It’s April 2019. Hunter Biden stumbles through the brickwork colonnade of Wilmington’s Trolley Square toward a computer repair store. Yanking the door open, he lurches inside, wearing dark sunglasses and a shoulder bag weighed down by three different laptops. To the repairman—whose vision is so poor he’s legally blind—Biden’s figure is indistinct, apparitional. A stubbed-out cigarette dangles from his mouth. It only strikes the repairman that this may be the lotus-eating son of the former Vice President when he notices a sticker on one of the laptops advertising the foundation named for his heroic brother. What exactly Biden expects the repairman to do with each of the laptops is vague—something about water damage, lost data. The repairman only takes one, the laptop with the sticker, and begins going through the hard drive as soon as Biden has careened back out into the sunlight, pawing at his shirt pocket for a lighter.
The images the repairman finds on the laptop are troubling. Hunter Biden smoking in the bathtub, asleep with what looks to be a crackpipe clamped between his lips, preening with his shades on. Biden never comes back to the store, so the repairman continues immersing himself in the files he’s recovered, mesmerized by the life of a man who seems to ricochet between wheeling and dealing across Europe and Asia and crashing hard in Delaware. Most alarming is a cache of emails between Biden and someone named Vadym Pozharskyi, whose email signature is written in Cyrillic. The repairman calls up a friend with some knowledge of law enforcement, who in turn contacts the FBI. In December, as the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump for requesting the president of Ukraine investigate Hunter Biden’s business dealings there are getting under way, more men in sunglasses arrive at Trolley Square. They hold up badges, which, squinting, the repairman recognizes as legit. He turns over the laptop without a fuss—after all, he already has his own copy of the hard drive.
When the New York Post published its exclusive report about the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the paper described one of his emails to Vadym Pozharskyi, a Ukrainian affiliated with the now-infamous energy company Burisma, as the “smoking gun” that proved the former Vice President himself had granted illicit favors to the company. Skeptics on the left immediately noted that the wording of said email was vague, with Pozharskyi thanking Hunter merely for “giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent some time together.” More suspicious, the Post did not publish any of the metadata that might help confirm the authenticity of the “smoking gun,” offering only a screengrab of the message. Resistance types immediately labeled the story a fabrication whose details were consistent with a Russian disinformation campaign, prompting both Facebook and Twitter to limit their users’ access to the story. Most damning was the disclosure that none other than Rudy Giuliani, the reactionary poltergeist lurking in the cellar of American democracy, had played a key role, serving as the conduit between the repairman and the Post. (Giuliani’s grotesque pate reared into view again days later, when it was reported that the new Borat movie includes footage of Donald Trump’s personal attorney in bed near a 15-year-old.)
But the conservative media sphere is not in the business of second-guessing. Well primed to view any email revelation that could be somehow connected to a major Democrat as a first chink of light into the recesses of the deep state, unresolved questions about Hunter Biden’s emails immediately became the top story on Fox News, and the network swiftly confirmed that Hunter Biden had indeed been billed by the repairman in Wilmington, as well as that the repairman was subsequently subpoenaed by the FBI.
Who cares that Fox itself had apparently passed on the story when Giuliani initially brought it to them, since the network’s reporters suspected the key email was a fake? They were documents. District Court letterhead, scribbled signatures, dates. Even this most prosaic genre of evidence has the power to generate an enigmatic aura, the edge-pieces of a puzzle that, when put together, create a frame within which a scandal might appear. On Tuesday, Donald Trump called for a special prosecutor to begin investigating Hunter Biden’s emails, closing the loop: A story gift-wrapped to the most authoritative voice in conservative journalism by one of the President’s closest advisors now served as grounds for Trump to call for an investigation of his rival’s son, a mere two weeks before Election Day.
The conservative media has a well-worn playbook for transforming a substance-free story into a national crisis. A little bit of skullduggery goes a long way. The most quixotic of these faux controversies may be what the President alternately calls Spygate, Obamagate, and the “biggest political crime and scandal in U.S. history,” a catch-all paroxysm of outrage about the intelligence community rooted in the Department of Justice’s scrutiny of Michael Flynn during the 2016 campaign. Spygate was given new life by the addition of the salacious-seeming intelligence term “unmasking” to the conservative lexicon in May, when a list of the three dozen Obama officials who might have been privy to the decision to unmask Flynn was declassified. Even though that document was, to reiterate, literally just a list of names, its disclosure was characterized as a major break in the investigation and quickly added to a dossier that included the chummy text messages between the FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which, since they were released in 2018, have been cited repeatedly by the President and conservative commentators as evidence of the deep state’s bloodthirsty desire to take down Trump by any means necessary.
Before the Trump Administration, conservative conspiracy mongers spent years with their sights trained on Benghazi. The “smoking gun” evidence of a deep state cover-up in that case came in the form of a 2014 email from an Obama administration official to Susan Rice. Heedless of the largely benign contents of that email (talking points for the national security adviser to refer to when she was interviewed about the incident), Fox News gave the document wall-to-wall coverage, forcing then–House Speaker John Boehner to reluctantly sign off on the creation of a Select Committee on Benghazi, whose subpoena of Hillary Clinton’s correspondence about the attack led directly to the nightmare from which we are still waiting to wake up.
Benghazi, Obamagate, now Hunter Biden—all are examples of the conservative media’s ability to spin out of the thinnest of pretenses a controversy that, against all odds, somehow persists long enough to actually ensnare its targets. The strategy’s greatest successes to date have been in the souring of Hillary Clinton’s public image and the kneecapping of her husband’s presidency. After all, the only reason Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became public knowledge was because Lewinsky had been swept up in the special prosecutor probe of Whitewater, an ill-conceived real estate investment the Clintons made in 1979. That outdated story was unearthed by the “Arkansas Project,” the American Spectator’s multi-year investigation of the couple’s time in the state that was directly bankrolled by the trust-fund ghoul Richard Mellon Scaife starting in 1993.
While the outlines of these campaigns to paint Democrats as universally corrupt have hardly changed in the intervening decades, there has been a crucial tactical shift. Conservative media and the Republican Party used to work in parallel; now they operate completely in sync. While in the ’90s, Newt Gingrich was content to allow the Spectator’s Whitewater story to germinate and mature on its own before forcing the appointment of Ken Starr to lead an independent investigation, Donald Trump’s allies are active participants in the airing of Hunter Biden’s emails, delivering a fully realized narrative that impugns the character of the President’s opponent at exactly the same point in the election calendar that the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server was renewed in 2016.
The GOP has learned its lesson from the failure of Benghazi and Spygate to cross into the mainstream. Both spent so many years being obsessed over within the conservative echo chamber that only regular Infowars listeners or Laura Ingraham viewers can now articulate what bad thing the Democrats supposedly did in either case. Instead, the Hunter Biden story has been tailored to include plenty of salacious details that stick in the memory, as well as to be released at a time that conservatives believe it will be maximally effective in altering the dynamics of the presidential campaign. Four years ago, simply reintroducing the words “Hillary Clinton” to the word “emails” successfully reinforced the general sentiment of the former secretary of state as a woman with something to hide. Vadym Pozharskyi’s vague gratitude about the “opportunity” to meet Joe Biden serves the same purpose. Its disclosure creates a sense that Biden has not been entirely forthcoming—that, if it were possible to peer inside the Uncle Joe skinsuit that loves ice cream cones and reminiscing about teenage rumbles at the community pool, one might view a lurking swamp creature who will stop at nothing to make America less great.
Cultivating the sense that Democrats are acting furtively is more fundamental to the conservative project than acquiring any of the facts they claim to be in pursuit of. This is why the Post story includes so much detail about how the paper acquired Hunter Biden’s emails. The out-of-the-way computer repair store, the water damage, the fact that the laptop was a MacBook Pro, that it was never picked up—all of it amounts to a spy movie set-up, the conditions under which a “blockbuster correspondence” (as the Post termed it) should be brought to light. It’s also why the paper included images from the laptop that showcased Hunter Biden’s life of debauchery. Does the son’s shirtless selfie have anything to do with whether or not the father met covertly with a Ukrainian oilman? Of course not. But it sure does make him look like the kind of rube who would blow everyone else’s cover, the weak link in a chain of conspirators.
These atmospherics act far more powerfully than soberly reported facts and figures. Indeed, the facts and figures are largely beside the point. Hunter Biden’s emails are as innocuous as Hillary Clinton’s were, the texts between Page and Strzok as dull to read through as the details of the Whitewater investment. But the particulars don’t matter so much as the opportunity for speculation they open up: every piece of evidence suggests yet more evidence to be acquired, and the longer the investigation goes on, the more damning that evidence will surely become.
Since it broke last week, the Hunter Biden story has been largely dismissed, as a Vox writer put it, as Trump’s “last ditch effort to turn his flailing campaign around.” That’s a fair characterization, but it would be a mistake to confuse this moment as some last gasp of the governing coalition the Republican Party has formed with its house media. No matter who wins in November, Hunter Biden will remain with us. He will be the right’s fixation for the next four years—or at least until a new set of text messages, emails, or other official documents can be billed as revelatory. As long as some thin veil of secrecy can be pulled away, the Democratic demonization machine will have everything it needs to keep on churning.