clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hunter Biden’s new indictment, explained

What prosecutors are alleging — and what it means for the larger political battle over the president’s son.

Hunter Biden, son of President Joe Biden, departs the J. Caleb Boggs Federal Building and United States Courthouse on July 26, 2023 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Mark Makela/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Just six months ago, Hunter Biden had reason to think his legal woes would soon be over — and now, they’re more serious than ever.

Special counsel David Weiss indicted the president’s son on nine tax charges Thursday, accusing Hunter of failing to file or pay taxes in some years (despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal expenses), and of lying on his tax forms for 2018 (including by falsely claiming deductions and business expenses for payments to strip clubs, escorts, a sex club, and women he was seeing).

It’s a remarkable turnabout by Weiss when compared to June of this year, when he had agreed to a plea deal with Hunter that would charge him in a far more limited fashion. That plea deal had resulted in much criticism from Republicans (and IRS agents who had worked the case) that Hunter was getting let off too easy. Then, the deal dramatically collapsed in court when questioning from a Delaware judge revealed prosecutors and defense attorneys didn’t even agree on how much immunity the deal would provide Hunter.

Now Weiss is coming down hard. Already, in September, he’d charged Hunter in Delaware with crimes related to his purchase of a gun while he was addicted to drugs. The new indictment, which had to be filed in California because that’s where Hunter lived at the time, piles on a set of detailed and often lurid charges.

Hunter’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, claimed in a statement that Weiss was simply “bowing to Republican pressure,” and that “if Hunter’s last name was anything other than Biden,” the charges “would not have been brought.”

Of course, the new charges are just part of a bigger saga that has been going on for years — because Donald Trump’s allies have long viewed Hunter Biden as one of President Biden’s greatest political liabilities and sought to link Hunter’s questionable business and personal conduct to Joe himself. They’ve been largely unsuccessful in doing this so far. (Meanwhile, Trump was indicted in four separate jurisdictions in 2023.)

The new indictment does not mention Joe Biden at all. It also doesn’t claim that the source of Hunter’s money — his work for foreign businessmen or companies — was illegal. Instead, it’s about the relatively simple question of whether Hunter should have paid more taxes earlier.

What the new indictment alleges about Hunter Biden and his taxes

For nearly his entire adult life, Hunter was in the business of being Joe Biden’s son, monetizing his perceived access and connections to a powerful senator and then the vice president of the United States as a lobbyist and consultant. These clients included a Ukrainian gas company and a Chinese energy company, and Hunter raked in millions from them, touting his connections and access to Joe while having little experience in either field.

There is nothing inherently illegal about accepting money from foreign interests if you are a private citizen and your dad is a famous, powerful person. But you do have to pay taxes on it. And, prosecutors assert, Hunter didn’t. Instead, they say, he funded his “extravagant lifestyle,” spending money on “drugs, escorts, and girlfriends, luxury hotels and rental properties, exotic cars, clothing, and other items of a personal nature, in short, everything but his taxes.”

The charges encompass a period in which, by Hunter’s own telling, he descended into the most serious drug addiction of his life. Indeed, the indictment repeatedly quotes Hunter’s memoir, Beautiful Things, in which he claims he lived for much of 2018 in an endless haze of drug-fueled debauchery.

Hunter’s defense will likely argue that his nonpayment happened because he was in the throes of a serious drug addiction, and that he took a while to pay afterward in part because he had large alimony and child support obligations (for his ex-wife and for the child he fathered with Lunden Roberts in 2018).

But key to prosecutors’ case is their claim that Hunter continued to lie after he says he got sober. It wasn’t just that Hunter blew off his taxes when he was an addict, they claim — it’s also that he affirmatively lied on the tax returns he eventually filed, in 2020, when he says he was clean. The three felony counts in the indictment are all about this.

In those returns, covering his “peak addiction year” of 2018, Hunter claimed a variety of deductions for expenditures that he said were business-related, but which prosecutors say were actually personal. These include, they claim:

  • False “travel, transportation, and other” deductions related to “luxury vehicle rentals, house rentals for his then-girlfriend, hotel expenses, and New York City apartment rent for his daughter”
  • False “office and miscellaneous” deductions related to “luxury clothing, payments to escorts and dancers, and payments for his daughter’s college advising services”
  • False deductions for purported “consulting” payments that were actually “payments to various women who were either romantically involved with or otherwise performing personal services for [Hunter],” including a $10,000 payment for membership in a sex club
  • False payments he claimed were wages to employees, when they were actually for “three women with whom he had romantic or sexual relationships” but who were “engaged in little to no business activity” for him

This will be the crux of prosecutors’ case — an argument that, even when Hunter was clean, he continued to lie to try and get out of paying taxes. That this wasn’t really about his addiction, it was about greed.

How this fits into the larger political war over Hunter Biden

On its face, whether Joe Biden’s adult son lied on his tax returns has no connection to the question of whether Joe Biden has been a good president who deserves another four years in office.

For five years, Trump’s allies have been trying to make the case that Joe Biden was in on Hunter’s corruption — either by using his powers of office to help Hunter’s clients or getting a big share of the money — but they’ve been unable to hang anything significant on the president, with their supposed smoking guns repeatedly being nothing of the kind. And the new indictment doesn’t help that case at all, having nothing to do with the president.

However, the other complaint Republicans have made this year is that Biden’s Justice Department tried to give Hunter a sweetheart deal — and would have gotten away with it, if two IRS employees didn’t blow the whistle to Congress earlier this year.

The new indictment doesn’t entirely vindicate those claims. But it does make for an odd contrast with Weiss’s position just a few months ago, when he was ready to let Hunter plead to two tax misdemeanor charges and avoid jail time. Why the change?

To get the answer, we’d have to go back to the question of why Hunter’s plea deal fell apart, which remains somewhat mysterious.

Under one interpretation of events, it was basically Hunter’s fault. He was asking for too much — broad immunity from prosecution for anything related to his business activities in the years in question. He wouldn’t settle for prosecutors’ offer of far more limited protection, for only the crimes specifically mentioned. So he got charged.

Hunter’s attorneys have insisted, in contrast, that prosecutors sandbagged him. They say that prosecutors really were offering Hunter broad immunity, in private, but in court they suddenly said they weren’t doing any such thing. They’ve suggested that Weiss may have reneged on the deal due to political pressure from Republicans — basically implying that the whistleblowers’ criticisms really did make the difference.

Regardless of whose fault the deal’s collapse was, it now appears that Hunter Biden could well be headed for two trials in 2024, when his father is up for reelection.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.