WILMINGTON, Del. -- A dramatic scene unfolded in federal court in Delaware on Wednesday as a plea deal struck between prosecutors and President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden fell apart -- for now -- amid the judge's concerns over the terms of the agreement.
For the better part of three hours, U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika scrutinized nearly every facet of the plea deal -- prompting shrugs, audible exhales, frantic glances and other expressions of discontent from the government's attorneys and defense counsel alike.
Noreika acknowledged that her probing threw "a little bit of a curveball" into the proceeding.
Hunter Biden had originally agreed to acknowledge his failure to pay taxes on income he received in 2017 and 2018. In exchange, prosecutors would have recommended probation, meaning he would likely have avoided prison time.
Hunter Biden also would have agreed to a pretrial diversion on a separate gun charge, with the charge being dropped if he adhered to certain terms.
In Washington, Democrats have hailed Biden's possible plea as a sign of accountability while Republicans panned the details as a "sweetheart deal."
In court on Wednesday, Noreika, a Trump appointee, raised concerns about the parties linking Hunter Biden's tax plea agreement to the deal on the gun charge and over whether or not a provision in the deal would grant Hunter Biden blanket immunity -- meaning that the government would not prosecute more broadly going forward.
Noreika ultimately deferred the plea deal after the hearing, lamenting on multiple occasions the deal's "form over substance."
On several occasions, she took issue with the agreement, including describing it as "atypical" and "not straightforward."
"I have concerns about the agreement, and that's why I'm asking these questions," Noreika said during the hearing, also saying, "I'm trying to exercise due diligence."
Even if the two sides strike a revised deal, the judge appeared to raise questions about the probation agreement: "I can't predict if I will agree if that's an appropriate sentence or not."
In the interim, Hunter Biden entered a not-guilty plea.
The three-hour hearing featured several turbulent interludes. Noreika's line of questioning about the possible immunity agreement exposed fissures between the two parties, and the discussion culminated in prosecutors threatening to bring charges under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
That prompted Chris Clark, an attorney for Biden, to say: "As far as I'm concerned, the plea agreement is null and void" -- stirring the courtroom into audible gasps.
After a brief recess, the parties moved past those disagreements. Clark acquiesced to the government's position that any immunity of Hunter Biden would only include tax, firearm, and drug-related conduct investigated by the government.
For the next 30 minutes, the parties fell into a pattern of negotiation, consulting in the middle of the courtroom with opposing counsel, retreating to their corners to discuss, and repeating.
At one point, a visibly frazzled Clark approached prosecutors with arms stretched wide, threatening to "rip it up" and looking to U.S. Attorney David Weiss, another Trump appointee. "Does anyone want to talk about this?" Clark said.
"Really bad for everyone ... no good," Clark was overheard telling prosecutors moments later.
The dispute seemed to arrive at something of an impasse.
During one recess, as the parties awaited the judge's return to the bench, Abbe Lowell, a seasoned defense attorney who is handling other matters for Hunter Biden, approached Weiss and introduced himself. "Looks like I'm going to be involved in the fray now," he said, before shaking his hand and returning to his seat in the gallery.
Meanwhile, a visibly agitated Hunter Biden transitioned from sitting to standing, summoning various members of his legal team to discuss developments, and consulting with Clark. Across the room, Weiss appeared to share Hunter Biden's demeanor.
At one point, shortly before the judge returned, Hunter Biden chuckled at something his friend and attorney, Kevin Morris, whispered in his ear.
Noreika ultimately requested additional briefing from the parties in the coming weeks before determining next steps.
"I'm not going to say I'm going to accept the agreement. I'm not going to say I'll deny it," she said.
Toward the end of the hearing, she herself lashed out at the situation -- repeatedly saying she felt as though she was being asked to "rubber-stamp" the deal.
In the end, she did not.