U.S. President Donald Trump and his campaign have seized on a story in the New York Post that alleges to contain new information about Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and the Ukraine controversy that partially led to Trump’s impeachment.
In the hours after the unverified story was published Wednesday morning, Twitter and Facebook both moved to limit its distribution on both social media platforms. Clicking the link on Twitter led to a page warning the story was “potentially harmful,” while allowing viewers to click through to the story if they wished.
According to the Trump campaign, Twitter also locked the personal account of White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who shared the article multiple times. McEnany later condemned Facebook and Twitter’s “censorship” from her official press secretary account.
According to the Post, the tabloid was also blocked from posting to its Twitter account as a result of the story.
Twitter later explained the move was based on an official policy regarding hacked materials. Because the New York Post story is based on emails allegedly taken from an old laptop belonging to Hunter Biden — and because the story includes un-redacted screenshots of the emails, complete with personal email addresses — Twitter said the story violated its policy.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said it was “unacceptable” that the page blocking access to the story contained no context about the decision, and admitted the company’s communication about the story “was not great.”
A Facebook spokesperson, Andy Stone, said on Twitter that the company would also be limiting distribution of the article, although he was vague about exactly how that would be done. Stone did say the story is “eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners.”
Trump, who discussed the article and its allegations multiple times at a campaign rally in Iowa Wednesday night, said in a tweet the actions of Twitter and Facebook were “terrible” while calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The rule allows tech companies to moderate third-party content posted on their platforms while protecting them from liability over the content itself.
Other Republican politicians and conservatives also criticized Twitter and Facebook, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Josh Hawley, both of whom wrote letters to the companies demanding explanations on why the Post story was blocked.
Senate Republicans simply wrote, “See you soon” while tagging Dorsey, likely referring to the Senate Commerce Committee subpoenaing the Twitter CEO and other tech executives earlier this month.
Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in a statement that the Post never asked the campaign for comment on the story, which it dismissed as false.
“Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as ‘not legitimate’ and political by a GOP colleague have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing. Trump Administration officials have attested to these facts under oath,” Bates said.
What’s the story about?
The Post’s story is based mostly on a May 2015 email appearing to be sent to Hunter Biden by Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma, which Hunter sat on at the time.
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 honour and pleasure.”
The wording makes it unclear if he actually met Joe Biden, or what they discussed if they did. Bates, the Biden campaign spokesperson, said in a statement that the campaign has reviewed Biden’s schedules from the time and that no meeting as described by the newspaper took place.
Joe Biden has repeatedly insisted that he never discussed his son’s business with him.
Hunter Biden sat on the Burisma board around the time his father, then U.S. vice-president, was helping conduct the Obama administration’s foreign policy with Ukraine.
Senate 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. In fact, it was found the prosecutor was not looking into Burisma at the time he was fired.
There’s also evidence that several Republican senators were also pushing for Ukraine to crack down on corruption, including firing the prosecutor.
A phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president in 2019, during which Trump pushed for an official investigation to be announced into Burisma and the Bidens in exchange for a release on promised arms sales, sparked the hearings that led to Trump’s impeachment by the Democrat-led House of Representatives in December.
The Republican-majority Senate then voted to not remove Trump from office in January.
Why is the story controversial?
The Post says it received a hard drive containing the messages on Sunday from Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has pushed the unfounded idea that Ukraine was trying to interfere with the 2016 election instead of Russia. He’s also repeatedly alleged that the younger Biden may have enriched himself by selling his access to his father.
The idea that Ukraine meddled in the election has been found by U.S. intelligence to be Russian disinformation, yet has been continually seized upon by right-wing lawmakers and media.
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 actual origins of the emails are unclear. There are also multiple red flags that raise doubts about their authenticity, including questions about whether the laptop actually belongs to Hunter Biden, Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center in Washington, told the Associated Press.
Another potential alarm is the involvement of another Trump associate, Steve Bannon, whom the Post says first alerted it to the emails 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.
If 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.
The story comes amid increased calls from Trump for the Justice Department to lay charges against Joe Biden, President Barack Obama and other Obama administration officials over the origins of the FBI investigation into Russian collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that a federal prosecutor appointed by Attorney General William Barr to review aspects of that investigation concluded his work without finding any evidence of wrongdoing, and will not issue a public report or recommend charges.
Despite the murky nature of the Post story, Trump has called for a full investigation into Joe Biden’s dealings with Pozharskyi and Ukraine.
“There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician,” Trump said on Twitter.
— With files from the Associated Press