The Washington Post on Tuesday that “Hunter Biden’s doozy of a plea deal over tax and gun charges is ripe for rejection” by Noreika, as it did not involve jail time. His argument runs parallel with that of many Republicans who criticized the deal as a slap on the wrist. The fallout is likely to please many on the right.
Republicans have questioned the investigation and threatened to impeach Attorney General Merrick Garland over how the Justice Department has handled the case. Their ire has grown steadily since two IRS whistleblowers involved in the investigation testified before Congress that there was meddling to benefit the president’s son.
“At every stage, decisions were made that benefited the subject of this investigation,” said Greg Shapley, one of the whistleblowers.
In response, Weiss offered Monday to testify publicly before Congress in a letter sent to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. He has disputed Jordan’s claims, writing to him late last month that he was granted “ultimate authority” in terms of “where, when and whether to file charges.”
“The Department believes it is strongly in the public interest for the American people and for Congress to hear directly from U.S. Attorney Weiss on these assertions and questions about his authority at a public hearing,” Assistant Attorney General Carlos Felipe Uriarte wrote in the letter, obtained by NBC News, which offered a handful of potential dates.
The FBI also shared a memo with Republican oversight leaders in the House and the Senate that included unverified claims about Biden’s time on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president. The allegations, which remain uncorroborated, were part of a Justice Department review that Trump’s then-attorney general, William Barr, launched in 2020. The probe was closed later that year.