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It's a Conspiracy!, Part I: Hunter Biden's Laptop

Almost every week, we get a couple of e-mails from readers asking us to explain the Hunter Biden laptop situation. Kevin McCarthy has big plans on that front, some of which he just shared with The New York Post The Post, for those who don't know, is the outlet that has been on this story like white on rice, sort of like The Washington Post and Watergate. In any case, it would seem an appropriate time to give an overview of the situation, along with our views on the matter.

It is helpful, we think, to think of this story as having three (or possibly four) different elements. Here they are:

  1. The Laptop: On April 12, 2019, a person who identified themselves as Hunter Biden, and who knew Biden's cell phone number, and whose signature looks like Biden's, presented themselves at a computer repair shop owned by John Paul Mac Isaac. This customer had several water-damaged laptops, one of which was so far gone that the only possibility was to salvage the data contained on its hard drive. The customer signed a document in which they agreed to pay $85 for data recovery from this machine. This same document made clear that if the equipment was not claimed within 90 days, it would be forfeit.

    Mac Isaac performed the data recovery, and took notice of some of the files on the machine. There was a large cache of homemade pornography. There were a bunch of non-pornographic photos. There were over 100,000 e-mails. Mac Isaac is a devoted Trumper, a conspiracy theorist, and someone who regards himself as a patriot. He says he was "concerned" about some of the material he saw on the hard drive. After completing the work, he called the cell phone number left by the customer and said the job was done. The laptop was never picked up, and so it eventually became Mac Issac's property (though it was eventually seized by the FBI). He also shared copies of the data with contacts in the Republican Party, which was almost certainly illegal.

    As is presumably clear from this narrative, there is some debate about whether the customer really was Hunter Biden, and whether this really was his laptop. Given Mac Isaac's politics, and his less-than-ethical behavior here, there is some reason to doubt his veracity. On the other hand, there's pretty strong evidence that the customer was indeed Biden and that the laptop was his. Most obviously, it would be very difficult to fake that much data (and that much porn) that clearly includes Biden's personal information, his image, etc. Further, in April 2019, he was in the midst of a crack-fueled bender, during which he was traveling up and down the east coast. He cannot say where he was on April 12; it's entirely plausible he was in Delaware, and it's even plausible he doesn't remember being in the repair shop or dropping off a laptop. Our sense, based on the evidence, is that it was indeed Hunter Biden and that it is indeed his laptop.

  2. The Data: Mac Isaac had the data from the laptop for about a year as he tried to get high-ranking Republicans interested in it. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), among others, did not respond to messages. Eventually, Mac Isaac managed to connect with Robert Costello, who often represents Rudy Giuliani. Costello got a copy of the data, and then gave a copy to Giuliani. The two men schemed about how to weaponize the data, and eventually shared copies with many right-wing media figures while announcing the existence of the data at the now-infamous Four Seasons press conference, roughly two weeks before the election. In contrast to Hillary Clinton's e-mails in 2016, the Hunter Biden news had virtually no impact in 2020.

    One does not have to be a computer scientist to recognize that this data cache is now... unreliable. Recall that the FBI has the actual laptop, and so everyone involved is working with copies. And those copies have not only been duplicated and re-duplicated, they've been reorganized by some of the people in the chain of custody. "The forensic quality of this thing is garbage" said one expert, while another called it a "forensic mess." There is little question that some, and probably most, of the data once belonged to Hunter Biden. But all of it? That's not as clear; the potential for someone unfriendly to sneak a few troublesome things in among the dross is high. In fact, after the story broke, more than four dozen former intelligence officials signed a letter sharing their view that the whole thing had the feel of a Russian disinformation operation.

    Our assessment—and, of course, we haven't seen the data—is that it's not a Russian disinformation operation and that there isn't anything that's been included in the data post hoc. We base that conclusion primarily on two things. The first is that The New York Times got a copy of the data, and paid someone to do a forensic analysis, and that person expressed cautious confidence that the data hadn't been tinkered with. The second is that if Republican or Russian operatives were going to plant evidence, they surely would plant something more damning that what's come out. More on that below.

  3. The President: Hunter Biden is, and always has been, a private citizen. And so, what he does in his private life has no relevance to the country unless it also involved problematic behavior by his father. Republican operatives, and their allies in the media, have tried mightily to make this case. And the "smoking gun" that they've come up with is this e-mail from Burisma executive Vadym Pozharskyi found on the laptop:
    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. As we spoke [sic] yesterday evening, would be great to meet today for a quick coffee. What do you think? I could come to you [sic] office somewhere around noon or so, before or on my way to the airport. Best, V
    Any other e-mails that may have been in this chain, including a response, if there was one, have not been found.

    Assuming that one is comfortable with the conclusion that the laptop was really Hunter Biden's and that the data therein is legitimate, then this message is basically the whole case against the President. Readers can reach their own conclusions, but this looks very, very thin to us. There's nothing in the e-mail that suggests the meeting with Joe Biden was anything beyond a polite handshake situation. There's certainly nothing that supports the conclusion the President engaged in corrupt behavior on the part of his son. And we are not the only ones who sense that there is no "there" there. The McCarthy news we allude to above is that he announced a plan to subpoena and grill the intelligence officials who signed the "this might be Russian disinformation" letter. If that isn't grasping at straws, with an eye towards dragging this thing out, we don't know what is.

  4. The Media "Cover-up": The three elements above are the heart and soul of the laptop "scandal." However, in an effort to create the general perception of corruption, some right-wing types, including McCarthy, have also spent much time carping that the media buried the story because they were/are in the bag for a Democratic president.

    There are really two elements to this. First, recall that the news, such as it is, first broke just two weeks before the presidential election. The original laptop was not then, and never has been, available to the media to examine. The people with firsthand knowledge of the data—Mac Isaac, Costello and Giuliani—all had motivation to misrepresent the facts, and the latter two were making broad assertions about Joe Biden that remain unsupported to this day. The serious media have to be very careful about what they print, because their good names and reputations are on the line. And under the circumstances of October 2019, this story just wasn't solid enough to run with.

    Over time, the evidence mounted that the laptop and data were probably real. But that took many months, under the circumstances. And once it was clear that there was at least some smoke here, the various media covered the story extensively. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have published more than a dozen articles on the subject, not including opinion pieces. That's actually quite a lot since there's not all that much here to work with. We're not talking the Pentagon Papers.

There you have it: An overview, plus our take. Launching 20 investigations into the laptop, and subpoenaing every person who ever wrote an op-ed about it, might be excellent red meat for the Republican base. However, it is nearly impossible that this story will ever become more than that. Again, Giuliani & Co. have had abundant motivation and opportunity to share incriminating dirt, if they've got it. If they "discover" a new "smoking gun" or ten now, everyone will wonder why it took so long, and will suspect—with good reason—that the new evidence has been conjured out of thin air.

On Thursday, we'll look at the new semi-companion to the Biden laptop story, namely Elon Musk's "Twitter Files." (Z)

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