An unverified piece in the New York Post is the latest and perhaps final attempt to discredit Joe Biden. But the origin of the information is dubious, and alleged corruption in Ukraine is what led to Trump’s impeachment trial last year.
October Surprises, meaning scandals and revelations that are deliberately made public in October, just a few weeks or days before the election, are a fascinating tradition in American politics.
Donald Trump’s allies launched one of those October surprises the previous week, to harm rival candidate Biden. However, it has become apparent that the alleged scandal might be a fabrication or an unconfirmed conspiracy theory.
On Wednesday, October 21, the New York Post published the piece in question. It alleges that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, had incriminating information on his laptop, which he had turned in for repair at a computer store. These materials – according to the piece – suggest that then-Vice President Biden used his position to personally enrich himself and met a top consultant from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, on whose board of directors Biden’s son sat at the time. Biden’s team has repeatedly stated such a meeting neither took place nor was it planned.
The president’s allies are trying to utilize the story to show that Biden had abused his position to give his son and his company an advantage in the Ukrainian government – and that he lied when he said he was from kept away from his son’s business relationships. Essentially the story aims to portrait Biden – and indeed his family – as corrupt. The president vehemently attempted to voice the accusations during last week’s debate.
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and various media such as the Washington Post or the New York Times have since tried to verify the story’s authenticity to no avail. Twitter and Facebook even restricted the article’s distribution on their platforms as long as the information’s origin was not clarified nor verified.
The Wall Street Journal Did Not Buy the Story
The origin of the material is indeed controversial. The New York Post announced that it had heard of the material from Steve Bannon and received it from Rudolph Giuliani. Steve Bannon, former head of the right-wing populist medium Breitbart news and former Trump Chief Strategist, is currently on trial for money laundering and fraud. Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, has already attracted attention in the past for his proclivity for false information and conspiracy theories.
Perhaps even more indicative is that the Trump team initially offered the story to the conservative Wall Street Journal. The latter refused as it was unable to verify the information. Giuliani then contacted the New York Post. Here, the author did not want to publish his byline in the article, reportedly due to credibility concerns, while the woman, whose byline appears in the article, claims to have nothing to do with the story. Moreover, several intelligence experts told the Washington Post that they were skeptical about the material’s authenticity.
The story possesses all the characteristics of a carefully planned information operation intended to influence the American election. Indeed, the current revelation appears like a déjà vu from 2016, when Russian intelligence officials hacked and published hundreds of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager on WikiLeaks to help Donald Trump’s campaign.
It is all the more remarkable that the Trump campaign ventured down the Ukraine path again. After all, the alleged Biden-Ukraine conspiracy led to Trump’s impeachment proceedings at the end of last year.
Most importantly, two Republican-led Senate committees investigated the Bidens’ alleged corruption – including via Trump administration officials under oath – and arrived at the same conclusion: Joe Biden was merely pursuing official US policy towards Ukraine.
Strategic Mistakes and Why the Story Matters Nonetheless
The message the “Laptop from Hell” reveals is hence not the existence of a “Biden crime family”, but rather a testimony of the Trump campaign’s strategic failures.
The latter had first focussed on portraying Biden as a socialist, then as a puppet of Bernie Sanders. Neither stuck. Next was the claim that Biden was a drooling, senile fool, incapable of forming a coherent sentence, never mind leading the country. The result remained the same. In the end, the Trump campaign attempted to utilize and recycle claims of corruption against Biden.
However, in these times of COVID-19, with more than 200.000 Americans dead and the most devastating financial crisis since perhaps the Great Depression, the strategy was always destined to fail. Senator Ted Cruz summed it up perfectly: has no time nor interest to engage in an unconfirmed Hunter Biden story, that, according to Republican Senator Ted Cruz, “will not move a single voter.”
The story matters nonetheless, albeit in a different sense than intended. The mainstream and establishment news outlets were pawns in 2016, detrimental to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This year, they drew a line and obliged by their journalistic duty which is to attempt to verify the story. The result is a Joe Biden corruption case that circulates exclusively within the Breitbart and Fox News opinion bubble.