If you blinked, you might have missed the turn in the national spotlight of Tony Bobulinski, a disgruntled former business partner of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Bobulinski’s claims of corruption by Joe Biden were promoted by President Donald Trump and his campaign, then debunked within hours. But the affair shows why journalists should be wary of the information control strategy that Trump’s allies are using to smear the former vice president through his son’s business interests.
Here’s a brief timeline of yesterday’s events. At around 3:45 p.m. ET yesterday, reporters learned that the Trump campaign was bringing Bobulinski to the debate as the president’s “special guest.” Bobulinski had previously alleged that Joe Biden had been involved in a business venture involving Bobulinski, Hunter Biden, and the Chinese oil company CEFC China Energy Co. Three hours later, the campaign informed the White House press pool that it would be holding an event with Bobulinski before the debate. At 7:17 p.m. ET, Bobulinski appeared before the press cameras. He spoke for seven minutes, showed reporters three old cell phones that he claimed contained incriminating evidence about the Bidens that he planned to turn over to the authorities, and took no questions. At 8 p.m., Fox News star Tucker Carlson opened his show by calling Bobulinski’s appearance a “surprising, maybe shocking, maybe history-altering development.” At 9:32 p.m., Trump brought up the allegations during his debate with Biden. And at 10:47 p.m., just minutes after the debate concluded, The Wall Street Journal published a story that brought the entire narrative crashing down.
Bobulinski provided the Journal with access to his text messages and emails about the venture. But after reviewing those materials, the paper’s reporters found that they “don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden” -- the former vice president’s brother -- “discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.” The Journal provided a denial from the Biden campaign that Joe Biden had been involved in the company, and further reported:
The venture—set up in 2017 after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency and before his presidential campaign—never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter. Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.
The Journal reporters were able to report out the story and cast doubt upon key elements of Bobulinski’s narrative because they had access to the underlying documents. However, that hasn’t been the case with other elements of the Trump campaign’s attempt to smear Joe Biden through his son.
During the 2016 election cycle, several key elements of the right-wing smear campaign against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton revolved around making allegedly scandalous documents available to reporters at mainstream news outlets. Chapters of Clinton Cash, the conservative author Peter Schweizer’s book targeting Bill and Hillary Clinton’s financial and philanthropic dealings, were made available to outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, allowing them to report out stories about its contents before publication. The right-wing organization Judicial Watch sued for and released thousands of State Department emails over the course of the campaign. And WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of Democratic emails that had been hacked by Russian intelligence services.
In each of those cases, those in control of the documents sought to slant coverage and likely counted on the fact that even if the reporters ended up indicating that aspects of that narrative didn’t hold up, they still helped give the allegations oxygen. But the journalists at least had the ability to scrutinize the documents.
Four years later, that strategy has been largely abandoned. Instead, the Hunter Biden stories are largely based on emails and text messages contained in a hard drive in the custody of the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who is tightly controlling access to the documents. Giuliani is doling out documents to people that he knows won’t try to scrutinize them, while denying access to more scrupulous ones. Trump and his media allies, meanwhile, are demanding the press cover the story even though journalists, by design, lack the full context.
Several of the underlying claims surrounding the Hunter Biden story appear dubious. But Trump and his media allies just want to get the words “Biden” and “corruption” into as many stories as possible. And they’re counting on the press to carry their water.
Here’s how Giuliani’s information control strategy works.
1. Trump’s personal lawyer controls the story -- with his oversight
The story revolves around a trove of emails and text messages allegedly obtained from Hunter Biden’s laptop by a Delaware computer repair store owner. The validity of the documents is uncertain -- the store owner provided the laptop to the FBI in December 2019, and the bureau is reportedly reviewing whether the materials are part of a foreign disinformation campaign. What is clear is that Giuliani has a copy of the hard drive, which he says was given to his own lawyer by the store owner.
That means Giuliani has control over the story, with the power to cherry-pick from the documents and provide or withhold them from reporters at will. But Giuliuani is not a credible source for information -- he is Trump’s own personal lawyer, tasked with trying to dig up dirt on Joe Biden to bolster the president’s reelection campaign. Fox News’ own “Brain Room” reported that he played an “extensive role” last year in “spreading disinformation” about the Bidens and Ukraine, while Trump’s national security adviser reportedly warned the president last year that “Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence.” In September, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned one of Giuliani’s Ukrainian sources for trying to influence the election, stating that the source is an “active Russian agent.”
Giuliani isn’t acting on his own, but on behalf of his client and with his approval. “The president knows all about this,” he told The Daily Beast last week, explaining that he had briefed Trump about the contents of the hard drive. The Beast had previously reported that “[i]n recent weeks, Donald Trump was made aware of an alleged secret trove of material about Hunter Biden’s foreign dealings and private life, and was keen on getting it out into the public domain as soon as possible.”
Steve Bannon, who is currently facing federal fraud charges and previously served as a chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign, a senior White House aide, and head of the right-wing Breitbart.com, was also aware of the documents before the public. So was Fox News host Sean Hannity, who speaks with the president regularly and has so much influence over him that he has been referred to by White House aides as his “shadow” chief of staff.
2. Giuliani gives documents to people who won’t scrutinize them
If Giuliani has given you access to these documents, it isn’t because he respects your reporting skills. He explained to The New York Times that he initially gave the story to the New York Post because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” That has been borne out by the rogue’s gallery of right-wing Trumpists he’s hand-picked, all of whom work for outlets owned by right-wing billionaire Rupert Murdoch.
Giuliani turned to the Post after Fox reportedly passed on the story, citing problems with its credibility. He ran into problems with its newsroom too -- the Post’s initial report was pushed through by top editors while reporters refused to put their names on it. The lead reporter on the Post’s stories, Emma-Jo Morris, is a former Hannity producer who had no previous bylines at the paper and has an Instagram feed filled with photos of her with right-wing heroes like Hannity and Bannon. But she hasn’t been making media rounds to talk about the stories -- that’s been left to her conservative colleagues in the paper’s opinion side.
Right-wing media figures granted “exclusives” related to the Hunter Biden hard drive documents include Fox prime-time star Tucker Carlson, whose own network successfully argued in court that no “reasonable viewer” takes him seriously and who also serves as an outside Trump adviser. Others who had early access to Bobulinski’s story include Post columnist and Fox contributor Michael Goodwin, a Trump favorite; and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, including Kimberley Strassel, who Trump has said deserves a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the “Russia Hoax.”
That’s not a good list to be on -- by Giuliani’s own admission, it’s a list of people he thought would put out his spin without questioning it.
3. The pro-Trump smear campaign denies access to credible press outlets
Who isn’t getting access to these documents? Anyone Giuliani thinks will scrutinize them -- again, by his own admission.
Giuliani and his lawyer won't provide their evidence to the reporters Trumpworld says are refusing to report on the allegations. https://t.co/D64tgG6SD8
— Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) October 22, 2020
Without access to the documents, journalists can’t verify their contents. They are unable to examine the metadata to determine whether they are valid. And they lack the context in which the various emails and text messages took place, or the ability to tease out aspects of the story that haven’t been served up by eager partisans. All they have is what they’ve seen filtered through the reporting of people Giuliani says aren’t looking for a story beyond the one Giuliani says is there.
The Journal story shows why -- the newsroom’s access to the Bobulinski documents allowed reporters to critically assess his claims and find them to be bogus. Giuliani does not want to give other actual journalists that same opportunity.
4. Trump, right-wing media demand press cover the story
Attacks on the press are a central facet of the modern Republican Party, as are efforts to compel journalists to cover the stories the party’s leaders want in the manner they prefer. This strategy of “working the refs” is a key element of right-wing media commentary.
The Hunter Biden story has proven no different. Ever since the story launched, right-wing media have fumed over the lack of attention it has garnered from mainstream news outlets. They are trying to berate journalists into covering the story based on the limited information filtered through their fellow partisans, as my colleague Parker Molloy noted. So far, the press hasn’t taken the bait, in part due to lack of access to the documents. Their lack of coverage has fueled an incessant drumbeat of criticism on Fox.
The Trump campaign has joined in. On Monday, the president lashed out at Reuters reporter Jeff Mason at a press gaggle, telling him that “Joe Biden is a criminal and he's been a criminal for a long time and you're a criminal and the media for not reporting it." He also lashed out at CBS News’ Lesley Stahl for “protecting” Joe Biden by expressing skepticism about the story during an interview for 60 Minutes, for which he drew cheers from right-wing outlets. His aide Ric Grenell also went after reporters on a Thursday campaign call for not covering the story.
5. Team Trump is trying to create news events to drive press coverage
Giuliani and company must realize they need mainstream media coverage of the story in order to reach people who don’t already plan to vote for Trump. But as described above, those outlets aren’t being given access to the documents for fear they might find something to defuse the narrative, and they’ve been unresponsive to right-wing efforts to shame them into providing blanket coverage anyway.
So Team Trump is trying to generate additional coverage by creating news events related to their narrative.
That effort involves trying to get state and federal law enforcement involved. Eleven House Republicans signed on to a letter Monday asking Attorney General William Barr to appoint a special counsel to lead an investigation of the Bidens, and a few Republican senators have joined them. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has tried to get FBI Director Christopher Way to weigh in publicly on aspects of the story and is trying to get Bobulinski to speak with the committee as well. And Giuliani sought an investigation from the Delaware State Police.
There’s little sign any of this is working -- the narrative they are trying to concoct is likely impenetrable to voters who don’t spend their evenings watching Carlson and his colleagues. But with time running out and Trump trailing in the polls by a considerable margin, they don’t have a lot of superior options to pushing an obviously bogus smear campaign and hoping to get it outside of Fox’s propaganda bubble.