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Federal investigation of Hunter Biden reaches critical juncture, sources say

Washington(CNN) The federal investigation into Hunter Biden's business activities is nearing a critical juncture as investigators weigh possible charges and prosecutors confront Justice Department guidelines to generally avoid bringing politically sensitive cases close to an election, according to people briefed on the matter.

While no final decision has been made on whether to bring charges against President Joe Biden's son, sources say the probe has intensified in recent months along with discussions among Delaware-based prosecutors, investigators running the probe and officials at Justice Department headquarters.

David Weiss, the US Attorney in Delaware, is leading the probe, which dates back to as early as 2018.

Discussions recently have centered around possibly bringing charges that could include alleged tax violations and making a false statement in connection with Biden's purchase of a firearm at a time he would have been prohibited from doing so because of his acknowledged struggles with drug addiction.

The investigation of the President's son has loomed large among the politically fraught issues Merrick Garland faces as attorney general. Weiss is one of a handful of appointees of former President Donald Trump who were kept on by the Biden administration because they were overseeing politically sensitive investigations.

Adding to the pressure, Republicans in Congress have already announced that if they take over the House of Representatives after the midterm elections, they plan to launch new investigations and hold hearings to examine the conduct of Hunter Biden and others in the Biden family.

Also potentially in play are Justice Department guidelines governing politically sensitive investigations during an election year. Current and former Justice Department officials say there is an unwritten rule that prosecutors avoid bringing politically sensitive cases within 60 days of an election.

Some current and former Justice officials have debated whether the rules necessarily apply in this instance since Joe Biden isn't on the ballot in the midterms.

A lawyer for Hunter Biden declined to comment. The US Attorney's Office in Delaware declined to comment.

Hunter Biden has not been charged with any crimes and has previously denied any wrongdoing. His father is not being investigated as part of the probe of his son's business activities, according to sources who have been briefed.

Narrowing the focus

The Justice Department investigation initially focused on Hunter Biden's financial and business activities in foreign countries dating to when Joe Biden was vice president. But investigators have examined a swath of broader conduct, including whether Hunter Biden and associates violated money laundering, campaign finance, tax and foreign lobbying laws, as well as whether Hunter Biden broke federal firearm and other regulations, multiple sources said.

As the investigation has entered its final stages, prosecutors have narrowed their focus to tax and gun-related charges, the people say.

Justice officials have debated the strength of the case for months, and have held discussions about whether more work is needed before deciding on possible charges. Those discussions have involved investigators from the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation agency and prosecutors in Delaware and at Justice Department headquarters, CNN previously reported.

Hunter Biden has publicly discussed his own substance abuse struggles, and some Justice officials questioned whether his open discussions of his past drug use could potentially weaken their case should they bring one.

Some officials have noted that Biden could argue he wasn't aware of wrongdoing because he was on drugs, one source said. CNN has previously reported that some officials were concerned it could be a defense, but more recently, Justice officials have coalesced around the view that Biden's own public accounts of his recovery show he was fully responsible for actions now under scrutiny, according to the person familiar with the discussions.

In the meetings, officials also discussed the timing of any possible indictment given the sensitivity of bringing a politically connected case close to an election, another person said.

Justice Department memoranda advise prosecutors against bringing any cases or taking any overt investigative steps with the purpose of impacting an election or providing an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate.

Garland issued a memo in May to prosecutors reiterating the department's stance on election year sensitivities. The memo is one attorneys general send every election year, and generally advises prosecutors about avoiding making major investigative or charging decisions near an election to avoid the perception of partisan motives.

In 2018, the last year of congressional midterm elections, prosecutors with the US attorney's office in Manhattan charged two politically sensitive cases in August: one against Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney, and another against Chris Collins, then a Republican congressman and early Trump supporter who was up for reelection that year.

In both cases, prosecutors made their charging decisions with the elections in mind, people familiar with the cases said.

Cohen pleaded guilty that August to campaign finance, tax and other charges and completed a three-year prison sentence. Collins, who won his reelection while under indictment, later pleaded guilty and resigned his seat. Collins was sentenced to 26 months in prison but only served two months after he was pardoned by former President Donald Trump.

Trump Justice officials pushed back on a request by New York prosecutors to execute a search warrant on Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump's personal attorneys, during the months around the 2020 election. The Biden Justice Department later greenlit the search, which was approved by a federal judge.