House Republicans’ wanted list: Hunter Biden, big tech and the FBI

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House Republicans’ opening act on the probe into Hunter Biden quickly revealed the tangled nature of the conference’s many investigative targets — and the murky road of attempting to prove political bias.

The six-hour Oversight Committee hearing was already expected to focus on two of the GOP’s favored topics: the president’s embattled son and big tech. But Republicans dragged a third bogeyman into the hearing as they questioned Twitter officials about the decision to censor a New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s laptop in 2020: the FBI.

There wasn’t much left to drag out of the ex-Twitter employees on that point, as several have openly said they had made the wrong call in blocking the story and repeated that point Wednesday. Instead, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a member of the Oversight Committee and chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he believed Twitter officials had been “played by the FBI” — a reference to unfounded GOP claims that the federal government pressured the platform to block the story.

It’s an early preview of what will almost certainly be a frequent thread across many of the GOP’s investigations, including the party’s claims that the government has been politicized against Republicans and social media companies have engaged in biased content regulation. And their first public shot at proving that point at times didn’t find its mark, with witnesses describing multiple instances where snap decisions infuriated both parties.

Still, Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) told reporters after the hearing concluded that he was satisfied with the results.

"We had to have a hearing about the laptop to prove that that wasn't Russian disinformation, to prove that that was in fact Hunter Biden's laptop and, again, we'll move forward with the Biden family influence-peddling investigation," Comer told reporters. He added that he plans future hearings on government collusion with tech companies as part of the investigation.

Twitter officials admitting the company made the wrong call has not satisfied Republicans’ calls for accountability. Rather, they’ve continued to point to the decision as an example of what they see as a social media company attempting to silence conservatives in favor of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign — sparking accusations from Democrats on Wednesday that the GOP was improperly using their power to fixate on a two-year-old event.

“Instead of letting this trivial pursuit go, my Republican colleagues have tried to whip up a faux-scandal about this two-day lapse in their ability to spread Hunter Biden propaganda on a private media platform. Silly does not begin to describe this obsession,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who was named as the vice ranker for the panel, accused Republicans of trying to co-opt an entire social media platform and use the power of this committee and of Congress in order to pursue a political agenda.”

Democrats had their own questions for the ex-Twitter employees, however, asking about the company’s decisions regarding former President Donald Trump’s tweets in the lead up to the Capitol attack on Jan. 6 and the platform’s handling of extremist rhetoric and misinformation.

Republicans invited three former Twitter officials to testify at the panel: Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's former chief legal officer, Jim Baker, the former Twitter counsel and FBI general counsel, and Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former global head of trust and safety, who left in November after Musk’s takeover.

Each of the three distanced themselves from Twitter’s handling of the New York Post story, while also pushing back on GOP suggestions that they coordinated with the federal government to benefit Biden.

Yoel RothIn hindsight, Twitter should have reinstated the New York Post’s account immediately given the circumstances,” Gadde said in her opening statement.

Baker added that he was not aware of “unlawful collusion with, or direction from, any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation.”

Some Republicans argued that Baker joining of the company was evidence of collusion between Twitter and the FBI. “From the hearing I’ve been at today, it’s almost impossible to tell where the FBI ends and where Twitter begins,” said Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

Counter to Republican claims about big tech’s anti-conservative bent, the three witnesses described multiple one-off judgements that frequently angered both sides of the aisle. For example, Roth described the deeply pernicious efforts by Russia to interfere in American elections that had drawn bipartisan concern and condemnation in recent election cycles.

Some Democrats were downright gleeful during the hearing, accusing the GOP of hypocrisy since the Trump White House had previously requested Twitter remove a September 2019 tweet from celebrity Chrissy Teigen in which she called him unsavory names.

“I’m beginning to feel a little bad for the majority,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.). “Because you guys have come today to try to prove that the Biden administration in coordination with Twitter is impugning free speech and the problem is that Donald Trump — he is just this thing that hangs around your neck — because at every turn he undermines whatever credibility you want to have on this subject.”

And Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) chimed in at one point: “My, my, my what happens when you hold a hearing and you can’t prove your point.”

And even as Republicans have remained laser-focused on the New York Post story, social media bias and content moderation, the current House GOP has shown little appetite for serious regulation of the industry. Last week, party leaders passed over one of the big tech’s strongest Republican critics, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), in favor of a more industry-friendly figure to run the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.

And GOP contentions that the New York Post’s original story about Hunter Biden was unassailable teed up a response from Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.), who said that it began with a false premise about President Joe Biden’s dealings with Ukraine during his vice presidency.

The laptop purportedly included Hunter’s promises to arrange meetings between foreign executives and his father, who at the time was vice president to President Barack Obama. POLITICO has not undergone the process to authenticate the Hunter Biden laptop that underpinned the New York Post story, but reporter Ben Schreckinger has confirmed the authenticity of some emails on it.

Democrats, meanwhile, secured former Twitter employee Anika Collier Navaroli to be their witness. Navaroli previously spoke with the Jan. 6 select committee to discuss Twitter’s failure to stop extremist posts leading up to the insurrectionists’ takeover of the U.S. Capitol. Democrats on Wednesday repeatedly used their questions to emphasize that the committee should instead focus on the platform’s handling of threats or other extreme rhetoric.

The hearing is likely to have little impact on the current operations of Twitter — given it’s now run by Elon Musk, the tech billionaire who has been courting Republicans since he bought the company in late October. Comer, in his opening statement, drew a firm line between Twitter before and after it was bought by Musk.

Instead, committee members referenced the “Twitter files” — reports purporting to show collusion between the FBI and company executives to quash the New York Post story. However, the files themselves showed no evidence that the FBI asked Twitter to censor the story, and multiple federal officials have denied the allegation.

And at least one member had personal grievances to litigate against Twitter. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spent her entire five minutes for questions to talk about the nearly year-long ban of her personal Twitter account, stemming from tweets that promoted false information about the pandemic.

“You were censoring and wrongfully violating our First Amendment free speech rights,” she said. “Guess what? None of you hold security clearances, none of you were elected and none of you represent 750,000 people like I do.”

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) quickly responded to Greene, saying, “The gentle-lady was suspended for knowingly and consistently spreading conspiracy theories about Covid-19, which is shameful during a pandemic where millions of people lost their lies.”

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.