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Mysterious emails and convenient leaks: The Trump campaign’s Hunter Biden attacks, explained

All of a sudden, people have come out of the woodwork saying they have Hunter Biden emails.

In this screenshot from the DNCC’s livestream of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Hunter Biden, son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, addresses the virtual convention on August 20, 2020.
DNCC via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In what’s a remarkable series of coincidences or — more likely — an orchestrated campaign, three separate sources have begun providing emails and text messages involving Joe Biden’s son Hunter to conservative journalists and Republican politicians over the past week.

The contents of what was purportedly Hunter’s laptop were first provided to the New York Post last week by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. A computer repair store owner claimed the laptop was left at his store, but questions have been raised about whether that story is accurate and whether all the information allegedly on the laptop is authentic.

But since then, two disgruntled former business partners of Hunter — Bevan Cooney and Tony Bobulinski — have provided their own emails and texts about Hunter to pro-Trump journalists or GOP politicians. These emails and texts have been quickly tweeted out or published by these outlets (notably Breitbart News, Fox News, the Daily Caller, the Federalist, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page), usually spun in inflammatory ways with a minimum of skeptical or contextual reporting.

And Thursday afternoon, news broke that Bobulinski will attend the final presidential debate as an invited guest of President Donald Trump. (Cooney was evidently unavailable since he is currently serving a sentence in federal prison for securities fraud.)

All this is part of an effort by the Trump campaign to argue that Joe Biden is corruptly tied to his son’s questionable business dealings with overseas interests. And they’ve complained that the mainstream media is trying to ignore or suppress this story.

Yet these emails and texts from Hunter have deliberately been given to staunchly pro-Trump reporters and media outlets unlikely to be skeptical, to question whether they truly prove what their handlers claim, or to publicize data points that don’t fit the Trump campaign’s preferred message.

The particular problem here is that, so far, there is almost nothing from Joe Biden himself in the released messages (other than an exchange where the former vice president comforts his despondent, drug-addicted son). There is a fair amount of Hunter making claims about his father, but that could be Hunter throwing his father’s name around without his father’s knowledge.

Careful investigative journalists would take some time to ascertain what actually happened here, but it certainly seems that much of this material has been deliberately held back for the last few weeks before the election. That, combined with the manner in which it’s being released, makes it all feel a whole lot like a last-minute dirty trick.

There are now three separate batches of Hunter-related emails

Despite the fact that President Donald Trump continues to own a business employing his children that regularly accepts large payments from foreign entities, Trump’s final play in his reelection campaign is to argue that Joe Biden is corrupt because his son Hunter accepted large payments from foreign entities.

This isn’t a new play. Trump’s attempts to drum up dirt on the Bidens related to Hunter’s work for a Ukrainian gas company ended up getting him impeached last year. And for most of 2020, the efforts from various Republicans to revive the attacks on Hunter seemed to flop.

But now, in a manner seemingly intended to echo the leak of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s hacked emails in October 2016, emails, texts, and photos with or about Hunter are being leaked out through several sources in an attempt to generate a barrage of negative stories about the Bidens before Election Day.

Some of this new material has been tied directly to the Trump camp — through Rudy Giuliani, who claimed a computer store owner gave him Hunter’s laptop, which had supposedly been left there. No concrete evidence has yet emerged to disprove that story, but authorities are reportedly investigating whether these emails are tied to a foreign influence campaign.

The newer development is that two former business associates of Hunter have entered the picture, suddenly providing their emails and texts with Hunter to conservative journalists and GOP politicians.

The first, Bevan Cooney, is currently in prison for fraud. The emails he has provided so far — to journalists Matthew Tyrmand and Peter Schweizer — do not actually show him having direct contact with Hunter (Cooney seemed mainly to interact with Hunter’s then-business partner, Devon Archer, who was also convicted of fraud). So Cooney’s emails have gotten less attention.

Then there’s Tony Bobulinski, who was involved in efforts by Hunter Biden and James Biden (Joe’s brother) to make a business partnership with a Chinese energy tycoon, Ye Jianming, in 2017. Bobulinski released a statement claiming that Joe Biden was involved as well to some extent, and released documents on Wednesday and Thursday to various conservative journalists. Though he claimed to be “not a political person,” the rollout of his material seems awfully politically savvy, and he will be an invited Trump guest at Thursday’s debate.

The two things the Trump campaign wants to prove

The retort from Biden supporters to all this has usually been that Hunter is not running for president — Joe is.

Trump’s team is well aware of that, so their top priority has been to try and tie Hunter’s work to Joe Biden in whatever way they can. And they’ve tried to do so in two main ways.

First, Trump’s team has tried to argue that, as vice president, Joe Biden took action designed to help Hunter’s clients in some way. Their highest-profile example — the vice president urging the firing of Ukraine’s prosecutor general — was widely debunked last year, since the prosecutor general was himself corrupt and many Western governments and institutions wanted him removed for that reason.

So, more recently, they’ve attempted to argue that Vice President Biden was “soft” on China because Hunter had business ties to Chinese interests. But again, it’s difficult to see how Biden’s views on China differed from the rest of the Obama administration or were out of the norm for his party and the time in any significant way.

Second, Trump’s team has hoped to prove that Joe Biden himself got a share of Hunter’s money. Yet Joe Biden’s tax returns and financial disclosure forms show no sign of any such thing. And after the Obama administration, Joe and Jill Biden made more than $15 million in 2017 and 2018 — mainly from speaking fees and book payments — so they certainly weren’t hurting for cash.

Yet there is an alleged email provided by Tony Bobulinski about the deal with the Chinese energy tycoon, sent by Hunter business associate James Gilliar to Bobulinski and Hunter in May 2017, that suggests a split of equity for their new business venture. In addition for “20 H” (20 percent for Hunter) and “10 Jim” (10 percent for James Biden), it includes the line: “10 held by H for the big guy ?”

The email excerpt reads, “At the moment there is a provisional agreement that the equity will be distributed as follows: 20 H, 20 RW, 20 JG, 20 TB, 10 Jim, 10 held by H for the big guy?”
Excerpt of a purported May 2017 email sent among Hunter Biden’s business associates.
Daily Caller

Bobulinski claims “the big guy” means Joe Biden. But that line notably ends in a question mark. And if accurate, it is unclear whether Joe Biden himself (by then the former vice president) actually knew about it — or whether Hunter was throwing around his name without his knowledge.

Furthermore, there is also a message six days after this one where Hunter says that his “Chairman” gave him “an emphatic NO.” Fox News claims the “chairman” is Joe Biden, which if true would seem to suggest he turned down Hunter’s offer.

In any case, the deal involving Bobulinski ended up falling apart. Subsequently, entities tied to the Chinese energy tycoon did end up send nearly $5 million to an account held by Hunter, as Hunter tried to negotiate a gas deal for the Chinese company in Louisiana — yet, again, there’s no indication this had anything to do with Joe Biden.

“Joe Biden has never even considered being involved in business with his family, nor in any overseas business whatsoever. He has never held stock in any such business arrangements nor has any family member or any other person ever hold stock for him,” Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in a statement Thursday.

Actual investigative reporters would put in the time to ascertain, to the best of their ability, what actually happened here. But this is much more akin to an opposition research dump — so it’s just been put out there by conservative journalists with little context or supplementary information, to help Trump make it part of his final campaign push.