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Opinion Tucker Carlson knows exactly what he’s doing

Hunter Biden on July 7. (Tom Brenner/For the Washington Post )
6 min

Fox News host Tucker Carlson last month made false insinuations about Hunter Biden. Others who trafficked in the same bucket of slime later corrected themselves. And even though Carlson’s remarks triggered a legal letter from Hunter Biden’s lawyer, he hasn’t budged.

Chalk it up to experience: Over his six years helming “Tucker Carlson Tonight” — and decades of commentary on cable news — the host has learned just what he can get away with on his highly rated program. He is a serial First Amendment leeway opportunist.

Biden is an ideal target for Carlson’s calibrated attacks. Oversight initiatives by the new House Republican majority are focusing on Biden’s business dealings, and his famous laptop — which surfaced in the late stages of his father’s 2020 presidential campaign — can always be relied upon to stoke fresh outrage. Especially when you specialize in twisting facts.

That’s what Carlson did on Jan. 16, when he amplified a claim on social media relating to a document on the laptop — specifically, a background-check form that was filled out when Hunter Biden in 2018 was looking to rent real estate in Los Angeles. The form listed Joe Biden’s Wilmington home under Hunter Biden’s “current address.” Under the separate heading of “Current Residence,” the form cites a company named “Owasco P.C.” with a monthly rent of nearly $50,000. The box for “own” is checked.

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On Jan. 12, a Twitter user (@jj_talking) flagged the form, prompting Miranda Devine, the New York Post reporter who wrote a book about the Hunter Biden laptop, to post her own commentary: "In 2018 Hunter Biden claimed he owned the house where Joe Biden kept classified documents alongside his Corvette in the garage.”

Cue the Carlson riffs: “On the form, Hunter Biden claims he is paying nearly $50,000 a month in housing costs. $50,000 a month. Where’d that money come from?” said the host on his Jan. 16 show. After detailing Biden’s slide into hard times, Carlson said, “So how did a disgraced drug addict with no job skills make enough money to make a $50,000 a month payment? Who was paying him and how much are they paying him? And why were they paying him?”

And then the speculation with a topping of innuendo:

So is it possible that Joe Biden’s lifestyle was financed by his son and his son’s dealings with foreign governments? Apparently, he shared a bank account with his son. Keep in mind that when Hunter Biden left his wife and three children, they were effectively broke. Could it be that the money was going to Joe Biden, whose home Hunter Biden “owned”? Hmm. We don’t know. But these are interesting, interesting questions.

They’re interesting questions, sure, except for the lack of evidence. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler pointed out, the $50,000 represents Hunter Biden’s quarterly payment for Georgetown waterfront office space that he leased from the House of Sweden between March 2017 and February 2018. Biden used this office space when he and his uncle held a $4.8 million contract with a Chinese energy outfit.

In a Feb. 1 letter, Bryan M. Sullivan, a lawyer representing Biden, demands that Fox News retract Carlson’s reporting by devoting a “significant of amount of air‐time” to the actual facts. What Carlson did in his segment, alleges Sullivan, is to imply “essentially a money laundering scheme to finance President Biden’s lifestyle prior to his election as President after legitimately defeating Donald Trump.”

The letter, which warns of “potential litigation,” makes much of the public reporting that preceded Carlson’s rant against Hunter Biden. As Carlson noted in his show, @jj_talking and Devine commented on the background-check form on Twitter — and Carlson even credited the latter with “extensive reporting” on the matter. What he failed to point out, however, was that Devine walked back the original notion with two tweets, both of which came before Carlson’s show on the night of Jan. 16. Here’s what Devine tweeted on the afternoon of Jan. 16: “Caution re wild speculation. This was for Hunter Biden’s application for an apartment in a hip Hollywood complex he was desperate to get into. Big-noting by falsely claiming to own dad’s house in DE. The rent may refer to the $50k rent he paid for his office at House of Sweden.”

Hunter Biden’s attorney took note. “[I]n a flagrant violation of all journalistic professionalism, Mr. Carlson intentionally ignored Ms. Devine’s cautionary tweets about the $50,000 per month rent being ‘wild speculation,'" reads the Sullivan letter. "He said nothing about those tweets although he implied he reviewed all of her tweets by describing her as having ‘done extensive reporting on it.’” Those considerations, argues Sullivan, mean that Carlson and Fox News “certainly acted with reckless disregard” in reporting the “rent” allegation or “more likely, knew that it was false and unreliable, but engaged in such conduct anyway.”

Carlson’s state of mind would be critical to any defamation lawsuit filed by Hunter Biden’s attorneys, because public figures must prove that offending news outlets acted with knowledge of the falsity of their claims or with “reckless disregard” of their truth or falsity. That’s a tough bar to clear, and there are other complicating considerations: The background-check form is complex to the point of nonsensical, a problem that could validate Carlson’s claim that he was just asking “questions.” And just how defamatory was this segment, in light of Hunter Biden’s already tarnished reputation?

Toward the end of the discussion, Carlson noted that there was much “speculation online about what this $50,000 month payment was for. Was it for his office? Did he lie on the form?” Boldface inserted to highlight a comment that could swing both ways: Carlson might argue that it shows that he was merely posing a question, not claiming to have the answer; Hunter Biden’s attorneys might argue that it proves Carlson knew that the “money laundering” narrative was off-base.

Recall that in December 2018 Carlson said on air that Karen McDougal, who had claimed to have had an affair with Donald Trump, "threaten[ed] to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money.”

No such scenario ever took place, and McDougal sued for defamation. Her complaint was dismissed, though lawyers for Fox News conceded that Carlson engages in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary,” taking advantage of case law that protects rhetorical hyperbole. That argument stands as a cringey brand embarrassment for Fox News — and any litigation that forces the network to again unsheathe this defense performs a public service.