Will the “Hunter Biden email scandal” end up mattering in the 2020 election?

Will the “Hunter Biden email scandal” end up mattering in the 2020 election?
Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters
With a record number of early votes already cast and a seemingly intractable partisan divide in the country, it seems doubtful the “Biden email scandal” will offer a repeat of 2016’s “Clinton email scandal.”

On October 14, 20 days before Election Day, The New York Post published the first of a series of “bombshell” articles on Hunter Biden that some believe could throw the presidential race into turmoil. The story, which includes accusations of political nepotism and self-dealing for Hunter and his father, former Vice President Joe Biden, has the potential to be a devastating October surprise.

At least, that’s the perspective of many in the right-wing media who contend the stories reveal highly lucrative, unethical dealings on the part of the Biden family. In liberal spheres, though, the story has been broadly dismissed as either Russian propaganda or a shoddy attempt to smear Hunter by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, or both.

With a record number of early votes already cast and a seemingly intractable partisan divide in the country, it seems doubtful the “Biden email scandal” will offer a repeat of 2016’s “Clinton email scandal.”

The New York Post’s Biden stories

Since the Post published the first of multiple articles related to Hunter Biden’s alleged personal emails, the details have gotten more complex, while the underlying story’s veracity has been repeatedly challenged.

On October 14, the Post reported it was in possession of a trove of Hunter’s emails, recovered from a laptop that had been left at a repair shop in Delaware in April 2019. The laptop was later given to the FBI, but not before a copy of the hard drive was given to Giuliani’s lawyer. The Post was given the hard drive by Giuliani.

The owner of the store, John Paul Mac Isaac, told the Post he wasn’t sure who dropped off the laptop, but believed it was Hunter’s because it “bore a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation, named after Hunter’s late brother and former Delaware attorney general.” As was reported by Fox News, the owner has “a condition that affects his vision” and therefore can’t verify who dropped off the laptop.

While the hard drive allegedly includes images and video of Hunter doing illicit drugs and having sex, those haven’t been the center of the scandal, so far. Instead, the two biggest “blockbuster” revelations are an email in which Hunter was thanked for introducing his father to a Burisma executive and another group of emails in which he appears to be arranging lucrative business deals in China.

In one of the emails, Hunter discusses a possible deal with Ye Jianming, chairman of CEFC China Energy: “Consulting fees is one piece of our income stream but the reason this proposal by the chairman was so much more interesting to me and my family is that we would also be partners inn [sic] the equity and profits of the JV’s [joint venture’s] investments.”

The Burisma scandal

The overarching theme to the consecutive stories is that Hunter has used his father’s political connections and power to secure lucrative deals internationally. Hunter’s financial dealings in foreign countries have long been a concern of Republicans who have maintained that his former position on the board of the Ukraine oil company Burisma was purely about his father’s influence.

Trump and his allies insist Joe Biden used his position as vice president to have Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, removed because he was investigating Burisma. Biden has denied this, instead insisting Shokin was corrupt and not doing his job. That version of events is supported by both the United Nations and the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Centre.

Trump was impeached last year for attempting to persuade Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to publicly open an investigation into Hunter and Burisma.

The oft-repeated idea that the Biden family has been profiting off the patriarch’s long political career is a major reason why the Post’s stories have gotten so much attention.

Eric Trump, son of the president, recently tweeted a photo of a palatial house, writing sarcastically, “ The salary of a U.S. Senator is $174,000 per year. This is Joe Biden’s house…. seems legit.”

Fact-checking the Post story

While right-wing media has largely run the Post stories uncritically, liberals and other news agencies have been far more skeptical. Investigators have found much to doubt about the story, starting with the base fact that Hunter lived in California in 2019. There is no explanation for why he would have taken a laptop to a repair shop in Delaware.

Multiple media outlets have reported on the various suspicious aspects of the Post’s story.

One of the major red flags was a report from The Washington Post that Trump’s current top national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, warned the president in 2019 that Giuliani was a target for Russian disinformation. Trump is alleged to have shrugged his shoulders over the warning and said, “That’s Rudy.”

NBC was the first to report that authorities in the United States are investigating the alleged Hunter emails as part of an ongoing campaign by Russia to spread damaging disinformation about the former vice president. Earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that Russia was actively working to influence the election on Trump’s behalf.

On October 19, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe stated on Fox Business that the Biden emails were not part of a Russian disinformation campaign. However, the FBI investigation is ongoing and multiple former intelligence agents have disputed Ratcliffe’s assertion, saying it is too soon to know with certainty what role, if any, Russia had in the emails.

Furthermore, Mediaite reported on October 19 that it had learned Fox News had passed on the Giuliani-supplied story because the veracity of the emails could not be confirmed. Giuliani reportedly refused to allow the emails or hard drive to be vetted. Both Fox News and The New York Post are operated under the Rupert Murdoch owned News Corp, a multinational, conservative media empire.

And, though it isn’t directly related to the Post stories, USA Today fact-checked Eric Trump’s tweet about Joe Biden’s alleged home. The house did once belong to the former senator, who purchased it for US$185,000 in the mid-1970s, but he sold it for US$1.2 million in 1996.

“But his emails”?

There are obvious parallels between the Biden email scandal and the email scandal that hung over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. For Republicans hoping to erode Joe Biden’s substantial polling lead over Trump, the Post’s story offers a glimmer of hope and perhaps even déjà vu.

On October 28, 2016, a letter to Congress from then-FBI Director James Comey revealed the agency was investigating recently obtained emails linked to Clinton. With the election 10 days away, the story is believed to have caused substantial damage to Clinton’s campaign, possibly even swaying the election to Trump.

Despite the surface similarities of email-related scandals going into Election Day, though, it is improbable the Biden emails will reflect as directly on Joe Biden or his campaign. For one, the published emails, even if they are real, don’t reveal any illegal activity by the former vice president. Also, Biden is viewed far more positively than either Clinton or Trump were at this point in the 2016 election.

Nonetheless, within the right-wing media sphere, this story appears set up to be the entire focus of the last two weeks of the campaign. It is a common refrain that there is more to the story and it is only going to get worse for the Bidens. A subset of this group has even begun spreading the rumor that child pornography was found on the hard drive, though no published evidence supports this claim.

Still, with voters already heading to the polls amid a highly partisan media landscape, any hypothetical late-October revelations from the emails may be too little, too late to affect the election results.

Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at tips@themilsource.com