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Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop: An explainer

The Fact Checker unravels what happened when Trump tried to force an investigation into the false rumor about then-Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. (Video: Meg Kelly, Sarah Cahlan/The Washington Post)

The New York Post on Wednesday published an article based on emails purportedly obtained from a laptop that Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president Joe Biden, had supposedly left behind for repair in a Delaware shop in April 2019. Here’s a brief explainer to help readers evaluate its significance.

What’s new?

The key thrust of the article is that an April 17, 2015, email suggests Hunter Biden arranged for a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm to meet with the then-vice president when he was in charge of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” reads the email, supposedly written by Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma.

Why would that be important?

Hunter Biden in 2014 became a board member of Burisma, which news reports at the time suggested was a conflict of interest, given his father’s position. The former vice president has said he did not discuss Burisma with his son. The email is not specific about the nature of the meeting and is written in a way that it could be talking about a possible future meeting. Nevertheless, Republicans have long sought to tie Joe Biden to his son’s business interests, even launching a Senate investigation, so any indication that the vice president helped his son could be politically damaging. The New York Post claimed it was a “smoking-gun email.”

How do we know the email is authentic?

We do not. The New York Post published PDF printouts of several emails allegedly taken from the laptop, but for the “smoking-gun” email, it shows only a photo made the day before the story was posted, according to Thomas Rid, the author of “Active Measures,” a book on disinformation. “There is no header information, no metadata.” The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify or authenticate these emails, as requests to make the laptop hard drive available for inspection have not been granted. The New York Post said it obtained the material from former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a personal lawyer to President Trump.

There also is no indication that Hunter Biden replied to the email.

Moreover, another alleged email published by the New York Post contradicts the notion that Hunter Biden could influence his father. “What he will do and say is out of our hands,” Hunter Biden wrote in an email that the New York Post said was sent April 13, 2014.

What does the Biden campaign say?

Andrew Bates, a campaign spokesman for Joe Biden, said a review of Biden’s schedules from 2015 finds no record of any such meeting. Officials who worked for Biden at the time told The Fact Checker that no such meeting took place.

“I was with the vice president in all of his meetings on Ukraine,” said Michael Carpenter, Biden’s foreign policy adviser in 2015. “He never met with this guy. In fact, I had never heard of this guy until the New York Post story broke.”

The New York Post article also cites an email from Pozharskyi to Hunter Biden saying he was “going to share this information with the US embassy here in Kyiv, as well as the office of Mr Amos Hochstein in the States.”

“I know for a fact he never contacted me or my office,” said Hochstein, who at the time worked closely with Biden as special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs. “I provided every record to the Senate investigation, and no mention of this guy was ever made, no emails, no correspondence. I know almost every player in the energy sector in Ukraine. I never met this guy.”

Carpenter said that the vice president wouldn’t have had a meeting with a company executive. “He was the vice president of the United States,” he said. “He met with prime ministers.”

This does not exclude the possibility that Biden briefly shook hands and chatted with Pozharskyi during a public event. Hunter Biden, for instance, helped arrange for a potential business partner, Jonathan Li, to shake hands with his father in the lobby of a Beijing hotel when the vice president made an official trip to China.

Pozharskyi, in the April 17 email, mentions that he spoke to Hunter “yesterday evening.” At the request of The Fact Checker, a Biden aide reviewed Biden’s schedule for April 16, 2015. The vice president gave remarks at the White House Greek Independence Day Reception, between 5 and 6 p.m., and then spoke to the Congressional Fire Services Institute Gala, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., the aide said.

[Update, June 7, 2021: New details emerged about the dinner, which we discuss in this article.]

What does Hunter Biden say?

Asked to verify whether the email is genuine, Hunter Biden’s attorney George Mesires told The Fact Checker: “We have no idea where this came from, and certainly cannot credit anything that Rudy Giuliani provided to the NY Post, but what I do know for certain is that this purported meeting never happened.”

Are there errors in the New York Post report?

A separate article, about another email, claims that a public relations company that worked for Burisma was allowed to take part in a conference call about an upcoming visit by Joe Biden to Ukraine. But there was nothing secret about this call, and the transcript was released publicly and posted on the White House website.

More broadly, the New York Post repeats the falsehood, advanced by Trump, that the “elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company.”

We have fact-checked this repeatedly. During President Barack Obama’s second term, Biden was in charge of the Ukraine portfolio, keeping in close touch with the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko. Biden’s brief was to sweet-talk and jawbone Poroshenko into making reforms that Ukraine’s Western benefactors wanted to see as part of Ukraine’s escape from Russia’s orbit. But the Americans saw an obstacle to reform in Viktor Shokin, the top Ukrainian prosecutor, whom the United States viewed as ineffective and beholden to Poroshenko and Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchs. In particular, Shokin had failed to pursue an investigation of the founder of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv proposed that Biden, during his 2015 visit there, use a pending delivery of $1 billion of loan guarantees as leverage to force reform. Biden addressed the Ukrainian parliament, decrying the “cancer of corruption” in the country and criticizing the prosecutor’s office. During that visit, Biden privately told Poroshenko the loan guarantees would be withheld unless Shokin was replaced. After repeated calls and meetings between the two men over several months, Shokin was removed and the loan guarantees were provided.

Pavlo Klimkin, Ukrainian foreign minister from 2014 until Aug. 29, 2019, said that the firing of Shokin was universally urged by Ukraine’s benefactors. “The demand came not just from the U.S., and not just from Biden,” he said. “I heard it in every meeting with the international financial institutions, especially the IMF and World Bank. It was not just Biden. Clearly.”

Colin H. Kahl, Biden’s national security adviser at the time, told The Fact Checker that “our policy on corruption and Shokin in Ukraine kept getting tougher across 2015, so the whole theory of the case [in the New York Post] makes no sense.”

Why is this coming out now?

Good question. The FBI supposedly obtained the hard drive earlier this year from John MacIsaac, who said he owns the Wilmington Mac Shop.

MacIsaac told reporters on Wednesday that a MacBook laptop was dropped off at his shop in Wilmington, Del., in April 2019. MacIsaac, who said he was legally blind, said that he was almost certain that it was Hunter Biden who dropped off the computer. He said that he made several attempts to get in touch with Hunter Biden but the equipment was still in his hands 90 days after it had been left there, and he said that he became curious about what he’d seen.

He made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to Giuliani. This past weekend, Giuliani passed a copy to the New York Post. But presumably the laptop would have been of use to the year-long Senate investigation, which found no wrongdoing by Biden.

As Giuliani has sought to locate information about Hunter Biden and Ukraine, he has regularly interacted with a Ukrainian lawmaker who was recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as being an “active Russian agent for over a decade” and was engaged in an influence operation to affect the 2020 election. Those interactions have given rise to fears that the emails could be part of a broader disinformation campaign.

Update, March 30, 2022: After extensive forensic analysis, The Washington Post was able to determine thatsome of the data on the portable drive appears to be authentic. The security experts who examined the data for The Post struggled to reach definitive conclusions about the contents as a whole, including whether all of it originated from a single computer or could have been assembled from files from multiple computers and put on the portable drive.” Of the 286,000 individual user files, including documents, photos, videos and chat logs, on the hard drive, the experts “concluded that nearly 22,000 emails among those files carried cryptographic signatures that could be verified using technology that would be difficult for even the most sophisticated hackers to fake.”

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