Here's what happened when NBC News tried to investigate the alleged Hunter Biden emails

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The complaints from President Donald Trump and his allies have been growing louder as the election approaches: Why isn’t the mainstream media covering the Hunter Biden laptop story?

Trump and his allies say there is evidence of corruption in emails and documents allegedly found on a laptop belonging to Democrat Joe Biden’s son. They say those and other documents show that Hunter Biden used his father’s influence to enrich himself through business deals in Ukraine and China, and that his father not only facilitated that, but may have benefited financially.

But the Wall Street Journal and Fox News — among the only news organizations that have been given access to key documents — found that the emails and other records don’t make that case. Leaving aside the many questions about their provenance, the materials offered no evidence that Joe Biden played any role in his son’s dealings in China, let alone profited from them, both news organizations concluded.

As to Ukraine, a single email published by the New York Post suggests Joe Biden may have had a meeting with a representative of a Ukrainian company that employed his son. Trump and his allies alleged that means Joe Biden has lied when he said he never discussed his son’s business roles. The Biden campaign denies the meeting happened.

The lack of major new revelations is perhaps the biggest reason the story has not gotten traction, but not the only one. Among others: Most mainstream news organizations, including NBC News, have not been granted access to the documents. NBC News asked by email, text, phone call and certified mail, and was ultimately denied.

And, although no evidence has emerged that the documents are the product of Russian disinformation, as some experts initially suggested, many questions remain about how the materials got into the hands of Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has met with Russian agents in his effort to dig dirt on the Bidens.

U.S. intelligence agencies have informed the White House that Giuliani has been in contact with alleged Russian intelligence agents. The FBI has been looking into whether the Russians played any role, and no official has ruled that out.

At the same time, dozens of former intelligence officials have said the story has the hallmarks of a Russian intelligence operation. After the election interference of 2016, the news media is especially wary of doing anything to further an effort by a foreign government to intervene in a presidential campaign.

Another factor tamping down coverage of the story is that there isn’t much new in what the laptop documents appear to reveal. The allegation that Hunter Biden has traded on his family name has been thoroughly explored in previous news stories, including a lengthy New Yorker investigation last year in which Robert Weissman, the president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said, “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Hunter’s foreign employers and partners were seeking to leverage Hunter’s relationship with Joe, either by seeking improper influence or to project access to him.” Reports published while the elder Biden was still vice president raised ethical questions about the Burisma deal.

While the question of whether Joe Biden enabled his son to profit from the vice president’s influence is relevant to the presidential campaign, issues of balance and proportionality also come into play.

Trump, according to the same good government advocates who have criticized Hunter Biden, is ethically challenged when it comes to appearing to use the power of his office to enrich himself and his family. David Farenthold of The Washington Post has used federal and other records to calculate that the federal government has spent at least $2.5 million on food and lodging at Trump properties since Trump took office. Earlier this month, Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska who is up for re-election, told supporters that Trump’s family “has treated the presidency like a business opportunity.”

Yet stories about Trump’s children and their business dealings are not dominating the news cycle in the days before the election, because they have already been covered, just as the Hunter Biden story has been covered. (Trump’s tax information, on the other hand, has been covered extensively by The New York Times, because the secret tax data obtained by the newspaper revealed important new information about his tax payments and his business dealings.)

'No role for Joe Biden'

The first story about the Hunter Biden laptop appeared in the New York Post, a conservative tabloid. One of the bylines was that of a former producer for Fox News pundit Sean Hannity.

The New York Times reported that a Post reporter who did much of the work declined to allow his byline to appear on the story.

The Times also reported that the Trump campaign initially shopped the story to the Wall Street Journal, hoping that a mainstream news organization would validate their assertions that the documents hinted at corruption.

The Journal didn’t do that.

The Journal published a story focusing on claims about an alleged deal proposal in China — claims made by a former Hunter Biden associate named Tony Bobulinski, who came forward after the laptop story broke to say that the senior Biden was well aware of his son’s arrangements.

After examining text messages provided by Bobulinski, the Journal reported that “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…show no role for Joe Biden.”

Fox News, meanwhile said it “reviewed emails from Bobulinski related to the venture — and they don't show that the elder Biden had business dealings with SinoHawk Holdings, or took any payments from them or the Chinese.”

An NBC News correspondent asked Bobulinski for an interview and for copies of documents in his possession, but he declined.

“All of your questions will be answered on Tucker Carlson tonight,” Bobulinski wrote on Oct. 27.

On air, to make his case that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s business dealings, Bobulinski described an encounter he says he had with the senior Biden.

At a meeting in May 2017 in Los Angeles, Bobulinski says Hunter Biden introduced him to the former vice president, saying: “This is Tony, dad, the individual I told you about that's helping us with the business we are working and the Chinese.”

Even if that statement was made, it says very little about how much Joe Biden knew, and nothing about whether he was involved.

The Biden campaign has denied that Biden knew about the venture or stood to profit from it.

The laptop

NBC News has sought to obtain the documents on the alleged Hunter Biden laptop, but has been rebuffed.

An NBC News correspondent sent a letter two weeks ago to Giuliani, seeking copies of the materials.

His lawyer, Robert Costello, granted the correspondent the opportunity to review some Hunter Biden emails and other materials in person. The materials included copies of Hunter Biden identification documents that appeared to be genuine. But without taking possession of the copies, it was not possible to conduct the sort of forensic analysis that might help authenticate the emails and documents.

It was Giuliani who ultimately told NBC News he would not be providing a copy of the hard drive. NBC News responded by asking if, instead of a full copy of the hard drive, he could just provide copies of the full set of emails. Giuliani did not agree to that proposal. NBC News then declined an offer of copies of a small group of emails.

NBC News has also requested the documents from Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, but has not received a response.

Key questions remain about the origins of the laptop and how it got into Giuliani’s hands.

The owner of a computer repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware, John Paul Mac Isaac, has said a man he believes was Hunter Biden left a water-damaged Apple computer at his shop in April 2019 for repairs and data recovery.

But Biden never retrieved the machine, Mac Isaac has said, and at some point he began to examine the data. He said he found material that disturbed him, though he has never publicly explained what that was. His lawyer said he contacted the FBI, which ultimately served a grand jury subpoena for the laptop and a hard drive.

After hearing nothing from the FBI for months, Mac Isaac said he grew frustrated and turned a copy of the laptop’s contents over to Giuliani’s lawyer.

A representative for Giuliani said one of Giuliani’s companies received an e-mail from Mac Isaac saying he had the laptop and thought Giuliani should be aware of its contents. The representative said Mac Isaac provided a copy of the hard drive to Giuliani’s team.

According to the representative, Mac Isaac said he wrote to Giuliani’s team after trying to reach out to Republican members of Congress without success.

Giuliani’s attorney said Mac Isaac did not ask for or receive payment for the copy of the drive.

The subpoena, which was published by the New York Post, was signed by a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Wilmington.

A photo of a receipt provided to Mac Isaac by FBI agents was published on the Fox News website. It contained an FBI code, 272D, which the bureau uses to signify an investigation into money laundering where the unlawful activity is unknown.

U.S. officials have refused to explain why they seized the laptops and what, if anything, they are investigating.

NBC News attempted to speak to Mac Isaac, but he did not respond to requests for comment. NBC News published an article quoting responses he had given to The Daily Beast. His lawyer then sent NBC News a letter that said, “Your network and affiliates should cease any further discussion of Mr. Mac Isaac as much of the information you are presenting is false.”

James Rosen, a reporter for the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation's largest operator of local television stations, reported this week that a Justice Department official told him the FBI had opened a criminal investigation into Hunter Biden and his associates last year focused on allegations of money-laundering — and that the probe remains active.

NBC News has not confirmed any such investigation.

Rosen also reported that the FBI interviewed former Biden associate Bobulinski last week.

A senior law enforcement official told NBC News that Bobulinski initiated the interview.

Bobulinski said the FBI told him he’s “listed as a material witness,” but law enforcement officials say the FBI does not use that term in this context.

Hunter Biden’s lawyer, George Mesires, did not respond to a request for comment by NBC News. He has not asserted — nor has the Biden campaign — that the laptop did not belong to Hunter Biden.

If he did leave the machine in Delaware, it would have marked at least the second time he has left behind a laptop.

According to two people familiar with the matter, a different Hunter Biden laptop landed in the custody of the DEA in February when they executed a search warrant on the Massachusetts office of a psychiatrist accused of professional misconduct. The psychiatrist has not been charged with a crime.

Hunter Biden was not a target of the search or the investigation, and his lawyer ultimately got his laptop back. It’s not clear why his computer was left in the doctor’s office.