Rudy Giuliani spent the spring of 2019 peddling a sordid tale on behalf of his client President Donald Trump about former Vice President Joe Biden in an effort to derail his presidential campaign and push back against special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. In Giuliani’s telling, Biden had corruptly sought the removal of a Ukrainian prosecutor in order to bolster the business interests of his son, Hunter. That wasn’t true -- but the propagandists at Fox ran with the story, and the president’s subsequent obsession with it eventually triggered the abuse of power scandal that led to his impeachment.
A year and a half later, with the president badly trailing in polls 20 days before the election, the same crew is making another run at the same story -- and trying to get the mainstream media to take the bait. But the central contention of the smear is still false, the source of the new details used to revive it is incredibly sketchy, and Giuliani’s involvement should give journalists pause given his role as a known conduit for Russian disinformation.
“BIDEN SECRET E-MAILS” blares the front-page headline of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post on Wednesday morning. “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,” reads the first sentence of the article.
The implication is that Joe Biden improperly used his position as vice president to benefit his son’s Ukrainian business interests. But as we learned when Giuliani and his allies pushed the story last year, that isn’t what happened. Biden did pressure the Ukrainian government to force the prosecutor in question, Viktor Shokin, to resign. But he did so because the U.S. government had determined that Shokin wasn’t doing enough to fight corruption in the country -- an assessment shared by American allies and the International Monetary Fund. And at the time Biden acted, the Ukrainian investigation into Burisma Holdings, the company Hunter Biden was linked to, had reportedly been moribund for a year.
But the story is even thinner than that -- the email the Post cites does not actually show that Hunter Biden “introduced” Joe Biden to the Burisma executive. In the email, Vadym Pozharskyi, described by the Post as “an adviser to the board of Burisma,” thanks Hunter Biden for “giving an opportunity to meet your father.” If the email is genuine, that comment “may just as easily have meant Hunter promised a meeting in the future that may never have occurred,” and the Post does not appear to have produced any other reporting indicating such a meeting took place.
Despite the gaping holes in the story’s central premise, the Post’s corporate cousins at Fox are already treating it as an October surprise that could have major implications for the election -- and some journalists at mainstream outlets appear to be treating it credulously.
The bizarre provenance of the emails cited in the Post article should also give journalists pause -- it involves the unnamed “shop owner” of a Delaware computer repair store who claims that someone brought a “water-damaged MacBook Pro” into the shop in April 2019, never came to pick it up, and ignored all entreaties to come get it. (It is unclear from the article whether the Post spoke directly to the “shop owner” or learned this secondhand from, say, Giuliani.).
The “shop owner” supposedly “couldn’t positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden” but the story also includes what appears to be a photo of a receipt for the work made out to Hunter Biden. The “shop owner” claims to have reviewed the laptop’s contents, copied them (possibly illegally), alerted the FBI and gave them the laptop, and provided the copy to a Giuliani associate.
None of this makes any sense.
If Giuliani’s conduct doesn’t convince you to be wary, consider the anonymized DE shop owner who says he doesn’t know who his customer is but for a beau biden fdn sticker on the device, yet purportedly created an invoice addressed to “Hunter Biden” including phone and email
— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) October 14, 2020
4. But then, after claiming the shop owner couldn't identify the customer, the piece includes a receipt that was issued to “Hunter Biden” and includes an email and phone #
So why would the shop owner produce a receipt for Hunter Biden if he didn't know the ID of the customer?
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) October 14, 2020
The story’s timing is also suspicious. The Post claims to have been informed about the existence of the emails by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in September. But the paper received the emails -- from Giuliani -- only on Sunday. That was just days after reports circulated that Attorney General William Barr had told Republicans not to expect indictments or a report from U.S. Attorney John Durham before Election Day regarding his investigation into the beginning of the Russia probe.
Trump partisans had hoped the Durham probe, the result of Barr buying into Fox conspiracy theories, might help Trump’s reelection bid. With that seemingly off the table, they needed something else to generate a scandal, and Giuliani apparently had the emails ready and waiting to drop at any time.
In past efforts to concoct a scandal involving Biden’s dealings with Ukraine, Giuliani has relied on figures linked to Russian intelligence services. Notably, the Treasury Department sanctioned Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach in September, stating that he “has been an active Russian agent for over a decade” and had participated in “Russian malign influence campaigns” that attempted to “undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.” Giuliani “played a critical role drawing public attention to Derkach and his claims” about Biden, as NPR noted.
Giuliani’s strategy has always required journalists to do Trump’s bidding. During the 2016 presidential campaign, reporters who apparently believed they were covering the first scandal of Hillary Clinton’s administration gave too much credence to pseudoscandals about her conduct. Four years later, too many reporters keep falling into the same traps.