President Donald Trump repeatedly accused rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter of corruption during the final presidential debate on Thursday night, after more than a week of making false and unsubstantiated smears against the Biden family.
“All of the emails, the emails, horrible emails of the kind of money that you were raking in, you and your family,” Trump said to his Democratic opponent on the debate stage. “I think you owe an explanation to the American people.”
The vague reference to “emails” may not make sense to people who do not consume large amounts of conservative media: Trump was elevating to the national stage a storyline that is full of holes and may be the product of a foreign disinformation campaign that targeted Rudy Giuliani, a top campaign adviser and the president’s lawyer.
Last week, the New York Post published the first in a series of stories based on documents allegedly obtained from the hard drive Hunter Biden’s personal laptop, which Trump described during the debate as the “laptop from hell.” At the center of the tabloid’s supposed bombshell is what it describes as a “smoking-gun email” from an executive at Burisma, a Ukrainian energy firm, thanking Hunter Biden in 2015 for “inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and [spend] some time together.”
The story portrays this as evidence supporting the long-debunked claim that Joe Biden leveraged his position as vice president to benefit his son. The Post says 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.” In fact, Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor in question, was not investigating Burisma, and Joe Biden and other Western officials had pushed for Shokin’s ouster precisely because of his refusal to do so.
The Post also published an apparent email chain from Hunter Biden stating in 2017 that he had negotiated a three-year consulting contract with a Chinese energy firm that had agreed to pay him $10 million a year “for introductions alone.” It is not clear who is or was involved in the alleged introductions, and the deal later fell through, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Tony Bobulinski, Hunter Biden’s former business partner — whom Trump brought to the debate as a special guest — was a reported recipient of the email chain. He later described those messages as “genuine” and suggested Joe Biden was directly involved in the alleged business dealings.
“The Biden family aggressively leveraged the Biden family name to make millions of dollars from foreign entities even though some were from communist controlled China,” Bobulinski told Fox News.
The text messages he has shared with a columnist at The Wall Street Journal and other conservative outlets have not been verified. Even at face value, they only elliptically refer to most of the core allegations made by Trump and his campaign, and do not reference any involvement by Joe Biden. In a review of corporate records, the Journal’s news division also found no evidence of Joe Biden’s involvement.
In a statement shared with HuffPost, Biden’s campaign flatly denied Bobulinski’s allegation, calling it part of “a desperate, pathetic farce executed by a flailing campaign with no rationale for putting our country through another four years of hell.”
The FBI is investigating whether the release of Hunter Biden’s emails is linked to a foreign disinformation campaign. More than 50 former senior intelligence officials signed a letter cautioning that the release of the emails has “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.” John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, claimed there is “no intelligence” supporting that theory.
The Post has also been releasing a stream of private text messages and photos reportedly belonging to Hunter Biden. One picture features Hunter, who has openly struggled with addiction, in a bed with what looks like a crack pipe in his mouth. A text conversation also appears to show Hunter calling himself “a fucked up addict that can’t be trusted” as Joe Biden comforts him and reminds him that he is loved. Other journalists have questioned the news value of distributing such items as disinformation experts warn that the Post’s stories bear signs of a coordinated smear campaign.
According to the Post, Hunter Biden dropped off his damaged laptop at a repair shop in Delaware last spring, and after he neglected to pick it up, the shop owner made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to the attorney of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. Giuliani then gave it to the Post, just weeks ahead of the election.
It’s a dubious narrative for a number of reasons, as HuffPost previously reported. There are glaring discrepancies in the versions of events presented by the Post, Giuliani and the shop owner, who spoke to the press following the Post’s initial article and contradicted key elements. Giuliani reportedly shopped the story around to multiple news outlets, including Fox News, which refused to cover it due to credibility concerns. Reporters in the Post’s own newsroom also raised concerns about the story’s veracity, The News York Times reported, and one of the story’s main writers refused to put his byline on it.
Nevertheless, the reelection campaign for Trump — who is down in the polls — has been tirelessly promoting the Post’s articles about the Bidens. Giuliani has also repeatedly hinted that more materials that are damaging to Joe Biden’s candidacy will soon be released.
On a Trump campaign press call ahead of the debate, conservative operative and former U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell became testy with reporters, demanding to know whether they had reported on Hunter Biden’s emails and refusing to answer other questions ― even suggesting a reporter was “homophobic” for trying to ask him something.
“We feel strongly that this is an issue that the American people are eager to know about and they’re already digging in on their own with no help from the media,” Grenell said on the call.
An NBC News investigation published Thursday did report that language related to smears about Hunter Biden are now the most common search terms for him on Google ― but it showed that that is likely the result of a deliberate Republican strategy to promote those ideas rather than some sudden genuine upsurge of natural interest among the public.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed contributed reporting.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.