Hunter Biden’s laptop has returned to the discourse.
The president’s son is still under investigation for cases related to tax payments and his foreign work New York Times reported last week. And that report cites emails that, according to the Times, “are from a cache of files that appear to come from a laptop left by Mr. Biden at a Delaware repair shop.”
This is a reference to a controversial “October surprise” that came out just before the 2020 election. Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani gave those files to the New York Post, and they also circulated to other conservative outlets, resulting in negative stories about Hunter Biden’s business and personal life. Democrats and their allies cried out, arguing that the material may have been counterfeited, stolen or leaked as part of a campaign for foreign interference, similar to the hacking and leaking of Democratic e-mails from the Russian government in 2016. The mainstream media generally handle the material with care — and, perhaps most controversially of all, Twitter and Facebook blocked or restricted links to the Post’s story.
Now conservatives interpreted last week’s Times report as a belated admission that the leaked material was authentic, and that they are on a winning streak. “The Times Finally Admits: Hunter’s Laptop Is Real,” the The New York Post editorial board was full†
Technically, the Times only vouched for certain emails that they had “authenticated” with the help of “people familiar with them and the investigation.” But the Times reporters also said the cache of files “appears” to come from a laptop that Hunter had left at a computer store — leaning toward, without fully approving it, a long-doubted account of how the material came out.
So, almost a year and a half later, it’s worth looking back at what happened in the heat of the 2020 campaign. Some decisions and claims look questionable in retrospect. Twitter short blocked links to the story for potentially hacked material and Facebook it short limited as possible “misinformation” – but it may have been neither. And no evidence was found to back it up suspicions of former intelligence officials† backed by Biden himselfthat the laptop leak was a Russian conspiracy.
But the emails were indeed distributed as part of an orchestrated campaign by Trump’s team to draw negative media attention for Joe Biden shortly before the election. And whatever the revelations about Hunter, claims by conservatives that the leaked emails showed Joe Biden was acting corruptly in some way were false — they proved no such thing.
“The laptop from hell”
In October 2020, the New York Post began publishing some of Hunter Biden’s texts, emails, and other documents. As to how they got this information, the following story quickly emerged from a Delaware computer repair shop owner, John Paul Mac Isaac†
In April 2019, someone delivered three water-damaged laptops to him for repair, Mac Isaac claimed. He couldn’t say for sure who dropped them off because he’s legally blind, but he said the person identified himself as Hunter Biden and signed a receipt with what looks like Hunter’s name.
One of the laptops had a Beau Biden Foundation sticker† No one ever returned to pick up the laptops, so Mac Isaac (and enthusiastic Trump supporter) started looking at what’s written on one of them. He saw what he thought was a lot of scandalous material, so he called the authorities and handed it over – but also kept a copy of the material on a hard drive. At one point, he gave that hard drive to Rudy Giuliani’s attorney Robert Costello, and they gave it to the New York Post (and distributed it to other Trump supporters like Steve Bannon).
The Post’s and other conservative media coverage of Hunter’s files contained some lurid information about Hunter’s personal life. Hunter’s struggle with drug addiction was already… a matter of publicity, but the files contain even more embarrassing details, as well as sexual material. The other focus of the coverage was Hunter’s lucrative foreign work, particularly with a Ukrainian gas company and Chinese business interests. Trump allies have long argued that this work proved not only Hunter but Joe Biden’s corruption, and they combed through Hunter’s emails to try to prove that case.
The Post’s coverage was controversial, including in the newspaper – per the New York Times, a reporter declined to put his name on the story over doubts about its credibility, and other Post employees “questioned whether the newspaper had done enough to verify the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents.” But Trump quoted what he called “the” laptop from hell” constant. And conservatives began to argue that the mainstream media and social media companies were suppressing the story to help Biden win.
The modern leak genre of mass disclosure of one’s emails, texts and other electronic material presents a challenge to journalists. How do you prove the authenticity of the material? In a large pile of emails, should each email be verified individually? Are there any ethical concerns about publishing stolen material that is released with a particular agenda? What’s truly newsworthy in a dump of private information, and what’s an invasion of privacy?
There are different mindsets about these questions, all of which came up when the emails from leading Democrats were posted by WikiLeaks in 2016. Democrats claimed they had been hacked by the Russian government, but the media generally concluded the information was authentic and passed on the leaked material content and Not substantively, wide coverage. Then Trump won the election, more evidence of Russia’s complicity piled up, and some in the media had reservations and wondered if they had been used.
Meanwhile, social media companies faced their own doubts about the 2016 election from outside critics and their own employees. Many argued that disinformation spread unchecked (or algorithmically backed) on these platforms, some spread through Russia, helped Trump win. So, like many journalists, they hoped to do things differently if a similar situation were to arise in 2020.
The New York Post’s Hunter Biden story appeared to be the situation they had feared, so Twitter and Facebook sprang into action. Twitter went the furthest, block links to not share the Post story on his platform at all, and then take down the account of the New York Post for 16 days. They said it was because the material may have been hacked. facebook also announced they were “reducing its spread on our platform”, while fact-checkers examined whether it was “disinformation”.
These responses, while in a rapidly changing and confusing situation, were heavy-handed and arguably poorly judged. The challenges of hacked material are so thorny, in part because it often is not misinformation – its strength comes from its accuracy.
It is also not clear that a hack has taken place here at all. While the story of the abandoned laptop is bizarre, speculation that there’s more to it remains just speculation. And if a hack has taken place, it’s hard to establish a hard-and-fast rule that items based on stolen material are not allowed – what about the Pentagon Papers† It’s also reasonable to be skeptical about whether social media companies would have reacted so strongly had a Trump family member been the victim of a suspected hack in October.
The response of the mainstream media
Media outlets, for their part, were not blocking anything – there was ample coverage of all this in the conservative press and, albeit more slowly, in the mainstream media. There is no obligation for media outlets to run through a presidential candidate’s team with well-timed opposition screening shortly before an election. (For example, most media outlets didn’t cover the Steele dossier allegations before the 2016 election — only Mother Jones and Yahoo! News did. The file itself was finally published by BuzzFeed News after Trump won, the following January.)
some commentators did going to far by claiming that this was part of a Russian conspiracy, when no evidence has been found. The Biden campaign in the same way tried to cast doubt on the story by hinting that it could be Russian misinformation – when the underlying emails appear to be authentic. But in general, major journalistic outlets did try to rate if there was any real news.
And here we come to the real dispute, which wasn’t just about whether the emails were fake or real, but what they show. Trump allies have insisted the leaked material proves Joe Biden was corrupt. Of course, if you think that’s what’s being covered up, it seems outrageous that the mainstream media didn’t pay more attention to it.
But that case is weak.
There were two so-called “smoking weapons” about Joe Biden that conservatives touted in the materials. The first was an email the Post called a “blockbuster” in which a director of the Ukrainian gas company thanked Burisma Hunter for the “opportunity to meet your father” in 2015. If you’re steeped in Trumpworld lore, it was damning because of the theory that Biden had the Ukraine’s corrupt Attorney General fired in favor of Burisma, and Biden had said he knew nothing about Hunter’s Ukrainian work, but look, a meeting! (Apparently it was dinner at Cafe Milan that Hunter had organized, with about a dozen people.) This seems to mean that Vice President Biden is apparently going to one dinner.
The second involved a business venture Hunter attempted to set up with a Chinese energy tycoon in 2017 (after Joe Biden was no longer vice president). One email mentions that the stock split would include “10 held by H for the big man?” A former business associate of Hunter named Tony Bobulinski came forward to claim that “the big man” was Joe Biden. But a subsequent e-mail from Hunter says that his “Chairman” has given him “an emphatic no,” and another email clarifies that the Chairman is his father. So this basically means Joe Biden is apparently refusing a deal that Hunter was trying to get him into.
Indeed, all of this made it to the press in October 2020 (I wrote about it at the time). So the real objection from conservatives is that they didn’t get the story they liked from the mainstream media.
Hunter’s emails contain a lot of embarrassing and arguably newsworthy material about himself, and the shady foreign business interests of the potential next president’s son are certainly a worthy subject of media attention. But as for the Biden actually being on the ballot, there was very little of him personally in those messages (other than an exchange where he comforts his despondent, drug-addicted son† The emails did not dominate the mainstream media as they have not had the goods until now.