We know this, because Stephen K. Bannon has already laid out the playbook we’re seeing here at length. But, as I hope to show, a look back at this playbook — and at the new pseudo-scandal itself — reveals not only its nefarious deeper purpose, but also why it will likely fail.
Trump touted this shiny new toy at his Iowa rally on Wednesday night. He referenced the now-widely discussed New York Post story, which “reports” that Hunter Biden received emails from a Ukrainian executive that supposedly show he arranged access to his father, Joe Biden.
“Joe Biden has been blatantly lying about his involvement in his son’s corrupt business dealings,” Trump shouted, claiming those emails are a “smoking gun.”
There are all kinds of problems with the new allegations. The emails — purportedly from Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma, the company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board — show Pozharskyi thanking him for arranging a meeting with his then-vice president father.
But the sourcing of the emails is hilariously suspect. They were supposedly transferred to a hard drive by a Delaware computer repair store owner from a laptop that Hunter Biden supposedly dropped off. But the owner won’t say he’s certain the customer was Biden, and, weirdly, he never returned for it.
Worse, Bannon and Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — who alerted the New York Post to the story and provided the hard drive — are refusing to make it available to other news outlets. The “smoking gun” email was reproduced in photo form, and one expert told The Post’s Glenn Kessler that it has no traceable metadata.
Meanwhile, the Biden campaign checked Joe Biden’s schedule and found no such meeting, and no one has shown it happened. (If some kind of perfunctory handshake introduction did happen, even that wouldn’t necessarily show corruption.) That gives the lie to Trump’s claim about what this “smoking gun” supposedly proves.
To top it all off, this nefarious arrangement is cast as the prelude to Biden corruptly forcing out a Ukrainian prosecutor who was supposedly investigating Burisma, to protect his son’s business arrangements.
But that story is based on fiction: The ouster of the prosecutor was backed by international institutions because he was corrupt, and there was no investigation of Burisma at the time.
Bottom line: Biden just didn’t abuse his official powers to do anything corrupt on his son’s behalf, and this new fakery doesn’t change that at all. So what is it supposed to accomplish? We know from Bannon himself.
The Bannon playbook
Bannon’s basic insight has long been that for such smears and disinformation to work, they must somehow get vaulted out of the conservative media bubble and into mainstream news coverage.
Back when Bannon was first trying to get the general bundle of right wing Biden-Ukraine smears taken seriously, journalist Joshua Green explained how all this works. He reported that Bannon was frustrated that these stories were “stuck in the conservative ecosystem.”
The Bannon playbook dictates that such efforts must “enter the public consciousness” as something other than “conservative attacks,” Green explained. It was only through getting “coverage in the mainstream press” that they might get “weaponized” or “legitimized.”
Trump and Giuliani, of course, managed to get extensive mainstream coverage of these smears and lies by launching the scheme that led to Trump’s impeachment. So this backfired on Trump, which undercuts the notion of Bannon as some kind of Svengali.
But this playbook still helps explain what we’re seeing now.
An unsolved media problem
Trump’s last-ditch hope is to cast a vague pall of corruption over Biden. Lots of mainstream press stories about newly discovered laptops and secret emails and meetings between Biden family members and mysterious foreign influence peddlers might help spread that miasma — no matter how absurd or unsubstantiated the details, which few pay attention to.
To be clear, coverage of this story has been sharply skeptical and lacerating. And it probably should be covered, since it does have some news value. But plainly, the mere fact of covering smears and disinformation, even negatively, itself rewards their purveyors.
This is a difficult pitfall without an obvious answer, one that Brian Beutler memorably dubbed the “conservative sh-tstorm” problem. But it’s obvious that in some general sense the media often does get gamed by it (see, But her emails!), and that many media figures to this day refuse to reckon seriously with it.
That said, this latest effort could further backfire on Trump. Precisely because Trump is so addicted to right-wing media, and so unable to grasp that audiences outside that bubble have seen endless such smears of Joe Biden but have only grown to like him more, Trump will see the story widely pushed there and assume it must be effective.
Which will only mean Trump wastes more time talking about Hunter Biden when he really needs to be giving millions of voters a real reason to get over their deep alienation from him. And time is running out.
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