Mar 22, 2022

The Hunter Biden story.

The Hunter Biden story.

The New York Times confirmed the story.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the Hunter Biden story. And we're skipping our reader question today to give this piece some extra space.

Hunter and Ashley Biden, children of President Joe Biden, attend the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)
Hunter and Ashley Biden, children of President Joe Biden, attend the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Quick hits.

  1. Ukraine's President Zelensky said he would consider waiving an attempt to join NATO in search of a deal to secure Russian withdrawal and security guarantees. Ukrainian forces retook a key suburb outside Kyiv shortly before the announcement. (The compromise)
  2. President Biden warned the U.S. private sector that Russia is considering options to execute cyberattacks as retribution for sanctions. (The warning)
  3. Russia sentenced opposition leader Alexei Navalny to nine more years in prison after "sham" allegations of fraud. (The sentence)
  4. The Fed indicated it will continue to raise interest rates more aggressively to help control inflation. (The rates)
  5. Questioning of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson will begin today in the Senate. (The hearing)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Hunter Biden. Last week, The New York Times published an update on an ongoing federal investigation into Hunter Biden (Tangle covered that in December of 2020 here). In it, The Times reported that Biden had paid off a significant tax liability in hopes of staving off an indictment stemming from an investigation into his tax affairs, but that he is still the subject of a "wide-ranging examination of his international business dealings."

Biden, who became a lawyer at Yale, worked as a registered lobbyist and also pursued international business deals in Asia and Europe when his father was vice president. By his own telling, Biden was paid $50,000 a month to sit on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.

The investigation into Hunter's taxes began under the Obama administration but widened in 2018 to include possible criminal violations, including money laundering and unregistered foreign lobbying. Under The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), all persons acting to influence U.S. policy or opinion on behalf of foreign entities in the United States must disclose as much, though the law is notoriously flaunted with impunity (there were only seven prosecutions between 1966 and 2016, though that is changing now).

A federal grand jury heard testimony in the investigation in Delaware as recently as last month.

Included in the latest Times report was also this paragraph:

People familiar with the investigation said prosecutors had examined emails between Mr. Biden, Mr. Archer and others about Burisma and other foreign business activity. Those emails were obtained by The New York Times from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop. The email and others in the cache were authenticated by people familiar with them and with the investigation.

This piece of reporting immediately became news, as it confirmed the authenticity of the "Hunter Biden laptop story" that was first reported by The New York Post shortly before the election. (Tangle covered that story at the time here and here). However, shortly after The Post's report began spreading online, it was throttled by social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which prohibited users from sharing the story, citing rules about "hacked materials" (Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey later apologized, saying the censorship was a mistake). Former intelligence officials and Democratic members of Congress speculated publicly that the report was "Russian disinformation," and some news organizations gave it little or no coverage, saying they couldn't confirm the authenticity of the emails, text messages and images shared by The Post.

The Times reporting also broke a few other pieces of news. For starters, it confirmed that Hunter Biden and his partner (Devon Archer) discussed inviting foreign business associates, including an executive from a Ukrainian energy company, to meet for dinner at a Washington D.C. restaurant and have Joe Biden stop by. It reports that Joe Biden did, in fact, attend one such dinner, though it was unclear whether the invited executives were there.

The Times also reported at least some modicum of caution by Hunter Biden in his dealings. In one 2014 email, Biden wrote to his associates before one of his father's visits to Ukraine that Burisma officials “need to know in no uncertain terms that we will not and cannot intervene directly with domestic policymakers, and that we need to abide by FARA [The Foreign Agents Registration Act] and any other U.S. laws in the strictest sense across the board."

"Investigators have examined [Hunter] Biden’s relationships with interests in Kazakhstan, a Chinese energy conglomerate and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company, according to people familiar with the investigation," The Times report added. "They said prosecutors had investigated payments and gifts Mr. Biden or his associates had received from foreign interests, including a vehicle paid for using funds from a company associated with a Kazakh oligarch and a diamond from a Chinese energy tycoon. Prosecutors also sought documents related to corporate entities through which Mr. Biden and his associates conducted business with interests around the world."

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions to The Times confirming the authenticity of the emails from Hunter Biden's laptop, as well as some commentary about the investigation.


What the right is saying.

  • The right criticizes the media for ignoring the story, and social media companies for censoring it.
  • They point out that many on the left tried to dismiss the story as "Russian disinformation."
  • They say a full investigation of Hunter and his business dealings is needed, and suspect he may have violated the law.

The New York Post editorial board said "Now that Joe Biden is president, the Times finally admits” Hunter's laptop is real.

"First, the New York Times decides more than a year later that Hunter Biden’s business woes are worthy of a story. Then, deep in the piece, in passing, it notes that Hunter’s laptop is legitimate," the board wrote. "You don’t say. You mean, when a newspaper actually does reporting on a topic and doesn’t just try to whitewash coverage for Joe Biden, it discovers it’s actually true? But wait, it doesn’t end there. In October 2020, the Times cast doubt that there was a meeting between Joe Biden and an official from Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company for which Hunter was a board member. 'A Biden campaign spokesman said Mr. Biden’s official schedules did not show a meeting between the two men,' the Times wrote, acting as a perfect stenographer.

"Yet in the latest report, published Wednesday night, the Times said the meeting likely did happen. Biden had attended the dinner in question. Funny how this works when you don’t just take someone’s word for it," the board said. "Readers of the Times have discovered in March 2022 that Hunter Biden pursued business deals in Europe and Asia, and may have leveraged his father’s position as vice president to do it. Hunter also may not have properly registered with the government or declared all his income. All legitimate topics of discussion about a presidential candidate’s family, no? Readers of The Post have known this since October 2020."

Byron York wrote about the "shame" media organizations and social media companies should feel.

"The bitterness in the story is that the New York Post article, coming in the heat of a presidential campaign, was ignored, downplayed, or attacked in many media outlets," York wrote. "In the two biggest social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, it was suppressed. Rather than follow up on the New York Post's reporting, other news organizations limited the reach of negative information about Hunter Biden and his father, then the Democratic candidate for president.

"Some of the treatment was downright comic," he added. "For example, right after the first presidential debate, in which then-President Donald Trump made many references to the laptop, to Hunter Biden's habit of referring to his father as 'the big man,' and more, the New York Times published a guide for confused viewers:

"If you listened to President Trump debate Joseph R. Biden Jr., you may have felt like you'd started watching a complicated serial drama — 'Lost' or 'Twin Peaks' — in its final season," the New York Times's James Poniewozik wrote. "The president kept dropping names and plot points, all seeming to reference a baroque mythology. Who was 'the big man?' What was 'the laptop?' How many seasons of this show did I miss?"

"It was all so mysterious!" York said sarcastically.

In The Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker said there will be no accountability for the mistake.

“In close elections, a fraction of the total vote distributed in the right places can swing an outcome, and we can never be sure what effect late news stories can have. We’ll never know what effect the ‘October Surprise’ of 2020, the New York Post’s reporting of the discovery of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden containing all sorts of embarrassing emails, might have had on the election that year if it had received wider circulation,” Baker wrote. “Perhaps in a campaign dominated by Covid and characterized by chaos, it would have been another snowflake in the blizzard of news voters were being hit with.

“But the allegations in the reporting—that the son of the man favored to become the next president had been selling his high-level family political connections to foreigners, including suggestions of a possible cut for his father—were worth pursuing,” he added. “But enough influential people in and out of government—in the foreign-policy-intelligence complex, in the media, and in the big tech firms—were so alarmed that it would affect the outcome that they pulled off one of the greatest disappearing tricks since Harry Houdini made that elephant vanish from a New York stage.”


What the left is saying.

  • The left says there was reason to be cautious of the story.
  • Some argue that it can no longer be ignored, but point out that Trump's administration had its share of illegal foreign lobbying, too.
  • Others say they are still waiting for something criminal to materialize, and view the story more as a sad episode than anything else.

In The Washington Post, Philip Bump said the "context" of what happened with Hunter Biden's laptop is still important.

"Was the sourcing for information sufficiently dubious to justify caution by mainstream outlets? The answer, it seems clear, is yes," Bump wrote. "It’s critical to remember what happened in the 2016 election cycle. WikiLeaks published two large clusters of documents stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee’s network and from John Podesta, a top aide to the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton... After the election, we learned the full scope of Russia’s involvement in the election. Suddenly, the coverage of the WikiLeaks material took on a new light: It was stolen by a foreign government to try to influence U.S. politics. Media companies reconsidered their coverage; should there have been more caution about playing into the hands of a foreign influence campaign?

"This question was very much on people’s minds in the months before the 2020 election — particularly given indications that Russia was again hoping to aid Trump’s election," he added. "The Times would later report that [publishing the material] was contentious even at the New York Post. Fox News had already passed on it, apparently in part because of the questions about provenance. A number of Post employees questioned whether the paper had done enough to vet the material... After the story came out, the Post didn’t share the material with other outlets for them to do their own investigations. In other words, coverage necessarily depended on taking the Post’s word for things, which is by itself a disincentive for other outlets."

In The Guardian, Edward Helmore said the Hunter Biden story is becoming hard to ignore.

"The larger question – beyond whether Hunter Biden correctly met tax obligations during a period in which, by his own telling, he was being paid $50,000 a month by Ukrainian firm Burisma – are Biden’s financial ties to foreign figures and businesses while his father served as Barack Obama’s No 2," Helmore said. "Illegal lobbying is an issue that shadowed Trump throughout his presidency, leading to the conviction of Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, on tax fraud charges. Manafort later pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by providing false statements, laundering money, witness tampering and failing to register as an agent of the Ukrainian government.

"Last year, Thomas Barrack, a friend and former adviser to Trump, was arrested on charges that he and others failed to inform the US government that they were working to influence US foreign policy on behalf of the United Arab Emirates," Helmore added. "In addition to Hunter Biden’s ties to Ukraine through the gas company Burisma, he has sat on the boards of BHR Partners, a private investment fund backed by a number of Chinese state entities; a hedge fund, Paradigm; a consultancy, Seneca Global Advisors; and the fundraising firm Rosemont Seneca... For presidential children, the stakes are different, and may have only risen as Washington has become more partisan."

In a New York Times piece titled "It's never a good time for the Hunter Biden story," Gail Collins shared her view with Bret Stephens.

"I’m so glad our colleagues are still doing strong reporting on this story — Hunter Biden’s scummy business dealings shouldn’t be swept under the rug any more than anyone else’s," Collins said. "That said, I have to admit I’ve never found Hunter’s behavior criminal — just very, very depressing. Fragile son in a family buffeted by tragedy grows up to have a drug problem and makes a lot of money by working for companies that presumably like to have a famous American politician’s relative to trot around.

"Some of Hunter’s behavior was obviously unseemly in the extreme," she wrote. "Any new evidence needs to be carefully examined to see if Hunter’s behavior ever went past that into actual criminality — did he claim, for instance, that he could deliver favors from the government because he was Joe Biden’s son? So far, I haven’t seen it, but whenever Hunter’s name comes up, I do find myself holding my breath."


My take.

I'm going to start by leveling one critique against The New York Post — just to get it out of the way — and then take a mini victory lap.

One of the only real gripes I have with their coverage — and I don't know how else to say it — is just how trashy it is. I know The Post is a tabloid. I live in New York City. I get it. But when this story first broke, what could have been a very serious and shocking report on the former vice president's son was instead littered with pictures of Hunter Biden having sex or smoking crack, and screenshots of text messages where he's having deeply personal and troubling arguments with his wife, children or father.

The whole thing was gross, and you got the feeling The Post's intent was more to embarrass him and Biden than to break any real news. And for anyone who has ever been close to someone with addiction, as I have, I'm sure it was especially grating. They were clearly the images and messages of a person in crisis. Even in today's editorial, the story is still interwoven with photos of Biden shirtless, smoking out of a crack pipe, or otherwise indisposed — photos that are totally irrelevant in a piece about media bias and violating foreign lobbying laws. They seem to be there for no other reason than to shame, embarrass, and dehumanize Biden, which, not to be too high-minded about it all, I find truly revolting. It's the worst sort of journalism.

So that's my critique.

Otherwise, the whole thing is simultaneously unsurprising and shocking. On the first day this story broke, I was pretty skeptical of how the material was obtained. And who could blame me? It looked like a classic October political hit job: We were being told by Rudy Giuliani that a blind man working at a computer repair shop was handed a laptop by Hunter Biden, had recognized it was Hunter Biden because of a Beau Biden foundation sticker, and had then downloaded the hard drive and handed it over to Giuliani after Biden simply… left the computer there. And oh, by the way, the computer was full of incriminating pictures, emails and text messages.

But in the first few days after the story broke my attitude started to change. For starters, Biden and his team weren't even denying the contents of the emails were real. Screenshots and troves of data looked authentic. Contemporaneous reporting on Joe and Hunter Biden's movements compared to what the emails alleged all added up. "I think the emails are real. If they weren’t, the Bidens would probably be arguing that," I wrote a few days after The Post published its piece.

And from the very first day the news was reported, I was seething that Twitter and Facebook had censored the story and that former intel officials, liberal cable news pundits and members of Congress were calling it Russian disinformation. That was, in a best-case scenario, nothing but political hackery and speculation. In the worst-case scenario, it was a coordinated public relations cover-up.

The laptop story wasn't Russian disinformation. It was a bizarre, wild, fairly shocking and very real story of the now-President's son doing a host of gratuitously dumb things — from entangling his vice president father in his foreign business dealings to filming himself with sex workers. We can now say, pretty confidently, that all the images, texts and emails The New York Post reported were real.

We should also be able to say, affirmatively, that censoring or blocking these stories continues to be bad for open public discourse. I argued this then, argued it about the "lab leak" theory on Covid-19, and have argued it more generally when people are "deplatformed." Yet no matter how many times these arrogant assumptions about what we do and don't know are made, not just in the last 20 years but throughout history, I still get bombarded with people accusing me of all sorts of nasty things for taking the position that we should not try to sequester these stories into dark corners of the internet. I was right to cover this story three times, despite all the hate mail I got for doing it — and all those people who (at the time) claimed I was falling for some kind of Russian disinformation campaign. So that’s my mini victory lap.

As I wrote a few months ago, the best book to read on this issue is "The Bidens" by Politico’s Ben Schreckinger, which covers not just the story of Hunter's foreign dealings and Rudy Giuliani's fumbling attempts to capitalize on them, but the entire story of the Biden family's rise to power. The good news is that the Trump-appointed judge in Delaware overseeing the case, David Weiss, has a strong reputation as a straight shooter. He was appointed by Trump at the recommendation of two Democratic senators and has not been replaced by Biden. The question of whether anything Hunter did crossed into criminality is something that should be resolved in the coming months or (hopefully not) years, if not sooner, now that journalists are covering the story in earnest.

Which is another thing worth remembering: Byron York is right to call the Times coverage of Hunter's laptop "comical." Yes, it's true that The Post did not share the source materials with other news outlets immediately, something I criticized them for at the time. But when has that stopped papers from trying to out scoop each other in the past? Throughout 2020, instead of trying to one-up The New York Post, The Times was citing letters from Democratic officials calling the story Russian disinformation (with no evidence) and quoting Biden's press team with no pushback. In September, it was still calling the story "unsubstantiated" in the limited reporting it did on the whole thing.

Of course, none of the stuff Hunter got involved in is new, and plenty of reporters at The Times are well-equipped to pursue a piece on foreign lobbying or corrupt political families (as we witnessed last week). Politicians and their families have been making millions peddling influence across the globe for decades. It's the kind of corruption we have, for a long time, done little or nothing about, even as the families of powerful politicians like Joe Biden rake in dough.

Hunter's windfalls do appear to be fairly unprecedented, though, and are further complicated by how much action took place in the very country in which his father was conducting U.S. diplomacy. It was always a farcical lie that Joe and Hunter never discussed their business dealings, as the president has claimed repeatedly, but now we have hard confirmation of that lie.

For now, Hunter hasn't been charged with any crimes, let alone convicted. So we should proceed with caution. The big question was never if Hunter made money from selling his name, which we knew he had. It's whether he violated the law or, more importantly, whether his father ever profited off his dealings or changed U.S. policy because of them. His business aspirations and alleged tax avoidance have always been a problem (hence this investigation starting during Obama's term). The Republican-controlled Senate even spent years investigating them but turned up nothing on the current president which, for whatever it’s worth, is encouraging.

Perhaps bigger than the story of Hunter's slimy business dealings is how the major newspapers and social media platforms navigated them, but there's no doubt (or should no longer be) that both threads need to be followed to the end.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.


Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question, but as a reminder, you can submit one anytime by emailing isaac@readtangle.com, replying to the newsletter, or filling out this form.


A story that matters.

Okta, an authentication company that thousands of organizations use around the world to provide access to their networks, is notifying customers of a potential breach. LAPSUS$, a hacking and extortion collective, has claimed credit for the attack. The news broke the day after President Biden warned of Russian cyberattacks, further inflaming concerns about the private sector's vulnerability to hacking. Okta's authentication services are used by FedEx, Moody's, T-Mobile, the FCC, Peloton and Sonos, among its other 15,000 clients. Any breach of its services would have a widespread impact on the U.S. Reuters has the story.


Numbers.

  • 51. The number of former intelligence officials who signed a letter claiming the Hunter Biden laptop story "has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation."
  • Over $1 million. The estimated amount of the tax liability Hunter Biden paid off.
  • 77%. The percentage of registered voters who said they had heard at least a little about the Hunter Biden laptop story in October of 2020, according to YouGov.
  • 39%. The percentage of registered voters who said they had heard "a lot" about the Hunter Biden laptop story in October of 2020, according to YouGov.
  • 45%. The percentage who felt that Hunter Biden had engaged in corrupt business dealings.
  • 32%. The percentage who felt he had not.

Have a nice day.

An alcohol-free bar in Texas is thriving, and helping accelerate interest in people who want to live a sober lifestyle. The bar was founded by Chris Marshall, who said he wanted to create a place where people could socialize and have fun without the presence of alcohol, a passion born out of his own struggles with addiction. The bar is part of a growing movement called "sober curious," which involves people who are interested in removing alcohol from their lives but worried about the cost it might have on their social life. "When I went to treatment, I was all alone," Marshall told ABC. "And I think that my main motivating factor was that feeling of loneliness. And when I got into rehab, the first thing I heard was someone tell me, 'You don't ever have to feel lonely again.' So this space that we're sitting in today is a direct result of that very real statement that someone made to me 15 years ago. Telling me that I didn't have to be alone, that I didn't have to live alone." You can read the story here.


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