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Justice Department appoints special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Justice Department has appointed a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden, President Biden's son. Attorney General Garland made the announcement yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: Today's announcement affords the prosecutors, agents and analysts working on this matter the ability to proceed with their work expeditiously and to make decisions indisputably guided only by the facts and the law.

SIMON: This news comes as a plea deal between prosecutors and Hunter Biden appears to have fizzled out. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the story and joins us. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Please tell us about David Weiss, this person who's now the special counsel.

JOHNSON: Well, he's a holdover U.S. attorney from Delaware, initially appointed by former President Donald Trump. And he's the same guy who's been investigating Hunter Biden since 2019. The difference now is that as special counsel, he will write a report explaining his decisions about charging people or declining to charge people. And he's going to operate outside of day-to-day supervision from the Justice Department leaders. But they can override his decisions if they think they're inappropriate. The trick there is that Congress would learn about any of those overrides eventually.

SIMON: And, Carrie, if he was already on the job in this investigation, why the need to become a special counsel?

JOHNSON: That's not entirely clear. The Justice Department doesn't tell us who they're investigating or for what. But the appointment paperwork references an investigation of Hunter Biden, among others. And Attorney General Merrick Garland told us Weiss had reached a stage in the investigation where becoming a special counsel was necessary.

SIMON: Carrie, what happened to the Hunter Biden plea deal? It looked to be in place, and then something changed.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Things went wrong. Last month, a federal judge in Delaware questioned the terms of the deal, specifically whether it conveyed a kind of broad immunity to Hunter Biden over his business dealings and foreign lobbying. So prosecutors said no. And lawyers for Hunter Biden said yes. There was no meeting of the minds. Yesterday, prosecutors said they remained at an impasse. They said there's no plea deal. So this agreement for Hunter Biden to plead guilty to two tax charges and enter a diversion program for a gun charge now seems to be dead. Right now, unless something big happens, it seems this case could be headed for trial.

SIMON: And, of course, President Biden is running for reelection at the at the same time. How was the White House responding to the news of a special counsel?

JOHNSON: The White House is declining comment. Hunter Biden's lawyer says nothing has changed in their view now that there's a special counsel. He says they expect a, quote, "fair resolution not infected by politics." And former President Trump got in line, too. He accused the Justice Department yesterday, without any evidence, of protecting Joe and Hunter Biden, even though the Justice Department is now investigating them both. Republicans in Congress have been demanding that prosecutors take action against Hunter Biden. Now they say the special counsel move is designed to stonewall their investigations. But for what it's worth, special counsels do regularly testify before Congress but only after their work is done.

SIMON: And President Trump had another day in court yesterday. Carrie, tell us about that, please.

JOHNSON: Busy day. This is the case against Trump for trying to overturn the 2020 election that culminated in the Capitol riot. Judge Tanya Chutkan imposed a protective order to limit how much Trump can talk about sensitive documents he'll get in the course of the case. She's worried about him potentially intimidating witnesses and polluting the jury pool here in D.C. The judge says Donald Trump does have First Amendment rights, but he's subject to restrictions like any other criminal defendant. And she warned everyone to be careful in their public statements before trial - a message to the defense that making inflammatory remarks could actually lead to having a trial in D.C. sooner rather than later to minimize prejudicial statements of - the potential jurors might hear.

SIMON: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONIC YOUTH SONG, "THE EMPTY PAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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