WASHINGTON (AP) — Looking to undermine Democratic rival Joe Biden, President Donald Trump’s campaign is pushing a familiar line of attack: unverified allegations about Biden’s son and his foreign business ties. But reporting in the New York Post, and the emergence of a man who says he worked with Hunter Biden, have raised more questions than answers, including about the authenticity of emails at the center of the story.
The origins of renewed allegations trace back to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has repeatedly pushed unfounded claims about the Bidens. Even if the emails in the Post are legitimate, they don’t validate Trump and Giuliani’s claims that Biden’s actions were influenced by his son’s business dealings.
A look at the development:
Hunter Biden joined the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma in 2014, around the time his father, then U.S. vice president, was helping conduct the Obama administration’s foreign policy with Ukraine.
Senate Republicans said in a recent report that the appointment may have posed a conflict of interest, but they did not present evidence that the hiring influenced U.S. policies.
Trump and his supporters, meanwhile, have advanced a widely discredited theory that Biden pushed for the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor to protect his son and Burisma from investigation. Biden did indeed press for the prosecutor’s firing, but that’s because he was reflecting the official position of not only the Obama administration but many Western countries and because the prosecutor was perceived as soft on corruption.
The main email highlighted by the Post is an April 2015 message that it said was sent to Hunter Biden by Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma’s board. In it, he thanks the younger Biden “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.”
The wording makes it unclear if he actually met Joe Biden. The Biden campaign said in a statement that it had reviewed Biden’s schedules from the time and that no meeting as described by the newspaper took place.
It’s a tangled saga. The Post says it received a copy of a hard drive containing the messages from Giuliani, who has pushed the idea that Ukraine was trying to interfere with the 2016 election and that the younger Biden may have enriched himself by selling his access to his father.
The Post says the emails were part of a trove of data recovered from a laptop that was dropped off at a computer repair shop in Delaware in April 2019. It says the customer, whom the owner could not definitively identify as Hunter Biden, never paid for the service or retrieved it, and says the owner made a copy of the hard drive that he provided to Giuliani’s lawyer.
The owner of the Wilmington shop declined to comment to The Associated Press, but in news media interviews he has said he contacted the FBI through an intermediary and provided agents with a copy of the hard drive’s contents.
Hunter Biden himself has not spoken publicly in recent weeks, including to confirm whether or not the laptop is his. The Biden campaign has also not addressed that question, though a lawyer for Hunter Biden, George Mesires, said in a statement that “we have no idea where this came from, and certainly cannot credit anything that Rudy Giuliani provided to the NY Post.”
Some former national security officials and other experts said the episode raised multiple red flags of a possible Russian disinformation effort, especially given the involvement of Giuliani and his active role in promoting an anti-Biden narrative on Ukraine.
But John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, knocked down that idea, saying, “The intelligence community doesn’t believe that because there’s no intelligence that supports that.”
The FBI appeared to endorse Ratcliffe’s position in a letter to a Senate committee that had requested information on the laptop.
“Regarding the subject of your letter, we have nothing to add at this time to the October 19th public statement by the Director of National Intelligence about the available actionable intelligence,” wrote Jill Tyson, director of the office of Congressional Affairs, in the letter to Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Tyson also said she could not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation, in keeping with Justice Department practice.
The suggestion that Joe Biden might have met with a Burisma representative is consequential, because he has repeatedly insisted that he never discussed his son’s business with him.
But the emails provide no details on whether Pozharskyi and Biden actually met and, if so, what they discussed.
If Biden did meet with Pozharskyi, he was not the only U.S. official who may have done so. Pozharskyi was part of a Burisma delegation that lobbied congressional officials in 2014 in an attempt to show that the firm was not a corruption risk.
The Trump campaign also organized a press event featuring Tony Bobulinski, a man who said he was Hunter Biden’s former business partner. Bobulinski made unproven allegations that the vice president’s son consulted with his father after he left office on potential business dealings in China that ultimately never came to fruition.
He was to have been interviewed by a Senate committee last week, but the panel postponed it after learning from Bobulinski’s lawyers that the FBI planned to question him on that same day.
Bobulinksi, a Navy veteran, said in an interview that aired Tuesday on Fox News that he was motivated to speak out because he was offended by the insinuation from the Biden campaign and some Democratic lawmakers that the emails and the narrative were associated with Russian disinformation, and was upset.
As part of its interview, Fox News aired audio of a conversation it said was between Bobulinski and someone who Bobulinski said was a business associate of Hunter Biden’s in which the man, Rob Walker, can be heard saying that if Bobulinski spoke out publicly against Biden, “You’re just gonna bury all of us, man.”
Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates disputed any close ties between Joe Biden and Walker, saying in a statement that “it is totally inaccurate to describe him as a representative of the Biden campaign or any member of the Biden family.”
Bobulinski said in the interview that he had a sit-down meeting with Joe Biden in May 2017, after Biden left office, and that Hunter Biden introduced him to his father as “the individual I told you about that’s helping us with the business that we’re working on and the Chinese.” He said it was a “high-level” meeting that did not delve into details.
He also said that he raised concerns to Biden’s brother, Jim, that Chinese business dealings could put his brother’s political ambitions at risk, but that Biden responded, “Plausible deniability.”
The Associated Press could not independently verify Bobulinski’s allegations, and Biden has said he has never taken any money from any foreign countries.
With Election Day near and with polls showing him trailing Biden, Trump is returning to the subject of his opponent’s family in an apparent effort to energize his base.
But in an election dominated by concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, it’s less certain Trump’s strategy will appeal to the voters he needs to win back, including moderate Republicans and suburban women.
Trump sprinkled allegations against Biden and his son in the second and last presidential debate.
Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, pointed to the recent Republican-led Senate investigation that found no evidence of wrongdoing on Biden’s part with regard to Ukraine. It also pointedly noted the involvement of Giuliani, saying his “discredited conspiracy theories and alliance with figures connected to Russian intelligence have been widely reported.”
Associated Press writers Amanda Seitz in Chicago, Jonathan Lemire in New York, Alexandra Jaffe in Washington, Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, Calif., and Bill Barrow in Wilmington, Del., contributed to this report.