Shortly before Election Day in 2020, Steve Bannon was bragging about his success with the “laptop from hell.” He and his allies had been spreading damaging rumors about Hunter Biden—including outright lies—and Joe Biden’s campaign had failed to refute them. “Nobody came out and said anything you’re saying’s not true,” Bannon asserted in an October 31 meeting with a group of people who had helped disseminate material from Hunter’s laptop. “Even the wildest allegations.”
Bannon, a Trump adviser and former White House aide, was arguing that Joe Biden’s reluctance to publicly litigate the details of his son’s messy life made it open season on Hunter, regardless of whether any particular allegations were true. This situation has seemingly persisted since Biden’s victory, with the right using attacks on the president’s son, many based on little or no evidence, as means to impugn his father.
Hunter Biden tried to change that dynamic last week. In a series of letters, lawyers that he recently hired asked state and federal agencies to launch investigations into alleged crimes by people who have acknowledged a role in distributing material from Hunter’s hard drive, among them Rudy Giuliani and Bannon. Another letter threatened to sue Fox News’ Tucker Carlson for defamation for falsely claiming Hunter paid his father around $50,000 per month in rent for housing.
In letters to the Department of Justice and Delaware’s attorney general, Hunter Biden attorney Abbe Lowell cited my own reporting and noted that Bannon in October 2020 gave data from Hunter’s laptop to Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese mogul. Guo then oversaw an effort by his own subordinates to post that material, much which consisted of explicit material—like dick pics and videos and pictures showing Hunter engaged in sexual encounters and using drugs. Multiple people involved in distributing the material said that Guo encouraged them to accompany posts of real material from the laptop with lies about other material the laptop supposedly contained. At Guo’s direction, they alleged that other material on the hard drive showed Hunter Biden having sex with underage Chinese girls. There is no evidence supporting that allegation.
Lowell’s letters charges that Bannon, Giuliani, and Robert Costello—a lawyer who helped disseminate laptop material and who currently represents both Bannon and Giuliani—may have violated state and federal statutes, such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, when they distributed material from Hunter’s hard drive without his permission.
Costello told Mother Jones Tuesday that the letters are “totally frivolous and false.” Costello said that Hunter Biden had signed a work order that made the laptop abandoned property after 90 days. According to Costello, that allowed John Paul Mac Issac, the owner of the computer repair shop where Biden reputedly left it, to take possession.
The letters may have long odds of prompting investigations into adversaries of Hunter, who himself reportedly remains under investigation by the US attorney in Delaware. But their purpose is probably more about public relations. They function as a warning shot and an attempt to shift attention toward the conduct of Donald Trump’s allies. The missives also offer a reminder that Hunter Biden—regardless of his apparent efforts to profit off his father’s name, his addiction issues, and his potential crimes—was a victim of an organized smear campaign.
This is important context heading into Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing, titled: “Protecting Speech from Government Interference and Social Media Bias, Part 1: Twitter’s Role in Suppressing the Biden Laptop Story.” Following on a string of tweets in which journalist Matt Taibbi described internal Twitter communications from 2020 related to Hunter’s laptop, Republicans on the committee are likely to focus on Twitter’s dubious decision to initially block users from sharing New York Post reports about Hunter’s various business activities.
In his reporting, Taibbi noted that Joe Biden’s campaign had successfully asked Twitter to take down a number of tweets related to Hunter. But as I explained in December, Taibbi failed to note that the requests from the Biden campaign that he highlighted did not relate to reporting by the New York Post. The tweets that the Biden campaign asked to have removed—at least the ones that Taibbi shared—contained explicit images of Hunter. That was the material that Guo’s followers distributed at Bannon’s behest.
Twitter, to be sure, did suppress reporting on Biden’s business entanglements that was based on laptop material. The company said those actions were based on suspicions that the stories relied on documents that might have been hacked by Russians in an effort to help Trump—the scenario that occurred in 2016. But subsequent reporting has indicated the material the Post cited did indeed come from Hunter’s hard drive and was not the result of a hack, all of which suggests Twitter’s decision was a poor one.
The dick pics and such that Twitter took down, however, were a different story. Those posts clearly violated Twitter’s own terms of service. Those rules bar “sharing explicit sexual images or videos of someone online without their consent.” Posting self-porn that Hunter had on his computer isn’t much different from posting revenge porn. Twitter also bars “coordinated harmful activity,” defined as “individuals associated with a group, movement, or campaign…engaged in some form of coordination” that will “cause harm to others.” The organized effort by Guo backers to disseminate the explicit material clearly meets that definition.
Republicans on the oversight committee are likely to argue Wednesday that Twitter suppressed material from Hunter’s laptop in a bid to help Joe Biden, and that this decision was obviously wrong. The full context, however—including Bannon’s and Guo’s activities—suggests that the company’s decisions, right or wrong, were not easy, and were not obviously made in bad faith.
But that information, and the newly aggressive tactics from Hunter Biden’s attorneys, are unlikely to deter Republicans in Congress or Bannon and company from continuing to target the president’s son.
“It was a stupid shot over the bow,” Costello said Tuesday of Lowell’s letters. “If they thought they could intimate this group of people, boy were they wrong. We know how to play hardball.”