For the next two weeks until Election Day, expect allies of Donald Trump to repeat the same refrain: but his emails! So far, though, the revelation of Hunter Biden’s private messages and photographs has been a dud of an October surprise, largely because the story’s credibility is so evidently flimsy. It’s also confusing—both to Trump supporters who’d like to make hay out of it and to anyone else trying to understand how this whole saga came to be. How did a laptop supposedly belonging to the former vice president’s son end up in a Delaware computer repair shop, then get to Rudy Giuliani, then arrive at the New York Post? What does Steve Bannon have to do with it? Why did it make the entire right wing mad at Facebook (again)? Read on.
How did all this start? There’s a hard drive, and Hunter Biden did what on it?
The New York Post claimed, in a story published last Wednesday, to have obtained a copy of a hard drive from Hunter Biden’s laptop that contains emails revealing his foreign business dealings, along with personal photos. According to the Post, someone abandoned the laptop at a computer repair shop in Delaware, and the data on the hard drive subsequently reached the FBI and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is also a lawyer for President Donald Trump. Steve Bannon is said to have notified the Post of the hard drive’s existence, and Giuliani then supplied the tabloid with a copy. The Post has now run a series of exposés based on the contents of the hard drive, the most purportedly explosive of which has to do with an email that Hunter Biden supposedly received in 2015 from Vadym Pozharskyi, a board adviser at the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. In it, Pozharskyi thanks Hunter Biden for introducing him to then–Vice President Joe Biden. This would seem to be evidence limply supporting the Republicans’ allegations that Hunter Biden, who worked for Burisma, had convinced his father to do favors for the Ukrainian company using the powers of the vice presidency.
So is any of this story credible?
A slew of journalists and intelligence officials have questioned the Post’s reporting and the source of the Hunter Biden dirt. The supposedly leaked emails support the false narrative, long pushed by the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, that Joe Biden was helping Burisma while he held office—a charge at the center of the foreign policy meddling by Trump that led to his impeachment. You’ll recall that Trump was caught trying to get Ukraine’s prime minister to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma, apparently to harm the elder Biden’s candidacy. (If anything, though, Joe Biden did the opposite of what Burisma wanted when he was vice president.)
Anyway, following the first New York Post story, the Biden campaign denied that any substantive meeting occurred between the then-vice president and claims that there are no records of it. Biden’s foreign policy and energy advisers also said that they’d never heard of Pozharskyi; there’s a possibility, perhaps, that the Ukrainian executive briefly met Biden at a public event, several of which were scheduled for the vice president on the day in question. (Hunter Biden had previously arranged for a potential business partner from China to shake hands with his father in the lobby of a Beijing hotel.) But so far, it doesn’t look like the meeting described in this email happened at all. Hunter’s lawyer George Mesires told the Washington Post regarding the email, “We have no idea where this came from, and certainly cannot credit anything that Rudy Giuliani provided to the NY Post, but what I do know for certain is that this purported meeting never happened.” Apart from denying that a meeting happened, Joe Biden’s campaign has not commented on the authenticity of the communications leaked from the hard drive.
There are also strong indicators that Russia had something to do with this whole affair, though nothing has surfaced definitively proving this is the case. In January, the same Russian intelligence unit that hacked Hillary Clinton’s and the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016 was also able to infiltrate Burisma’s systems. U.S. intelligence analysts subsequently picked up chatter indicating that stolen Burisma emails would be leaked as part of an October surprise aimed at influencing the election. Analysts were further concerned that forged materials might be included in the leak—something that, without the original materials in question, journalists can’t verify for themselves, leaving everyone to take the New York Post’s word. (And, in case you forgot, U.S. intelligence agencies once again say Russia is trying to tilt the election in favor of Trump.)
Finally, there’s New York Post journalists’ own confidence in the story: The New York Times reported over the weekend that the Post staffer who was responsible for writing the majority of the first Hunter Biden article refused to put his name on it over credibility concerns. According to the Times, many staffers questioned whether the Post had done enough to verify the authenticity of the hard drive data, and one of the reporters whose name appears on the story had little to do with the writing and only found out that her byline was attached after it was published. Mediaite also reported that Fox News, which like the Post is owned by Rupert Murdoch, passed on the story due to doubts about Giuliani’s trustworthiness and the murky provenance of the hard drive data.
Got it, it’s a very sketchy “hard drive.” What exactly is on it?
We really don’t know—Giuliani does not seem to have allowed other news outlets besides the Post to examine the data. Apart from the Pozharskyi emails, the Post claims that the drive also has family photos, texts between Hunter Biden and his father, and explicit selfies. Again, apart from perhaps the pictures, it’s unclear what is real or possibly forged among these materials. (Given all that—and the fact that even the journalists who reported on the hard drive don’t trust the source of information—we won’t give every allegation from the paper’s reports an airing in this article.)
Yeesh—is that why these emails aren’t making a bigger splash in the press?
Yes, due to these very shady circumstances, most mainstream media publications are approaching the story carefully. Major outlets have included numerous qualifiers when describing the hard drive, focusing more on the apparent scheming behind this leak than the contents. Facebook and Twitter have also taken steps to limit the spread of the Post’s article over concerns that the material contains private information like phone numbers and is possibly fake or hacked.
OK, but Rudy Giuliani says it’s legit. Is he trustworthy at all?
Fair! Say more, though?
Intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that Russian operatives were trying to use Giuliani as a vessel for disinformation that would hurt Joe Biden. (Trump reportedly dismissed the warning by shrugging and saying, “That’s Rudy.”) The agencies decided to sound the alarm after Giuliani met with a pro-Russia member of Ukraine’s parliament named Andriy Derkach, whom the U.S. Treasury Department believes has been a Kremlin agent for more than a decade. Derkach, who has previously spread disinformation meant to influence the upcoming election, has been helping Giuliani look for damaging information about the Bidens in Ukraine. Giuliani has laughed off allegations that he’s the Kremlin’s patsy, claiming to the Daily Beast, “The chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50.”
Derkach had promised to release more damaging info about the Bidens. Over the summer, he leaked misleadingly edited tapes in an attempt to expose wrongdoing by the Bidens in Ukraine. Facebook suspended Derkach’s account on Monday for engaging in “election-focused influence operations.”
OK, explain the part about the computer repair shop in Delaware.
According to the New York Post, an unidentified individual dropped off a MacBook Pro at a Delaware computer repair shop in April 2019 and never came back for it. The shop’s owner noticed a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on the device and decided to look through the hard drive. He then alerted the FBI about the drive and gave it over to the agency. He also made a copy of the data and sent it to Robert Costello, Rudy Giuliani’s lawyer.
The owner of the shop was later revealed to be John Paul MacIsaac of Wilmington. He is an avid Trump supporter and has been repeatedly changing his story about what exactly occurred. He initially said that he wasn’t able to identify who dropped off the laptop because he is “legally blind.” MacIsaac then said that the customer had identified himself as Hunter Biden. The shop does have two cameras, but MacIsaac claims that the footage from that day was automatically deleted before he realized how important it was. He’s given conflicting accounts of how he came into contact with the FBI and says he initially made a copy of the hard drive for personal protection, citing the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s associates had killed a DNC staffer for leaking information. MacIsaac has generally been cagey with the press about his dealings with Giuliani and what he found on the hard drive.
What does the government say about all of this? Don’t they supposedly possess the hard drive?
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, who served on Trump’s impeachment-defense team, has insisted that there is no evidence that Russians or other foreign actors are behind the hard drive. The FBI is in possession of a laptop and is reportedly investigating whether the emails are linked to a foreign intelligence operation. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are highlighting the overall effort by Russia to discredit Biden. “We know that this whole smear on Joe Biden comes from the Kremlin. That’s been clear for well over a year now that they’ve been pushing this false narrative about the vice president and his son,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said on CNN over the weekend.
Did Hunter actually do anything sketchy with Burisma?
Burisma did hire Hunter in 2014 in an apparent attempt to influence his father, but the elder Biden didn’t end up doing anything to help the company. In effect, Hunter leveraged his family name to get a $50,000-a-month job at the Ukrainian company. Hunter acknowledged in a 2019 interview that he exercised “poor judgment” in accepting the Burisma job but denied any wrongdoing, even though the optics were less than ideal. During his tenure with Burisma, Hunter also struggled with substance abuse, once relapsing shortly after a board meeting. Trump has sought to make Hunter’s struggle with addiction and dealings with Burisma into a campaign issue.
What does Steve Bannon have to do with this?
As with Giuliani, Bannon’s involvement in all of this is also suspicious, though not quite as clear. The Daily Beast reported on Friday that the former Trump strategist bragged, “We have the hard drive. I have the hard drive of Hunter Biden,” in an unaired interview with the Dutch news show Nieuwsuur that was filmed “weeks ago.” In late September, a YouTube channel linked to Guo Wengui—a Chinese real estate and finance billionaire who is an associate of Bannon’s and claims to be a whistleblower against China’s government—was also hyping up the upcoming release of hard disks that supposedly contained damaging information about Joe Biden. A few days later, the Twitter account for the Himalaya Movement, a Chinese separatist group backed by Bannon and Guo, sent out a tweet reading, “Bombshell… 3 hard disk drives of videos and dossier of Hunter Biden’s connections with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been sent to Nancy Pelosi and DOJ.” There’s no evidence definitively indicating that Guo’s media empire had any foreknowledge of the Hunter Biden leak, though the New York Post has previously run with stories seeded by Bannon and Guo. For instance, the Post circulated findings from a bogus study funded by Bannon and Guo’s nonprofits that purported to prove that COVID-19 was manufactured in a Wuhan lab. Photos of Guo and Giuliani smoking cigars together also appeared on Twitter on Oct. 11, three days before the Post published its first Hunter Biden exposé.
Is this October surprise going to affect the election that much?
Doesn’t seem like it. The supposed leaks have garnered a lot of skepticism and, save for the flimsy accusation that Joe Biden met with Pozharskyi, the supposed scandal has more to do with his son, who seems to have come off as an inadvertently sympathetic character in the Post’s depictions. Most of the right-wing agita over it, meanwhile, seems to be directed toward Facebook and Twitter executives, not any candidates for office. Besides, Trump himself has faced numerous, far more solidly reported allegations of using his office to personally enrich himself. It’s possible there are more stories to come from this cache that could have an impact; we also could learn more about the data’s origins. For now, though, this sort of mudslinging, over an issue most Americans never cared about and many see as irrelevant, seems a bit trifling while we’re in the middle of a pandemic and the president is providing daily reminders of how incapable he is of getting Americans through it.