House Republicans’ Hunter Biden Probe Begins With a Thud

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(Bloomberg) -- House Republicans failed in the opening salvo of their investigation into the finances of Joe Biden’s family to produce evidence substantiating their claims that US intelligence officials worked with Twitter Inc. to suppress an unflattering 2020 news story on the president’s son.

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Former Twitter Inc. officials testified Wednesday that their decision to limit the spread of the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s now-infamous laptop and his overseas business dealings was, in hindsight, a mistake. But they said they weren’t directed by the FBI or other US intelligence officials, and the action wasn’t politically motivated.

Many of the documents Republicans displayed at the House Oversight hearing were from the so-called “Twitter Files,” a series of reports shared by journalists who were invited by Elon Musk to examine Twitter’s handling of controversial decisions made under the company’s previous leaders. The first installment of the Twitter Files focused on the company’s treatment of the New York Post story.

Musk gave the journalists access to company emails and Slack messages, and many of those messages were then published on Twitter. Most of the reports suggest without evidence that Twitter made decisions based on demands or pressure from the FBI and the Biden campaign.

“I think you guys wanted to take it down,” House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, who also sits on the Oversight committee, said of the story, which was published just weeks before the 2020 election that then-President Donald Trump lost to Biden. “I think you got played by the FBI.”

Republicans repeatedly asked witnesses to recall years-old emails, the contents of which the former employees said they no longer have access to and do not recall the details. At one point, the power in the room went out and the panel had to recess, stretching the hearing into the afternoon.

James Baker, a former lawyer for Twitter who also previously worked for the FBI, said he didn’t act “as an agent or an operator of the government” while working for the social media company. Baker said the company’s actions were “fully consistent with the First Amendment.”

“I am aware of no unlawful collusion with, or direction from, any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation,” Baker told the panel.

Committee chair James Comer and other Republicans asserted that the FBI advised senior Twitter executives to question the validity of any Hunter Biden story. Comer also alleged that the federal government used a private company “to accomplish what it constitutionally cannot: limit the free exercise of speech.”

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The New York Post had claimed that information from Hunter Biden’s laptop showed he introduced a top executive from Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, to his father while he was vice president and overseeing the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy. Hunter Biden also served on Burisma’s board.

At the close of the nearly six-hour hearing, Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, said the testimony underscored that there was no “state action” or direction by FBI or any other government entity that led Twitter to block access to the story.

“Means this has been a wild cyber-goose chase, all day,” Raskin said.

But Comer countered by saying, “I think this was a successful hearing.”

The laptop contains evidence “that should concern every American about potential corruption as well as evidence that would suggest there’s a possibility this administration could be compromised,” Comer said. “We believe it’s worth investigating, and security is important.”

Vijaya Gadde, a former top lawyer at Twitter, testified that when the New York Post first tweeted articles about Hunter Biden’s laptop, some of images or information “looked like they may have been obtained through hacking.”

Gadde said the company applied its 2018 policy to prevent Twitter from being a “dumping ground for hacked materials” and blocked links to articles embedding the source materials.

Twitter, she said, reversed course within 24 hours and should have acted sooner. But “at no point did Twitter otherwise prevent tweeting, reporting, discussing or describing the contents of Mr. Biden’s laptop,” she said.

The former officials’ testimony didn’t sit well with Republicans. “You exercised an amazing amount of clout and power over the American electorate,” Republican Andy Biggs said, even if just for a short period.

The witnesses did acknowledge regular meetings with law enforcement in the months ahead of the 2020 election, but those were focused on worries about foreign interference and misuse of social media.

Florida Democrat Jared Moskowitz demanded that his Republican counterparts produce evidence.

“Why haven’t we seen the hard drive?” he asked of Hunter Biden’s laptop. “Why don’t you share it with the American people?”

Some of the GOP questions were far-ranging and combative — including complaints from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene that her own personal Twitter account had been shut down after warnings. Representative Nancy Mace focused on Twitter suppression of Covid-19 information that questioned guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The president is focused on ending junk fees to lower Americans’ costs, but the House GOP is focused on starting junk hearings that raise questions about their own credibility,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said.

Midway through the hearing, the White House brushed it off completely.

“It’s happening today?” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

--With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Kurt Wagner.

(Adds quotes from hearing beginning in 11th paragraph)

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