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How a Hunter Biden conspiracy theory grew, from lone tweet to a big megaphone

An anonymous Twitter user set off a conspiratorial chain of events on Jan. 12, after posting a 2018 rental form seemingly signed by Hunter Biden. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
12 min

It started with a tweet on Jan. 12 by an anonymous account — a photo of a rental application by Hunter Biden, plucked from the hard drive of his laptop left behind for repair in a Delaware shop in April 2019.

Then it quickly exploded across the internet, into articles posted on right-wing media, onto Tucker Carlson’s Fox News evening show and into the talking points of Republican lawmakers who pledged an investigation into why Hunter Biden was paying his father $49,910 a month in rent at the Biden residence where classified documents have been found.

But the rental application was misconstrued — an example of how speculation about material from the laptop often lacks context or careful scrutiny. The reality is that Hunter Biden was paying $49,910 every three months for office space in D.C.

Some who pushed the embroidered narrative quietly distanced themselves. Others adjusted their claims. But investigations were still promised.

Let’s follow the misinformation trail.

The first tweets

On Jan. 12, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he had appointed a special counsel to investigate how classified documents from President Biden’s term as vice president had ended up in an office space and a garage at Biden’s home in Wilmington, Del.

About 90 minutes after a White House official tweeted a statement about the discovery of documents at Biden’s home, a Twitter user with the handle of @jj_talking tweeted a photo of a July 27, 2018, rental application that appeared to be signed by Hunter Biden. “According to the box that Hunter Biden checked in 2018, he owns that Corvette garage,” the Twitter user wrote.

The rental application listed as “current address” the home owned by Joe Biden. It also said Biden’s company’s name was “Owasco P.C.” and said his “monthly rent” was $49,910.

The @jj_talking account, which has a conservative bent, has only about 7,000 followers. But two days later, a Twitter user with a big megaphone, New York Post reporter Miranda Devine, tweeted the same photo, crediting @jj_talking. “In 2018 Hunter Biden claimed he owned the house where Joe Biden kept classified documents alongside his Corvette in the garage,” she wrote. Devine, author of the book “Laptop From Hell,” which is about the device left at the repair shop, has more than 350,000 followers, and her tweet was retweeted more than 13,000 times, with 2.6 million views.

Devine’s tweet helped send a fledging conspiracy theory into flight.

The story behind the photo

Let’s pause for a moment and scrutinize the form.

The Hunter Biden laptop has been the subject of much scrutiny. The Washington Post asked two security experts to examine 217 gigabytes of data on a hard drive, purportedly Hunter Biden’s, obtained from a Republican activist, and they found nearly 22,000 emails among those files carrying cryptographic signatures that could be verified using technology that would be difficult for even the most sophisticated hackers to fake. The vast majority of the data — and most of the nearly 129,000 emails it contained — could not be verified, the security experts said.

The emails regarding this rental-application form are in the section of the hard drive that could not be verified, so we will not link to them or describe them in detail. But Hunter Biden did not fill out the form himself, according to a person who confirmed its authenticity. Instead, in July 2018, he asked an assistant to fill it out.

In one part, the form, a request for a background screening, lists Hunter Biden’s “current address” as Joe Biden’s Delaware residence. The “previous address” listed is the home where Hunter Biden lived with his family before he was divorced. Then, under a separate section, labeled “current residence,” a Hunter Biden company, Owasco P.C., is listed. That section says the “monthly rent” was $49,910, which it said was paid between March 2017 and February 2018. A box was checked suggesting Hunter Biden owned the “current residence,” but no address is listed in this section, just the name of the company.

Owasco was a company controlled by Hunter Biden and based in Los Angeles, corporate records show. The rental application was for a Los Angeles apartment. In his memoir, “Beautiful Things,” Biden describes a drug-crazed “five-month self-exile” in Los Angeles that began in the spring of 2018.

It’s not clear why Owasco was listed in the space for “company name,” because the figure for “monthly rent” refers to office space Hunter Biden had once rented from the House of Sweden, an exclusive waterfront address in Georgetown in Washington that is home to the Swedish Embassy and other offices. It is managed by Sweden’s National Property Board. Maria Uggla, spokeswoman for the board, said Hunter paid $49,910 every quarter, not every month, and he rented it between March 2017 and February 2018.

The Washington Post has previously reported that Hunter Biden rented the space when CEFC China Energy, an energy conglomerate, paid $4.8 million to entities controlled by him and his uncle. That business deal collapsed in early 2018. Hunter Biden’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

On Jan. 15, a day after her first tweet, Devine raised a caution in a new tweet. Citing a Swedish newspaper report from 2021, she noted: “He may be referring to the rent on his House of Sweden office in DC which was $50K per quarter.” That earned fewer than 500 retweets.

The next day, Devine tweeted: “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.”

But that tweet was all but ignored, earning less than 200 retweets.

“My first tweet was to point out that Hunter Biden had not only listed his father’s home address as his own, but had claimed to own the house. In light of the classified documents improperly stored in a garage there, that would seem to be a relevant fact,” Devine said in an email. “I have no regrets about adding to the sum of knowledge on a serious story.” But, she added, “when I saw speculation about the rent, I tweeted to caution against leaping to conclusions, as it appeared to me that Hunter was referring to his office rent, since why would he rent a house he said he owned.” She tweeted yet another caution (which earned 26 retweets) on Jan. 17.

The conspiracy theory spreads

On Jan. 15, a day after Devine’s first tweet, another anonymous Twitter user, @amuse, tweeted that Biden’s tax returns did not show evidence of his receiving rent from Hunter. “Worthy of an investigation,” the tweet said. The Tweeter also noted that tax returns that the Biden campaign had posted had mysteriously disappeared — but they could be found on an archive website.

Within an hour, Breitbart reporter Wendell Husebo tweeted: “Hunter Biden claimed in 2018 he paid over $49K per month in rent while living at his dad’s Delaware house. Joe Biden’s 2017 tax return on Schedule E only listed $19,800 in ‘rents received.’ In 2018, Biden listed no rents received.”

Husebo also wrote an article headlined “Document: Hunter Listed $49,910 Monthly Rent Payments While Living at Joe Biden’s Residence.” In the article he said the document was “unearthed by New York Post’s Miranda Devine.”

The next day, on Jan. 16, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranking Republican in the House, tweeted over Husebo’s tweet: “Each day it becomes clearer that Joe Biden and the Biden Crime Family are corrupt and significant threats to national security. Our Republican House Majority will hold them accountable.” She adorned her tweet with three red alarm bells.

The conservative Daily Caller headlined an article: “Hunter Biden Said He Paid Nearly $50,000 A Month To Live At House Where Classified Docs Were Discovered, Document Shows.”

Meanwhile, Husebo offered a slight pullback, writing an article that noted the “monthly rent of $49,910 matches a rental deposit at the House of Sweden.” But his original tweet remained posted.

That night, Tucker Carlson devoted his whole show to the subject. He began by saying Biden’s tax returns had mysteriously disappeared from the Biden campaign website. (They now appear to be back, so apparently it was only a glitch. They could easily be found elsewhere, such as on the list of all presidential tax returns maintained by Tax Notes.)

“An anonymous Twitter account called @jj_talking found this background check form on Hunter Biden’s laptop,” Carlson told his viewers. “Miranda Devine of the New York Post has also done extensive reporting on it, and the document raises quite a few questions, not all of which we can answer, by the way.”

Among those questions posed by Carlson: “Did Hunter Biden actually buy his father’s home in Delaware? Was he making rent payments to live there?”

The Twitter user @jj_talking, who did not respond to a request for comment, tweeted: “I’ve arrived. Tucker gave me credit.”

Carlson did not respond to a request for comment.

A top lawmaker pledges a probe

Carlson’s show pushed Fox News to jump on the story, with images of the rental application prominently displayed.

On Jan. 17, anchor John Roberts remarked, “Hunter Biden listed that Wilmington home as his primary residence that he was renting for $50,000 a month. And I assume that the documents were in the garage at that time.” Fox News host Jeanine Pirro declared: “Why would Hunter be paying his own father 50 grand a month to live in the family home? The answers to those questions may be the linchpin to understanding the depths of the Biden family finances and their possible corruption.”

Also on Jan. 17, Fox News host Sean Hannity prominently displayed the Daily Caller headline during his monologue. He framed the story this way for his guest, Rep. Jim Comer (R-Ky.), the chair of the House Oversight Committee: “What is your take on Hunter’s $50,000 a month payment, total of $580,000? Apparently not indicated on Joe Biden’s tax returns, in terms of rent money that he was paying his own father. I can understand that down in Florida on an oceanfront property or Malibu, California, or Silicon Valley, but I really don’t get Delaware getting that kind of rent for one room.”

Comer immediately agreed: “That doesn’t make sense. We’re looking into that. That’s one reason we requested bank documents, bank records.”

That same day, Husebo wrote another article, saying Comer was “probing Hunter Biden’s recorded $49,910 rent/deposit payments through the Biden family’s ‘suspicious activity reports’ flagged by U.S. banks.” Comer told Husebo, “We know Hunter Biden listed the Wilmington residence as his home as recently as 2018, which raises questions about who had access to classified documents left around the house.”

Comer was even more expansive when he appeared on “Watters World” on Jan. 18. Host Jesse Watters asserted: “Hunter said he was paying 50 grand a month in rent at his dad’s house. Is that how Hunter funneled foreign money to his father? … We checked Biden’s tax returns. If he was getting paid by Hunter, he didn’t report it.”

Comer then suggested that the “rent” might be akin to money laundering.

“We’re going to look at all the financial records,” Comer said. “We’re going to see if, in fact, Hunter Biden was funneling money down to his father. That’s going to be very concerning because Hunter’s primary source of income — when I say primary, probably only source of income — were from influence-peddling schemes with our adversaries around the world.”

“Chairman Comer has never said that he believed Hunter Biden was paying $49k in monthly rent to his father or for office rent,” said a statement from the Oversight Committee. “He has been clear about wanting financial records as part of the committee’s investigation into Biden family influence peddling. Presumably, those records will shed light on many allegations about the Biden family’s financial dealings, including details on rent paid and many other matters.”

Breitbart’s Husebo did not respond to a request for comment. But Elizabeth Moore, Breitbart’s vice president for communications, said that after the Fact Checker’s query, his articles were updated to note that Hunter Biden made quarterly payments to the House of Sweden.

Geoffrey Ingersoll, the editor in chief of the Daily Caller, said he had retracted the article featured on Hannity’s show in light of The Fact Checker’s findings. “All our reporters really strive to get things absolutely correct, but mistakes still happen,” Ingersoll said. “Documents can be tantalizing in this business and tempting to take at face value. Clearly in this case, more reporting should have been done.”

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