Analysis | The right takes a Biden-laptop victory lap around an empty arena (2024)

Sean Hannity began his Fox News show Tuesday by demanding that his audience understand the real point of significance from the trial that led to felony convictions for President Biden’s son Hunter. It wasn’t that Hunter Biden was facing accountability; it was that he and his allies in the right-wing media had been right all along about a laptop that once belonged to Hunter Biden.

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“The critical development from this trial is one huge, single piece of evidence entered into the official record by your U.S. government,” Hannity said, “and that’s Hunter Biden’s very real laptop. Not only did the U.S. federal government confirm that Hunter’s laptop is real, they confirmed that its contents are real, and the contents have not been tampered with by anybody.”

“In other words,” he continued, “you were lied to on a very high level just before an election by numerous people and entire institutions.”

Hannity’s argument is that opponents of Donald Trump circled the wagons in October 2020 to falsely attack a report from the New York Post that centered on material taken from Hunter Biden’s laptop. A letter from a number of former intelligence officials “called it Russian disinformation,” in the phrasing of Hannity’s guest, commentator Jonathan Turley. Social media companies opted to limit the spread of the story after it was published. All of this, in Hannity’s presentation, has been shown to be not only erroneous but a function of “lies” from people who “wanted Joe Biden to win by any means necessary.”

There are at least two significant errors in Hannity’s presentation. One is that he is conflating the laptop presented as evidence at the trial, the one obtained by the FBI in 2019, with the “laptop” that was the source of the New York Post story.

The FBI was already investigating Hunter Biden when he dropped off his laptop for repairs in April 2019. Eventually, the bureau learned about the abandoned device and took possession of it along with a hard drive that contained some material recovered from the device. At another point, the FBI also obtained material stored by Apple, the contents of Hunter Biden’s iCloud account. That material included photos, messages and emails.

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What the New York Post got was apparently a copy of that hard drive, made by the owner of the repair shop, John Paul Mac Isaac. He’d tipped off the FBI about the device and, as the 2020 election neared without word of any federal investigation, also contacted Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was the conduit to the New York Post — after pitching it to Fox News, which passed.

Other news outlets were not given access to the material at the time of the initial report. (Giuliani told the New York Times he was worried its journalists would “spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”) When The Washington Post finally got access to the material in 2022, we were able to verify some of it as authentic. There was also evidence, though, that the material on the hard drive that went from Giuliani to the New York Post was moved around with some information added. Even Mac Isaac warned that material being attributed to “the laptop” was not on the laptop when he undertook the file recovery process.

At trial, government witnesses confirmed that what they had was the original laptop and material from Hunter Biden’s iCloud account. But that was only one fork of the flow of that information to the public. The other was the copy that ended up with Giuliani, and in the press. There may have been another, earlier fork, too; Time magazine reported soon after the initial New York Post story that material attributed to Hunter Biden was being offered in Ukraine in 2019, perhaps after his Apple account had been illegally accessed.

This overlaps with the other error in Hannity’s argument. The issue at the time of the New York Post report was in part that the material might not be authentic. In part, though, it was that it was authentic — and being released in October 2020 as part of a foreign effort to influence the outcome of the presidential race.

After all, Russian actors had done precisely this four years prior. In 2016, hackers linked to Russia accessed a Democratic Party network and the email account of a senior staffer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Much of that material was then given to WikiLeaks, which released it in bunches during July and October of that year. (The second batch of material began being released on the same day that the intelligence community raised a public alarm about Russian interference efforts.) It was a use of legitimate material obtained illegally to try to influence how Americans viewed the election.

The federal government — at the time led by President Trump — worked with social media companies in an effort to introduce guardrails against a similar effort in 2020. There were already signs that Russia was again hoping to aid Trump’s election. Then the New York Post story dropped.

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The letter from the 51 former intelligence officials was an early articulation of the concern that history was repeating itself. But it was also more cautious than many (including Turley) suggest.

“We want to emphasize that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not,” it read, “and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement — just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.”

Giuliani, you may recall, had spent significant time in Europe several months prior attempting to find evidence of impropriety by Biden’s family. That included interactions with someone added to a sanction list in September 2020 as a Russian intelligence agent.

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Others went further in linking the New York Post story to Russia, including Biden. But it is not as though there was no precedent for such concerns in the moment.

These two factors — that the New York Post “laptop” and the trial laptop were different and that the concern was less about authenticity than sourcing — help explain why the testimony at the trial didn’t make the splash that Hannity seems to have hoped. That and that media outlets (such as The Washington Post) had validated some of the material and that it was already understood that the government considered its laptop as legitimate.

After Hannity lamented the media’s silence on the so-called “critical development,” Turley offered a theory for why that silence had ensued.

“If the laptop is authentic, if those files are real,” he said, “then you have these detailed accounts of a multimillion-dollar influence-peddling operation run by the Biden family. Those would also be authentic. But the media just simply doesn’t want to go there.”

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Except that we already know that many of those files were real, because we got access to them and verified them. The reason the media “doesn’t want to go there” on breathless claims about a “Biden family” influence-peddling operation is that the material doesn’t prove any such operation. It shows — as has by now been exhaustively explained — work done by Hunter Biden and his Uncle James that involved lots of money but did not demonstrably involve President Biden. The entire point of the House Republican impeachment effort has been to prove Joe Biden’s involvement; they have been unable to do so.

We should not necessarily assume that Sean Hannity or his guests are being sincere in their lamentations about the failures of the media. It is politically useful for the right and for Trump to suggest that the Hunter Biden trial revealed something novel and incriminating about the traditional media. It didn’t, but readers of this article probably don’t need to be convinced of that. And Hannity’s viewers probably aren’t reading this, so why not say it?

Analysis | The right takes a Biden-laptop victory lap around an empty arena (2024)
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