President Trump used the final presidential debate to carry out his telegraphed plan to make Hunter Biden’s computer — “the laptop from hell” — the centerpiece of his closing message. He is attempting to replicate the strategy he used to come from behind and beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. But it’s not 2016, and the laptop story is far less dangerous to Biden than the emails were to Clinton.
In case you aren’t versed in the buzzwords of the right-wing media alternate universe where Trump spends nearly all his time, here is the substance of the attack. The Trump campaign is trying to accuse Biden of two offenses: turning a blind eye to Ukraine corruption because of personal gain, and using his office to make sweet business deals in China.
One problem with these charges is that it’s extremely clear Biden did neither. As vice-president, Biden pushed Ukraine to oust its corrupt prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who democracy advocates throughout the world — including Republicans! — considered a key impediment to reform. Trump’s claim that Shokin was about to investigate Burisma, the firm employing Hunter Biden, is backward. Ukrainian reformers are very clear that Shokin was not investigating Burisma. Biden took the position opposite to the one that benefited his son.
The more recent, and convoluted charge, is that Hunter Biden tried to scare up business in China and kicked up 10 percent of his profits to his father. Republicans have seized on emails between Hunter Biden and Tony Bobulinski, a new character they have introduced late into the drama. The main problem with this charge is that Joe Biden has published years of tax returns, and they do not include income from China. So unless Biden not only profited by letting Hunter sell his name, but engaged in tax fraud by hiding the income — a crime Republicans haven’t even accused him of — they again have nothing here.
Three days ago, Trump told his staff that the Wall Street Journal was “working on an important piece” related to Hunter Biden. The political world has been abuzz in rumor over what blockbuster would emerge. The result, which was published shortly before the debate, is by opinion columnist Kimberly Strassel. In case you don’t get the joke, the Journal’s reporters are one of the best newsrooms in the world, but its editorial page is a running joke, including in the Journal newsroom. It’s a bit like spreading the rumor that you’ve found the most talented new artist in Paris, only for it to turn out you mean Paris, Texas.
Indeed, the Journal column, while filled with innuendo, has nothing incriminating about Joe Biden. It reveals fragmentary evidence of a plan involving Hunter Biden to make a deal in China using his name as leverage, only for Joe Biden to nix the whole thing when he caught wind of it. A Wall Street Journal news story, published later in the evening, confirms, “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.”
The second problem with these allegations is that they’re both forms of misconduct that Donald Trump has done. Trump has promoted corrupt Ukrainian officials. In his infamous phone call his Ukrainian president Vlodomyr Zelensky, Trump told him, “You had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair,” and urged Zelensky to announce an investigation of Biden to help his campaign. He also sent Rudy Giuliani and his partners in to shake down Ukrainian officials for a piece of their energy sector — an apparent crime that was or is the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.
As for using his office to profit from China, you know who may have actually done that? Donald Trump. While Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns, the New York Times found some, and dug up a secret bank account the president opened in China in 2017, while serving as president. Obviously any business he did in 2017 poses an inherent conflict of interest with his official duties — China has every incentive to throw money at the sitting president of the United States.
Encouraging corruption and getting paid by China are both things Biden provably did not do, and Trump provably did.
That doesn’t mean the issue is free of any complication for Biden. His son Hunter did try to cash in on his name, and his padded job for Burisma and apparently failed attempts to make a deal in China both indicate a level of sleaze that does slightly tarnish his father, who should have stopped it. That is why, in a desperate effort to recreate the Hillary scandal magic, conservative media has turned monomaniacally to Hunter Biden:
Trump officials and conservative allies have spent the last couple days demanding the media devote its attention to this story, despite a dearth of incriminating evidence, in the hope that the aura of wrongdoing can tarnish Biden.
Four years ago (both charts via Philip Bump), emails dominated coverage and perception of Clinton:
But the Clinton email scandal was different. First, it drew on decades of negative brand equity built up by the media following Clinton scandals, real and imagined. Second, the Hillary Clinton emails were released in monthly tranches throughout the campaign, generating regular coverage. Third, the story benefited as well from a simple linguistic overlap between the Hillary email story and the hacks of Democratic emails — for low-information voters, “emails” became an all-purpose shorthand for Clinton wrongdoing, even though the email hacking was a Trump scandal.
And the media has simply learned not to be suckered in by these tactics as gullibly. They don’t need to give an issue the all-consuming attention that gives off the sense something bad must be going on here just because Republicans want to talk about it. The bad faith of the enterprise is too transparent.
Trump again brought a “special guest” to a debate in an attempt to rattle his opponent and draw media attention. He again flung insinuations of corruption across the stage. If he was clever, he would understand that a trick that worked once won’t always work every time. But he isn’t that clever.