Is Hunter Biden’s Laptop Actually a Big Deal?

Listen to this episode

Mary Harris: Hey there. What next? Listeners, there is some salty language ahead. Olivia Nuzzi and her colleague Andrew Rice have got this thing back in their office. They’re almost afraid to touch it.

Speaker 2: And before we opened it first, we just thought, you know, what the hell do we do with this thing? Should we just burn it? So you send it to the FBI? What should we do? And Andrew made the decision to put it in an envelope, sealed the envelope sign and date the envelope, put the envelope in a locked safe in our office, and then send an email to me and our editors and I believe our lawyers and just establishing where this object was.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: This object is Hunter Biden’s laptop. Well, sort of. It’s a copy of what some Republican operatives say was once Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Speaker 2: It felt very much like, oh, god, we have this evil possessed object that we need to do away with this and we need to to just put it in a straitjackets and keep it somewhere where it can’t get out.

Mary Harris: It doesn’t sound like you were excited to open this thing up.

Speaker 2: We were not. We dreaded it.

Mary Harris: I think of Hunter Biden’s laptop as a right wing Horcrux, a mythical object rumored to contain pieces of Biden’s soul. It also seems to contain a whole lot of selfies, some homemade pornography and email messages hinting at cozy relationships between Chinese and Ukrainian businesspeople and the son of the now leader of the free world. But if you don’t read the tabloids or watch Fox News, this laptop might have fallen off your radar. You might not remember the way Olivia does.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Hunter Biden’s emails bursting onto the scene in October of 2020, just before the presidential election. They suggested that Joe Biden’s son was profiting off the family’s name, developing close ties to businesspeople abroad, 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. Hunter’s laptop had come to them from the Trump campaign.

Speaker 2: When it first emerged. My initial reaction was sort of something along the lines of like. I do not have time for this shit. Like, I. I just. I don’t have time for more fuckery from Rudy Giuliani.

Mary Harris: Olivia was not alone here. This was the reaction of pretty much all of the mainstream media in the years since this laptop has become iconic anyway, totemic even. Which is why Olivia felt like now, two years later, she just had to get her hands on this thing. The funny thing about your reporting, the funny thing about it to me is that it becomes clear that even if you’re someone who’s been trying to avoid Hunter Biden’s laptop or just feel like you don’t actually really know what’s happening with it, it’s kind of everywhere and it’s all around you and you probably just don’t know it. Like images from it have been blown up into posters. It’s inspired Breitbart to make a film. It’s like seeped. It’s seeped in.

Advertisement

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Mary Harris: So why aren’t more people talking about it?

Speaker 2: I think because it’s appalling.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, how this appalling object became a lightning rod for the right and where the left may need to reckon with that. Di Mary Harris, you’re listening to What next? Stick around.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: It’s hard to know where to begin to talk about Hunter Biden’s laptop. So many elements of this story are in dispute. So I asked Olivia Nuzzi to try to give me the simple version. The version Trump allies tell themselves when they try to explain how they found themselves knee deep in Hunter Biden’s personal photos. That story starts in Wilmington, Delaware, in April 2019. That is when Joe Biden’s son allegedly brought his laptop to a repairman named John Paul McIsaac.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 3: It was reaction, the man that turned Hunter’s laptop over to the fbi and law enforcement. John Paul Mac Isaac is with us and fox news contributor Jason Chaffetz. John Paul, you put everything on the line here. You were given a laptop.

Mary Harris: McIsaac has become a bit of a regular on Fox News in the last few years.

Speaker 3: Well, once, once the story was out and my name was leaked to the public, it it’s been a matter of. At first running in hiding. Now it’s trying to just rebuild my life and then do it in a manner that’s not restricted by public opinion of me being involved in a Russian disinformation campaign.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: McIsaac is a Trump supporter, and if you’ve caught him on cable, he probably stood out. He tends to wear traditional Scottish garb a kilt, a hat with a little pompom on top. But in person, Olivia says, it’s easy to look past all that.

Speaker 2: There are a lot of people in this story that are just overtly insane seeming, and he really is not among them here. He’s your classic nerd dude. Just absolutely loves computers.

Mary Harris: McIsaac Repair Shop had this boilerplate customer service agreement. You leave your gear in the shop longer than 90 days. It becomes McIsaac property. Three months after Hunter Biden left his laptop behind. McIsaac says he’d gotten pretty familiar with Biden’s digital life. And it wasn’t pretty.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: He claims that sometimes the device is in such a state of disrepair that the way that you transfer the materials from the device is that you basically like drag and drop to load them onto a hard drive.

Mary Harris: So you’re looking at every image one by one.

Speaker 2: He made it sound like it was something that you could basically do passively, but if you were paying attention, you’re going to see a lot of stuff, a lot of personal stuff.

Mary Harris: And eventually, once the 90 day period did elapse where this device was his. Technically, he tried to connect with the FBI. Why did he want to do that?

Advertisement

Speaker 2: Yeah. So at the same time that he has this device. Trump’s first impeachment is coming to a boil. And. He recognizes some of the names or so recognizes the name Burisma, and begins to think that perhaps what he’s in possession of could aid Trump’s defense.

Mary Harris: 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. McIsaac says there were pornographic images here pictures of a dying Beau Biden family, complaints passed back and forth over text. But a computer repairman runs into people’s racy photos and angry texts all the time.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: Political intrigue, though, that’s rarer. In case you’ve forgotten the details, Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma while his father was vice president. He reportedly earned $1,000,000 a year for this. And 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 and paint hunter and by extension, his father as corrupt. So when John Paul McIsaac recognized that word Burisma from this laptop, he thought, Maybe I’ve got something here. Remember, McIsaac is a solid Trump supporter. So after contacting the FBI, he sent messages to Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani’s attorney reached out to Steve Bannon. Steve Bannon to drop the New York Post. By that point, Trump’s impeachment was long over. The 2020 election was just a month or two away.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: At that point, a month before Election Day, every incremental piece of news is worth sharing. The bar for what a story is, is pretty low in a presidential election in general. And I think a month in the lead up to it, that bar is even lower. If Joe Biden tells the skim that his favorite meal is spaghetti pomodoro with a raspberry sorbet.

Mary Harris: That makes two laps around the Internet before.

Speaker 2: Noon. Right. Like it’s like everyone will be sharing it. Not because it’s the most important thing in the world, but it’s just any information about the person vying for our most powerful office is information worth sharing.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: So you see, it’s sort of trickling out there.

Speaker 2: But then all of a sudden, no. It was very much like The New York Post is out this morning with this. You know, no one knew what to do with it. And then it just was completely just cut off.

Mary Harris: But it didn’t go away.

Speaker 2: So it didn’t go away. But anyone who shared the link had to delete that link if they wanted to get back into their account.

Mary Harris: Huh?

Speaker 2: And there was no explanation from Twitter until much later in the day. There was a Twitter safety account claiming that it was just a violation of their general rules about doxing and harassment because there were people’s emails and other personal information in some of the materials that the Post had published, according to them. And that was a violation. And then later on, there was a more robust explanation that factored in the idea of disinformation. And five days after publication to the New York Post, once the intel chiefs. Published a letter saying that it appeared to be disinformation in the style of Russian propaganda. Then it was like the conversation was over.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Looking back, do you think it was the right call for Twitter and Facebook to kind of pull the emergency brake in this way?

Speaker 2: No, I don’t. And at the time, I thought that it was the wrong decision. At the time, I publicly said as much. I thought that even if this is right now on behalf of short term protecting a private person whose father is running for president, what would it look like if this same thing were utilized by the Trump administration?

Mary Harris: I guess I see it slightly differently, which is I feel like. I feel like we’re all struggling with like how do we deal with the threat of misinformation and also just the idea of someone being doxxed. And so all of these organizations are trying to make the right decision and doing it awkwardly and probably badly, and hopefully we’ll do better next time. But it was a tough call.

Speaker 2: I agree with that completely. At the same time, though, in trying to banish this topic and then accusing all of 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 the people in the democratic and liberal establishment who have no fucking idea what the basic facts of this thing even are. Have no idea if there’s a laptop or if there ever was a laptop. If there is data, if he was hacked.

Mary Harris: After the break, do we actually know what was on that laptop and should we?

Mary Harris: Olivia Nuzzi says even though she’s seen a copy of what Republican operatives allege is Hunter Biden’s laptop, it’s still hard to say what’s on it. That’s because 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 in Ukraine and China. But the so-called smoking gun is a little strange. It’s 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Nothing that has been alleged about what is on the laptop has been. Truven And what I mean by that is not that we don’t know for sure if the emails in question are legitimate, if they were really received or really sent, 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.

Speaker 2: And so the most damning suggestion from the people who are promoting the contents of the laptop is that it shows proof that Joe Biden was not just aware of Hunter Biden’s business activities, but that he was involved in them and looking to profit from them. And Hunter Biden did not want to comment for this story and his lawyers did not comment for this story. I would wager that if they had offered a comment, they would probably say something along the lines of, you all have had this data for two years now and there has not been any specific crime alleged.

Speaker 2: The mystery of the laptop, the just unknowability of this thing. I mean, it’s just this vast, vast trove of data. Right. And Steve Bannon’s got this quotes. It’s got talismanic powers. If you really understand what you’ve got, talisman, you understand that it unlocks everything that you ever wanted. It’s got the answers.

Mary Harris: But it can also drive you nuts.

Speaker 2: Yeah. Now, Bannon. What? Bannon once in the laptop is a confirmation of his worldview and 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. He wants to find evidence that Joe Biden is a shitty person, a shitty father and a criminal, and he wants to find evidence about Hunter Biden and Ukraine.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Hmm. We’ve talked a lot about Hunter’s laptop, but not a lot about Hunter. And I want to kind of go back to him a little bit, because I still remember doing a show with a journalist from The New Yorker who profiled Hunter Biden back in 2019. And it was a frustrating conversation for me because he seemed to be excusing Hunter’s behavior a bit, basically saying like, what else could he do to make money but leverage his name? Like, this is just the options he had before him. And I do think it points to a kind of willingness in the media to turn a blind eye to Hunter’s ethical challenges for a lot of reasons. Like he was struggling with his brother’s death, he was struggling with addiction. You have one kind of media that is so sympathetic and the other that is so aggressively against and not really a place in the middle. That’s like putting together these two and making actually a whole picture of this person.

Speaker 2: I mean, there’s a portrait of him, of Hunter Biden on the right. That is sometimes in conflict, just as the portrait of his father on the right is in conflict with itself, where he is sort of like. A dirt bag. Who is? Doing anything to use his position as this, like princeling to squeeze money out of people. But. Joe Biden is both like sleepy Joe and Sleepy Joe. He’s, you know, basically dead or he’s creepy. Creepy Joe, right. Or he’s China Joe, which never really took off.

Mary Harris: Or he’s corrupt.

Speaker 2: Right. He’s corrupt. You know, it’s Weekend at Bernie’s and it’s also, Wolf of Wall Street.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Right.

Speaker 2: They could not do to Joe Biden what they did to Hillary Clinton. There was just no way to make that work. No nickname stuck. There is no chance at a Trump rally that anyone’s heart was in related to Joe Biden.

Mary Harris: But Hunter Biden is maybe different.

Speaker 2: But Hunter Biden is different. Yeah. They found in Hunter Biden someone who could animate. Trump supporters and. It’s like Trump won’t let him go. I mean, I think that the temptation to say who gives a shit what he was doing? It’s not a big deal. Comes from a few different places, I guess. I think that number one is and this is true of the Bidens generally. I think that because they are quite gifted at talking in a very human way about their struggles. That has the effect of sort of cocooning them from further inquiry, if that makes sense.

Mary Harris: You mean Hunter and Joe Biden?

Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s almost like, well, we’ve revealed so much. And any further inquiry beyond what they have determined that they want to reveal. Feels kind of tacky. I don’t know. At the very least, it feels sort of impolite. Hmm. And I think that whether it is a strategy or not, I think that has served them pretty well. This is not a family or a politician who is tough to access emotionally. Right. Like this is not an emotionally withholding decent executive. We’ve all seen Joe Biden cry. Probably. Right. Like more than once. Yeah. And I think there’s something about that emotional availability and the readiness to talk about pain. That, to me makes it very complicated.

Mary Harris: It inoculates you.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 2: Yeah. And I don’t say that it’s like a obscure like, you know, if anyone from the White House listens to this, they’re like, oh, it’s so cruel to frame it that way. Like, of course, she’s being so evil about this, but that’s not what I mean at all. It’s just sort of like when you reveal that much, you’re kind of justified in withholding. And I think people feel that on like a visceral level and human level that like everyone has a right to who they really are and to protect who they really are. And like, it’s almost like they’re saying here, you could have this version of us, you’re here, you can have this information about us or here you can hear about these horrific things that we have endured. And, you know, the price for that is that I get to keep some stuff for me.

Mary Harris: You know, after reading your really excellent reporting. I started thinking about the fact that I don’t think it’s actually all that rare for famous politicians to have failed sons, to have people who have challenges in their family.

Speaker 2: Yeah, there’s always one family member like that, right?

Mary Harris: Yeah. And to me, the data in this laptop raises the question of when is that a problem voters need to worry about? Like, I looked at this and I thought, huh, you know, more rules around lobbying, more and more rules about money in politics, that that would be good. But then at the same time, to get to that conclusion, you know, Hunter Biden is splayed in front of me, essentially.

Speaker 2: Yeah. And I think the lack of a vocabulary makes it. Hard to find a way to talk about the lack of a narrative and a counter-narrative. I notice more and more makes it extremely difficult for Democrats in Washington to talk about.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Because it’s like you’re trying to pierce a cloud.

Speaker 2: Well, the White House is certainly not offering up the facts to counter the right wing narrative with. And so what you end up with is like Amy Klobuchar on Bill Maher a few weeks ago, kind of stumbling through a conversation where Bill Maher knows a lot about the laptop and is accusing the media of a cover up in office.

Speaker 3: They buried the Hunter Biden story before the election because they were like, We can’t risk having the election thrown to Trump. I don’t know that they’ve all said this. And I believe I believe. Well, The New York Times definitely did. My dad was a reporter.

Speaker 2: I believe in it. I don’t know. And just as I don’t know what’s going to and Amy Klobuchar can’t just outright say I can absolutely tell you that there is no wrongdoing, there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. And a crime was committed against the Biden family by the dissemination of this 217 gigabytes of personal data.

Mary Harris: That seems like a real liability.

Speaker 2: Right. And so going into the midterms and going into a potential Republican controlled House, where the Republicans are vowing and planning to investigate the laptop, the contents of the laptop, the big tech, the media and the intelligence community’s handling of the laptop. It seems like, you know, potentially not great to not know what it is that we’re even talking about here. And that was sort of the motivation for looking into this in the first place.

Mary Harris: Olivia Nuzzi. I’m really grateful for your time and your diligent reporting on this. Thank you.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for having me.

Mary Harris: Olivia Nuzzi is a Washington correspondent for New York magazine. And that’s that’s our show. What next is produced by Elaine Schwartz, Madeline Ducharme, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We are getting a ton of support right now from Jared Downing and our Rubino, Ava and Anna Phillips. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. That I’m Mary Harris. We will be back in this feed tomorrow. I’ll catch you then.