The New York Post story.

Is the story real? And should it have been blocked?
Isaac Saul Oct 15, 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: 10 minutes.

The New York Post Hunter Biden story. Plus, will the Trumps stick around if he loses?

Hunter Biden (left) walks with Joe and Jill Biden during the 2009 inauguration. Photo: WikiCommons / acaben

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Quick hits.

  1. Kamala Harris is suspending her travel after two people in the campaign’s orbit tested positive for COVID-19. Melania Trump said the Trumps’ son Barron contracted COVID-19 during the White House outbreak. The Minnesota Department of Health said it traced 16 COVID-19 cases to a rally or related events that the president held there last month.
  2. The former Navy SEAL and Trump supporter Robert O’Neill, famous for his role in killing Osama Bin Laden, pushed back against the president after Trump amplified a conspiracy theory that says Bin Laden’s death was a hoax.
  3. Democrats have outvoted Republicans in Florida in vote-by-mail ballots by a margin of more than 400,000. Joe Biden’s campaign manager said on Twitter “we think this race is far closer than folks on this website think. Like a lot closer.”
  4. If Joe Biden wins the election, his cabinet could be the most diverse ever, Axios reports. Details are emerging about Biden’s potential picks, including Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth to lead the Pentagon.
  5. The New York Post published a second story alleging they have emails showing that Hunter Biden was offered $10 million by a Chinese energy firm in 2017. The Post’s stories are based on a trove of emails whose authenticity has been called into question and will be the subject of today’s Tangle.

What D.C. is talking about.

The New York Post. Yesterday, New York’s most famous conservative tabloid published a salacious story about Joe Biden’s son Hunter. The story alleges that a “water-damaged MacBook Pro” was dropped off at a store in Delaware. The New York Post says the store owner accessed the computer and found emails from Hunter Biden and videos of Hunter “smoking crack while engaged in a sex act with an unidentified woman.” The Post also published alleged emails between Hunter — who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma — and a top executive at Burisma. In the emails, the executive appears to be thanking Hunter for arranging a meeting with his father, who was then vice president and had a large role in our foreign policy in Ukraine.

This claim is central to allegations of corruption that the right has been making about Joe and Hunter Biden for a year now. The Republican-controlled Senate investigated those allegations this summer, but their final report produced no evidence of wrongdoing. Republicans have claimed that Burisma was being investigated for corruption when Joe Biden forced out the prosecutor who was overseeing that investigation. But, in fact, the prosecutor Biden forced out was fired because he was not investigating corruption enough, and his ouster was something a coalition of countries doing business with Ukraine had insisted on (more on this in a little).

The story was immediately viewed with suspicion by other U.S. reporters. Most notably, because the owner of the store said he had passed the laptop over to Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer. For a year, Giuliani has repeatedly claimed he had evidence of unproven allegations about Biden’s corruption, none of which have been proven, even after investigations. In fact, Giuliani’s attempt to have Ukrainian officials launch an investigation into Biden to restore their military aid is what set off the impeachment of President Trump. Steve Bannon, Trump’s disgraced former campaign manager, had also apparently been involved in the story and told the New York Post about the existence of the hard drive in September, weeks before Giuliani turned it over.

When found and contacted by The Daily Beast, the store’s owner gave a bizarre hour-long interview where he appeared to be scared for his life, espoused a disproven conspiracy theory about the death of Seth Rich, and repeatedly contradicted himself. But the story took on new importance when Twitter began blocking it from being shared and Facebook created “friction” on the story, tech jargon for reducing the speed at which it spread. As of this morning, you could not share or direct message a link to the story on Twitter without a notice informing you that it violated their company policy.

Twitter shared a statement explaining their decision, which was made in accordance with a 2018 policy. “The images contained in the articles include personal and private information — like email addresses and phone numbers — which violate our rules. As noted this morning, we also currently view materials included in the articles as violations of our Hacked Materials Policy. Commentary on or discussion about hacked materials, such as articles that cover them but do not include or link to the materials themselves, aren’t a violation of this policy. Our policy only covers links to or images of hacked material themselves… We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials.”

In this Tangle, we’ll touch on the legitimacy of the story and dive into the debate over Twitter and Facebook’s decisions.


What the right is saying.

The story’s contents aside, the right has been mostly talking about the “big tech censorship” and the absurdity of Facebook and Twitter not allowing users to share this story.

“On Wednesday Facebook joined Twitter in suppressing links to a New York Post story containing emails related to Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company,” the Wall Street Journal board wrote. “A Facebook spokesman tweeted a link to a policy saying ‘if we have signals that a piece of content is false, we temporarily reduce its distribution pending review by a third-party fact-checker.’ The better response would be [to] let the story’s facts and sources be debated, rather than suppress it.”

The board also took exception to a recent think tank report that said engagement on Facebook with deceptive outlets is happening more often now than in the lead-up to 2016.

“What are these ‘deceptive outlets’ that most concern the Marshall Fund researchers? In a word, they’re conservative,” the board said. “Such outlets allegedly ‘pose a threat to informed democratic discourse.’ Their content reaches readers because it is ‘often oppositional to ‘mainstream media’ and so-called elite or conventional wisdom.’ The horror! Naturally, the report has a solution: Stop Facebook users from seeing content that rudely challenges elite views… Presumably Facebook can swap in unimpeachable sources like CNN.”

The editors at The National Review also published an editorial, saying “if the Post report is to be believed, the Biden-Burisma meeting occurred less than a year before the vice president pressured Ukrainian officials to fire Viktor Shokin, a prosecutor investigating the company that was paying Hunter $50,000 per month for his alleged expertise. That is, by any journalistic standard, newsworthy.”

“Instead of simply asking pertinent questions, or debunking the Post’s reporting, a media blackout was initiated,” the editors wrote. “There is no credible reason for this kind of targeted suppression. Over the past five years there have been scores of dramatic scoops written by major media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN that were based on faulty information provided by unknown sources that turned out to be incorrect. Not once has Facebook or Twitter concerned itself with the sourcing methods of reporters. Not once did it censor any of those pieces…

“Even today, Twitter users are free to share stories that rely on the Steele Dossier, which includes the Donald Trump ‘pee-tape’ myth, despite the fact that we now know it was likely disinformation dropped into the media stream by a foreign power.”


What the left is saying.

The left is split on the decision to restrict how the story could be shared, but unified in the fact that the New York Post story was not legitimate. Many on the left focused on the latter while discussing this piece.

In The Washington Post, Glenn Kessler delivered the most decisive explainer of The New York Post story. Kessler points out several important things: the “smoking gun email” is impossible to verify because it has no metadata and the header has been cut off; the crux of the story is upside down, as Biden forced out Victor Shokin, the Ukrainian prosecutor, for not investigating corruption vigorously enough; and finally, the right is ignoring one of the emails where Hunter says explicitly “What he [Joe Biden] will do and say is out of our hands,” upending the narrative that Hunter was able to exercise any influence on his father at all.

In Vox, Andrew Prokop wrote that “the story of where this hard drive came from is extremely strange,” cheekily writing that “It’s October in a year when President Donald Trump is running for reelection — and, as if on cue, the mysteriously obtained private emails of someone close to his opponent have been leaked.”

“It’s not clear whether the supposed emails, which involve Hunter and the Ukrainian gas company he worked for, Burisma, are authentic,” Prokop wrote. “What’s even less clear is how they ended up making their way to Giuliani — and whether illegality or foreign interference might have been involved… The New York Post tells a convoluted story to explain how Giuliani got the emails — a story that raises far more questions than it answers.”

Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for The Intercept who famously helped Edward Snowden tell the world about the NSA’s massive spying apparatus, criticized the move on Twitter. “Look carefully at what Twitter is saying to justify censoring the Biden story,” he wrote. “If applied consistently, it’d mean that some of history’s most consequential journalism — the Pentagon Papers, WikiLeaks’ war logs, Snowden docs, Panama Papers, our Brazil Archive — would be banned. So much of the important journalism you read is based on a source providing to journalists ‘content obtained without authorization.’ Beyond the above examples, why doesn’t Twitter ban links to the NYT’s stories based on Trump’s tax returns, ‘obtained without authorization?’”


My take.

There are two separate stories here, so it’s worth addressing them separately. First, The New York Post story reeks of a sloppy political hit job. So many details raise eyebrows: the store owner who said Hunter dropped the laptop off for repair is legally blind (no kidding!). The laptop had a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on it, he claimed, which is how he inferred it was Hunter who dropped it off. The FBI has confiscated the laptop. Or maybe they didn’t. Or maybe they did, but the timing isn’t clear, and this store owner (and Trump supporter) says he copied the hard drive and was able to contact Rudy Giuliani, to hand it over to him, ostensibly to protect himself. Add to all this the fact that disinformation experts examined the metadata of the emails and found inconsistencies in the formatting, and I think my chin might go raw from scratching it.

Also: the whole Joe-Biden-is-corrupt-for-his-son’s-dealings-in-Ukraine story has been beaten like a dead horse. I repeat: The Republican-controlled Senate just spent a year investigating this. They found nothing that we didn’t already know: The Obama administration hated that Hunter was on the board of an energy company in Ukraine, they knew the optics were terrible, they viewed it as a conflict of interest, but they couldn’t stop Hunter from making money and keeping the job. And there’s zero evidence it ever impacted Joe Biden’s decision-making overseas. On the contrary, Biden forced out the prosecutor who would have been the best news for Hunter’s business dealings, since he was extremely loose with the law and regulations. Kessler explains all this here and here in a fashion far better than I ever could. So the Trump team’s claims essentially amount to “up is down” and “down is up,” totally discounting the public record that is available to all of us, and the conclusions of their own party’s Senate investigation.

Now, does that mean Twitter and Facebook should have taken this story down? Hell no. I am totally in line with the right (and the voices on the left who have expressed opposition to this move) on that. Twitter’s explanation is absurd. They said the story violates their hacked material policy. We have no idea how this information was obtained or if it was hacked. Hunter could very well have dropped this laptop off at this store and left it there. That is not illegal. The truth is, we don’t know — and reporters fact-checking the story, digging into it, sharing criticisms of how it developed — is how we will find out. The Daily Beast, for example, promptly sent a reporter to Delaware who interviewed the store owner, exposing him as a very suspect actor in this charade. That’s how it’s supposed to be done.

Second, this policy is applied inconsistently. Twitter says the policy “prohibits the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization.” What? That’s approximately 50% of journalism. They can’t possibly apply this standard across the industry (nor should they), and The New York Post is one of the most widely read papers in the country. Hate them or love them, refusing to allow a story to be shared on the basis of it containing unauthorized material is bonkers. This is the first time Twitter has ever limited a link to a story from a major news organization, and it’s an unbelievably sketchy time to make that kind of decision.

Third, this does the opposite of limiting the spread. Now, the story is rightfully about the “censorship” and not about the actually ridiculous garbage the New York Post published. It’s a gift to Trump, a gift to his campaign, and reinforcement of the right’s belief that tech giants are working against them. Hundreds of articles will be written about the alleged censorship, and every one will send more traffic to the original story — the opposite of the intended impact. Had Twitter not done this, the piece probably would have been fact-checked and criticized, and been out of the news in a day, all while elected Republicans shamed themselves by mocking Hunter Biden for his addiction problems.

Finally, a note of caution to my conservative readers: Don’t overplay your hand. This does not “make the U.S. China” and we are not “witnessing the end of free speech.” Twitter is one privately owned platform that has a right to regulate itself. This story is about Twitter sloppily and unevenly applying a nonsensical policy. People are using Twitter itself to call Twitter out for their mistakes and criticizing the CEO to his face on his own platform. Real censorship would never allow such discourse to occur. As Yascha Mounk put it, “the real reason for free speech is not that all opinions have value or are worth airing. It's that there is no individual or institution whom I trust to make the decision as to *which* opinions are worthless on my behalf.”


Blindspot report.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that tracks the political bias in news reporting, I feature parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their media echochambers.

The right missed a story about a new report showing top Trump officials insisted on separating child migrants, no matter how young, from their parents.

The left missed a story about a how a suspect in the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was an anarchist who disliked Trump and thought he was a tyrant.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.


Your questions, answered.

Q: On the assumption that Trump loses the upcoming election (and disregarding any issues of legislation/not accepting the results etc.), how likely do you think it is that he is going to register to run in 2024, on inauguration day or sooner, as he did in 2020? Are we looking at another four years of Trump rallies, campaigns, associated media coverage and everything that goes along with it? Or, if he wins the election, and is thus ineligible for another term as president, can we expect a run by another Trump family member, perhaps Ivanka 2024?

— Michael, Letterkenny, Ireland

Tangle: Could you imagine? I certainly could. I think Trump’s favorite part of being president has had little to do with actually governing. One of the brilliant parts of Trump is that he has maximized the power of the bully pulpit. He tweets and the world, the markets, the press, they all react. I think he enjoys that part of being president more than just about anything else — save his rallies.

And, if he were to lose, he could probably preserve both of those things (the attention of the world and his rallies) by immediately running again to be president. That being said, I think it’s far more likely he goes back to television, starts his own show or finds another way to maximize the oxygen he takes up. The truth is, running rallies and campaigns takes infrastructure. It takes donors and support from the party. And if Trump loses the election, the Republican party will almost certainly abandon him, even if Trumpism hangs around for a while. That will be even more likely, and happen more quickly, if he loses decisively.

As for the rest of the family, the person to watch is Donald Trump Jr. Insider reporting and folks I know on the White House beat always say the thing: Ivanka has never really been a fan of politics, and I think both she and her husband Jared Kushner are far more moderate — and maybe even liberal — than they let on. Remember: we have a good deal of evidence and reporting that Trump never actually intended to be president. He could be the dog who caught the car, and his family was basically dragged along for the ride.

However, Trump Jr. has really found his stride during this time. He’s one of the top campaign asks for Republicans who want to fundraise, he’s not closely tied to the work of the Trump organization and — frankly — his persona and lifestyle resonate a lot more with rural Americans than Trump’s: he’s a big sports fan who hunts and escapes the city basically any chance he gets. Whether this image is cultivated or not is irrelevant, because he already has it. The Trump base loves him, while they’re pretty lukewarm on everyone else in the family.

All that’s to say that if Trump loses I expect the most likely outcome is that he, Ivanka, Jared and Eric go back to focusing on the Trump Organization, probably launching a media company of some kind, while Donald Jr. looks to find inroads in politics in New York, Florida or at the national level. If Trump wins, I think it goes the same way, but slightly differently: he serves his four years and when he’s done he tries to get Donald Jr. to run as his replacement. I’m not sure how successful they’d be, but I do think they would at least attempt it.


A story that matters.

The number of poor Americans has grown by eight million since May, according to researchers at Columbia University. Another study shows poverty has grown by six million people in the past three months alone. Immediately following the $2 trillion Cares Act to stimulate the economy, the poverty rate actually fell — by about four million people. But now that aid has largely been spent or run out, and Congress is struggling to pass a second bill. “The recent rise in poverty has occurred despite an improving job market, an indication that the economy has been rebounding too slowly to offset the lost benefits,” The New York Times reports.


Numbers.

  • $750 million. The amount of money raised by Barack Obama during his entire primary and general election campaign in 2007-2008.
  • $383 million. The amount of money Joe Biden raised in the month of September alone.
  • 10%. The percentage of Twitter users who produce 92% of all tweets from U.S. adults since last November.
  • 69%. The percentage of those highly prolific users who identify as Democrats or Democratic-leading independents.
  • 17%. The percentage of all Florida registered voters who are Latino, a new state record.
  • 2.4 million. The number of Latinos registered to vote in Florida this year.
  • 50%. The percentage of Americans who say they are willing to get an FDA-backed COVID-19 vaccine, according to Gallup.
  • 23. The net percentage point swing of elderly voters against Trump from 2016 to 2020, according to Morning Consult.

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Have a nice day.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must update its plan for protecting critically endangered red wolves in the next two and a half years, according to a ruling in a lawsuit brought against the agency by the Center for Biological Diversity. Red wolves are native to the southeastern U.S. and are down to just nine known individuals, all living in eastern North Carolina. But the lawsuit means those nine wolves will need to be protected and allowed to proliferate. In case you’re new around here, I love wolves. Especially when they are a breed of wolf that may be the forthcoming name of your favorite, horrible football team.

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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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