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The return of Hunter Biden’s laptop

A recent New York Times story has made it the subject of discussion again.

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.
DNCC handout 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.

Hunter Biden’s laptop has returned to the discourse.

The president’s son remains under investigation for matters related to tax payments and his foreign work, the New York Times reported last week. And that report cites emails that, per the Times, are “from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop.”

This is a reference to a controversial “October surprise” that came out just before the 2020 election. Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani gave those files to the New York Post, and they circulated to other conservative outlets too, resulting in negative stories about Hunter Biden’s business and personal life. Democrats and their allies cried foul, arguing that the materials may have been faked, stolen, or leaked as part of a foreign interference campaign akin to the Russian government’s hacking and leaks of Democratic emails in 2016. The mainstream media generally treated the material with caution — 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 concession that the leaked material was authentic, and they’re taking a victory lap. “The Times finally admits: Hunter’s laptop is real,” the New York Post editorial board crowed.

Technically, the Times only vouched for certain emails they’d “authenticated” with the help of “people familiar with them and with the investigation.” But the Times reporters also said the cache of files “appears” to have come from a laptop Hunter abandoned at a computer shop — leaning toward, without quite endorsing, a long-questioned account of how the material got out.

So, nearly a year and a half later, it’s worth revisiting what happened back in the heat of the 2020 campaign. Some decisions and claims look dubious in retrospect. Twitter briefly blocked links to the story for potentially containing hacked material and Facebook briefly restricted it as possible “misinformation” — but it may have been neither. And no evidence has emerged to back up suspicions from former intelligence officials, backed by Biden himself, that the laptop’s leak was a Russian plot.

But the emails were indeed being put out as part of an orchestrated campaign by Trump’s team to try to drive negative media coverage toward Joe Biden shortly before the election. And whatever the revelations about Hunter, claims from conservatives that the leaked emails proved Joe Biden acted 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 for how they got this information, the following story soon emerged, from a Delaware computer repair store owner, John Paul Mac Isaac.

In April 2019, someone dropped off three water-damaged laptops with him for repair, Mac Isaac claimed. He couldn’t say for sure who dropped them off, because he is legally blind, but he said the person identified himself as Hunter Biden and signed a receipt with what appears to be 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 (an enthusiastic Trump supporter) started looking at what’s on one of them. He saw what he thought was lots of scandalous material, so he called authorities and handed it over — but also kept a copy of its material on a hard drive. At some point, he gave that hard drive to Rudy Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello, and they gave it to the New York Post (and circulated it among other Trump supporters like Steve Bannon).

The Post and other conservative media outlets’ coverage of Hunter’s files partly involved lurid material about Hunter’s personal life. Hunter’s struggles with drug addiction were already a matter of public record, but the files contained further embarrassing details, as well as sexual material. The other focus of coverage was Hunter’s lucrative foreign work, most notably with a Ukrainian gas company and Chinese business interests. Trump allies had long claimed this work proved not just Hunter’s but Joe Biden’s corruption, and they combed through Hunter’s emails to try to make that case.

The Post’s coverage was controversial, including inside the paper — per the New York Times, one reporter refused to put his name on the story due to credibility concerns, and other Post staff “questioned whether the paper had done enough to verify the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents.” But Trump cited what he dubbed “the laptop from hell” constantly. And conservatives began to argue that the mainstream media and social media companies were suppressing the story to help Biden win.

The response from social media companies

The modern leak genre of mass disclosure of a person’s emails, texts, and other electronic material presents challenges for journalists. How do you prove the material’s authenticity? In a large dump of emails, must every email be individually authenticated? Are there ethical concerns with publishing stolen material being released with a certain agenda? What is genuinely newsworthy in a dump of private information, and what is an invasion of privacy?

There are different schools of thought about these questions, which all came up when leading Democrats’ emails were posted by WikiLeaks in 2016. Democrats claimed they’d been hacked by the Russian government, but media outlets generally concluded the information was authentic and gave the leaked material, both substantive and non-substantive, ample coverage. Then Trump won the election, more evidence about Russia’s complicity piled up, and some in the media had second thoughts, wondering whether they’d been used.

Meanwhile, social media companies were facing their own second-guessing about the 2016 election from outside critics and their own employees. Many argued that misinformation spreading unchecked (or algorithmically assisted) on these platforms, some circulated by Russia, helped Trump win. So they, like many journalists, hoped to do things differently should a similar situation arise in 2020.

The New York Post’s Hunter Biden story seemed to be the situation they had feared, and so Twitter and Facebook swung into action. Twitter went the furthest, blocking links to the Post story from being shared on its platform at all, and then taking down the New York Post’s account for 16 days. They said this was because the material might have been hacked. Facebook also announced they were “reducing its distribution on our platform” while fact-checkers examined whether it was “misinformation.”

These responses, though they came in a fast-moving and confusing situation, were heavy-handed and arguably ill-judged. The challenges posed by hacked material are so thorny in part because it often isn’t misinformation — its power comes from its accuracy.

It’s also not clear that any hack happened here at all. Even though the story of the abandoned laptop is bizarre, speculation that there’s more to it remains just speculation. And if a hack did occur, it’s hard to set a hard and fast rule that no articles based on stolen material are allowed — what about the Pentagon Papers? It’s also fair to be skeptical of whether social media companies would have responded so strongly if a Trump family member had been the victim of a suspected hack that October.

The mainstream media’s response

Media outlets, for their part, didn’t block anything — there was ample coverage of all this in the conservative press and, albeit more slowly, in mainstream media outlets. There is no obligation for media outlets to run with conveniently timed opposition research pushed by one presidential candidate’s team shortly before an election. (For example, most media outlets did not cover the Steele dossier allegations before the 2016 election — only Mother Jones and Yahoo! News did. The dossier itself was eventually published by BuzzFeed News after Trump won, the following January.)

Some commentators did go too far in asserting that this was part of a Russian plot, when the evidence hasn’t emerged to back that up. The Biden campaign similarly sought to cast doubt on the story by alluding that it could be Russian misinformation — when the underlying emails appear to be authentic. But in general, major journalism outlets did try to assess whether there was genuine news there.

And here’s where we come to the real dispute, which wasn’t just about whether the emails were fake or real, but about what they show. Trump allies have insisted the leaked material proves that Joe Biden was corrupt. If you think that’s what’s being covered up, of course it seems outrageous that the mainstream media wasn’t devoting more attention to it.

But that case is weak.

There were two supposed “smoking guns” about Joe Biden that conservatives touted in the materials. The first was an email the Post called a “blockbuster,” in which an executive at the Ukrainian gas company Burisma thanked Hunter for the “opportunity to meet your father” in 2015. If you’re steeped in Trumpworld lore, this was damning because of the theory that Biden had the corrupt prosecutor general of Ukraine fired to benefit Burisma, and Biden had said he knew nothing about Hunter’s Ukrainian work, but look, a meeting! (Apparently, it was a dinner at Cafe Milano that Hunter had organized, with about a dozen people.) This appears to amount to Vice President Biden seemingly going to one dinner.

The second involved a business venture that Hunter tried to set up with a Chinese energy tycoon in 2017 (after Joe Biden was no longer vice president). One email mentions that the equity split would include “10 held by H for the big guy ?” A former business partner of Hunter’s named Tony Bobulinski came forward to claim “the big guy” was Joe Biden. But a subsequent email from Hunter says his “Chairman” gave him “an emphatic no,” and a further email clarifies that the chairman is his dad.

So this amounts to Joe Biden apparently refusing some deal Hunter tried to enmesh him in. An alternative possibility is that Joe was not actually ever involved and that Hunter had just been throwing his name around. By Bobulinski’s own account, he briefly met Joe Biden the day before and after an event, and the former vice president only said vague things to him (and the proposed deal never came together in the end).

All of this was indeed covered in 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 narrative they liked out of the mainstream media.

Hunter’s emails contained a whole lot of embarrassing and arguably newsworthy material about himself, and the shady foreign business interests of the son of the potential next president are certainly a worthy topic of media coverage. But as for the Biden who was actually on the ballot, there was very little from him personally in those messages (other than an exchange where he comforts his despondent, drug-addicted son). The emails didn’t dominate mainstream media because, at least so far, they didn’t have the goods.