OCTOBER 14, 2020
Rudy Giuliani has warned for months that he would release a pile of political dirt on Joe Biden, his son Hunter and Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian gas company before the Presidential election. Over the weekend, President Trump’s personal lawyer appears to have passed that dirt to the New York Post, reviving a long-running smear campaign against the former vice president that has involved a cast of Russian agents and Ukrainian oligarchs.
In a report published Wednesday morning, the tabloid cited emails and photos of Hunter Biden from what it described as a “water-damaged MacBook Pro” whose contents Giuliani delivered to the paper on Sunday. The material cited in the report has not been independently verified, and experts on Russian election meddling warned that the leak bore many of the hallmarks of a disinformation campaign timed to influence the outcome of the presidential race.
Until the claims could be independently fact-checked, Facebook said it would limit the visibility of the report on its platform, prompting outrage from Trump supporters and conservative media, who accused the social network of censorship. Twitter drew similar condemnations for apparently moving to block its users from sharing links to the New York Post’s report.
Giuliani’s gambit was the latest in a series of moves by Trump, his allies and his campaign to spotlight alleged scandals involving his political opponents in the final weeks of the presidential race. Two Republican-led committees in the Senate spent over a year investigating Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine, but the report they released last month did not offer evidence of any wrongdoing by the former Vice President. In an on-air interview last week, President Trump called on the Justice Department to indict his political rivals, including Joe Biden. Frustratingly for Trump, these efforts have not only failed to result in any charges, they have failed to narrow Biden’s lead over Trump in the polls.
It’s not clear the effort surrounding Hunter Biden’s supposed emails will turn out any differently. But the flood of tweets and headlines about Joe Biden’s son on Wednesday helped the Trump campaign revive its familiar attacks against Biden: namely, the discredited claim that Hunter’s work in Ukraine influenced his father’s decisions as vice president.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has tried to wrong-foot Biden with claims of corruption against his son. But the tactic appeared to backfire during the first presidential debates, when Biden denied the allegations, expressed pride in his son Hunter for overcoming drug addiction, and brought up the military-service record of his late son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015. Republican strategists urged Trump to stop attacking Biden’s family, as the tactic was failing to win over voters.
The new report from the New York Post is not likely to change that dynamic, says Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP pollster and communications consultant. “Trump voters may be outraged,” he says on Wednesday. “But it won’t swing a single vote.”
The Trump campaign was nonetheless quick to capitalize on the leak in their messaging.
“Joe Biden lied to the American people when he said he had never discussed his son Hunter’s foreign business dealings,” Pam Bondi, a Trump surrogate and former attorney general of Florida, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday morning.
The New York Post’s report appeared to undermine Biden’s repeated claims that he did not talk to his son about his foreign business dealings. One of the emails cited in the report appears to show that Hunter Biden arranged a meeting in 2015 between his father, who was then the Vice President, and an adviser to the Ukrainian gas firm, Burisma, named Vadym Pozharskyi. “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together,” reads one of the emails from Pozharskyi that was cited in the Post.
A Biden campaign official said there was no mention of such a meeting in Biden’s schedules from that period. “We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place,” said the spokesman, Andrew Bates. “Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as ‘not legitimate’ and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing,” Bates said.
Pozharskyi and Giuliani did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The Post‘s report does not include evidence that Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma influenced his father’s decisions as vice president. A Republican-led report from the U.S. Senate made similar allegations against the Biden family last month. But the lead authors of that report, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, also found no proof that Biden’s policies toward Ukraine were shaped by his son’s work for Burisma.
Starting in the summer of 2019, the Senate investigation of Hunter Biden was marred by its reliance on witnesses with ties to Russian intelligence. One of the sources Senator Johnson met with while working on the investigation told TIME he had been approached by pro-Russian intermediaries offering to serve as a “back-channel” to Moscow. The Republican Senators also drew on sources and documents from Giuliani, who has repeatedly aired information obtained from pro-Russian oligarchs and politicians in Ukraine. In December, Giuliani met with Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker whom the U.S. Treasury Department later identified as an “active Russian agent” seeking to interfere in the U.S. presidential race.
Current and former U.S. national security and counterintelligence officials have warned that Russia is using its allies in Ukraine to feed disinformation to Trump’s associates in Washington, including information that is meant to hurt Biden’s chances of election. “To me that’s a very obvious Russian operation,” Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow during President Obama’s second term, told TIME last week.
The emails leaked to the New York Post have renewed these concerns about a foreign influence operation. Thomas Rid, who studies disinformation and political warfare at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, warned on Wednesday that the alleged source of the emails looked “highly suspicious.”
According to the New York Post, the laptop containing the emails came from a computer-repair shop in Delaware, Biden’s home state. The owner of the shop, who was not identified in the report, gave a copy of the computer’s hard drive to a lawyer working for Giuliani, who then handed it off to the Post. In a tweet, Rid, the expert on Russian information warfare, noted that this was “exactly how a professional would surface disinformation and potentially forgeries.”
But that did not stop Giuliani and other Trump surrogates from touting the emails as evidence of Biden’s dishonesty. “Emails from Hunter Biden’s hard drive reveal Joe Biden lied about BURISMA,” Trump’s personal lawyer tweeted on Wednesday. He added: “Much more to come.”