By Sarah N. Lynch, Jarrett Renshaw and Andrew Goudsward
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden was criminally charged on Thursday with deceiving a gun dealer into selling him a firearm, in the latest sign of how the younger Biden's legal woes may weigh on his father's re-election bid next year.
The first-ever indictment of a sitting president's child, filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware, charged Hunter Biden with three criminal counts related to lying about the fact he was using illegal drugs at that time, which would have banned him under the law from owning a firearm.
The charges ensure that courtroom drama will play an outsized role in the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign as Joe Biden, 80, seeks reelection in a likely rematch with his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, 77, who faces four upcoming criminal trials of his own.
The new charges against Hunter Biden brought by recently elevated U.S. Special Counsel David Weiss say nothing about any violations of U.S. tax law. A prior deal under which Hunter Biden, 53, would have pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor tax charges and enroll in a program to avoid prosecution on the gun charge collapsed in a stunning turn in a July hearing.
The tax investigation into Biden remains ongoing, after Weiss previously said any possible charges would need to be brought in either the District of Columbia or the Los Angeles-based Central District of California.
Prosecutors accused the younger Biden of lying about his use of narcotics when he purchased a Colt Cobra handgun in October 2018.
The move comes two days after House of Representatives Republicans opened an impeachment inquiry of Joe Biden related to Hunter Biden's foreign business dealings. The White House has denounced that step, made without a vote by the full House, as unsubstantiated and politically motivated.
"As expected, prosecutors filed charges today that they deemed were not warranted just six weeks ago following a five-year investigation into this case," Hunter Biden attorney Abbe Lowell said in a statement. "The evidence in this matter has not changed in the last six weeks, but the law has and so has MAGA Republicans' improper and partisan interference in this process."
The White House declined to comment. A spokesperson for Weiss declined to comment.
Some legal experts have said that any firearms-related charges against Biden could be vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, after the U.S. Supreme Court last year in a landmark ruling expanded gun rights under the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment, which protects the right to bear arms.
Lowell referred to that dispute in his statement, noting "the recent rulings by several federal courts that this statute is unconstitutional."
SPECIAL COUNSEL STATUS
Weiss was elevated to special counsel status in August after investigating Hunter Biden's business dealings for years as the U.S. attorney in the Democratic president's home state of Delaware. Weiss was originally nominated by Trump.
The younger Biden for years has been the focus of unrelenting attacks by Trump and his Republican allies who have accused him of wrongdoing relating to Ukraine and China, among other matters. Hunter Biden has worked as a lobbyist, lawyer, investment banker and artist, and has publicly detailed his struggles with substance abuse.
While Republican lawmakers have collected testimony that Joe Biden at times joined calls with his son's business associates, they have yet to produce evidence that the president personally benefited.
"Today’s charges against Hunter Biden are a very small start, but unless U.S. Attorney Weiss investigates everyone involved in the fraud schemes and influence peddling, it will be clear President Biden’s DOJ is protecting Hunter Biden and the big guy," said Republican Representative James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, one of the three committees leading the impeachment inquiry kicked off this week.
Hunter Biden disclosed in December 2020 that Weiss's office was investigating his tax affairs. He has denied wrongdoing.
While most U.S. attorneys appointed by Trump were asked to step down when Biden took office in January 2021, as is routine, the Justice Department asked Weiss to stay on.
Hunter Biden never held a position in the White House or on his father's campaign. The president has said he has not discussed foreign business dealings with his son and has said his Justice Department would have independence in any investigation of a member of his family.
Trump and other Republicans have alleged what they called conflicts of interest from Hunter Biden's position on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma at the time his father was vice president to Democratic President Barack Obama. Trump in a July 2019 phone call with Ukraine's president asked him to have his government open an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives later voted to impeach Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress stemming from these efforts, though the Senate ultimately voted to keep Trump in office.
Hunter Biden described in a 2021 memoir dealing with substance abuse issues in his life including crack cocaine use and alcoholism. He was discharged from the U.S. Navy reserve in 2014 after, sources said at the time, testing positive for cocaine.
The president has two surviving children, Hunter Biden and daughter Ashley Biden. His son Beau Biden died in 2015 of cancer and his daughter Naomi Biden died as an infant after a car accident that also killed Joe Biden's first wife.
Hunter Biden appears to be the first child of a sitting president to be indicted, according to Aaron Crawford, who specializes in presidential history at the University of Tennessee.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Jarrett Renshaw and Andrew Goudsward in Washington, additional reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Scott Malone, Lisa Shumaker, Alistair Bell and Daniel Wallis)