Supporters of Donald Trump have seized on the story of the emails of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, as well as the restrictions put on its dissemination by social media platforms, as evidence of Democrat corruption and a liberal conspiracy against the president as the election draws near.
There are valid questions to be raised about the choice of Twitter and Facebook to put warnings about the veracity on a report in a mainstream publication, the New York Post – even if the piece has been criticised. Anger over this has already led to at least one outbreak of violence between pro and anti-Trump demonstrators in San Francisco and the claims of a “cover-up” will continue for the rest of the campaign.
But what has happened also points towards a risk for Trump. He, rather than Biden, could lose out from the fallout. There is, reportedly, a FBI investigation starting. There will be a renewed focus on “Russiagate”, something the president may have thought he had left behind.
Not only will what lay behind the discovery of the emails face deep scrutiny, but damaging allegations about the Trump campaign’s past Ukraine connection are likely to resurface.
What is unfolding also highlights the pitfalls for Trump of relying on Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, one of his most vocal supporters, and the leading figure in the offensive to try and bring down the Bidens. It was this quest which, say US and other Western intelligence services, which brought him into contact with people who are accused of working for the Kremlin, and made him a target for potential manipulation by Russian intelligence.
Giuliani had focused on Ukraine to counter Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump was the Muscovian candidate for the White House. He pursued the theory, started in right-wing conspiracy sites, that it was Ukraine and not Russia which had interfered in the American election. It was his attempts to collect dirt on Joe Biden which played a key role in Trump getting impeached.
Investigations by two Republican-led Senate committees could find no proof to back up allegations about Joe Biden in relations to his son’s job with the Ukrainian energy company, Burisma. Even if one was to accept the latest claims at face value – the alleged arranging of a meeting between Joe Biden and a company official – they do not appear to amount to serious wrongdoing. Joe Biden’s team say they have no record of such an arrangement taking place, but cannot rule out that there may have been a brief meeting.
But let’s recap the allegations and how the emails came to be in the possession of Giuliani and then a newspaper. Hunter Biden, who lives in California, supposedly travelled thousands of miles to Wilmington, Delaware, to a shop he had never been to before, to drop off three computers with water damage. The owner, John Paul Mac Isaac, says he sent Biden an invoice and tried to repeatedly contact him for the work which had remained unpaid.
Mac Isaac, who says he has defective vision, had noticed some “disturbing” emails about Ukraine, and also China. He handed them over, he claims, to the FBI in December. That was at the time of Trump’s impeachment proceedings over accusations that he attempted to pressure the Ukrainian government of Volodomyr Zelensky to start prosecutions in Ukraine linked to the Bidens.
Mac Isaac says he gave the emails to Giuliani’s personal lawyer, Robert Costello, offering contradictory accounts of his motivation for doing so. Giuliani held on to them for months, it seems, before giving them to the New York Post three weeks before the election.
Giuliani has denied that there was any foreign involvement in him getting the emails. US intelligence agencies had warned the White House last year that communications intercepts show that Giuliani has been targeted in a Kremlin operation, and that he has been in contact with people with ties to Russian intelligence.
The Washington Post reported last week that Robert O’Brien, the latest National Security Advisor, has warned the President that information Giuliani provided about the Bidens should be treated with great caution because of the risk of Russian manipulation. But, said the report, Trump had dismissed the concerns.
Area 1, a cybersecurity firm, revealed last August that Russian military intelligence had hacked the computers of Burisma. The operation was alleged to have been carried out by the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU, which, among other , has been accused of carrying out the Salisbury novichok poisoning and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computers before the 2016 US election . The cyber security firm’s report said what happened “raises the spectre that this is an early warning of what we have anticipated since the successful cyberattacks undertaken during the 2016 U.S. elections”.
Oren Falkowitz, CEO of Area 1, who had formerly worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) commented “Our report is not noteworthy because we identify the GRU launching a phishing campaign, nor is the targeting of a Ukrainian company particularly novel. It is significant because Burisma Holdings is publicly entangled in US foreign and domestic politics."
In August, as it was warning the administration of Giuliani being targeted, the US intelligence agencies named Andriy Derkach, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, as someone “ spreading claims about corruption – including through publicising leaked phone call – to undermine Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.” The following month the US Treasury imposed sanctions against Derkach describing him as an “active Russian agent” who had been working for the Kremlin for more than a decade. Derkach has called the move by the Treasury merely “revenge”.
Giuliani met Derkach in December last year during Trump’s impeachment proceedings as he was searching for Biden information. Derkach posted photographs of himself and Giuliani meeting in Kyiv on his Facebook page. After Derkach had been sanctioned, Giuliani said in an interview that he “ felt comfortable” meeting the Ukrainian “because there were no sanctions against him” at the time. He added: “I have no reason to believe he is a Russian agent. There is nothing I saw that said he was a Russian agent.”
It was hardly a secret in Ukraine that Derkach was pro-Russian. He had been member of the Party of Regions which had received Russian financing. A Google search would have shown Derkach’s ties with pro-Kremlin factions and that he had attended the Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB in Moscow.
Giluliani is not the only connection between the Trump team and Ukraine. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager convicted and jailed after a case arising from the Mueller investigation, was the campaign manager for Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian President, who fled to Russia after the 2014 revolution. A considerable amount of the evidence against Manafort was related to payments he had received from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
There is also the matter of the Ukrainian MP Andrii Artemenko, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen – also jailed after a case arising from the Mueller investigation – and Felix Sater a business associate of Trump who once chaperoned Ivanka and Donald Junior to Moscow and had enough influence there for Ivanka to be photographed sitting in Vladimir Putin’s chair (she says she has a vague recollection of this) and accompanied their father to numerous real estate meetings,
Artemenko, it was claimed, had given a secret plan to Sater and Cohen in January 2017 to be passed on to the Trump White House which would, in effect, formalise the dismemberment of Ukraine. The proposal was that sanctions against Russia would be lifted in return for Moscow leasing Crimea for an unspecified amount of time. Artemenko maintained that the plan had been approved by one of Putin’s senior aides who had also provided him with evidence of widespread corruption in Ukraine.
Cohen passed on the Artemenko proposal to Michael Flynn, then the US president’s national security adviser. Flynn was another senior member of the Trump entourage to later be indicted and convicted thanks to Mueller. Flynn resigned from his White House role after revelations about meetings he had held with the then-Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
The Ukrainian connection of the Trump team go back a long way. It is unlikely to be to the president’s advantage if this rich seam of links to “Russiagate” is explored once again, along with the wider role of Giuliani, in an investigation into Hunter Biden and his emails.