A newly discovered laptop, the FBI, a trove of emails, October, a presidential election—it sounds familiar. Especially when you add in a Russian disinformation campaign. On Wednesday, the New York Post released what it hailed as a bombshell: an unidentified computer repair store owner in Delaware had come to possess a laptop that contained Hunter Biden emails (and purportedly a sex tape), the hard drive and computer was seized by the FBI, the store owner at some point passed a copy of the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani, and one of the emails suggested that Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, may have in 2015 introduced a Burisma official to his dad, Vice President Joe Biden. The story depicts this as a big scandal, and Guiliani tweeted, “Much more to come.”
But the key point of the article was predicated on false information that Giuliani has been spreading for a long time—and that appears to be linked to a Russian disinformation operation that the Post neglected to note in its article. That is, the Post piece, based on an unproven smear, is in sync with Moscow’s ongoing effort to influence the 2020 election to help President Donald Trump retain power. (The FBI and other parts of the US intelligence community have stated that Vladimir Putin is once again attacking the US political system to boost Trump.) And this story presents a challenge to the American media: how to report on an orchestrated campaign to affect the election that relies on disinformation, salacious and sensational material, and the revival of allegations that have already been debunked.
The bad faith animating the Post story is demonstrated by its open embrace—in the first sentence—of a demonstrably false narrative and by its failure to report Giuliani’s association with a Russian intelligence agent who the Department of Treasury has accused of interfering in the 2020 election.
The article begins: “Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.” The claim that Biden forced the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect Burisma has been the centerpiece of Giuliani’s long-running, Fox-hyped effort (on behalf of his client Donald Trump) to dig up dirt on Biden in the former Soviet republic.
Biden in 2016 did push for the firing of this prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, but there is no indication this was done to assist Burisma. In fact, there is a boatload of evidence that Shokin was canned because of his own corruption. There was no active investigation of Burisma at the time of his dismissal. (The absence of such a probe was even cited at the time as one sign of Shokin’s malfeasance) And as has been widely documented, Biden’s demand that Shokin be dumped was part of an international effort to pressure Ukraine’s government to clean itself up in order to receive financial assistance. (Several Republican senators also called for Shokin’s removal.) Yet Trump and others have falsely claimed that Biden nefariously bounced Shokin to cover up supposed Burisma misdeeds.
The Post repeating this baseless accusation is an act of propaganda—and the foundation for the article. The email the tabloid touts as big news suggests that in 2015 Hunter introduced a Burisma board member to his dad. The newspaper implies that this was somehow connected to Biden urging Shokin’s dismissal the following year. If there was nothing untoward about Biden pressing the Ukrainian government to replace Shokin, there certainly isn’t anything necessarily scandalous about Biden having met with the board member. Moreover, the 2015 email to Hunter—which simply says, “thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father”—discloses nothing about any conversation the board member might have had with the vice president. It’s not even confirmed that this meeting occurred. (The Biden campaign issued a statement saying it had reviewed Joe Biden’s schedule and no such meeting “ever took place.”)
The Post provides no information connecting this email exchange and the Shokin case. But Rupert Murdoch’s paper is using this one email to revive the Ukrainian scandal that Giuliani has been trying to gin up for over a year. (This crusade included trying to raise $10 million to make a documentary that would be released before the election.) And don’t forget that it was Giuliani and Trump’s search for Ukrainian dirt that led to Trump’s impeachment.
Russian intelligence, too, has been trying to disseminate disinformation related to Ukraine to tar Biden. That was a finding of the recent Republican-endorsed Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian intervention in US elections. The Russian operation has overlapped with Giuliani’s endeavor. But the Post left this inconvenient fact out of its story.
Last month, the US Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Andriy Derkach—the son of a former KGB official—and called him “an active Russian agent for over a decade” and declared he was one of a group of “Russia-linked election interference actors.” The Treasury said he has maintained “close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services” and “has directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 US presidential election.” Trump’s own Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, declared, “Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world.” Previously, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told Congress that Derkach is “spreading claims about corruption” as part of the Kremlin’s effort to undermine Biden’s campaign. And he worked with Guliani to do so.
Giuliani has a starring role in the Post‘s story. The Delaware computer repair store owner gave a copy of the laptop’s hard drive to Giuliani (sometime after last December), and this past weekend Giuliani shared a copy with the Post. (In late September, former Trump adviser and recently indicted Steve Bannon informed the newspaper of the existence of the hard drive.) As part of his smear-Biden campaign, Giuliani late last year traveled to Ukraine and met with Derkach and other Ukrainians who have been pushing the fake Shokin story.
This summer, Giuliani told the Washington Post that he remained in contact with Derkach after his trip, calling the Ukrainian “very helpful.” He said that he and Derkach have spoken about Ukraine many times, according to the Post. Meanwhile, starting in May, Derkach staged press conferences in Kiev and played secretly recorded tapes of Biden speaking by phone with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Derkach claimed the recordings backed up Trump’s and Giuliani’s allegations about Biden. Yet the tapes revealed no wrongdoing. This appeared to be a disinformation stunt, and Ukrainians critical of Russia speculated that the tapes originated with Russian intelligence.
None of this is in the Post’s story. In the penultimate paragraph, the paper quotes a lawyer for Hunter Biden accusing Giuliani of “openly relying on actors tied to Russian intelligence.” But Giuliani’s connection to Derkach is not mentioned in the article. Nor does Derkach’s name appear anywhere in the piece. The Murdoch outlet ignores the elemental—and crucial—information that Russia has been mounting an information warfare operation against the 2020 election to harm Biden and that this plot has included Derkach’s efforts to taint Biden. Leaving out the documented link between Giuliani and a Russian agent involved in a disinformation scheme is gross journalistic malpractice.
It’s no surprise that the Murdochites would engage in such Trumpy reporting. The article was co-written by Emma-Jo Morris, a former segment producer at Fox News for host Sean Hannity and a former communications staffer for the Conservative Political Action Conference. An accompanying Post article asserts that Hunter Biden tried to exploit his father’s visit to Ukraine, but a memo written by Hunter that the story cites shows Hunter telling his business partner that “what [Biden] will say and do is out of our hands” and that they should “temper expectations” about the visit—which undercuts the claim that Biden used his office to help or protect his son. In that memo, Hunter also states that his Ukrainian associates “need to know in no uncertain terms that we will not and cannot intervene directly with domestic policy makers”—in other words, he won’t use his influence with dad. The Post‘s story does not report that.
The Post, Fox, and the Trump campaign will try to turn this disinformation and whatever else might be on that laptop into an October Surprise. The big question is how the rest of the media will contend with this, especially if Giuliani or others keep leaking other material (which may or may not be legitimate) from this computer. Will reporters at other outlets repeat the mistakes of 2016 and focus obsessively on these leads without examining the source or investigating the operation that put them into play? Will they wittingly or not assist an obvious ploy to generate headlines that suggest there is a new scandal about old (and already disproven) allegations? Will they fall for it?
On Wednesday morning, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted out the Post story and its headline referring to a “smoking-gun email.” Subsequently, she posted tweets taking a more skeptical view of the story. To his credit, Chris Megerian, the White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, quickly pointed out, “The story does not say that allegations of Ukrainian corruption have been pushed by Russia to undermine Joe Biden, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Nor does it mention that Rudy Giuliani has worked with a Ukrainian lawmaker identified as a Russian agent.” Facebook executive Andy Stone noted that the social media giant would limit the Post article’s distribution on its platform.
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. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 14, 2020
Will the rest of the media handle this story responsibly? Thomas Rid, a cyber and disinformation expert at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, tweeted out a thread urging caution. “This here is highly suspicious behavior,” he observed. “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.” He noted that “the revealed emails are shared as image files, not in a file format that would contain header information and metadata. That makes it harder to analyze and verify the files.” And Rid issued a warning: “To journalists considering writing about this toxic story: don’t—unless you can independently verify more details. And even if you can verify something, acknowledge the possibility of disinformation up-front, especially against the backdrop of 2016. Not doing so is bad practice.”
In 2016, Russia attacked an American election and accomplished its mission of electing Trump—in part because much of the media throughout October of that year focused on the Hillary Clinton-related emails hacked-and-leaked by Putin’s secret operation without paying much attention to the Kremlin assault itself. In 2020, Moscow, according to the Trump administration’s top intelligence officials, is at it again. So allegations or stories that might be linked to or created by Russia’s ongoing covert operation ought to be vetted carefully before being reported or amplified. Journalists should resist becoming handmaids for Putin’s latest war on the United States. Especially now that the New York Post has provided all reporters a wonderful tutorial on how to be a useful idiot for Russia.