The Saga of Hunter Biden’s Laptop

On October 14 2020, as increasingly bold or desperate attempts from all corners to sway the November 2020 U.S. elections reached a fever pitch, a story appeared in the New York Post about Hunter Biden, son of Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden, promising in the headline to deliver a “smoking gun“:

Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to e-mails obtained by The Post.

The never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

An earlier email from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.

The blockbuster correspondence — which flies in the face of Joe Biden’s claim that he’s “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” — is contained in a massive trove of data recovered from a laptop computer.

From its very start, the story hedges its bets and is far from being the “smoking gun” or the “blockbuster” that it calls itself. Reading on, its “evidence” seems flimsier still. For one thing, all this evidence hinges on the fact that Hunter Biden sat on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas producer, from 2014 to 2019. This is true. It is further true that his appointment to the board met with opposition by some with concerns that it would create an appearance, if not a reality, of conflict of interest.

And finally, it is true that the Trump administration began to level these charges at Hunter Biden, and by extension his father Joe Biden, in the months before Democratic lawmakers initiated impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump in September 2019 over Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

Four months before that, Trump’s lawyer — former New York City mayor turned enthusiastic disinformation purveyor Rudy Giuliani — announced that he would be traveling to Ukraine to attempt to pressure its incoming leadership to offer up dirt for political purposes:

Mr. Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.

One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.

Mr. Giuliani’s plans create the remarkable scene of a lawyer for the president of the United States pressing a foreign government to pursue investigations that Mr. Trump’s allies hope could help him in his re-election campaign. And it comes after Mr. Trump spent more than half of his term facing questions about whether his 2016 campaign conspired with a foreign power.

Giuliani’s “investigations” ultimately would not bear fruit (the probe into the origins of at least one aspect of the Russia investigation was quietly shelved in October 2020, just days before the New York Post published the Hunter Biden “smoking gun” story)  but that didn’t stop the Trump re-election campaign and its political allies (including U.S. President Donald Trump himself) from trying to push the story along anyway, as Associated Press reported on October 13 2020:

Officials declassified the names of Obama administration officials who had requested the “unmasking” of an American — in this case, former national security adviser Michael Flynn — who surveillance revealed had interacted with Russia’s ambassador, but who wasn’t identified by name in intelligence reports. While Trump cast the unmasking as sinister, it’s a routine action and proper procedures were followed.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a probe commissioned by Barr and focused on the “unmasking” question had concluded without criminal charges or any findings of substantive wrongdoing.

[…]

Meanwhile, Attorney General William Barr has appointed a prosecutor to investigate the origins of the Russia probe. That prosecutor, U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut, has secured a guilty plea from a former FBI lawyer for altering an email related to Page’s surveillance.

Trump has demanded big-name indictments and called for the probe to be completed by Election Day. But it’s not clear when Durham will finish his work or what it will reveal.

The investigation into Hunter Biden’s time on the Burisma board, spearheaded by top Republican senators Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley, also fizzled away — but not until long after it was credibly described by Democratic lawmakers as a foreign influence attempt using the two as proxies in July 2020, which they denied:

The packets, the sources said, were sent by Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker who met with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Kyiv last December to discuss investigating the Biden family.

In a statement to POLITICO, Derkach said he sent the materials to the lawmakers and Mulvaney with the goal of “creating an inter-parliamentary association called ‘Friends of Ukraine STOP Corruption.’” He added that he recently notified Grassley, Johnson, Graham, and Democratic Sens. Gary Peters of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon “about the content and materials published and voiced” at his news conferences.

Spokespeople for Peters and Wyden said their offices had never received anything from Derkach.

Derkach was sanctioned by the United States Treasury two months later, in September 2020, for “election interference.” The press release from the Treasury was remarkably specific in its details:

From at least late 2019 through mid-2020, Derkach waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, spurring corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day. Derkach’s unsubstantiated narratives were pushed in Western media through coverage of press conferences and other news events, including interviews and statements.

Between May and July 2020, Derkach released edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials, and he levied unsubstantiated allegations against U.S. and international political figures. Derkach almost certainly targeted the U.S. voting populace, prominent U.S. persons, and members of the U.S. government, based on his reliance on U.S. platforms, English-language documents and videos, and pro-Russian lobbyists in the United States used to propagate his claims.

When Republicans produced their 87-page report on Biden’s purported activities in September, journalists and researchers pored over it, only to find that it was essentially a hash of warmed-over, discredited conspiracy theories and information already publicly available. As BuzzFeed News reported, that investigation ended not with a bang, but rather with more of a whimper:

The report relies heavily on the public remarks of two US officials, including top State Department official George Kent, who said Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma was “very awkward” for US officials who were pushing an anti-corruption agenda in post-revolution Ukraine.

Burisma and its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky, have been accused by Ukrainian authorities of corruption and are embroiled in investigations in Kyiv. But two of Ukraine’s last three prosecutors general — including Yuriy Lutsenko, who played a role in Rudy Giuliani’s backdoor Ukraine campaign to help Donald Trump — have said that no evidence has ever been found to suggest Hunter Biden was part of any corrupt scheme.

[…]

Beyond stating that Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, interfered with “efficient execution” US–Ukraine policy, there is nothing damning enough to throw Joe Biden’s candidacy off course.

The Johnson–Grassley report concludes that “Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board was problematic and did interfere in the efficient execution of policy with respect to Ukraine.” It also alleges that Hunter and other Biden relatives “cashed in on Joe Biden’s vice presidency.”

But the report undermines its own findings, stating that “the extent to which Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board affected US policy toward Ukraine is not clear.”

The issue seemed to be a non-starter, until about three weeks later — October 14 2020 — when the New York Post dropped that aforementioned article (“Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad”), which reported the following:

The never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” the e-mail reads.

An earlier e-mail from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.

However, as journalists quickly noted, there was no smoking gun. In fact, there wasn’t even a gun to smoke. The story hinged on files found on a laptop that was dropped off at a Delaware computer store by an unknown person in April 2019; the owner of the shop, John Paul Isaac, told reporters after the New York Post story came out that he did not see the person who took in the laptop, but that it had a sticker on it that said “Beau Biden,” which is how he surmised that it was Hunter Biden’s computer.

It didn’t get any better from there:

Throughout the entire interview, Isaac switched back and forth from saying he reached out to law enforcement after viewing the files in the laptop to saying that it was actually the Federal Bureau of Investigation that reached out to him. At one point, Isaac claimed that he was emailing someone from the FBI about the laptop. At another point he claimed a special agent from the Baltimore office had contacted him after he alerted the FBI to the device’s existence. At another point, he said the FBI reached out to him for “help accessing his drive.”

Isaac referenced the infamous Seth Rich conspiracy theory—which holds that a DNC staffer who police say was murdered in a botched robbery was actually killed off by Clinton allies because he leaked committee emails—as reason for his paranoia. He said he made a copy of the hard drive for purposes of personal protection.

Isaac then refused to answer questions about whether he had any sort of history with Rudy Giuliani:

 Pressed on his relationship with Giuliani, he replied: “When you’re afraid and you don’t know anything about the depth of the waters that you’re in, you want to find a lifeguard.”

Seeming to realize he’d said too much, he added: “Ah shit.”

So, Rudy was your lifeguard, the reporters asked. “No comment,” he replied.

It remains unclear whose laptop this actually was, how it came to be dropped off at the Maryland computer store in April 2019, whether the emails and other materials found on it are indeed legitimate, or whether more “October Surprises” will follow. However, one thing is clear: The New York Post “smoking gun” story — packed to the brim as it is with half-truths, outright lies, innuendo, smears, and foreign actors credibly accused of U.S. election meddling — is disinformation. Whether or not it will be credibly weaponized remains to be seen.

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