With just over two weeks to go until the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the New York Post published a story that was lauded by right-leaning media and political figures as a “bombshell” and criticized by others as disinformation resurfacing an old method of political attack.
The story was based around contents found on the hard drive of a laptop that had allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Citing emails found on the hard drive, the Post reported it had a “smoking gun” proving that the elder Biden had met with a Ukrainian energy firm executive while Hunter sat on the board of that firm.
The Post claimed to have confirmed a long-running line of political attack against Biden — namely that Biden had used his position as vice president in the Obama administration to benefit Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company, while his son sat on the board.
However, the Post’s “smoking gun” email doesn’t prove that Biden met with the Burisma executive on behalf of his son, and Biden’s campaign has denied any such meeting ever took place. Many noted that the story raised more questions than it answered.
Below, we unpack what we know.
The New York Post’s Story
On Oct. 14, 2020, The New York Post published a story headline that read, “Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad.”
The Post reported that Rudy Giuliani, the personal attorney for U.S. President Donald Trump (who is running against Joe Biden), gave them a “copy” of Hunter Biden’s laptop drive on Oct. 11, 2020. The newspaper was first alerted to its existence by Steve Bannon, a former Trump aide and former Breitbart News executive.
The “smoking gun” message is embedded in the story. It was allegedly sent by Burisma board adviser Vadym Pozharskyi in April 2015, and read, “Dear Hunter, thank you 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.”
The story didn’t offer any other evidence that a meeting between Joe Biden and Pozharskyi ever took place, and the Biden campaign responded by stating that it did not. A Biden campaign spokesman told the New York Times, “We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place.”
The spokesman also stated the Post had never contacted them about “critical elements of the story.”
The Post story contained a second email, allegedly sent by Pozharskyi in 2014, addressed to both Hunter Biden and Devon Archer, who was also on the Burisma board. In the message, Pozharskyi was seeking “advice” from the men as to “how you could use your influence” to help the company in a matter described as various Ukrainian government agencies attempting extract money from the company. It didn’t specifically ask Biden to seek help from his father, the American vice president.
Aside from those emails, the story included embedded images from Hunter Biden’s alleged computer hard drive which include family photographs and screen shots from a lurid video involving the younger Biden.
It also contained an image of a December 2019 subpoena for a MacBook Pro and a hard drive.
The story prompted immediate scrutiny and criticism for its timing and sourcing, dropping just over two weeks before the presidential election in which Biden is Trump’s challenger and sourced from Trump allies.
We reached out to the Biden campaign and Hunter Biden’s attorney, George Mesires, with questions about the story but didn’t hear back in time for publication.
The story also raised red flags for disinformation researchers.
For example, Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, tweeted that the story should be approached with caution, and noted that it’s an “old Cold War disinformation tactic to pass information, especially but not exclusively when forged, to low-brow newspapers that have high circulation and low standards of investigation. Ideal for surfacing and amplification.”
The Chain of Events
The Post reported that the saga started in April 2019, when a man identifying himself as Hunter Biden dropped the laptop off at a computer repair shop in the Biden family’s home state of Delaware. The laptop had been damaged by water.
Although the Post didn’t identify the shop owner, journalists were able to track the shop down because the Post failed to remove metadata from images embedded in the story. The shop owner, John Paul Mac Isaac, spoke to several reporters in a nearly hour-long conversation recorded by The Daily Beast.
In the discussion, Isaac alleged that a man identifying himself as Hunter Biden had dropped the laptop in question off with liquid damage. He also said he didn’t actually see the vice president’s son dropping the laptop off. The Post story contained an invoice naming Hunter Biden.
Isaac declined to answer many questions, but he did state that the contents of the laptop troubled him. Isaac referenced the debunked Seth Rich conspiracy theory, which holds that Rich, a DNC staffer, was murdered by Democratic political operates because after he hacked the DNC’s server. Isaac claimed he was fearful for his own safety.
U.S. Intelligence officials have concluded that it was Russian government agents, not Rich, who hacked the DNC. The Russian government had actively promoted the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, however, as had right-wing media and social media personalities.
Isaac said he was troubled by the contents of the laptop, and was therefore in contact with the FBI — although he gave contradictory statements as to who initiated the contact. According to the subpoena published by the Post, the FBI took the laptop from Isaac in December 2019.
We left a voice message with Isaac’s computer shop but didn’t get a response in time for publication. We also reached out to the FBI with questions about the claims in the story and Isaac’s statement, but the FBI replied that according to policy, it wouldn’t confirm or deny an investigation.
The Post reported that before Isaac gave the laptop and hard drive to the FBI, he “made a copy of the hard drive and later gave it to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello.”
When reached by phone, Costello told Snopes that he was given the contents of the hard drive in September 2020. The contents, he said, contain thousands of emails, text messages, pictures and videos.
Costello told Snopes that the reason his client, Giuliani, ultimately gave the hard drive copy to the Post was because that’s what its source (although Costello didn’t name him, we presume based on Isaac’s own statements that he was the source) wanted done.
“We turned [the hard drive contents] over [to the Post] because the intent of the source was to get the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani so he could do something with it, bring it to the public’s attention,” Costello said.
Costello said it was “reasonable” to assume Isaac wanted the hard drive’s contents given to the Post because he was frustrated by his perceived lack of law enforcement action by the FBI, who had possessed the laptop since December 2019. Costello said the laptop’s original owner never retrieved his property, therefore it was “considered abandoned property” that “became the property of the source.”
Both Facebook and Twitter took action against the Post article, with Twitter blocking users from posting links to it. Twitter said it did so because the story included personal and private information, and its content violated Twitter’s policy against posting hacked material.
“We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials,” the platform stated.
The platforms’ actions prompted a rebuke from Trump.
“So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of ‘Smoking Gun’ emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter,” Trump tweeted. “It is only the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician.”
An Old Political Attack
The New York Post story played on an allegation originally raised to counter those made against Trump in an impeachment inquiry.
Trump was accused of attempting to strong-arm Ukraine’s president into producing damaging information on Biden by withholding crucial military aid. Trump was ultimately impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Republican-controlled Senate voted acquit him without calling witnesses or admitting new evidence. Trump and his supporters countered by turning Ukraine corruption allegations on Biden, stating that as vice president, Biden had pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor so the prosecutor couldn’t investigate Burisma while his son sat on the company’s board.
The New York Post article resurfaced a 2018 statement made by Biden which has been widely taken out of context to show “proof” of that corruption: “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 stated. “Well, son of a bitch. He got fired.”
Biden wasn’t admitting to pressuring Ukraine to fire a prosecutor looking into his son’s firm, however. He was describing efforts by the Obama administration to stamp out government corruption in Ukraine, which included getting rid of an ineffective prosecutor. An investigation by Senate Republicans into Biden’s activities as vice president in relation to Ukraine concluded in 2020 without finding any evidence of wrongdoing.
Since we published this story, many Snopes readers have inquired whether a photograph included in the Post story truly showed Hunter Biden asleep with a “crack pipe” dangling from his mouth. At this time we know nothing about the provenance of the photograph: Who took it, whether it was real or staged, whether it was taken with or without Biden’s knowledge, whether Biden was truly asleep, or whether he had been smoking crack (or anything else) with the pictured pipe. We also note that the image only shows part of the person’s face alleged to be Hunter Biden.
We sent questions to the Post’s editors asking how the Post verified the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents and why it included personal images from it which were not pertinent to the story. We will update if we hear back.