In the final days of the 2020 race, MAGA world is trying to conjure up the same event that helped them in the home stretch of 2016 — an out-of-left-field FBI investigation into their opponent.
The ingredients are all the same: a seized laptop, leaked emails, insinuations and vague allegations of malfeasance, a hype machine of ardent Trump supporters.
The difference, however, is that this time an FBI investigation is not supplying the ingredients. Instead, MAGA adherents are sourcing the ingredients and hoping they summon an FBI investigation. And, of course, the new target is Joe Biden, not Hillary Clinton.
It’s an eleventh-hour scramble to recreate the situation that arguably helped lift President Donald Trump over Clinton: The FBI announcement, just 11 days before the election, that it was reopening a probe into Clinton after finding more of her State Department emails on a laptop. The move gave Trump and his base last-minute nuggets they needed to spin up claims of corruption, even if many of those claims were merit-free or overstated. Though the bureau closed the probe again just days later after finding nothing, the damage was done.
Now, Trumpworld is leaning on the FBI to essentially make a similar announcement at almost exactly the same time. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and self-appointed private investigator, has obtained a laptop he claims belongs to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. He has handed the laptop over to the FBI, claiming it contains emails that show a variety of misdeeds and corruption — even if the emails aren’t all verified, don’t offer conclusive evidence of the misdeeds and bear the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation effort.
And the MAGA base is amping up the pressure on the authorities to investigate. Fox News and One America News Network hosts have dedicated entire segments breaking down the contents of Hunter’s purported emails. Further afield on the internet, conspiracy theorists are tying Hunter Biden to pizzagate-level plots. Trump himself is tweeting loudly about the issue, openly imploring Attorney General William Barr to investigate the Bidens and bringing up the issue whenever possible — at Thursday night’s debate, he even veered from a discussion about race to the “laptop from hell,” with little explanation.
So far, though, it hasn’t amounted to the dramatic moment that fueled Trump in 2016.
“The Clinton email story was — unfortunately, wrongly, foolishly — the main storyline of the entire campaign four years ago,” said Mark Mellman, the CEO of the Democratic polling firm The Mellman Group, pointing out that the details of that saga had been baked into the American consciousness by the end of October. “The fact is, the press gave it consistent heavy attention for more than a year. And that is not the case here. This is coming out of left field.”
To MAGAites, there’s plenty of scapegoats to blame for America’s lack of consciousness over Hunter’s alleged misdeeds: the media, which they accuse of not covering then; social media platforms, which initially tried to limit the story’s spread; and the deep state, which they bash for mentioning the plotline might be part of a Russian intelligence operation.
There’s also the lingering memories of 2016 that Trump backers say are clouding the decision making of these establishment gatekeepers.
In October of that year, the FBI announced it was revisiting the previously closed probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server while leading the State Department. The bureau said it had discovered potential new evidence while investigating Anthony Weiner, then the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, for sexting a minor. The FBI subsequently closed the probe again two days before the election after finding nothing incriminating. But the story had already dominated the headlines for over a week.
“This is a very common narrative, that James Comey basically tanked Hillary Clinton,” said Neil McCabe, a former correspondent for OANN and the Tennessee Star, an outlet founded by conservative activists. “This narrative is so strong that the mainstream media is literally saying, ‘We will not carry, we will not cover this laptop story at all, because we don’t want anything to get in the way of Biden's victory.’”
This time around, the “Hunter’s emails” narrative has mostly been trapped in the right-wing echo chamber, speaking to the already-converted.
“I'm sure Breitbart readers are very into this, but none of them are voting for Joe Biden to begin with,” Mellman said. “People who aren't regular Breitbart readers don’t know and don’t care.”
There are plenty of external reasons for that. The Hunter Biden stories have been met with concerns about their veracity from the beginning, whereas there was never doubt over whether Clinton did, in fact, use a private email server during her tenure atop the State Department. As a result, most journalists have expressed more caution in their coverage.
Additionally, former national security officials from both parties are warning that the Hunter Biden revelations bear all the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign. That’s a change from the bipartisan condemnation in 2016 from national security veterans, who said Clinton had potentially exposed her emails to foreign adversaries.
The personal travails of Biden’s son are also not as widely known as the details of Clinton’s private email server, which were picked apart for years on Capitol Hill and in the press before the 2016 election even reached its peak.
And for all of Giuliani’s hype, the laptop’s contents do not conclusively show Joe Biden was acting corruptly, or interceding on behalf of his son, during his vice presidency. Conversely, in 2016, while Clinton was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, authorities revealed a small amount of secret material had moved through her personal server, even if there was no deliberate mishandling of that information.
“The reality is, she was the candidate. Hunter Biden is not the candidate,” said Mellman. “That, in and of itself, is a big difference.”
There’s also the matter of the coronavirus pandemic, a public health crisis that is overshadowing accusations about Biden’s son, and the fact that Trump now has a presidential track record.
“In 2016, this country hadn’t yet lived through four years of him in the White House,” said Joe Walsh, a former tea party congressman and now an anti-Trump radio host. “But after 221,000 dead, millions and millions unemployed [and] schooling an absolute mess, the American people don’t care about some laptop.”
To McCabe, the OAN correspondent, Giuliani was forced to take the story public because he didn’t trust the FBI to investigate — even if he and others are now demanding an FBI probe.
But, McCabe added, the news of an FBI investigation confers a powerful legitimacy on a claim and the agency can investigate swiftly if needed. He mentioned the example of when racecar driver Bubba Wallace found a noose in his garage over the summer, an incident that was later determined to not be a hate crime since the noose had been there since October 2019.
“I think the FBI sent over like a dozen FBI agents to check it out,” McCabe said. “That was done, like, immediately. There are some things that the FBI takes very seriously.”
Without that legitimacy from a source outside the right wing, the attempt to use Hunter Biden as the 2020 version of Clinton’s emails is highly unlikely to catch on, said Mellman, outside of the die-hard MAGAists who’ve binge-watched that story line since the beginning of the Democratic presidential primary.
“When [Trump] just talks about a laptop at a debate, most people haven't the slightest idea what he's talking about,” Mellman said.
And, of course, there’s the simplest difference of all: “People didn’t like Hillary. So it stuck,” Walsh said. “People like Biden.”