Anatomy Of A Smear: Questions Surrounding The New York Post’s Hunter Biden Story

Jesselyn Cook, Jessica Schulberg and Nick Robins-Early
·7 mins read

With only 20 days before the presidential election, the New York Post published what it called a “smoking-gun email” in a front-page feature accusing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden of high-level political corruption. Within hours of its publication, the viral story was dominating the news cycle, with aggressive promotion from President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Trumpworld seems to believe it has found an October bombshell that will damage Biden’s dominant standing in the polls. But critical elements of the story are dubious, contradictory or outright false.

As the Post tells it, Biden’s son, Hunter, left his damaged laptop — which, the story claims, contained footage of him having sex while smoking crack — at a Delaware repair shop last spring, but he never came back for it. The unnamed shop owner, unaware that the laptop was Hunter Biden’s, noticed a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on it, so he made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to Robert Costello — an attorney for Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — who later gave it to the Post. The hard drive contained a 2015 email from a top executive at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm, thanking Hunter for “inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and [spend] some time together.”

The Post concludes that this is evidence of Joe Biden’s misconduct because Hunter Biden “introduced his father” to the Burisma executive “less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company.” (Biden’s campaign says the alleged meeting with the Burisma executive never occurred.)

It’s a highly suspicious narrative that’s riddled with inconsistencies and other red flags. The story’s premise and very first sentence contain a glaring, long-debunked falsehood: Viktor Shokin, the Ukrainian prosecutor in question, was not investigating Burisma, as The Washington Post reported more than a year ago in response to Trump’s similar false claims at the time. In fact, Biden and other Western officials had pushed for Shokin’s ouster precisely because of his failure to probe the firm. The Obama-Biden administration was actually considering launching a U.S. investigation into Burisma’s alleged money laundering.

It’s one of several inconsistencies in the story’s version of events. Here are some of the biggest questions surrounding it.

How did the laptop end up at the repair shop?

John Paul MacIsaac, identified as the owner of the laptop repair shop after the Post’s story published, told reporters on Wednesday that Hunter Biden had actually dropped off three laptops at his shop last April. MacIsaac initially suggested that because he is legally blind, he didn’t recognize the younger Biden when he came into the shop and only later determined that the laptop was his after noticing the sticker, as the Post reported.

But MacIsaac later changed his story, claiming that Hunter Biden had actually introduced himself by name at the time.

Throughout the interview, MacIssac seemed nervous and claimed without elaborating that his life was in danger. He described Trump’s impeachment as a “sham,” vaguely implied the FBI is involved in a coverup surrounding the alleged scandal, and repeatedly declined to answer whether he is or was working with Giuliani.

On Thursday, Giuliani, who was not present at the laptop repair shop at the time of the supposed dropoff, told SiriusXM that Hunter Biden was definitely the person who handed off the computer and that he was “in an inebriated, heavily inebriated state” at the time.

How did the emails get to the FBI?

MacIsaac claims that he made several unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with Hunter Biden and that his store’s contract allows him to take possession of devices if they are not retrieved after 90 days. After the 90-day period had passed, MacIsaac said he grew curious about the contents of the computer. According to the Post, MacIsaac then made a copy of the hard drive and handed the hardware over to the FBI.

But in conversations with reporters, MacIsaac dodged the question of how he came to be in touch with federal agents. At first, he told reporters that the FBI approached him, although it is unclear how the bureau would have known about the existence and location of the laptops. He later told reporters that he reached out to people he trusted who connected him with contacts inside the FBI. “And then they showed up,” MacIsaac claimed.

How did Giuliani get involved?

MacIsaac told reporters that he became frustrated that the material on the laptop hadn’t become public, so he gave a copy of the hard drive to Costello, Giuliani’s attorney. He refused to say whether he reached out to the attorney or if the attorney sought him out. He also would not say whether he has been in direct contact with Giuliani himself.

Giuliani is a notoriously unreliable source of information. As Trump’s personal lawyer, he has long acted as a political operative targeting Biden for the Trump campaign, including traveling with far-right media outlet One America News to Ukraine as part of an effort to spread conspiracy theories about Biden. Over the course of the election campaign, Giuliani has repeatedly made wild claims without any evidence to back them up and has spun bizarre theories in an attempt to create the perception that Biden engaged in corruption.

Giuliani is now promising a slow release of allegedly damning information on the Bidens. On his personal website, he posted what he claims is a 2019 text message from Hunter Biden to his daughter Naomi, which was not included in the Post’s story. There is no context for the alleged screenshot, no verification as to whether it is real, and no explanation as to why the Post didn’t cover it.

How did the story end up in the New York Post?

The provenance of the Post story and the paper’s acquisition of the alleged copy of Biden’s hard drive is vague and raises numerous questions. The report states that far-right media influencer and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the Post about the existence of the hard drive in late September before Giuliani gave the outlet a copy on Sunday.

Both Giuliani and Bannon have pushed conspiracy theories and have close ties to Trump. The lead reporter on the Post story, Emma-Jo Morris, was formerly a producer for Fox News host and Trump ally Sean Hannity, as well as a former staffer at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The Hunter Biden stories were her first bylines for the Post, although she has worked there since April, according to her LinkedIn profile. On her Instagram account, Morris has posted numerous photos of herself posing with Trump associates including Bannon and Roger Stone.

Pro-Trump media has already begun to heavily promote and expand upon the story, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson announcing that he would release more of Biden’s emails during his Thursday night prime-time show.

Are the emails authentic?

There is no indication that the Post conducted a forensic analysis to confirm the authenticity of the emails and photographs. The Post says it received the material on Sunday, just three days before publishing its report.

The metadata in the PDF files published by the Post, which supposedly contain Biden’s emails, show that the files were created in September and October of 2019 — months after MacIsaac said the laptops were dropped off and a full year before the Post story dropped.

Hunter Biden’s lawyer George Mesires said in a statement, “We have no idea where this came from, and certainly cannot credit anything that Rudy Giuliani provided to the NY Post.”

Disinformation experts warned that the timing of emails’ release, the way they became public, and the lack of forensic evidence are all signs that the material could be the result of forgery, a hack, or a combination of the two. The Russian GRU unit responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee in 2016 hacked Burisma, The New York Times reported earlier this year, prompting fears that material from the hack would be leaked near the election in an effort to hurt Biden’s campaign.

CORRECTION: This story previously referred to Naomi Biden as Hunter Biden’s sister. Naomi is his daughter.

We want to know what you’re hearing on the ground from the candidates. If you get any interesting ― or suspicious! ― campaign mailers, robocalls or hear anything else you think we should know about, email us at scoops@huffpost.com.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.