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'October surprise' emails unlikely to damage Biden as election nears, experts say

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden waves to the crowd at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Fla., Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden waves to the crowd at Miramar Regional Park in Miramar, Fla., Tuesday Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign rolled out a new ad Wednesday slamming former Vice President Joe Biden for allegedly lying to the public about his son’s foreign business activities in light of new reporting about Hunter Biden’s emails.

“The contrast between a 47-year swamp creature in Joe Biden and a businessman in President Trump has been a major theme of this campaign and I would expect it to be so through Election Day,” said Trump 2020 campaign senior adviser Jason Miller.

A New York Post front page touted “Biden secret emails” revealing new details of Hunter Biden’s work for Ukrainian gas company Burisma. On a press call organized by the Trump campaign, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi claimed the report proves Biden’s family “will enrich themselves by trading on their father’s position and power.”

An email from April 2015 purportedly shows Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, thanking Hunter Biden for “inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father.” In an earlier email, Pozharskyi asked Hunter, who had joined Burisma’s board, for “advice on how you could use your influence.”

If Biden met with Pozharskyi at his son’s behest to discuss matters related to Burisma, that would contradict his public assertions that he never had any involvement with his son’s overseas business dealings. The information reported by the Post Wednesday does not directly establish that such a meeting occurred.

“If The New York Post story is true, we now know Joe Biden lied to the American people,” Bondi said.

That remains a big “if.” Biden’s campaign is pushing back against the reporting, disputing its accuracy and questioning the involvement of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s attorney, in providing the emails to the newspaper.

“We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by The New York Post, ever took place,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates told Politico.

The Trump campaign and its Republican allies have claimed then-Vice President Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees unless Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko fired Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin in order to halt an investigation into corruption allegations involving Burisma. Given Hunter Biden’s lack of experience in Ukraine or the energy sector, they maintain the company placed him on its board and paid him exorbitantly solely to influence his father.

However, many other Western officials also wanted Shokin removed because they felt he was not investigating corruption aggressively enough. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time publicly criticized Shokin’s office for not assisting with an investigation of Burisma’s owner.

The New York Post reporting raises some new questions but it answers very few. There is no indication of what steps were taken to verify the contents of the emails, and the source described in the article is highly unusual.

According to The Post, the emails were found on a laptop dropped off at a computer repair shop in Delaware last April. The customer never paid for service or tried to retrieve the computer and the shop owner could not confirm the person was Hunter Biden, but the computer reportedly contained sexually explicit images and videos of Hunter.

The owner of the shop said he turned the laptop and hard drive over to federal investigators in December after alerting them of its existence. The owner also made a copy of the hard drive and gave it to Giuliani’s attorney, and Giuliani provided it to The Post Sunday.

Giuliani has worked with current and former Ukrainian officials with links to Russian intelligence to advance allegations against Biden, including one lawmaker who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last month for involvement in “Russian malign influence campaigns.” Giuliani told a Los Angeles Times reporter Wednesday he has “a lot more" information to come.

President Trump has long sought to make Hunter Biden’s business activities while his father was vice president an issue in the campaign. His efforts to obtain damaging information about the Bidens by pressuring the Ukrainian government led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives last year.

In 2016, Trump branded Democratic nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” and effectively hammered her for supposed corruption and self-dealing. This time, none of Trump’s attacks on the Bidens have gained much traction with voters, and experts doubt the latest headlines will do much more damage with three weeks until the election and millions of votes already cast.

“The American voters perceive Joe Biden as more likable than Hillary Clinton and more honest and trustworthy, so some of this idea of stoking doubt about his character just doesn’t land,” said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University.

Also, unlike with Clinton, whose own emails were at the center of an FBI investigation, most of the allegations Trump has hurled at Biden reflect more negatively on his son than him.

“Hunter isn't Joe,” said Kerwin Swint, a professor of political science at Kennesaw State University and author of “Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time.” “Also, there hasn't been a smoking gun proving beyond a doubt that the Hunter Biden accusations are factual. Elements of proof are there, but they haven't been able to tie it together with definitive evidence.”

A report released last month by the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Finance Committees concluded Hunter Biden “cashed in” on his father’s name but found no evidence Joe Biden improperly influenced U.S. policy in Ukraine or elsewhere as a result. Witnesses interviewed during the investigation cited an appearance of a conflict of interest, but they said Hunter Biden’s actions played no role in foreign policy decisions.

A spokesman for Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the New York Post the owner of the computer repair shop contacted the committee after that report was released and has now shared information with committee staff.

“We have been in contact with the whistleblower and are in the process of attempting to validate the information he provided,” the spokesman said.

Former Vice President Biden has acknowledged the optics of his son’s activities while he was in office were bad, but he has insisted neither of them did anything wrong. Trump repeatedly brought up Hunter’s financial dealings during the first presidential debate, but Biden disputed allegations of impropriety and defended his son.

“My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it,” Biden said. “He's fixed it. He's worked on it. And I'm proud of him.”

Democrats, recalling the release of thousands of Clinton campaign emails by WikiLeaks in October 2016, have been skeptical of the new reporting and critical of media outlets for covering it. Experts on disinformation have also raised questions about the extent to which the information has been verified, and Twitter and Facebook have taken steps to limit users’ ability to share the story.

Unless more substantive evidence emerges and the claims in the Post story are independently corroborated, Biden may not need to say much more about the issue. President Trump’s refusal to participate in a virtual debate this Thursday deprived him of one opportunity to confront Biden directly about it.

“They are playing prevent defense and running out the clock,” Swint said of Biden’s campaign, though he added, “It could pop up in the last debate, if that happens.”

However, Trump has been dogged by allegations of self-dealing and using his government position to enrich his family too. Companies and foreign governments have spent millions of dollars at Trump properties in the last four years, and Trump’s companies have received payments from the U.S. government and the Trump campaign as well.

“There is just a problem of the pot calling the kettle black,” Brown said. “It is very difficult for Trump to be saying Biden is the one engaged in corrupt practices and nepotism when we have seen for four years now these types of allegations swirl around the president and his family.”

Brown also questioned the Trump campaign strategy of seizing on this story in these critical final days of the race rather than focusing on the Supreme Court confirmation fight or the economy. Attacks on Hunter Biden might fire up the president’s base, but there is little evidence they will help sway the undecided voters and soft Biden supporters in swing states who Trump needs to win reelection.

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“It’s a classic October surprise, but it’s one that’s more likely to land with a thud than a boom,” she said.

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