- Trumpworld flew into a frenzy Wednesday after the New York Post published a report purporting to show a "smoking-gun email" featuring Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, communicating with a Ukrainian official about meeting with his father.
- The Post's story had a number of red flags and loopholes that raise questions about its authenticity.
- The most glaring question is whether the emails described in the story are legitimate, how they were uncovered, and how the Post obtained them.
- The Post's report said that an unidentified computer repair shop owner discovered the emails, as well as other compromising material about Hunter Biden, after an unidentified person dropped off a water-damaged laptop last year to be repaired but never picked it up.
- The Post said it learned of the emails' existence through the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon last month and President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
- Both men routinely push conspiracy theories about the Biden campaign's ties to Ukraine, and Giuliani met last year with a Ukrainian official who was sanctioned in September for acting as a Russian agent.
- In all, one expert said, the way the story was published appears to showcase "a standard tactic in disinformation operations."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Trumpworld flew into a frenzy Wednesday morning after the New York Post published what it described as a "smoking-gun email" purportedly showing Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, communicating with a Ukrainian official about meeting with his father.
In one alleged May 2014 email, about a month after Hunter Biden joined the board of the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma Holdings, Vadym Pozharskyi, the third-ranking executive at Burisma, emailed him asking for "advice on how you could use your influence to convey a message" or "signal."
In another email on April 17, 2015, Pozharskyi allegedly wrote to Hunter Biden thanking him for "inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It's realty [sic] an honor and pleasure."
President Donald Trump's allies seized on the report as proof that the Bidens were in bed with the Ukrainian government, and that Hunter Biden took advantage of his position on Burisma's board to link his father up with influential Ukrainian officials.
"NEWS: Biden lied when he denied speaking to his 'son [Hunter] about his overseas business dealings,'" tweeted Kellyanne Conway, a former White House counselor to Trump. "Hunter Biden joined board of Ukrainian energy company shortly after Obama put Joe Biden in charge of US relations with Ukraine. Burisma's No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for 'advice on how you could use your INFLUENCE' on the company's behalf," she added in another tweet.
"Joe Biden is a stone cold corrupt liar," said a tweet from the Trump War Room Twitter account. "Joe Biden thinks the American people are suckers," said another tweet from the account.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley latched onto the story as well, tweeting, "Joe Biden using his office to benefit a Ukrainian oligarch after he said he didn't. He is going to need to answer questions about this."
But a closer examination of the Post's story raises several red flags.
Are the emails authentic, how were they uncovered, and how did the Post obtain them?
The most glaring question is whether the emails are authentic, how they were uncovered, and how the Post obtained them.
The report said that in April 2019, an unidentified person dropped off a water-damaged MacBook Pro that contained the alleged emails and other compromising material about Hunter Biden at an unidentified repair shop in Delware, which is the Biden family's home state. The report cites the repair shop's owner as providing that information, but does not give details on his identity.
The owner of the repair shop wasn't sure the laptop belonged to Hunter Biden but said the machine had a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation, according to the report.
The Post said that the person who dropped off the water-damaged laptop "never paid for the service or retrieved it or a hard drive on which its contents were stores, according to the shop owner, who said he tried repeatedly to contact the client."
The shop's owner then contacted federal authorities about the laptop and hard drive, the story said. The article also included a photo described as a federal court subpoena showing that the FBI seized the computer and hard drive in December. But it's unclear why the bureau would need to subpoena or seize the hardware after the repair shop's owner alerted authorities of its existence on his own.
The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A reverse image search of one of the photos in the story indicated that the shop's owner is a man named John Paul Mac Isaac, and the shop, called The Mac Shop, is located at 21a Trolley Square in Wilmington, Delaware. The Post also did not strip the metadata from photos that were included in the article, and a software engineer named Russel Neiss noted that the GPS information embedded in some of the images showed the repair shop is located in the same area.
Isaac did not respond to multiple phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, noted the way the purported emails surfaced was dubious.
"This here is highly suspicious behavior," tweeted Rid, who recently published the book, "Active Measures," which focuses on the history of disinformation. "Especially when viewed in the context of a political campaign. Creative, anonymous, credibility-generating, somewhat plausible. Exactly how a professional would surface disinformation and potentially forgeries."
Rid added that the emails that are featured in the Post's story were published as images rather than in a file format, which makes it "harder to analyze and verify the files."
"The photos could be there simply to add credibility to forged emails surfaced along with the photos," he wrote. "This would be a standard tactic in disinformation operations. Bottom line: *every individual little fact*—every email, every detail mentioned in an email—must be verified when data is surfaced in such a suspicious way, not just one piece of information, say a photo. It appears that The New York Post did not do that here."
Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon resurface
More importantly, the report said, the repair shop's owner made a copy of the hard drive and turned it over to Robert Costello, a defense attorney who represents New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, before giving the computer and hard drive to the feds.
Giuliani is Trump's personal defense lawyer and he is under criminal investigation by the Manhattan US attorney's office over whether he violated foreign lobbying laws in Ukraine.
The same month that the Post said the repair shop owner gave Giuliani's lawyer a copy of the hard drive, Giuliani met with a Ukrainian national named Andrii Derkach to discuss efforts to obtain damaging information on Biden before the 2020 election. At the time, the House of Representatives was also conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump centered on his efforts to strongarm the Ukrainian government into launching politically motivated investigations targeting the Bidens.
The US Treasury sanctioned Derkach last month for acting as a Russian agent and spreading disinformation related to the election, and Politico noted that Derkach has been circulating misleading and deceptively edited material targeting Biden for at least a year.
Late last month, the Post's story said, Steve Bannon told the outlet about the existence of the hard drive. Bannon is the former White House chief strategist and previously served as the Trump campaign CEO and head of the far-right website Breitbart News. Giuliani gave the Post a copy of the drive on Sunday, the article said — nearly a year after his lawyer was allegedly given a copy of it.
The Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Megerian tweeted that he asked Giuliani on Wednesday morning how long he's had a copy of the alleged hard drive. Giuliani responded: "Your interested in the wrong thing. This time the truth will not be defeated by process. I've got a lot more to go. We just started. Print a headline saying Lyin' Joe and we can talk."
The content of the emails
Then there's the content of the emails themselves. In the alleged April 2015 email he sent to Hunter Biden, Pozharskyi thanks the former vice president's son for inviting him to Washington, DC, to meet with the elder Biden. But there's no evidence Pozharskyi actually met Joe Biden.
The Post then laid out an apparently explosive timeline, noting that fewer than eight months after Pozharskyi thanked Hunter Biden for the introduction to then Vice President Joe Biden, Biden pressed the Ukrainian government to oust the prosecutor general Viktor Shokin by "threatening to withhold a $1 billion US loan guarantee during a December 2015 trip to Kiev."
"I looked at them and said, 'I'm leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money,'" Biden said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2018. "Well, son of a bitch. He got fired."
The Post highlighted that when he was fired, Shokin had said that he had "specific plans" to investigate Burisma which "included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden."
The implication — which has repeatedly been floated by Trump, Giuliani, and their allies in the right-wing media — is that Biden had Shokin fired to stymie an explosive criminal investigation into Burisma Holdings, whose board Hunter Biden worked on at the time.
However, as Business Insider reported last year, there's a big loophole in that theory.
Government officials and Ukrainian anticorruption advocates said Shokin had hampered the investigation into Burisma long before Biden even stepped into the picture, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In other words, Biden was doing the opposite of what Trump and Giuliani have implied: He was trying to oust a prosecutor who was slow-walking the investigation into Burisma, rather than actively targeting the company.
Western diplomats also say Shokin effectively shut down one such investigation into Burisma's founder in the UK by refusing to cooperate with authorities. And Bloomberg reported that the Burisma investigation was largely dormant when Biden called for Shokin to be fired.
Most importantly, Biden represented the US's official position on the matter, one that was shared by many other Western governments and anticorruption activists in Ukraine, according to The Associated Press.
The emails laid out in the Post's story also weren't included in a controversial report released last month by two Republican Senate chairmen about the details of Hunter Biden's work in Ukraine.
Regardless, the conservative media and political sphere touted the Post's story Wednesday as incontrovertible proof that the president was right when he accused Biden of catering to corrupt Ukrainian interests to protect his son.
The story gained little traction among more reputable sources, and the social-media giant Facebook said shortly after the article was published that it was slowing the spread of the story until third-party fact checkers verified its authenticity.
"While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners," tweeted Andy Stone, a spokesperson for the company. "In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform."