It remains one of the oddest stories of the 2020 election cycle: In mid-October, the New York Post reported that it had obtained a series of emails from a laptop purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of the then-presidential candidate. The emails included what appeared to be various damning revelations about the younger Biden’s business ties, as well as his drug use, including one email in which a Ukrainian energy executive appeared to thank Hunter Biden for arranging an introduction to his father.
The laptop made news for several reasons—social media sites blocked links to the story, with the explanation that it may have come from hacked materials, as associates of then-President Trump were known to be actively digging up dirt on the younger Biden’s Ukraine ties.
Then, a strange story emerged about how the laptop came to fall into the newspaper’s hands, with a Delaware computer shop owner admitting that he gave it to Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. This, in turn, led to some hilarious Yelp reviews for the computer store. The computer shop owner, meanwhile, went on to sue Twitter for defamation, to the tune of $500 million.
Months later, with Joseph Biden now in the White House, there’s been little clarity as to the laptop story, although Hunter Biden did admit in December that he is under investigation for issues related to his taxes. But it remains unknown exactly what role Russia played in the laptop affair.
That is, until Wednesday, when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report laying out the Intelligence Community’s assessment of attempts at foreign interference in the 2020 election. The report was the declassified version of a report presented to the president and Congressional leadership back in January.
The report concluded that while there was no successful interference with the voting itself, Russia did indeed interfere with the election once again, while Iran did as well. Some other foreign nations, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah faction, also made small-scale attempts at interference. China, meanwhile, did not.
But the “main event” of the report, as in 2016, was the Russian interference.
“We assess that Russian President Putin authorized, and a range for Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy, and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral processes and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S.” The judgment went on to say that “unlike in 2016, we did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure.”
The ODNI went on to say that “we have high confidence in our assessment.” But the usual caveats apply that this is an intelligence assessment, and not an assertion of absolutely certain truth. Such assessments have been wrong before.
In the following paragraph, the report stated that “a key element to Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was it’s use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives - including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden - to U.S. media organizations, U.S. officials, and prominent U.S. individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration.”
The report goes on to state that specifically named “Ukraine-linked individuals,” including Russian agent Konstanin Kilimnik and Andriy Derkach, “sought to use prominent U.S. persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to U.S. officials and audiences,” and that “these Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked U.S. persons to advocate for formal investigations.”
Later on, the report states that “Russian state media, trolls and online proxies, including those directed by Russian intelligence, published disparaging content about President Biden, his family, and the Democratic Party, and heavily amplified related content circulating in U.S. media, including stories centered on his son.” The same paragraph says that these same figures “also promoted conspiratorial narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic [and] made allegations of social media censorship.”
The laptop story is not specifically mentioned in the report. But many who read it inferred that it meant the Russians were behind the story that ended up in the New York Post. In a viral, since-deleted tweet on Tuesday, journalist Patrick Tucker stated that “in case you’re wondering if the Hunter Biden laptop story came from the Kremlin, ODNI’s new unclassified report says yes.”
To be clear, the ODNI report does not outright say that; it does not mention the laptop at all. The report does say that the Russian state media and trolls published and “heavily amplified” content “centered on” the son of the then-candidate. It is known, and stated in the report, that associates of former President Trump were indeed working together with the Russians in question, with the goal of finding dirt on Hunter Biden.
“I’ve deleted a tweet that suggested that a recent ODNI report made explicit reference to the Hunter Biden laptop story. It makes reference to Andrii Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician who was trafficking information remarkably similar to what showed up in the Post report,” Tucker tweeted later on Tuesday.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes had shared Tucker’s tweet, before later deleting it, and stating that “I’m just starting to read through the report, so not clear they’re claiming the Hunter Biden laptop specifically ‘came from the Kremlin’ defintively, but it’s incredible that it’s the same cast of characters.”
So, what exactly happened with the laptop? That remains somewhat unclear. It’s possible, and perhaps probable, that Hunter Biden really did drop off a laptop with embarrassing content on it, while at the same time an international effort was underway by both the Russian government and his father’s political enemies to spread even more damning versions of much of the same information.
Stephen Silver, a technology and opinion writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.