Media Criticism

The New York Times Belatedly Admits the Emails on Hunter Biden's Abandoned Laptop Are Real and Newsworthy

A year and a half after the New York Post broke the story, the Times says it has "authenticated" the messages it previously deemed suspect.


Yesterday The New York Times published a story that quotes emails from a laptop that Hunter Biden, President Joe Biden's son, abandoned at a computer repair shop in Delaware. The messages reinforce the impression that Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that reportedly paid the younger Biden $50,000 a month to serve on its board, expected him to use his influence with his father for the company's benefit—an allegation that figured prominently in the scandal that led to Donald Trump's impeachment for pressuring the Ukrainian government to announce a Biden-Burisma corruption investigation. The messages include evidence that Hunter Biden arranged an April 2015 meeting between his father, then the vice president, and a Burisma executive.

If all that sounds familiar, it's because the New York Post first reported this eyebrow-raising information back in October 2020, a month before the presidential election. Pro-Biden, anti-Trump journalists, including several at the Times, portrayed the Post's story as unsubstantiated at best. Politico reported that "more than 50 former senior intelligence officials" believed the emails had "all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation." Some journalists suggested it was reckless even to acknowledge the Post's report. Twitter, which initially blocked links to the article, seemed to agree. While the Times did not ignore the story, the paper's coverage treated it with skepticism and disdain.

But that was then. A year and a half later, the Times thinks the emails it viewed as suspect before Joe Biden's election are now newsworthy. "People familiar" with a federal investigation of Hunter Biden, it reports, "said prosecutors had examined emails" between him, his former business partner Devon Archer, "and others" regarding "Burisma and other foreign business activity." Those emails "were obtained by The New York Times from a cache of files that appears to have come from a laptop abandoned by Mr. Biden in a Delaware repair shop." The messages "were authenticated by people familiar with them and with the investigation."

In October 2020, by contrast, the Times reported that the Post's story was so iffy that "some reporters withheld their bylines." Here is how the Times described its competitor's scoop:

Coming late in a heated presidential campaign, the article suggested that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had used his position to enrich his son Hunter when he was vice president. The Post based the story on photos and documents the paper said it had taken from the hard drive of a laptop purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden.

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 Times was similarly dismissive in a story published four days later:

President Trump's allies have long promoted claims of corruption about Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s son Hunter in a bid to damage Mr. Biden's presidential campaign. The accusations intensified in recent days when some of Mr. Trump's associates, including his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, provided material for a New York Post article detailing some of the allegations. The Post reported that the F.B.I. had seized a computer that purportedly belonged to Hunter Biden.

The Biden campaign has rejected the accusations. Many questions remain about the origins of the allegations themselves, the laptop and what, if anything, agents are investigating….

The Post article relied on documents purportedly taken from the computer to try to buttress an unsubstantiated argument peddled by Mr. Giuliani and other Trump supporters: that as vice president, Mr. Biden had shaped American foreign policy in Ukraine to benefit his son. The events are the latest chapter in a more than two-year effort by the president and his allies to uncover damning information about the Bidens, a pursuit that also helped prompt Mr. Trump's impeachment.

This gloss reads more like a defensive press release from the Biden campaign than a news story.

To be fair, there were reasons to be skeptical of the Post's story. The paper said the repair shop owner, later identified as John Paul Mac Isaac, "couldn't positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden" but recalled that "the laptop bore a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation, named after Hunter's late brother and former Delaware attorney general." Before the FBI seized the laptop as evidence in December 2019, the Post said, Mac Isaac "made a copy of the hard drive and later gave it to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's lawyer, Robert Costello." After "Steve Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, told The Post about the existence of the hard drive in late September," Giuliani "provided The Post with a copy of it on Sunday"—three days before the Post published its story.

The provenance of the laptop was less than ironclad, and Giuliani, who has told so many lies as Trump's lawyer that it is hard to keep track of them, is no one's idea of a reliable source. But the Post's story included a photo of the federal subpoena for the laptop and an external hard drive, which showed the FBI had seized them and thought they might provide evidence of illegal activity.

"As part of the F.B.I.'s closely held money-laundering investigation into Mr. Biden,"  the Times acknowledged two months after the Post's story, "agents working with federal prosecutors in Delaware authorized a federal grand jury subpoena and obtained the laptop and an external hard drive." But the paper implied that there was nothing of interest there: "People familiar with the examination said that the F.B.I. examined the laptop but that its contents did not advance the money-laundering investigation."

The Times now says the investigation of Hunter Biden "began as a tax inquiry under the Obama administration" and "widened in 2018 to include possible criminal violations of tax laws, as well as foreign lobbying and money laundering rules." One issue is whether Biden violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, "which requires disclosure to the Justice Department of lobbying or public relations assistance on behalf of foreign clients" such as Burisma.

The emails cited by the Post are clearly relevant to that inquiry, but only if they are bona fide—a point the Times has repeatedly questioned until now. Even if the Post had not done enough to verify the original source of the laptop, the Times surely could have filled in the gaps sooner than it did. As recently as last September, it was still describing the emails as "correspondence that The Post suggested had been found on Hunter Biden's laptop."

In an editorial published today, the Post mocks the Gray Lady's belated certification of the emails as "authenticated" by unnamed sources: "Authenticated!!! You don't say. You mean, when a newspaper actually does reporting on a topic and doesn't just try to whitewash coverage for Joe Biden, it discovers it's actually true?"

The editorial also notes that the Times initially questioned whether the meeting between Joe Biden and the Burisma executive had actually happened. "A Biden campaign spokesman said Mr. Biden's official schedules did not show a meeting between the two men," Times reporter Adam Goldman wrote. "A lawyer for Hunter Biden, George Mesires, told The Washington Post that 'this purported meeting never happened.'"

Or maybe it did, the Times now admits: "In another set of emails examined by prosecutors, Hunter Biden and Mr. Archer discussed inviting foreign business associates, including a Burisma executive, to a dinner in April 2015 at a Washington restaurant where Vice President Biden would stop by. It is not clear whether the Burisma executive attended the dinner, although the vice president did make an appearance, according to people familiar with the event."

The Post wonders why it took Times reporters took so long to do their job: "Now we're 16 months away from the 2020 election, Joe Biden's safely in the White House, and the Times finally decides to report on the news rather than carry the Biden campaign's water. And they find that hey, Hunter Biden's business interests benefited from Joe Biden's political status to a suspicious degree. Perhaps this is a topic worthy of examination."

Hunter Biden's arrangement with Burisma was always fishy, since he was paid handsomely and his only qualification to serve on the company's board of directors seemed to be his relationship with an important U.S. official. His father's angry, defensive responses to questions about that arrangement only added to the suspicion.

During a February 2020 interview on NBC's Today show, for instance, co-host Savannah Guthrie asked Joe Biden whether it was "wrong for [Hunter] to take that position, knowing that it was really because that company wanted access to you." Biden testily insisted there was nothing to see there: "Well, that's not true. You're saying things you do not know what you're talking about. No one has said that—who said that?" When Guthrie suggested that some people might see the Burisma gig as "sleazy," Biden replied: "Well, he said he regretted having done it. Speak for yourself. He's a grown man."

None of this necessarily means that Joe Biden himself did anything improper or illegal. While Trump alleged that Biden was doing Burisma's bidding when he demanded the dismissal of Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, for example, Biden plausibly maintained that the motivation was widely shared concerns about Shokin's corruption.

Nor does Hunter Biden's unseemly relationship with Burisma mean that Trump was justified in seeking to discredit the Democrat he expected to face in the presidential election by pressuring the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of the matter. But it surely was a legitimate issue to raise during the presidential campaign, as Guthrie and other journalists unconnected to the Post recognized. The question is why the Times did not, and the answer clearly has more to do with partisan sympathies than the journalistic standards the paper claimed to be defending.