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Laptop email suggests Hunter Biden read newspapers, not classified documents

A 2014 email allegedly written by Hunter Biden became the center of an unsubstantiated claim that it contained classified information. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
14 min

“When I read the email, very, very detailed analysis of what’s happening in Ukraine. Actually, far more detailed than anything I got as a U.S. senator from the State Department as a scene setter prior to going into Ukraine or any other foreign country. This information was obviously fed to Hunter.”

— Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), interview on WSAU, Jan. 26

“This email reads as if it was cut-and-pasted from an official government briefing. An official government briefing that one would infer his father had received. And it reads as if it could easily have come from a classified briefing. We don’t know that. But the level of geopolitical and geo-strategic analysis is the sort of analysis that is often in classified briefings.”

— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), remarks on “Verdict with Ted Cruz” podcast, Jan. 30

Shortly after Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to investigate the discovery of classified documents at President Biden’s residence and former office, a New York Post columnist flagged an email, allegedly written by Biden’s son Hunter and discovered on his abandoned laptop, as potentially containing classified information. Fox News and then politicians such as Johnson and Cruz picked up on the claim.

The email is dated April 13, 2014, a month before Hunter Biden was named to the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. Johnson and Cruz, while not flatly saying Hunter Biden had access to classified information, walk up to the line and suggest that Hunter was given special access to information to ensure he would be valuable to Burisma. The implication is that this is new evidence that President Biden is cavalier about handling classified information.

Any offspring of a prominent politician needs to be wary of even the appearance of a conflict of interest between his business interests and his parent’s political position. Hunter Biden, however, took on the Burisma job at the same time his father, then vice president, was tasked as the top U.S. policymaker on Ukraine — an arrangement that troubled State Department officials as a potential conflict of interest that undermined the administration’s efforts to stem corruption in the country. As a board member, he earned what he described in his memoir as a “substantial monthly fee.”

The then-vice president was scheduled to depart on a trip to Ukraine later that April — a fact Hunter notes in the email, which was addressed to his business partner and fellow Burisma board member Devon Archer.

“The announcement of my guys upcoming travels should be characterized as part of our advice and thinking — but what he will say and do is out of our hands,” Hunter Biden wrote. “In other words it could be a really good thing or it could end up creating too great an expectation. We need to temper expectations regarding that visit.”

The timing of the vice president’s trip has given rise to speculation that his son had access to his father’s pre-trip briefings.

Hunter Biden has had a checkered life, marked by substance-abuse problems. But he is also a graduate of Georgetown University and Yale Law School. One can presume he acquired some research skills at those institutions. He was also well-connected, with contacts he could draw on for information. In the email he refers to possibly hiring a firm to provide information “that’s not available through a Google search and some phone calls” — suggesting that that is what he relied on for writing the email.

For nine years, The Fact Checker was diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post. I’ve seen my share of backgrounders, State Department cables and even the odd classified document. Far from being especially sophisticated, Hunter Biden’s email appears to be largely the product of diligent reading of recent newspaper and magazine articles.

For instance, in one interview, Johnson said a reference in the email to potential new U.S. sanctions on Russia “certainly might have been” classified information. But five days before the email was sent, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. could impose new economic sanctions on Russia because of its actions in Ukraine.

Let’s take a tour through the first 11 of 22 enumerated points in the email and see if the main facts in them could be found in news reports of the time. (The last 11 points are opinion, musings on business strategy and the like, so we won’t examine those.)

We have not corrected any typos or shorthand. Hunter Biden refers to Ukraine as Uk and Russia as RU.

His attorney did not respond to a request to verify the authenticity of the email, but Hunter Biden has never disputed that he wrote it.

The Washington Post in 2021 asked two security experts to examine 217 gigabytes of data obtained from a Republican activist, said to be from the Hunter Biden laptop, 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. This email is not among those verified, but its author wrote that he would travel to Houston “tmrw.” A 2020 letter by GOP senators said that Secret Service records confirmed that Hunter Biden traveled to Houston the day the email was sent.

Dissecting the email

“1. Poroshenko appears to be the likely next President. Determining our teams relationship with him is important. He is credible with the west and by all accounts a true reformer (by Uk standards).”

New York Times, March 29, 2014: “After a leading contender dropped out of Ukraine’s presidential race on Saturday, the hopes of many Ukrainians and their Western supporters are now riding on a man [Petro Poroshenko] known as the Willy Wonka of Ukraine, the billionaire owner of a chocolate candy company … Known as a centrist who had previously worked for both pro-Western and pro-Russian governments, he became a strong advocate of integration with Europe after Russia banned imports of his chocolate.”

Unverified emails on the laptop show Hunter Biden that same day communicated with former senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a longtime aide to Joe Biden, about Poroshenko’s prospects. Kaufman on April 11 had been in Ukraine as part of a delegation of the National Democratic Institute. A link to a YouTube video of Kaufman’s recommendations for a smooth election was contained in a verified email to Hunter Biden on April 12.

“2. Some sort of decentralization will likely occur in the East. If it doesn’t the Russians will continue to escalate there destabilization campaign, which could lead to a full scale take over of the eastern region most critically Donetsk. The strategic value is to create a land bridge for RU to Crimea.”

The Washington Post, April 5, 2014: “The new Ukrainian government is working on changes to the constitution that are expected to result in decentralization, with executives elected locally. Volodymyr Hroisman, a deputy prime minister in charge of regional development, said last week that amendments would be made to the constitution this year, clearing the way for local elections next year.”

The Guardian, March 14, 2014: “The [Russian] statement also hinted that Russian forces could intervene in eastern Ukraine to protect Russians there, the same justification used for sending troops to occupy key facilities in Crimea.”

Reuters, April 8, 2014: “Moscow has pledged to spend billions of dollars on everything from higher pensions to a bridge linking the region to Russia, with almost $7 billion earmarked this year alone.”

“3. That won’t directly affect Burisma holdings but it will limit future Uk exploration and utilization of offshore opportunities in particular.”

The Atlantic, April 8, 2014: “Unfortunately for Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula was crucial to the country’s energy-diversification plans. [Then president Viktor] Yanukovych had opened negotiations with Azerbaijan, Russia’s last remaining ex-Soviet energy rival, as part of his effort to build a liquid-natural-gas pipeline terminal on Crimea’s Black Sea coast. The peninsula also sits atop vast underwater gas basins in the Black Sea, estimated to contain between 4 and 13 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. … But all of that infrastructure and investment now rests in Russian hands.”

“4. It will also result in further destabilization of Uk nationally and for whatever govt is in power. And the US will respond with even stronger sanctions. Those sanctions will threaten the tenuous support of the EU which does not have the political will to incur steep energy price increases.”

Associated Press, April 8, 2014: “Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday threatened Russia with tougher economic sanctions if it fails to back down from its chaotic involvement in Ukraine. ‘What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary,’ Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

Reuters, March 6, 2014: “European Union countries such as Poland and Greece are worried they may face gas shortages and economic damage if Russia stops pumping the fuel to Ukraine, with Kyiv facing a Friday deadline to pay Moscow a $2 billion energy bill.”

“5. Which will result in further price increases on RU gas to the Uk.”

Reuters, April 3, 2014: “Russia raised the gas price for Ukraine on Thursday for the second time this week, almost doubling it in three days and piling pressure on a neighbor on the brink of bankruptcy in the crisis over Crimea. The increase, announced in Moscow by Russian natural gas producer Gazprom, means Ukraine will pay 80 percent more for its gas than before the initial increase on Monday.”

“6. The IMF loan guarantees will allow the Uks to weather the economic impact, but the required reforms to Uk public subsidies will weaken the new President.”

New York Times, March 27, 2014: “The International Monetary Fund announced on Thursday an agreement to provide up to $18 billion in loans over two years to prevent the country’s default. ... The measures could damage the new government’s popularity at a time when it is struggling to establish itself after losing territory to Russian forces and before emergency presidential elections scheduled for May 25.”

(Points 7 and 8 are opinion suggesting that Burisma could “play the hero” by lowering its prices “for the national good” in contrast to Russia’s “price-gouging.”)

“9. Kazakstan could play a pivotal role by providing gas at rates lower than what the RUs are asking but I doubt they would want to poke the Bear.”

Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 2014: “What might Putin’s actions in Crimea mean for Kazakhstan, where foreign investors since 2005 have poured more than $170 billion in FDI into the country, primarily in the energy sector? … If sanctions are imposed, then the CPC [Caspian Pipeline Consortium] consortium members, Russian state-owned pipeline monopoly Transneft, the state of Kazakhstan, U.S. oil company Chevron and Russia’s LUKOIL will all suffer. Given Putin’s intense interest in furthering the project, which involves closer economic integration between the three member states, the major question is — will the EEU [Eurasian Economic Union] draw Kazakhstan further into Moscow’s orbit, or will Kazakhstan be able mitigate Moscow’s influence and retain its Western leanings?”

“10. The pipelines across Uk are the key to all of this. But if the Uks shut down the pipeline they also shut down 60% of their energy supply and put a strangle on EU supplies from RU which the EU will never accept (b/c they are p------).”

The Atlantic, April 8, 2014: “Three-fifths of the 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas Ukraine uses each year is imported from Russia, with the rest domestically produced. This gives Russia a significant bargaining chip in its relations with Kyiv — one that Moscow isn’t afraid to use.”

The Guardian, March 3, 2014: “The country is crossed by a network of Soviet-era pipelines that carry Russian natural gas to many European Union member states and beyond; more than a quarter of the EU’s total gas needs were met by Russian gas, and some 80% of it came via Ukrainian pipelines. Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Poland soon reported gas pressure in their own pipelines was down by as much as 30%.”

“11. There is no immediate supplier solution to replace RU. Even if Burisma increased output from their reserves by 100% it would — 1, take at least two years and 2, Uk would still be about 35% short of their needed gas supplies.”

Burisma’s daily production at the time was available on the company’s website. Burisma’s announcement of Biden’s appointment May 12 said the company produced 1.8 million cubic meters of natural gas a day — or 657 million cubic meters a year. Ukraine would have needed to fill a gap of 30 billion cubic meters, so even doubling production would still leave a big hole. (Ukraine only managed to double production by 2018, according to Reuters.)

In other words, Hunter’s math is incorrect here, again suggesting it was his own work product — rather than inside information.

The Fact Checker requested that Cruz and Johnson provide specific examples in the email that they believed to be classified information. Instead, they issued statements saying they were simply asking questions.

“Sen. Cruz asked a legitimate question: how did Hunter compile that information? The email reads like he pasted information from a fact sheet,” said a statement from Cruz’s office. “Any lawmaker would tell you that it reads like the kind of fact sheet that they get before a congressional delegation, and it’s plausible that was Hunter’s source. Maybe you believe that Hunter Biden has the foreign policy framework, expertise, and research skills to parse these sorts of geopolitical assessments. If so, you should publish that. Sen. Cruz does not believe he does.”

Corinne Day, Johnson’s deputy communications director, issued a lengthy statement calling The Fact Checker inquiry “a prime example of the mainstream media providing cover for the Biden family” and suggesting that questions instead should be aimed at the Bidens.

The Pinocchio Test

This is a good example of how innuendo and suspicion can cause people to leap to conclusions without checking facts. Hunter Biden’s email has been described, but it has not been examined.

We’re fairly confident that Hunter Biden assembled this material by reading news reports and checking with contacts like Kaufman, rather than getting a special briefing from the State Department or others in the administration. Obviously, if information emerges that changes our understanding of how this email was crafted, we will update this fact check. But for now, Cruz and Johnson earn Three Pinocchios. They have not presented evidence to dispute our conclusions.

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