WASHINGTON — Hunter Biden was indicted on three felony gun charges Thursday, a historic first that has pitted President Joe Biden’s federal law enforcement against his sole surviving son, with the younger Biden’s troubled past taking center stage as his father mounts his re-election campaign.
Biden’s political opponents accuse him of weaponizing the Justice Department against his foes in the Republican Party — including the four-time-indicted Donald Trump, his chief rival heading into 2024.
But even as Biden has faced accusations of using the levers of government to pursue his political enemies, his son, whom he calls his “heart,” now faces charges that could put him in jail for a decade or longer, weeks after a plea deal collapsed in stunning fashion in a Delaware courtroom.
The immediate response to Hunter Biden’s indictment proved illustrative of a nation that is deeply polarized, with critics and allies of the president seeing the charges as evidence bolstering their positions about the weaponization of the Justice Department.
The indictment filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Delaware charged Hunter Biden with three criminal counts related to gun possession for allegedly having lied about his drug use when he bought a firearm in 2018. Two of the counts carry maximum sentences of up to 10 years in prison, while a third has a five-year maximum. And prosecutors have indicated that might not be the end and that he could still face tax-related charges.
On one side, Biden’s allies view the indictment as evidence of a firewall between the White House and the Justice Department, which the president promised to put in place after four years of Trump.
“It gives me confidence that even the president’s son can be indicted,” said Richard Painter, a chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
Yet from the other side, the fact that the Justice Department is only now charging the president’s son, after years of investigation and under mounting political pressure, is a testament to the contrary.
Calling the charges “a very small start,” House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer, R-Ky., said the special counsel should broaden his investigation or face accusations that he is protecting the president.
Claims of preferential treatment have dogged the probe, with an IRS whistleblower testifying before Congress that special counsel David Weiss said privately that he did not have the authority to bring full charges, a claim Weiss has denied.
How people view the charges tends to reflect their feelings about Biden. Some close to the family contend that prosecutors unfairly targeted Hunter Biden because of his family ties and that a defendant with a different last name would never have seen the inside of a courtroom.
Michael LaRosa, a former press secretary to first lady Jill Biden, said in an interview that Hunter Biden “is being held to a very, very different standard.”
“Given what we know about the charges and accusations, if their name weren’t Biden, I don’t think that any normal American would have a DOJ investigation of five years opened into them for this kind of first-time, minor offense,” LaRosa said. “It’s hard for me to say that the system is working.”
Hunter Biden’s defense team has questioned the constitutionality of the gun charges.
Abbe Lowell, his lead counsel, said Thursday that the indictment “presents a grave threat to our system of justice.” Lowell said in a statement that the legal team plans to challenge the validity of the law in court.
LaRosa said the accusations against Hunter Biden over the past few years have weighed heavily on Joe and Jill Biden.
“I think the president and first lady would like to see more people fighting for him,” LaRosa added, referring to Hunter Biden.
“They are both incredibly protective of Hunter, very much so,” he said.
Meanwhile, Biden’s political opponents argue that his son evaded more severe penalties after prosecutors let the statute of limitations on earlier tax crimes lapse and worked to negotiate a “sweetheart” plea agreement that would protect the younger Biden from future criminal charges.
Mike Davis, a conservative judicial activist who leads the Article III Project, said in a statement that the charges levied by Weiss “continue his deceptive pattern — for years — of protecting Hunter.”
He said Weiss “let the statute of limitations expire on serious tax charges, buried evidence deemed credible by the Pittsburgh U.S. attorney of the Bidens’ alleged foreign bribery schemes and attempted to give Hunter a sweetheart deal with secret, broad immunity that protected President Biden.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that the indictment was “a smokescreen” to deflect attention from the Biden family’s overseas business dealings and from Joe Biden’s “cratering” support among Democratic voters.
The White House has mounted a defense of the president, but whether his son’s legal troubles in the middle of a re-election fight could hinder him politically is not yet clear.
Sarah Longwell, who conducts focus groups and publishes The Bulwark, a conservative website, said in an email that in sessions with both Democrats and swing voters, voters “regard Hunter’s legal troubles as generally irrelevant to how they feel about Joe Biden.”
About 1 in 3 Americans said they were very concerned about whether Biden had committed any wrongdoing connected to his son’s case, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted Sept. 7 to Monday.
For now, Painter said, Biden’s political rivals have not delivered evidence to back up their claims that he was involved in any potential wrongdoing by his son or other family members.
“In a post-truth world, you can say everything involving Hunter has to do with the president,” he said. “If they have evidence, they can produce the evidence that the independent counsel has been interfered with, but I don’t see it.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com