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Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York magazine, has Hunter Biden’s laptop in her office—well, sort of. It’s a copy of what some Republican operatives say was once Hunter Biden’s laptop, which seemed to contain a whole lot of selfies, some homemade pornography, and email messages hinting at cozy relationships between him and businesspeople from China and Ukraine. If you don’t read the tabloids or watch Fox News, this laptop may have fallen off your radar, even though its emails burst onto the scene in October 2020—just before the presidential election. They suggested Joe Biden’s son was profiting off the family name, developing close ties to business people abroad and even introducing them to his father. The New York Post was the first journalistic outfit to get its hands on this correspondence, allegedly buried on Hunter’s computer; it had come to the paper from the Trump campaign. Though the story never took off in the mainstream media, this laptop has become iconic anyway, even inspiring Breitbart to make a film. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Nuzzi about why more reporters aren’t talking about the laptop, how it became a lightning rod for the right, and why Democrats need to reckon with that. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: The story starts in Wilmington, Delaware, in April 2019, when Joe Biden’s son allegedly brought his laptop to a repairman named John Paul Mac Isaac, a Trump supporter who’s become a bit of a regular on Fox News over the past few years. Mac Isaac’s repair shop had a boilerplate customer service agreement: You leave your gear in the store for longer than 90 days, and it becomes Mac Isaac’s property. Three months after Hunter Biden left his laptop behind, Mac Isaac says, he got pretty familiar with Hunter Biden’s digital life. And it wasn’t pretty.
Olivia Nuzzi: Mac Isaac claims that the device was in such a state of disrepair that the way you had to transfer materials from it was basically by dragging and dropping files to load them onto a hard drive. He made it sound like it was something you could do passively, but while you’re doing it, if you’re paying attention, you’re going to see a lot of personal stuff.
Once the 90-day period elapsed, Mac Isaac tried to connect with the FBI. Why did he want to do that?
So, at the same time that Mac Isaac has this device, Trump’s first impeachment is coming to a boil, and Mac Isaac recognizes the name Burisma on the device, so he thinks that perhaps what he’s in possession of could aid Trump’s defense.
The mention of a Ukrainian gas company known as Burisma wouldn’t have been the first thing to catch the eye of most people looking at Hunter Biden’s laptop, which, Mac Isaac says, had pornographic images, pictures of a dying Beau Biden, and family complaints passed back and forth over text. Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma while his father was vice president, reportedly earning $1 million a year. It was a role that concerned the State Department at the time. Trump’s first impeachment laid out how his administration wanted to exploit this concern, painting Hunter and, by extension, his father, as corrupt. Mac Isaac is a solid Trump supporter, so, after contacting the FBI, he sent messages to Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani’s attorney reached out to Steve Bannon. Bannon tipped off the New York Post. By now, Trump’s impeachment is long over. The 2020 election is just a month or two away.
At that point, a month before election, every incremental piece of news is worth posting because everybody will be sharing it—not because it’s the most important thing in the world, but because any information about the person vying for our most powerful office is information worth sharing.
So you saw this story trickling out there.
But no one knew what to do with it. And then it just was completely just cut off.
And it didn’t go away.
It didn’t go away, but anyone who shared the Post link had to delete it if they wanted to get back into their account.
There was no explanation from Twitter until much later in the day. There was a Twitter safety account claiming this was a violation of the general rules about doxing and harassment, because there were people’s emails and other personal information that the Post had published, according to Twitter. And that was a violation. Later on, there was a more robust explanation that factored in the idea of disinformation. Then, five days after publication, intelligence chiefs wrote a letter saying this appeared to be disinformation in the style of Russian propaganda. Then it was like the conversation was over.
Do you think it was the right call for Twitter to pull the emergency brake on this one?
No, I don’t. At the time, I thought that it was the wrong decision, and I publicly said as much. Like, what would it look like if this same factor were utilized by the Trump administration?
I feel like we’re all struggling with how we deal with the threat of misinformation as well as the idea of someone being doxed. So all of these organizations may be trying to make the right decision, but doing it awkwardly and probably badly. So hopefully we’ll do better next time, but it was a tough call.
I agree with that completely. At the same time, though, in trying to banish this topic, and in accusing all the people who care about this thing on the right of being in a bubble, I think that actually the people who ended up being in the bubble are the people in the mainstream media and liberal establishment who have no fucking idea what the basic facts of this thing even are—have no idea if there ever was a laptop, if there’s data, if it was hacked.
At this point the hard drive has been through so many intermediaries, people who have organized and reorganized the content. It’s possible that, along the way, they inserted something completely fraudulent. Some allege there is proof here that Joe Biden knew about and profited from his son’s relationships with foreign businesspeople. But the so-called smoking gun is a little strange: an email from a Burisma board adviser thanking Hunter for inviting him to D.C. and giving him the opportunity to spend time with Joe Biden. There’s no reporting on Hunter’s reply.
Nothing that has been alleged about what is on the laptop has been proved. What I mean by that is not that we don’t know for sure if the emails in question are legitimate, but more like we don’t know that the emails were actually reflecting a situation that was real or that was real at one time. The most damning suggestion from the people who are promoting the contents of the laptop is that it shows proof Joe Biden was not just aware of Hunter Biden’s business activities. What Bannon wants with the laptop is a confirmation of his worldview, specifically his view of China. What Rudy Giuliani wants in the laptop is a confirmation that Joe Biden—whom he absolutely hates in a deeply personal way because Joe Biden destroyed his chances of being president in 2007—is a shitty person, a shitty father, and a criminal. And he wants to find evidence about Hunter Biden and Ukraine. They couldn’t do to Joe Biden what they did to Hillary Clinton, right? No nicknames stuck.
But Hunter Biden is maybe different.
Yeah, they found in Hunter Biden someone who could animate Trump supporters.
To me, the data in this laptop raises the question of, when is this a problem voters need to worry about?
I think the lack of a vocabulary makes it hard to find a way to talk about it. The White House is certainly not offering up a narrative to run with, or facts to counter the right-wing narrative. So what you end up with is Amy Klobuchar going on Bill Maher’s show and stumbling through a conversation where Maher knows a lot about the laptop and is accusing the media of a cover-up, while Klobuchar is saying she doesn’t think that’s true but can’t outright deny any potential for wrongdoing.
That seems like a real liability.
Right. So, going into the midterms, and into a potential Republican-controlled House where the GOP is vowing and planning to investigate the contents of the laptop as well as the media’s and the intelligence community’s handling of the laptop—it seems potentially not great to not know what it is we’re even talking about here, which was sort of the motivation for looking into this in the first place.