Merrick Garland appoints special counsel in Hunter Biden investigation

The US attorney general, Merrick Garland, sent shockwaves through American politics on Friday when he announced the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden, the president’s son, ahead of the 2024 election.

Garland named David Weiss, the US attorney in Delaware who has been investigating Hunter Biden’s business dealings, as special counsel.

In remarks to reporters in Washington, Garland said Weiss told him on Tuesday that “in his judgment, his investigation has reached a stage at which he should continue his work as a special counsel, and he asked to be appointed.

Related: Hunter Biden: the moments that pushed president’s son into spotlight

“Upon considering his request, as well as the extraordinary circumstances relating to this matter, I have concluded it is in the public interest to appoint him as special counsel.”

It was a momentous move from the usually cautious attorney general. Special counsel investigations of Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner to face Joe Biden in next year’s election, are ongoing, having produced multiple criminal charges and the prospect of trials in an election year.

Special counsels are appointed in cases in which the attorney general believes the justice department faces a conflict of interest. Special counsels report to the attorney general but operate with independence.

In the investigations of Trump, the special counsel Jack Smith has overseen indictments regarding the former president’s retention of classified information and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

Another special counsel, Robert Hur, is investigating the retention of classified information by Biden after he left the vice-presidency in 2017. It was widely reported on Friday that negotiations are active about terms for a Biden interview.

Hunter Biden, 53, is the president’s surviving son, after the former Delaware attorney general Beau Biden died in 2015, aged 46. Hunter Biden has been a lobbyist, lawyer, banker, consultant and artist. He has admitted to struggling with substance addiction.

He is accused of failing to pay taxes on more than $1.5m in income in 2017 and 2018. He is also charged with unlawfully owning a firearm while addicted to and using a controlled substance.

Last month, after a federal judge in Delaware said she needed more time to review a proposed deal to avoid the felony gun charge, Biden pleaded not guilty to the tax charges. The collapse of the plea deal was unexpected.

On Friday, Weiss, who was appointed US attorney by Trump, said in a court filing plea deal negotiations were at an impasse and a trial was in order.

Republicans in Congress are pursuing their own investigations of Hunter Biden’s business dealings, including in Ukraine and China, as part of a longstanding effort to generate political headaches for his father. They have so far turned up little of substance.

In New Mexico on Thursday, Joe Biden generated headlines when he reacted testily to a Fox News reporter who asked about his son’s business dealings and whether Hunter ever put his powerful father on speakerphone when dealing with clients.

“I never talked business with anybody,” the president said. “I knew you’d have a lousy question … because it’s not true.”

Republicans have long claimed Weiss was being blocked from becoming a special counsel in the matter of Hunter Biden, a claim Weiss and the US justice department denied. On Friday, with Weiss appointed as a special counsel appointed, Republicans still reacted with public displays of anger.

In a statement, Republicans on the House oversight committee, which has been piloting congressional investigations of Hunter Biden and pushing for impeachment proceedings against his father, claimed the appointment of Weiss was “part of the DoJ’s efforts to attempt a Biden family cover-up in light of our committee’s mounting evidence of President Joe Biden’s role in his family’s schemes selling ‘the brand’ for millions of dollars to foreign nationals”.

A Democrat on the committee, Jared Moskowitz of Florida, said such a reaction to getting what Republicans wanted showed the oversight chair, James Comer of Kentucky, had “no credibility” on the matter.

But Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House speaker, also had complaints.

“This action by Biden’s DoJ cannot be used to obstruct congressional investigations or whitewash the Biden family corruption,” McCarthy said. “If Weiss negotiated the sweetheart deal that couldn’t get approved, how can he be trusted as a special counsel?”

Aaron Fritschner, a staffer for the Virginia Democratic congressman Don Beyer, noted the theatricality of such Republican anger: “Half of the House Republican conference wrote to Merrick Garland last year asking him to appoint a special counsel in the Hunter Biden case. Now that he’s done it they are acting mad.”

Liz Harrington, a Trump spokesperson, said: “Crooked Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and the entire Biden crime family have been protected by the justice department for decades even though there is overwhelming evidence and credible testimony detailing their wrongdoing of lying to the American people and selling out the country to foreign enemies … for financial gain.”

Trump leads Republican primary polling by vast margins despite facing 78 criminal charges regarding hush-money payments to a porn star, retention of classified records and attempted election subversion. Further charges relating to election subversion are expected in Georgia next week.

Polling shows both Biden and Trump to be historically unpopular with the voting public.

Associated Press contributed to this report

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