When a New York tabloid published the alleged contents of a computer hard drive purporting to document the Ukrainian and Chinese business activities of Hunter Biden, the newspaper cast the information as a "smoking gun."
Enter the FBI.
Less than three weeks before one of the most contentious presidential campaigns in history, federal authorities are investigating whether the material supplied to the New York Post by Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, is part of a smoke bomb of disinformation pushed by Russia.
The inquiry, according to a person familiar with the matter, is at least in partaimed at determining whether Russia has set its sights on a familiar target: Biden’s father, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The FBI has declined to comment, refusing to either confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
The gauzy details of the newspaper’s account trace the hard drive to a computer repair shop in Delaware, where a laptop had been left for service last year but was never re-claimed by the customer. Exactly how the material moved to Giuliani,who with Trump has long pushed debunked conspiracy theories about the Bidens, has raised as many questions as the authenticity of the laptop data the president’s lawyer provided to the tabloid.
After months of investigation, two Republican-led Senate committees unveiled a report in September that found no evidence of wrongdoing or corrupt actions by the former vice president in connection with his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine.
But Trump and Giuliani have continued to lob allegations at the Democratic nominee, despite multiple investigations, including the recent GOP probes, that have found no basis for the claims.
On Wednesday, the president and his lawyer seized on the New York Post story, asserting that an email purporting to show an adviser to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma thanking Hunter Biden for arranging a meeting for him with Joe Biden, who was then the vice president.
The story provided no evidence that such a meeting ever occurred and has come under fire for its reliance on questionable sources and documents whose authenticity was not verified. Biden’s campaign team told USA TODAY that no meeting ever occurred.
Giuliani, through his lawyer, declined to provide the material to USA TODAY for examination.
When Twitter initially blocked the sharing of links to the story, citing a "lack of authoritative reporting" on the origin of the source materials behind the story, the newspaper hit back in an editorial, calling the criticism "ridiculous."
The Post has not responded to requests for comment.
Here’s what is known about the origins of the New York Post and the claims made about the Bidens by Trump and Giuliani: What are Trump’s claims about Biden and Ukraine?
The effort by Trump and Giuliani to dig up dirt on Biden and Ukraine was at the center of the impeachment inquiry launched against the president last fall by House Democrats.
The Democrat-controlled House last year approved two articles of impeachment – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The impeachment probe was set off by an anonymous whistleblower complaint accusing Trump of using the levers of U.S. diplomacy to try to cajole Ukraine into pursuing investigations of Biden for the president’s own political benefit.
Multiple senior Trump administration officials testified that they became alarmed about a July 25, 2019, call the president had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he urged his counterpart to announce an investigation into the Bidens. Administration officials also testified of concerns that Giuliani was carrying out a "shadow diplomacy" in Ukraine focused on pressuring officials to investigate Trump’s political rivals.
The Republican-controlled Senate this year acquitted Trump of the charges after a trial.
Trump and Giuliani have accused Joe Biden of seeking the ouster of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to thwart an investigation of Burisma – a claim that independent fact checkers and investigators have debunked.
Shokin was widely and publicly viewed by international organizations such as the European Union and International Monetary Fund, as well as anti-corruption investigators in Ukraine, as an impediment to reforming the country’s culture of graft.
Biden helped to oust the prosecutor because he was not aggressively pursuing corruption cases. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden .
An examination of the matter by PolitiFact in 2019 said there was "no evidence to support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son’s interests in mind … It’s not even clear that (Burisma) was actively under investigation or that a change in prosecutors benefited it."
Last month, the two Republican-led Senate committees investigating the claims said in an 87-page report that Hunter Biden’s role on the Burisma board was "problematic" but said it was "unclear" whether it ever affected U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. What did the New York Post report say?
The New York Post reported on unverified documents that were based on what it called a "massive trove" of data from a laptop computer. The newspaper said the data were provided by Giuliani and former White House adviser Steve Bannon.
The central claim of the documents is unclear. The article references an email from Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma, in which he thanks Hunter Biden for "giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together."
The wording of the email leaves unclear whether Pozharskyi was referring to a past encounter or one he hoped to have in the future. There is also no evidence in the published documents that a meeting happened.
The newspaper characterized the documents as undercutting Biden’s previous claims that he never spoke to Hunter about his son’s business dealings in Ukraine.
But the Biden campaign categorically denied a meeting ever occurred between Joe Biden and Pozharskyi.
"They never had a meeting," Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, told USA TODAY.
“I’ve literally never heard of this guy in my life,” Amos Hochstein, a former Biden staff member, told POLITICO .
Facebook and Twitter flagged the New York Post story as spreading disinformation. Misinformation experts have noted that the story has many hallmarks of a disinformation campaign, with questionable assertions at its core.The Post said the data it received were discovered on the hard drive of a laptop taken to a repair shop in Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware.In the tabloid’s coverage, the emails are shared as image files, not in a file format that would contain header information and metadata. That makes it harder to analyze and verify the files. Trump and Russia: Will country’s love affair with president-elect last? The laptop was allegedly dropped off at the Delaware repair shop but never retrieved. The Post said the store owner then copied the documents on the device’s hard drive and sent them to Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello.The article does not explain the connection between Giuliani and the Delaware store owner.Former White House aide Bannon later told the New York Post about the existence of the documents. Giuliani provided the documents to the tabloid.The article also claimed the FBI seized the laptop for an inquiry.The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware declined to comment when contacted by USA TODAY. What did the Delaware computer shop owner say? John Paul Mac Isaac, a computer repairman based in Wilmington, Delaware, identified himself as the store owner who gave a copy of the laptop hard drive to […]