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What David Weiss can do having been named special counsel to investigate Hunter Biden

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The attorney general has appointed a special counsel to investigate the president's son, Hunter Biden. The current U.S. attorney in Delaware, David Weiss, has already been leading the investigation for years now. Merrick Garland made the announcement at Justice Department headquarters this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MERRICK GARLAND: The appointment of Mr. Weiss reinforces for the American people the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.

SUMMERS: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson was at the DOJ today and joins us in studio. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, as we mentioned, David Weiss had already been in charge of the Hunter Biden investigation. So materially, what changes?

JOHNSON: The main change seems to be that now he's a special counsel. David Weiss is going to write a report about his decisions to prosecute people and to decline to prosecute people when he's done with the investigation. And the attorney general says eventually, he's going to try to make a lot of that report public, consistent with DOJ regulations. Weiss, of course, has been investigating Hunter Biden since 2019. As special counsel, he's going to operate outside of day-to-day supervision from the DOJ leaders, but they'll have an option to reject anything he wants to do if it's inappropriate or out of bounds. And they'll have to tell Congress about any instance when they override what Weiss wants to do.

SUMMERS: Remembering that just a month or so ago, the Justice Department announced a plea deal with Hunter Biden that would have resolved tax charges, a gun charge against him - what's the status of that?

JOHNSON: It seems dead, Juana. Prosecutors wrote the judge this afternoon that both sides are at an impasse. They no longer agree on a plea deal or a diversion deal that would have wiped out a gun charge against Hunter Biden if he stayed out of trouble for a couple of years. The plea deal, remember, broke down in court after a judge in Delaware started asking questions about whether it would give Hunter Biden some kind of broad immunity from other allegations related to foreign lobbying or his business dealings.

At that time, the U.S. Attorney David Weiss said his probe was ongoing, but he hasn't told us what exactly he continues to investigate or who he continues to investigate. But his appointment order as special counsel references Hunter Biden, among others. That could mean other people who had dealings with Hunter Biden are under scrutiny, including other Biden family members. We just don't know right now.

SUMMERS: So, Carrie, any reaction to today's news so far? What have you heard?

JOHNSON: The White House has been declining comment. They didn't find out about this move from the Justice Department until it was publicly announced. Chris Clark, Hunter Biden's lawyer, said this doesn't change our understanding of the special counsel's authority. And he said whether in Delaware or D.C., we expect a fair resolution not infected by politics, and they'll do what's necessary to achieve that. And then a former - a spokesman for the former president, Donald Trump, said without any evidence that the Justice Department has been protecting both Joe and Hunter Biden, even though the Justice Department is actually investigating both men right now.

SUMMERS: Carrie, there was also a separate hearing in court today involving former President Trump and the case against him for trying to overturn the 2020 election. What happened there?

JOHNSON: Yeah, a bit of news there. Judge Tanya Chutkan issued a protective order in the case to cover sensitive information the Justice Department's going to share with Donald Trump and his lawyers. That includes witness statements and other things. She gave a little bit to Trump and the special counsel today, but she ended by saying they should take care in their public statements about the case, and she would safeguard the integrity of this trial, protect witnesses from being intimidated.

SUMMERS: That is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. 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.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.