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AP Explains: Trump seizes on dubious Biden-Ukraine story

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP) — Looking to undermine rival Joe Biden 20 days before the
election, President Donald Trump’s campaign has seized on a tabloid
story offering bizarre twists to a familiar line of attack: Biden’s
relationship with Ukraine. But the story in the New York Post raises
more questions than answers, including about the authenticity of an
email at the center of the story.

The origins of the story also
trace back to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has repeatedly pushed
unfounded claims about Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. 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 in Ukraine.

A look at the development:


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.

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.


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.”

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.


a tangled saga. The Post says it received a copy of a hard drive
containing the messages on Sunday from Giuliani, who has pushed the
unfounded 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 Wednesday to The Associated
Press, saying he didn’t feel like talking. The newspaper says the owner
alerted the FBI to the computer and hard drive, and that agents took
possession of them. That could not immediately be confirmed, and the FBI
declined to comment.

Asked via text by an AP reporter how long he
had the hard drive, Giuliani replied, in part: “You’re interested in
the wrong thing. This time the truth will not be defeated by process.
I’ve got a lot more to go.”


actual origins of the emails are unclear. And disinformation experts
say there are multiple red flags that raise doubts about their
authenticity, including questions about whether the laptop actually
belongs to Hunter Biden, said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the
nonpartisan Wilson Center in Washington.

The Biden campaign
didn’t address that issue Wednesday, but Hunter Biden’s lawyer, George
Mesires, said in a statement to the AP that “we have no idea where this
came from, and certainly cannot credit anything that Rudy Giuliani
provided to the NY Post.” He added that “what I do know for certain is
that this purported meeting never happened.”

Another potential
alarm is the involvement of another Trump associate, Steve Bannon, who
the Post says first alerted it to the existence of the hard drive and
who along with Giuliani has been active in promoting an anti-Biden
narrative on Ukraine.

“We should view it as a Trump campaign product,” Jankowicz said.

Rid, a political scientist and disinformation expert at Johns Hopkins
University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said it was not
clear to him yet whether the emails were hacked or forged but said they
“could be either or both.”

“It’s a common feature in these operations that you combine generic content, accurate content, with forged content,” Rid said.


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.

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.


like Twitter and Facebook, already under pressure to police their
platforms ahead of the election, quickly flagged the article and moved
to restrict its accessibility online — an action decried as censorship
by Trump and his supporters, including congressional Republicans.

spokesman Andy Stone announced on Twitter that the company was working
to reduce the distribution of the article on its platform.

Wednesday afternoon, Twitter began banning its users from sharing links
to the article in tweets and direct messages because it violated the
company’s policy that prohibits hacked content.

lawmakers on Thursday announced plans to subpoena Twitter chief
executive officer Jack Dorsey. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a
member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was imperative that
Dorsey “come before this committee and the American people, and explain
why Twitter is abusing their corporate power to silence the press and to
cover up allegations of corruption.”

Dorsey acknowledged on
Twitter on Wednesday night that the company should have provided more
context and information about its actions.


less than three weeks until Election Day and polls showing him trailing
Biden, Trump appears to be returning to the subject of his opponent’s
family 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’s called for a
full accounting of Biden’s conversations with Hunter and with
Pozharskyi. Trump said in an interview with Newsmax that the Post had
caught Biden “cold” with “serious” allegations.

At a campaign
rally in Iowa on Wednesday night, Trump led with the Post story and
called Biden “a corrupt politician who shouldn’t even be allowed to run
for the presidency.”

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.