Donald Trump really, really wants the 2020 election’s “October Surprise” to be Hunter Biden. For years, his fixer Rudy Giuliani has been circling the globe in search of dirt on Hunter and his father Joe Biden. Now Trump and his team are hoping that they can use it to change the subject in an election that thus far has been dominated by Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Giuliani unveiled the fruits of his labor earlier this month when he presented the New York Post with a laptop hard drive that he claims is Hunter Biden’s. The drive features compromising photos and videos of Hunter, who has struggled with addiction. But the main focus has been on Hunter’s business communications, which Trump and his team are attempting to portray as evidence of a corruption racket between Hunter and his dad. On October 14th, the Post used that hard drive to publish a story headlined “Biden Secret Emails” on Joe and Hunter’s actions in Ukraine. The story alleges that, as vice president, Joe was making decisions in Ukraine and Russia aimed at enriching Hunter and himself, rather than for the good of the country. (If it feels a bit rich to hear Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. claim to be outraged by the possibility of a father using public office to make bank for his son’s business… well, more on that later.)
The Post story has, in turn, led to a flowering of salacious Pizzagate-style conspiracy theories about Hunter, while giving Trump license to repeat further, unsubstantiated claims about the Bidens and their allegedly shady business deals in places like China.
So far, the smear campaign has been based on selective and questionably sourced evidence, exaggeration, innuendo, absurd leaps of logic, and outright lies. Much of this material was the subject of a Republican-led Senate investigation into Joe Biden’s official conduct vis a vis his son’s business interests that found no evidence of wrongdoing by the then-vice president. But that hasn’t stopped Giuliani and co. from slowly releasing tidbits from the alleged hard drive, each hyped by the pro-Trump media machine and the president himself. (If this slow drip strategy feels familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what Wikileaks did with hacked Clinton campaign emails in 2016.)
On Thursday night, in his last debate with Biden, Trump is almost certain to attempt to hammer home the supposed scandal, leveraging what may be his single greatest strength: a complete and total disregard for the truth. But as Trump again engages in his trademark misdirection, here are a few things to keep in mind.
There are questions about the veracity of Hunter’s alleged emails, and how Giuliani got them
The backstory of how Giuliani ended up with Hunter’s hard drive is fishy, to say the least. The Post says that a laptop with a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on it was left for repairs at a Delaware computer repair shop in 2019 and never retrieved. The store owner, a Trump supporter who told reporters he is “legally blind,” couldn’t confirm it was Hunter Biden who dropped off said laptop. But this owner subsequently examined the hard drive, made a copy of it, and sent it to … Rudy Giuliani. The Post says it was initially tipped off to the existence of the drive by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who is currently facing criminal charges for fraud.
The hard drive purportedly contained a “smoking gun” email, as the Post described it, in which a Burisma executive thanked Hunter Biden for “the opportunity to meet your father.” The Post’s story includes what it claims is a screenshot of the email, which like all of the other data on the hard drive has not been independently vetted.
Many have speculated the alleged laptop hard drive is part of Russian disinformation gambit, though this has not been conclusively proven. The day after the story ran, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had warned the White House that Giuliani was the target Russian disinformation efforts. Giuliani’s long search for dirt on the Bidens had led him to consort with a member of Ukraine’s parliament who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. government for working as an “active Russian agent… complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.” More than 50 former intelligence officials have signed a letter stating that the story “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” Facebook limited sharing of the story over concerns of its veracity; Twitter similarly halted sharing citing concerns over the story’s inclusion of “content obtained through hacking.”
The New York Post story is heavy on allegations and short on proof
The New York Post’s October 14th splash: “BIDEN’S SECRET E-MAILS” has unspooled across conservative media and into the last-ditch messaging efforts of a Trump campaign trailing the former vice president in the polls by a wide margin.
In its story the tabloid touts a “smoking-gun” that reveals “how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.” The piece includes an image of an alleged email from a Burisma adviser to Hunter Biden that reads, in halting English: “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent some time together. It’s realty an honor and pleasure.”
The Post story is so full of holes that its lead writer reportedly refused to allow his byline to appear on it. The top byline went, instead, to Emma-Jo Morris, a former Sean Hannity segment producer. Her former employer, Fox News, felt the story was so dubious that it refused to run it (although it has since sucked up plenty of airtime on the network). Giuliani has acknowledged he chose the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid because he was confident they would run with unvetted material, explaining: “Either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” (Giuliani has also refused to provide the alleged drive to other more reputable news outlets.)
Even if it is legitimate, the email in question is less a smoking gun than a squirt gun. The Biden campaign has said that it couldn’t find any evidence of such a meeting between the Vice President and the Burisma adviser, nor is there any other evidence that it took place. And such a meeting, though it might raise eyebrows, would not establish wrongdoing on its own.
Giuliani, in his way, has undercut the authenticity of the story: “Even if it isn’t accurate, the American people are entitled to know it.” Nevertheless, the president has tweeted that it is “a proven fact, and cannot be denied” that the story is legitimate. His allies have since used the story as a springboard to explore or outright fabricate several other conspiracy theories related to Biden and his son Hunter. Giuliani and Donald Trump, Jr. have gone so far as to allege that the purported Hunter Biden hard drive also contained child pornography. There is nothing even resembling evidence that this is true. (Smearing political opponents as sexual deviants is a frequent feature of Russian disinformation, and an increasingly frequent practice among believers in the QAnon smears.)
The Joe Biden-Burisma scandal has been debunked many times over
The Post story on Burisma plays into a larger line of attack from Trump and his allies on Joe Biden: that as Vice President he pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden served. Trump is so committed to that theory that he withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to get the country’s new president to announce an investigation into it. — a scheme that eventually resulted in Trump’s impeachment. “Sleepy Joe Biden … forced a tough prosecutor out from investigating his son’s company by threat of not giving big dollars to Ukraine,” Trump tweeted last fall. “That’s the real story!”
You won’t be shocked to learn that this is in fact not the real story.
During a 2018 event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden told the story of how as vice president he threatened to withhold U.S. loan guarantees from Ukraine if it did not fire the country’s prosecutor general, a man named Viktor Shokin. “If the prosecutor’s not fired, you’re not getting the money,” Biden recalled saying. “Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.”
But here’s what Trump, his reelection campaign, and his supporters leave out of their attacks on Biden. Shokin, the prosecutor, was widely viewed as corrupt himself, both by his own colleagues and by other foreign governments. “The General Prosecutor’s Office has become a dead institution, which nobody believes is independent,” Shokin’s deputy, Vitaly Kasko, said when he tendered his resignation, citing the corruption and cronyism within the office.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Geoffrey Pyatt, agreed and launched a blistering attack on Shokin: “Rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the Prosecutor-General’s Office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform.” Even Republican U.S. Senators Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) urged Ukraine’s prime minister to make “urgent reforms to the Prosecutor General’s office and judiciary.” Soon afterward, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove Shokin from his post.
There is also no evidence that Biden booted Shokin to protect Burisma. The Ukraine prosecutor general’s office had previously opened an investigation into Burisma, but according to CNN, at least one official in the prosecutor’s office said that investigation had been suspended when Biden demanded Shokin’s ouster. There is no public record of Biden or anyone else in the Obama administration subsequently seeking to quash any investigation into Burisma. (It’s worth noting that Shokin’s successor also reopened that investigation and then closed it, without bringing any charges against Burisma.)
To put it simply: Based on all the available evidence, Joe Biden didn’t pressure Ukraine to remove a top prosecutor because he was investigating a company tied to Hunter Biden. He demanded Ukraine fire the prosecutor because the prosecutor wasn’t rooting out corruption, and also because there was wide agreement that the prosecutor himself was corrupt.
Hunter shouldn’t have been on Burisma’s board
It’s unclear what, if any, qualifications Hunter Biden has to sit on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, so it’s hard to understand why Burisma would start cutting the younger Biden big checks — other than as an attempt to curry favor with his father. By taking the job, Hunter created the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. And he indulged in an ugly part of American politics, a pipeline of jobs and connections that actors can use to turn political power into personal wealth.
Hunter is far from alone in this. Children of political dynasties enjoy professional opportunities the rest of us don’t. It’s common for members of Congress to, after leaving office, cash in on high-paying lobbying jobs from firms eager to trade on their connections — including in industries the lawmakers just finished regulating. That revolving door phenomenon extends beyond members of Congress, including to administration officials of both parties.
Trump is making accusations about the Bidens’ China dealings. He has some of his own questions to answer
Trump and company have also tried to whip charges of corrupt business dealings involving the Biden family and China. “Joe Biden must immediately release all emails, meetings, phone calls, transcripts, and records related to his involvement in his family’s business dealings and influence peddling around the world — including in CHINA!” Trump recently tweeted. A Trump campaign pushed a similar message: “The question is not why Hunter Biden used his name to get these gigs. It’s why Joe Biden let him do it.”
At the heart of these allegations is another New York Post story based on Hunter’s alleged emails — this time related to a business venture in China. The story is almost comically light on details, but it cites an email to Hunter and others about equity in an unnamed business venture. The unverified email says “H” (Hunter) was holding “20” for himself and there was “10 held by H for the big guy.” A former business partner of Hunter’s, Tony Bobulinski, claims “the big guy” refers to Joe Biden, but there is no available evidence to support this, or to show that Hunter or Joe Biden earned money from the deal in question. Still, the Post is framing these emails and that quote as proof that Joe Biden was somehow profiting from Hunter’s dealings in China. And in a blow to Bobulinski’s credibility as a neutral observer, Fox News reported he will attend the final presidential debate Thursday as Trump’s guest.
(UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has investigated these claims and found them severely lacking: “The venture—set up in 2017 after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency and before his presidential campaign—never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter. Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.”)
The Joe Biden-China allegations hang on thin threads, if any. By contrast, there is clear evidence that President Trump directly benefited from his own business dealings with China and individuals connected to China’s ruling elite. A recent New York Times investigation drawing on Trump’s tax returns — which he failed to disclose to the public, breaking a decades-long tradition — revealed that Trump had pursued business deals in China and even opened a bank account here. According to the Times, Trump paid far more in Chinese taxes from 2013 to 2015 than he did in the U.S. federal income taxes.
There’s so much more. In May of 2018, China awarded Ivanka Trump seven new trademarks — licensing, of course, being the core of the Trump family business model — at the same time that President Trump vowed to bail out ZTE, the Chinese telecom giant that was facing financial ruin and had run afoul of sanctions restrictions with Iran and North Korea. In 2018 alone, the Chinese government ultimately granted Ivanka at least 34 trademarks, a federal employee working in the White House, on everything from sunglasses, handbags, shoes and jewelry, as well as beauty services and voting machines. (Ivanka said she was shutting down her fashion brand in 2018 but seems to have continued to seek trademarks.)
Perhaps the strangest and most suspect Trump-China deal was the first real-estate deal that Trump secured after he took office. In early 2017, he sold a $15.8 million penthouse condo to a Chinese-American business executive, Xiao Yan Chen, who ran a company that peddled access for U.S. firms to Chinese leaders. That’s literally what it said on the website for Chen’s firm, Global Alliance Associates: “As counselors in consummating the right relationships — quite simply — we provide access. Establishing a network of credible and proprietary relationships, known by the Chinese as ‘ghanxi,’ is the single most important aspect of initiating and sustaining a successful business venture in China.”
Chen, who also went by Angela Chen, also served on a foundation alongside a Chinese princeling (the daughter of former PRC leader Deng Xiaoping) who had direct ties to Chinese military intelligence. As Mother Jones wrote in 2017, “To sum up: An influence-peddler who works with a princeling tied to Chinese military intelligence placed $15.8 million in the pockets of the president of the United States.”
On their face, these Trump-China deals are hugely problematic — perhaps the most problematic of any of the president’s business dealings. China is the main global rival to the U.S., and Trump has said foreign policy toward China was a priority of his administration. But what makes the deals even more sketchy is that they’re shrouded in secrecy. As the New York Times noted, we don’t know which Chinese bank Trump has had an account with because Trump’s foreign bank accounts aren’t listed on his public financial disclosures. It begs the question: How many other accounts do Trump and his family members have overseas?
Angela Chen apparently paid $15.8 million in cash for her Trump penthouse apartment on Park Avenue, which was not publicly listed for sale. Likewise, the deal was shrouded in secrecy: How did the deal come together? Did Chen have any contact with the president? Did she use her condo deal to drum up access to anyone in the administration?
The big picture: Trump is accusing the Bidens of secretly doing what his family publicly does all the time
There is tremendous irony here. As president, Trump never divested from his own businesses, now run by his sons. During his presidency, Trump properties have become notorious dens of influence peddling, likely enriching the entire family. Moreover, Trump has placed his own unqualified daughter and son in law in high positions in the White House, even as they continue to conduct businesses that benefit from the policies they shape.
The full extent of Trump’s mixing of public and private business is impossible to decipher. The president has refused to release his tax returns. What information has come out has not been pretty. A New York Times investigation, based on partial tax information the paper acquired, shows Trump with $421 million in debt, much of which is set to come due in the coming years. That gives creditors leverage over the U.S. president, but because Trump keeps his finances opaque, we still have no idea who these creditors are.