Someone Is Wrong on the Internet

Five Things You Need to Read Today

1. Lamest October Surprise Ever

There has been a big online kerfuffle about supposed bombshell reports showing Joe Biden’s corruption by way of his sleazy, ne’er-do-well son Hunter Biden. To cover this, though, we’re going to need some wider context.

The central claim against Biden is that as vice-president, he used his position to pressure Ukraine into firing its prosecutor-general, Viktor Shokin. This is no secret. Biden had boasted about it—as a way of touting his opposition to corruption. The claim made by President Trump and his supporters is that the real reason Biden demanded Shokin’s removal was to quash an investigation into a Ukrainian oil and gas company, Burisma, where his son worked.

None of that is actually true. Those of us who followed events in Ukraine before this became a partisan political football know that Shokin was fired for being too soft on corruption and even specifically for failing to prosecute Burisma. Hunter Biden was never under investigation.

(Hunter Biden definitely did trade flagrantly on his father’s name to take well-paid positions for which he was unqualified and did little apparent work. It’s just that there is no evidence the people who hired him got their money’s worth in terms of specific favors as opposed to vague “contacts.”)

So that’s the first piece of context. The second piece of context is what happened in the 2016 election. The big myth of 2016 is that the polls were wrong. They weren’t. They showed a close race with Hillary Clinton in the lead, including in the “battleground” states. But they also showed that her lead was not stable and was very weak—she was never even near 50%. What happened is that very late in the election, in the last two weeks—in 2020 terms, between now and Election Day—a big bloc of undecided voters swung toward Trump, closing the gap just enough to push him over in a few of the battleground states and win an Electoral College victory. (You can see it unfold in RCP’s top battlegrounds average from 2016. Compare that with Biden’s swing state lead this year.)

Why? Part of the reason is that on October 28, 2016, FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress that revived the scandal over Clinton’s use of an unsecured e-mail server. Political horse-race expert Nate Silver has made the case that this last-minute shock had a measurable impact that tilted key swing states toward Trump in the final weeks.

I’m slightly skeptical about this, because I suspect many of those swing voters were likely to have moved toward Trump to begin with. They were probably going to be Trump voters anyway, and the Comey letter just helped them admit this fact to pollsters and probably to themselves.

But the Trump campaign clearly believes that this is what tipped the election toward them, so you can see why they’re attempting to re-create it now with an October Surprise meant to portray Joe and Hunter Biden as the “Biden Crime Family.”

Donald Trump and his associates have been trying to gin up a scandal against Biden for years, and Trump famously risked his presidency by demanding that Ukraine’s president announce an investigation of Hunter Biden as a condition for receiving congressionally authorized American aid. You may recall that Trump got impeached for it, and the trial, it is hard to believe, was less than a year ago.

Now, in a last-ditch effort to breathe life back into the same charges, the New York Post has published a series of articles based on information from what it claims is a pair of laptop computers dropped off by Hunter Biden with a computer repairman in Delaware and never picked up. The data from the laptops was then passed along to the Post by Rudy Giuliani.

The whole story is sketchy as hell. Check out this interview with the guy who runs the computer repair shop, who gives a rambling and contradictory account which makes the provenance of the laptop seem questionable to say the least. As for Rudy Giuliani, he has gone through a well-documented devolution from “America’s Mayor” to a guy passing on conspiracy theories from people with ties to Russian intelligence. Giuliani is a living example of the adage that you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

The story was so sketchy that Fox News passed on it, and even when the New York Post took it up, they had difficulty finding reporters who were willing to put their names on the story.

Many Post staff members questioned whether the paper had done enough to verify the authenticity of the hard drive’s contents, said five people with knowledge of the tabloid’s inner workings. Staff members also had concerns about the reliability of its sources and its timing, the people said.

The article named two sources: Stephen K. Bannon, the former adviser to President Trump now facing federal fraud charges, who was said to have made the paper aware of the hard drive last month; and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who was said to have given the paper ‘a copy’ of the hard drive on Oct. 11….

As deadline approached, editors pressed staff members to add their bylines to the story–and at least one aside from [Bruce] Golding refused, two Post journalists said.

What about the people whose names are actually on the first article, Emma-Jo Morris and Gabrielle Fonrouge?

Ms. Morris did not have a bylined article in The Post before Wednesday, a search of its website showed. She arrived at the tabloid in April after working as an associate producer on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, according to her LinkedIn profile. Her Instagram account, which was set to private on Wednesday, included photos of her posing with the former Trump administration members Mr. Bannon and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well as Roger J. Stone Jr., a friend and former campaign adviser to Mr. Trump. (In July, the president commuted the sentence of Mr. Stone on seven felonies.)

Ms. Fonrouge had little to do with the reporting or writing of the article, said three people with knowledge of how it was prepared. She learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published, the people said.

Like I said, sketchy as hell. That’s why I’m not linking to the Post report and not taking it very seriously. And even if I did, so far it mostly just confirms what we already knew: that Hunter Biden was a drug addict who traded on his father’s name to get lucrative jobs and business deals in corrupt places like Ukraine and China—the kind of places where putting the relative of a powerful man on the payroll in considered the cost of doing business.

Perhaps this is why Trump supporters have moved on to insinuating that Hunter Biden’s laptop also includes child pornography, as Maria Bartiromo just did in an interview with Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who seemingly endorsed the idea. Note, please, that this contradicts the story of the guy who passed on the laptop in the first place.

But this is really a giveaway. If they had claimed to find photos on the laptop of Hunter Biden taking drugs or carousing with hookers, that would have been believable—but it also wouldn’t move the election, because we already know about it. So they had to take that one extra step toward extravagant fabrication and do it in a way that is very, very Russian.

Planting real hacked data mixed in with fake data is a known Russian technique—they did it in France a few years ago. And along with poisoning political opponents and making them fall out of windows, another favorite Russian tactic is the bogus child pornography accusation—the sort of thing that tends to stick to a reputation even if the accused man is eventually acquitted. Read about how they did this to a Russian historian who angered the Kremlin by uncovering Stalin-era mass graves in Karelia. Perhaps this also explains why President Trump has been boosting the QAnon theory, which is built around an imaginary child sexual abuse ring.

But will this work to create a last-minute swerve toward Trump in the swing states? The purpose of dropping something like this into the media three weeks before the election is that there is no way anyone can possibly either validate it or refute it before Election Day. But this usually means that people will believe whatever they are already inclined to believe. If they are inclined to believe that Biden is corrupt and dishonest (as they clearly were with Hillary Clinton), then it will move their votes. If they are not inclined to believe it, then there are plenty of grounds for dismissing this as a political smear.

In another week, we should have a good idea which way people are going to break.

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