With less than three weeks to go until the election, The New York Post published what it apparently thought would be a bombshell report. The tabloid newspaper claims it obtained a cache of emails by Hunter Biden, the Democratic nominee’s controversial son, including one that suggests the younger Biden arranged a meeting between his father and a Ukrainian oligarch with whom Hunter had a business relationship. Biden has previously denied discussing his son’s business dealings while in office.
The story is less persuasive than its full-court-press treatment indicated. The sourcing trail for the emails in question is murky, at best; they also happen to run straight through some of President Donald Trump’s closest allies and fixers. The Biden campaign directly denied that any such meeting took place, citing official schedules from the time period in question. If nothing else, the Post story serves as a dry run for processing any other October surprises that the Trump campaign may try to launch out of desperation. Think of it as a trial balloon for a sequel to the follies of four years ago: a cursed laptop, a tranche of controversial emails that are apparently still giving off heat, and an altered path for the nation—except this time, the old adage about farce following tragedy seems to apply.
According to the Post, this new batch of emails is purported to have come from a copy of a laptop hard drive obtained by an unnamed Delaware computer-repair store in April 2019. The Post claims the laptop includes intimate photos and videos of Hunter Biden, in addition to the purported emails. (It published a photo of Hunter Biden smoking a cigarette that it attributes to the copy.) The Post also recounts that the store owner no longer has possession of the laptop because FBI agents confiscated it after he alerted them to its apparent existence.
It’s worth noting at this point, however, that the Post did not confirm whether the laptop belonged to Hunter Biden at all. “The customer who brought in the water-damaged MacBook Pro for repair never paid for the service or retrieved it or a hard drive on which its contents were stored, according to the shop owner, who said he tried repeatedly to contact the client,” the Post claims. “The shop owner couldn’t positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden but said the laptop bore a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation, named after Hunter’s late brother and former Delaware attorney general.”
How did the Post learn about the laptop at all? According to its own report, the owner made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to Robert Costello, the attorney for Trump confidant Rudy Guiliani. “Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, told the Post about the existence of the hard drive in late September and Giuliani provided the Post with a copy of it on Sunday,” the Post said. The report does not mention that federal agents arrested Bannon for his role in an alleged scheme to defraud Trump supporters in August.
In sum, the Post says it has a copy of a hard drive purportedly from a computer that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden. The Post says it learned about and obtained the hard drive copy from two of President Donald Trump’s closest political allies roughly three weeks before the November election. And the Post says the contents of that copy include what appear to be damaging emails about Joe Biden, who currently leads in the polls against Trump by a significant margin. Those purported emails conveniently seem to support a series of political attacks made by Trump, Giuliani, and their associates over the past two years.
If this was supposed to be some sort of October surprise, it failed. The Biden campaign, for its part, said that no such meeting between him and the oligarch took place. Mainstream news outlets shied away from the story, likely because of its murky sourcing and speculative assertions. And when The Daily Beast interviewed the store owner on Wednesday, after the Post’s report came out, the man gave a series of confused and contradictory answers about how he obtained the purported material. According to the Beast, he also claimed he couldn’t tell who dropped off the laptop in question because of an unspecified medical condition. (In the hours since the Post published its account, the original controversy had been subsumed within a meta-controversy: the decision of Facebook, and later Twitter, to throttle the dissemination of the story on the grounds that it was disinformation.)
We’ve been here before. Trump dispatched Giuliani to Europe last year in an effort to dig up dirt on the Bidens and Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine. At the same time, the president directly pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy to aid Giuliani’s efforts to smear his likely opponent in this year’s election. Among Trump’s coercive tools at the time was $400 million in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine’s fight against Russian-backed insurgents in its eastern provinces. The White House quietly withheld the aid throughout last summer, while Trump and his allies pushed Zelinskiy to publicly accuse Biden of corruption.
By September, however, the scheme had fallen apart. A whistleblower alerted the intelligence community’s inspector general and the House Intelligence Committee about the plot, and the Trump administration quietly released the aid soon thereafter. The revelations led the House to impeach Trump in December for abuse of power and obstruction of justice, though the Senate acquitted him of both charges in February. As the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States in March, the entire Biden-Trump-Ukraine saga faded from immediate memory.
Republicans’ desperation for a game-changer from the Justice Department has grown as Trump’s poll numbers have sunk. But no such relief appears on the horizon. Attorney General Bill Barr reportedly told Republican senators that an investigation into the Russia investigation’s origins won’t become public before Election Day. An inquiry by federal prosecutors into the “unmasking” of Trump campaign officials in 2016 also recently wrapped up without charges. Conservative media figures and Republican lawmakers had hoped that one or both of the investigations would come to Trump’s political aid before voters could render their judgment next month.
Trump’s anger and frustration is also growing. In Fox interviews last week, he lashed out at Barr by name. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win and we’ll just have to go, because I won’t forget it,” Trump claimed. “But these people should be indicted. This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country, and that includes Obama and it includes Biden.” There is no evidence that the former president and former vice president have committed any crimes, and Trump’s baseless call for their arrest is strikingly dictatorial. Over the past few days, Trump hinted that he might replace Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray after the election if he wins.
The president and his allies know on some level that he owes his narrow victory in 2016 at least in part to third-party efforts: the release of hacked Clinton-related emails in early October, as well as then–FBI Director James Comey’s eleventh-hour announcement, later that month, that the investigation had been reopened. As he faces an even more dire electoral map four years later, Trumpworld may be tempted to try to provoke a similar episode to undermine Biden’s chances. Against that backdrop, a healthy amount of skepticism is warranted about any mysterious damaging information that suddenly surfaces over the next few weeks.