The Hunter Biden emails.

Are they real? And if so, what do they mean?
Isaac Saul Oct 20, 2020
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 — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

Last week, I wrote about the decision to slow the spread of The New York Post’s Hunter Biden story. Today, in response to reader demand, I’m exploring the content of that story.

Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, has been largely responsible for the spread of this story. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

2 things for you.

First, I recently came across an organization named Resetting the Table. Their goal is to help Americans with opposing viewpoints come together and confront their disagreements through discussion. If you’re looking to take your Tangle experience off into the real world, I recommend them. You can check out a film of theirs called Purple here.

Second, I recently went on Jordan Crowder’s podcast The Gentleman Scofflaw to talk about politics, Tangle and the current state of America. You can find my appearance here. I come on around the 21-minute mark.

Quick hits.

  1. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Democrats, letting a previous ruling stand that will allow Pennsylvania election officials to count ballots for up to three days after election day. Meanwhile, in Texas, a federal court ruled in favor of Republicans, saying election officials could throw out ballots with mismatching signatures without notifying voters.
  2. President Trump slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci yesterday during a campaign call, calling him a “disaster” and saying “people are tired of COVID.” Last week, Fauci criticized the administration for using his words “completely out of context” in a political advertisement.
  3. The Justice Department has filed a formal lawsuit against Google, claiming it has an illegal monopoly on search and search advertising. The lawsuit could stretch out for years and set off a “cascade” of other antitrust lawsuits, The New York Times reports.
  4. The United States indicted six Russian military intelligence officers for hacking operations in the Olympics, foreign elections and major global computer systems that caused $1 billion in losses. It’s unlikely they will ever face trial in the U.S.
  5. Wisconsin has reimposed limits on how many people can gather inside bars or restaurants. More than 20% of the COVID-19 tests are coming back positive in Wisconsin as the state builds field hospitals and faces a new surge of cases.

What D.C. is talking about.

Hunter Biden’s emails. I covered this story last week and mostly focused on the implications of Twitter and Facebook reducing the reach of the New York Post story or outright blocking it. I wrote critically then about the decision to block the link on Twitter, and Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has since apologized and said that decision was a mistake. However, many readers have written into Tangle asking what to make of the content of the emails and text messages. I’m revisiting this story today because so many people asked that I do so. Given that covering this story is a response to dozens of reader questions, I’m going to skip the actual reader question today to give myself some more space to explain this — because it’s a very convoluted story.

Emails, texts, photos.

Last week, The New York Post published a story that purported to show new information about Hunter and Joe Biden’s political corruption. The “smoking gun email” in the story is an email in April of 2015 from a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm to Hunter Biden. Joe Biden was vice president at the time. The email, addressed to Hunter, says: “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.” It was written by Vadym Pozharskyi, who worked on the board of Burisma with Hunter.

In another batch of emails, dated May of 2017, Hunter appears to be pursuing a deal with what was China’s largest private energy company (now defunct), saying in one email that the deal would be “interesting for me and my family.” Hunter is proposing an equity agreement for a potential new company, and lists a breakdown of “20” for “H” and a series of other initials all corresponding to people on the email thread. He also says “10 Jim” and “10 held by H for the big guy?” It is not clear who “Jim” is, but many have assumed “the big guy” is a reference to Joe Biden while “10” means 10 percent of the company.

The trove also consists of many photos of Hunter using drugs, text message exchanges between Hunter and Joe about Hunter’s addiction, and exchanges between Hunter and his daughter or other family members. In one text from Hunter to his daughter, he says, “I Hope you all cal [sic] do what I did and pay for everything for this entire family Fro [sic] 30 years. It’s really hard. But don’t worry unlike Pop I won’t make you give me half your salary.” According to The New York Post’s own reporting, “while some of the more than 11,550 emails involve Biden’s former job on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and his dealings with the now-bankrupt CEFC China Energy Co., most of his messages are innocuous and personal in nature.”

Why they matter.

When Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma in 2014, it was widely seen as a conflict of interest. Joe Biden has repeatedly said he did not discuss Burisma or Hunter’s foreign dealings with his son. Trump and Republicans have repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration and Biden forced out a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma while Hunter was on the board of the company. This, according to Trump, is what he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate. That request is what led to Trump’s impeachment.

The claim that Biden forced out a prosecutor because he was investigating Hunter’s company is false. Biden was, in fact, in charge of U.S.-Ukrainian foreign policy. And he did help force out a prosecutor named Viktor Shokin. But Shokin was pushed out because he was viewed across the world as corrupt and bad at his job. In a total contradiction to many claims, he was actually pushed out for not prosecuting enough corruption. This claim has been fact-checked repeatedly.


The “chain of custody” on these emails has been called into question, as has their veracity. However, there is very little evidence the emails are fake or photoshopped. Neither Joe Biden nor Hunter Biden has claimed they are fake. Fox News, which opted not to publish the story because of concerns over its legitimacy, said they did confirm the authenticity of the email chain with the Chinese energy firm via a source who was on the thread. What has gotten a lot of attention is how The New York Post and Rudy Giuliani — President Trump’s lawyer — came into possession of the emails. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump campaign manager who is facing federal fraud charges, was also a source of the emails, though his role is less clear.

The Post and Giuliani claim Hunter Biden dropped a computer off at a store in Delaware for repairs and never came back for it. Then, the store owner discovered the emails, texts and photos and contacted the FBI. He made a copy of the hard drive before turning the computer over to the FBI, then gave that hard drive to Giuliani’s lawyer.

But both Giuliani and the store owner, John Paul Mac Isaac, have struggled to keep their stories straight. First, Mac Isaac said he discovered the emails, then reached out to the FBI. Later, Mac Isaac said the FBI reached out to him before he found the emails. Giuliani also initially told The Post that Mac Isaac identified Hunter Biden when he dropped the laptop off because the computer had a “Beau Biden Foundation” sticker, the cancer foundation created in honor of Hunter’s late brother. But then Giuliani told a radio station the store owner knew it was Hunter because he had signed a document for a receipt. Meanwhile, The Post’s reporting said Mac Isaac couldn’t identify whether it was Hunter that dropped off the laptop at all. Then follow-up reporting discovered that Mac Isaac was legally blind. These are all different accounts with several inconsistencies that only raise additional questions.

How the store owner contacted Giuliani is also convoluted. In one interview, Giuliani said he’d only been alerted about the laptop three or four weeks ago. Mac Isaac had already told The Daily Beast that he had the laptop for a year, though, and that he’d alerted the FBI through an intermediary (before suggesting it was the FBI that contacted him). Mac Isaac also refused to comment on his ties to Giuliani, how he knew him, or when he first contacted him.

There’ve also been questions about the quality of The New York Post’s vetting of the story. The New York Times ran a piece outlining how the story was published, and noted that longtime Post reporter Bruce Golding refused to put his byline on the story because he did not think it was fit to be published. Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and other conservative outlets also demurred on publishing it. In fact, one of the New York Post authors of the piece, Emma-Jo Morris, is a politics editor who has been at the paper for six months after working for Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, and never had a byline on a story until now. Her Instagram account, which was recently set to private, had photos of her posing with Bannon and Roger Stone (Stone, too, has faced federal charges for seven felonies, but Trump commuted his sentence this year). I reached out to Morris about the story but she did not respond.

What the left is saying.

The left has called into question the veracity of the emails, argued that they could be part of a Russian disinformation campaign and also made the case that they do not show any wrongdoing by Joe Biden. In some cases, they just show a loving dad worried about his son.

In one revealing exchange, Joe texts Hunter during a time when he was struggling with his drug use. “Good morning my beautiful son. I miss you and love you. Dad.” Hunter responds with a lengthy diatribe calling himself a “fuck up” and expressing how his actions have hurt the family. He also asks that Joe run for president so he has a chance at redemption. “I’ll run but I need you,” Joe responds. “Only focus is recovery. Nothing else.” Joe also praises Hunter for the job he did raising his daughters. “Your girls are so smart truly amazing. Very focused… When you can and feel like it call. Positive my text etc a target. Love.”

In The New Yorker, Jonathan Chait made one of the definitive cases that the story is a Russian disinformation campaign. Chait explains that Giuliani has shot multiple videos with Andriy Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, who the U.S. Treasury Department has designated as an active Russian agent for over a decade.

“Okay, so Giuliani and his Russian intelligence-agent partner have been collud — sorry, working cooperatively — to further their common interest in electing Trump,” Chait wrote. “What’s more, Burisma (the Ukrainian energy company whose stolen emails appear in Giuliani’s leak) was hacked in January by the same Russian GRU unit that hacked Democratic emails in 2016, according to the New York Times. In August, the Director of National Intelligence warned, “‘We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice-President Biden … For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice-President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.’”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Giuliani was dismissive about the potential for Derkach to be a Russian agent. “The chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50,” he told a Daily Beast reporter. Pressed further on what specifically in the trove of emails, photographs and texts constituted a crime, as Giuliani has alleged, the president’s lawyer could only point to Hunter’s drug use, which has been widely acknowledged. “Smoking crack is a crime!” he told the reporter. “If you have him on there smoking crack, you have him violating federal law… Crack isn’t marijuana… Crack is crack.”

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius explained the story of Hunter joining Burisma, making the case it was a “non-scandal” where Hunter used bad judgment in an effort to solve his own financial problems, something both Joe Biden and Hunter have already admitted on the record.

“What’s clear, beyond the false scandal-mongering, has been evident for years: Hunter Biden made a mistake getting involved with a dubious company like Burisma,” Ignatius wrote. “But the notion that the Burisma affair undermines Joe Biden’s case to be president is, as he would say, malarkey… Joe Biden said in January it was a ‘mistake’ for his son to join the board, and promised that if he becomes president, none of his family members will have ‘any involvement with any foreign government at all.’ Hunter Biden, too, said he made a ‘mistake’ for which he bore ‘full responsibility.’ That’s the sort of self-criticism we rarely hear from Trump or his family.”

What the right is saying.

The right believes the emails are legitimate, and they show exactly the kind of political corruption that got Trump elected in the first place.

In an opinion piece, The New York Post editorial board defended the work of its news team. “Neither Hunter nor Joe Biden has even questioned the fact that the drive is real — they merely dismiss the entire line of questioning, while charging that The Post has an agenda in presenting it to the world,” the board wrote.

We’ve published emails and pictures — most of which have nothing to do with Ukraine or China — that contain an extraordinary level of detail. Is that all fabricated? The Biden campaign’s response, notably, is not that an e-mail from a Burisma official thanking Hunter for an introduction to his father isn’t real, it’s that said meeting doesn’t show up on Joe’s ‘official’ schedules. Pressed by Politico, the campaign acknowledged that they couldn’t say for certain if Joe Biden had met him casually. It’s particularly rich that The New York Times has fixated on the “unverified” excuse, since it’s spent much of the Trump era offering supposed dirt from anonymous sources — which, by definition, makes the info unverifiable.”

James Freeman made a similar case in The Wall Street Journal. “Five days after the New York Post started publishing alleged emails detailing Biden family corruption, the Bidens still haven’t claimed they’re counterfeit,” he wrote. “Unless and until former Vice President Joe Biden or a member of his family wants to argue that the emails are fakes, isn’t there a responsibility for all journalists covering the campaign to acknowledge the Post reporting and demand answers about the lucrative foreign sales of the Biden name?”

Freeman directly addressed Ignatius’s argument, too. “‘The story of Hunter Biden’s involvement with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma isn’t a scandal about his father, as the Trump campaign claims, but part of a personal tragedy for the vice president’s son,’” says David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Actually, it’s a tragedy for America and the world when the model of lawful, constitutional governance is represented overseas by a vice president who is trailed by relatives with their hands out,” Freeman wrote.

“Hunter Biden’s addiction is not the issue,” Margot Cleveland argued in The Federalist. “Joe Biden’s addiction is: His addiction to power and money. And it is the evidence of the former vice president’s corruption, and the national security risk our country would face by electing Biden, that is the story of the MacBook hard drive, not the salacious, verified photographs and videos of Hunter Biden… that is what the email and text scandal concerns: Evidence that Joe Biden, while vice president of the United States, knowingly allowed his son to profit by selling access to Biden and others in the Obama administration, including to Communist Party of China leaders, and then lied about it.”

My take.

This story is not easy to follow, and I don’t blame my readers for wanting to understand it better. First off, I think the emails are real. If they weren’t, the Bidens would probably be arguing that. There have been some questions about the formatting of the emails that need to be answered. Unfortunately, The Post refuses to release the original copies for examination and the FBI refuses to comment. Crucially, though, the emails being real does not mean this isn’t a targeted disinformation campaign. It’s true that in the past, hack-and-leak schemes from Russian spies or political actors have often included batches of real emails released with small alterations or fake emails planted inside them.

Working on the assumption the emails are real, though, (which again: I believe they are), it’s important to center in on what the actual controversy is here. The Post says that Vadym Pozharskyi, an executive at Burisma, thanked Hunter for “giving an opportunity” to meet Joe. Joe previously said he had “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.” The scandal here is that, if this meeting happened, then Joe lied.

First, the idea Joe and Hunter never spoke about his dealings overseas was never really credible. Does anyone actually believe that? Joe and Hunter are sitting around the dinner table and Ukraine comes up and Joe says “ah, no, don’t say anything! We can’t talk about that!” Of course not. I never believed that. I don’t think anyone should.

Nor is the question here whether Hunter profited off his name or not. We know that he did. Hunter was paid $50,000 a month to sit on the board of Burisma. He had no experience doing that kind of work, and it was clearly a ploy by Burisma to improve its legitimacy globally. We also know the State Department and the Obama administration all hated the fact that Hunter took the job, and that they knew it looked terrible, and that Hunter did it anyway — presumably because he has poor judgment, was in the throes of addiction, was facing financial troubles and was able to rake in a huge salary.

The question here is if Joe Biden profited from these dealings or if U.S. foreign policy was impacted by Hunter’s actions abroad. That’s the overarching allegation being made. And in that regard, we still don’t have evidence of any wrongdoing. Not after these emails, not after the Senate investigation, and not after the impeachment inquiry.

First, Pozharskyi’s email does not make it clear if the purported meeting ever happened. He thanked Hunter for “giving an opportunity” to meet his father — he didn’t say they did meet. There are two ways to read his email: that the meeting was forthcoming or that it had already happened. It seems more likely to me the latter, but we actually don’t know for sure from this one email. Hunter never replied to the email and there’s no public record of a meeting. Even if they did meet, though, that’s not evidence of wrongdoing, and it looks like it could have happened out in the open at a public event in D.C. that lines up with the dates of the emails.

There’s also a curious email nobody seems to be reporting on. In April of 2014, Hunter is writing to his Ukrainian business partners about a forthcoming visit Joe Biden is making to Ukraine. He says “What he will do and say is out of our hands… In other words it could be a really good thing or it could end up creating too great an expectation. We need to temper expectations regarding that visit.” This flies in the face of allegations that Hunter could influence his dad. It also comports with the other text exchanges and public records that show a strained relationship between the two — not one where Hunter was making and receiving favors from the VP.

The Post has also stepped on a few rakes trying to make this all sound as nefarious as possible. In one story, they claim a PR company working for Burisma was able to take part in a conference call regarding that same visit Joe Biden was making to Ukraine. This was supposed to be proof of Burisma’s access to the vice president. But the call was actually a public conference call, open to the press, and the transcript of the call was released publicly and posted on the White House website. So this framing, again, is extremely misleading by The Post and points to a story in search of a narrative.

Finally, two important things as they relate to Trump: One, we have Biden’s tax returns (unlike Trump). They’ve been scoured. We can say, almost certainly, that he has made a ton of money since being vice president through things like speaking engagements. We’d probably know if he had any foreign dealings. Two, at risk of committing a case of “whataboutism,” it does seem worth noting that President Trump has openly sold off access to his administration by handing out government jobs to unqualified high rollers from his various businesses. The Times explored this in detail in a story titled “The Swamp That Trump Built” but it’s gotten far less oxygen than the salacious Hunter Biden story.

So, what do I think? I think the emails are real. I think they show Hunter Biden doing some sleazy stuff, your classic D.C. insider trying to sell his name for the appearance of legitimacy to shady start-ups. I think it’s clear he is a troubled person. I still don’t see any “smoking gun” evidence of Joe Biden profiting off Hunter’s actions (save one conspicuous Hunter text claiming he had to give “pop” money). I also don’t see evidence Hunter had much success. The Chinese firm went under. Burisma paid him a $50,000 salary, an experience that has now completely blown up in his face. Many of these emails were unanswered on both ends. And Hunter today does not have any successful business ventures, foreign or domestic, to speak of. It’s not a good look for Joe. It never has been. But neither is it a disqualifying bombshell for his candidacy.

A story that matters.

Major school districts across the United States are beginning to reopen. Of the 50 biggest school districts in the U.S., 24 have now resumed in-person classes. 11 plan to join them soon, four have opened or plan to open for small groups of students and only 11 others are still fully remote with no plans to come back. The district reopenings are happening across the country, and at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging and many epidemiologists are worried about the upcoming flu season.


  • 49-48. Joe Biden’s slim lead over Donald Trump in the latest North Carolina poll.
  • 53-43. Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden amongst men in North Carolina.
  • 54-43. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump amongst women in North Carolina.
  • 46%. The percentage of voters in a recent Financial Times poll that say Donald Trump’s policies have hurt the economy.
  • 44%. The percentage of voters in a recent Financial Times poll that say Donald Trump’s policies have helped the economy.
  • 75%. The percentage of farmers who said they plan to vote for President Trump.
  • 72.6%. The percentage of farmers who said they planned to vote for President Trump ahead of the 2016 election.
  • 2. The number of uninterrupted minutes each presidential candidate will be able to speak for on Thursday after the Commission on Presidential Debate added a mute button and changed its rules.

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Have a nice day.

A 74-year-old man in Egypt became the world’s oldest professional soccer player this week after playing in his professional soccer debut in March. He even scored a goal. Ezzeldin Bahader had his feat recognized by the Guinness World Records after soccer resumed in Egypt this month. The previous record was held by a 73-year-old Israeli goalkeeper named Isaac Hayik. "I dream of being able to break my own record one more time, just to make the competition a little harder," Bahader told Reuters.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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