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It’s 2016 all over again: Donald Trump and his allies are touting a set of purloined documents to accuse his Democratic opponent of corruption, and the specter of foreign interference hangs over the waning days of the race.
This time, it’s Joe Biden in Trump’s sights. And it’s the president’s own allies controlling the timing and content of the releases, prompting accusations from Democrats of bad faith and dirty dealing.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said he obtained the materials from the laptop of Hunter Biden, the Democratic nominee’s son. They have not been reviewed or verified by POLITICO — and there are questions about the New York Post’s reporting on the matter, as well as the tabloid and other Trump-friendly outlets’ interpretations of events. There are concerns, too, about the former New York mayor’s interactions with figures linked by Trump’s own administration to Russian intelligence.
For those not steeped in the byzantine maze of reporting on Hunter Biden, the story can be pretty hard to follow. No evidence has emerged, beyond the purported correspondence, that the former VP was involved in or profited from his son’s overseas work or abused his position to support it. That hasn’t stopped Trump from hyping the laptop leaks, saying they make “crooked Hillary Clinton look like an amateur,” and urging his attorney general to prosecute Biden, among other prominent Democrats.
The president, trailing in polls with less than two weeks to Election Day, has foreshadowed a plan to fixate on the subject during Thursday’s final presidential debate — making it the focal point of his closing argument. And Giuliani promised Thursday that he is “preparing much bigger dumps off of the hard drive from hell” over the next few days.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. What do the emails show?
It’s not totally clear. The New York Post, which published the first installments of the leaked emails, claimed they proved Joe Biden met with an adviser to Ukrainian energy company Burisma, where Hunter Biden was a board member. But the emails alone don’t substantiate the claim.
In the key email, the Ukrainian adviser, Vadym Pozharskyi, in choppy English, thanks Hunter Biden for “the opportunity” to meet his father in Washington. Trump and his allies have deemed that correspondence the “smoking gun” email, because they allege it explains why Biden took an action that seemed to benefit the company: pushing for the ouster of former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin in 2015. They also say the email proves the former VP lied when he said he hadn’t discussed his son’s business affairs.
There are major holes in this narrative. Shokin was not actively investigating Burisma at the time of his dismissal, and it was the widely held position of the international community — not just Biden’s view — that the Ukrainian prosecutor was corrupt. Even Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has been investigating the Bidens, supported Shokin’s ouster and reform of the prosecutor’s office at the time. Last year, a parade of high-level State Department and national security officials testified under oath that removing Shokin would increase the odds of a serious investigation of Burisma.
On a more basic level, there is still no proof the email is real — Pozharskyi has not replied to multiple requests for comment about whether he wrote it — or that such a meeting ever occurred. Biden aides have strenuously denied any such meeting ever happened.
2. OK, what about the China stuff?
Trump and his allies have also cited another email exchange, purportedly from May 2017, that appears related to Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China. In it, a consultant named James Gilliar alludes to possible equity distribution as part of a deal with CEFC China Energy Co., which was reportedly closely aligned with the Chinese government but has since gone bankrupt.
In that email, Gilliar writes, "10 held by H for the big guy?" Another email from August 2017 purportedly from Hunter says the deal had become “much more interesting to me and my family” because it included a share of “the equity and profits.”
Fox News has since reported, citing anonymous sources, that “the big guy” is a reference to Joe Biden. But there is no evidence that Hunter Biden ever struck a deal with the Chinese company, let alone that his father got a cut—income from China does not appear in Biden’s tax returns, including from the year of the alleged transaction.
3. Why are other media outlets still skeptical?
First of all, other outlets haven’t gotten their hands on Hunter’s supposed hard drive, and the Trump allies who say they have it have ensured it stays that way.
In the meantime, there are still enormous gaps in the story about how these emails came to light, whether they’re all authentic and whether they actually reveal wrongdoing. Some of that uncertainty is a result of the steel-trap silence of Hunter Biden’s attorney and the reluctance of Biden allies to publicly address them. Neither Biden nor his attorney, for instance, have said whether Hunter Biden really did drop off waterlogged laptops and a hard drive at a Delaware repair shop, or whether the reported emails are authentic or not.
However, there are giant blinking warning signs about the documents, their provenance and the timing of their disclosure. For one: The primary driver of the episode is Giuliani. Giuliani has been seeking to obtain and promote anti-Biden material for two years, consorting with foreign actors deemed by U.S. intelligence and the State Department to be corrupt.
Giuliani traveled to Ukraine last December and met with Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker. The intelligence community and Treasury recently labeled him a longtime Russian operative. Intel agencies have already assessed that Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election, in part through Derkach, are intended to damage Joe Biden and aid Trump’s reelection. For months, Derkach has been peddling allegations of criminality against Biden that are remarkably similar to the broad strokes of the initial New York Post story.
According to congressional aides, there is bipartisan skepticism within the Senate Intelligence Committee about the documents. For one, lawmakers in both parties believe the information released has all of the basic hallmarks of a foreign intelligence operation, especially due to the proximity to the election. The intelligence panel is actively involved in seeking clarity on the subject.
But lawmakers are expressing doubt that these questions could be cleared up before the election, given that it is less than two weeks away.
Then there’s the credibility of the people making the allegations. Two of Giuliani’s associates in his Ukraine endeavors, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted last October on campaign finance charges, and Giuliani was at one time — and perhaps still is — under federal investigation for his work with the duo. Giuliani is also collaborating on the release of Hunter Biden’s material with former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who was recently indicted for allegedly bilking a nonprofit intended to help fund Trump’s border wall.
And The New York Times recently revealed the inner machinations of the New York Post newsroom as it began crafting stories about Hunter Biden’s emails. Per the Times, veteran reporters refused to put their names on the story, and one of the two reporters whose names appeared on the byline didn’t realize she would be included as a coauthor until after the stories ran.
4. Is the laptop Russian disinformation?
We don’t know. Trump allies, who insist the laptop has shown evidence of criminality by the Bidens, have derided claims that the material is “disinformation” from Russia. And Trump’s top intelligence community official, John Ratcliffe, has flatly declared that there is no evidence the emails are Russian disinformation at all. The FBI has declined to weigh in publicly.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee has been told the same from Ratcliffe’s office, according to the panel’s acting chair, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). But the Florida Republican struck a skeptical tone about the issue, noting that the FBI has primary jurisdiction when a “U.S. person” is involved.
“That’s probably part of the confusion,” Rubio told POLITICO. Indeed, a domestic criminal probe would not be within the Senate Intelligence Committee’s jurisdiction; but a foreign intelligence operation is a counterintelligence issue that would fall under the panel’s purview.
Rubio’s counterpart on the committee, Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), declined to say whether he believes the controversy amounts to Russian disinformation.
“As we get closer to the election, I think all Americans need to be on guard,” Warner said.
Though lawmakers and dozens of former intel officials have claimed the Hunter Biden document dump bears all the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign, there are still too many unanswered questions about the material, how it came to light and whether it is authentic. One thing is clear: The FBI itself has not ruled out whether the provenance of the laptop has a foreign hand, and it’s still looking into the matter.
In a letter to Johnson on Tuesday, the FBI’s legislative affairs chief said it had “nothing to add” to Ratcliffe’s statement, saying only that the bureau would brief lawmakers “if actionable intelligence is developed.” Congressional aides cautioned that just because there is no “actionable intelligence” yet does not mean it does not exist. Moreover, the FBI is not expected to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation so close to the presidential election.
Still, Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview this week that he plans to ask the FBI for a classified briefing on the matter. He acknowledged that “the fact pattern as described sounds suspicious,” especially due to the proximity to the election, but noted that the authenticity of many of the emails has been verified.
“I think the best thing to do is to let the professionals look it over and give us their opinion,” Graham said, adding that he is “very leery of Russian disinformation.”
But even ruling out Russian “disinformation” wouldn't be sufficient to foreclose foreign interference. There was little doubt in 2016 about the authenticity of emails hacked and released by Russians from the Democratic Party and top Clinton aide John Podesta.
5. Is it an effective weapon for Trump?
Every precious second Trump spends attempting to reconstruct the convoluted saga of Hunter Biden is one fewer he’s spending on the issues voters have repeatedly told pollsters are most important to them: the coronavirus response and the subsequent economic turmoil.
Yes, Trump’s die-hard base has tracked every nuanced turn of the Hunter Biden allegations, often through the prism of Trump-friendly media outlets, and they love his vows to prosecute the Bidens, Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats he claims have spent the last four years trying to topple him. Those unfounded allegations have driven some congressional inquiries, too, from the president’s allies on both sides of the Capitol.
Still, Democrats worry about how it could affect the presidential race. On a Senate Democratic caucus call on Tuesday morning, senators discussed the possibility of additional disclosures before the election, and emphasized the importance of remaining on guard as the Trump campaign seeks to weaponize the issue, according to two people familiar with the call.
Biden’s aides, meanwhile, are privately telling reporters that if the president wants to go down the Hunter Biden rabbit hole, they can live with it. We’ll know soon enough whether that’s self-serving spin — or a shrewd read of the electorate.