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Trump aims to challenge Biden on son’s emails, corruption claims at final debate

By Stephen Loiaconi | October 19th, 2020 | Original Article

Former Vice President Joe Biden has avoided wading deep into the controversy over emails allegedly recovered from his son’s computer as he enters the final stretch of his campaign, but he is certain to be confronted about the matter one way or another at his second and final debate with President Donald Trump later this week.

Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller insisted the emails prove Biden is “compromised” and predicted voters would hear “a lot more about this” at the debate Thursday night in Nashville. He suggested Trump plans to press Biden on whether his son Hunter is setting aside money from foreign business deals for him.

“If Kristen Welker, the moderator, doesn’t bring it up, I think you’re pretty safe to assume the president will,” Miller said on Fox Business Monday.

Democratic strategist Bradley Honan acknowledged Biden appears to be unscathed so far, but he warned the emails could still undermine the former vice president’s character in the eyes of voters. He questioned whether sidestepping the story is a sustainable strategy, particularly with the debate on the horizon.

“From a communications perspective, Biden needs to address this charge as it goes directly to his credibility and to the ‘Biden Brand,’” Honan said. “Biden must unequivocally demonstrate that, unlike Trump, he is as clean as a whistle.”

The New York Post first reported on the emails last week, and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe dismissed speculation Monday that they were part of a “Russian disinformation campaign.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had suggested the emails were part of a smear campaign that “comes from the Kremlin.”

“Let me be clear: the intelligence community doesn’t believe that because there is no intelligence that supports that. And we have shared no intelligence with Adam Schiff, or any member of Congress,” Ratcliffe said on Fox Business.

However, other media outlets, including CNN and NBC News, have reported the FBI is leading an investigation into whether the release of the emails is tied to an ongoing Russian effort to weaken Biden’s candidacy. Disinformation experts have raised many questions about how the emails were obtained and whether their contents can be trusted.

The emails were purportedly found on a laptop dropped off by Hunter Biden at a Delaware computer repair shop in April 2019 and never retrieved. The store’s owner has told conflicting stories about what happened, but he eventually provided a copy of the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani’s attorney, and Giuliani gave the files to The New York Post.

According to The New York Times, doubts about the veracity of the reporting were widespread within The New York Post newsroom, and the reporter who wrote most of the original story refused to have his byline attached to it. Giuliani said he brought the story to the tabloid because he feared other outlets would scrutinize it too much.

“Either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out,” Giuliani told The Times.

Giuliani has been working openly since 2019 with current and former Ukrainian officials including some with alleged ties to Russian intelligence, to obtain derogatory information Biden. According to The Washington Post, the White House and the president had been warned he might be used to launder Russian disinformation.

Still, Republicans note the Biden campaign has not directly disputed the authenticity of the emails. The campaign has denied the former vice president was involved in any impropriety, questioned The New York Post’s journalistic practices, and raised the specter of Russian interference, but it has not claimed the documents are fabricated.

“If Biden were to acknowledge the authenticity of the documents, he would give them credibility that the campaign doesn’t want to give them,” said Joshua Dyck, director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “The minute they start having that conversation is when the Biden campaign starts losing the narrative.”

Whether the documents are legitimate or not, though, it is unclear if their contents would matter much to voters. Hunter Biden’s international business dealings have been widely reported for years and have not dampened support for his father’s campaign.

“Beyond the dubious authenticity of the documents, there is no indication that they add up to anything,” said David Greenberg, a political historian at Rutgers University and author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

Biden has maintained he and Hunter never discussed his son’s foreign business activities. The New York Post reporting has spurred new questions about that assertion, but it does not explicitly establish any illegal or unethical actions by the former vice president.

In one 2015 email, an adviser to Burisma—a Ukrainian gas company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board—thanked Hunter for “an opportunity to meet” his father. The Biden campaign has said there is no record of any such meeting, though aides could not rule out an informal interaction that was not on Biden’s official schedule.

Another email outlines a potential business deal Hunter was involved in with a Chinese energy firm in 2017. A proposed breakdown of equity includes a mention of “10 held by H for the big guy,” which some have speculated is a reference to former Vice President Biden receiving a share of profits, but there is no evidence Biden received such a payment.

Other emails reported by The New York Post indicate Hunter Biden leveraged his father’s name and the promise of influence to make millions of dollars overseas. However, there is still no proof Biden’s policy decisions were ever affected by those transactions or that he had any dealings with his son’s business partners that have not previously been disclosed.

A Republican-led Senate investigation completed last month concluded Hunter Biden’s business activities posed conflicts of interest and complications for the Obama administration’s foreign policy efforts. However, the probe did not find that then-Vice President Biden took any official actions to advance his son’s interests.

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., confirmed his staff has been in contact with the owner of the computer repair shop and is now investigating the emails. Johnson told Fox News he is trying to get answers from the FBI about its investigation since the owner claims to have turned the data over to federal agents last December.

The uncertainty has not stopped the Trump campaign from seizing on the emails as evidence of alleged crimes. The campaign held numerous press briefings and released new ads spotlighting The New York Post reporting to accuse Biden of lying to the American people about his involvement in his son’s business.

President Trump tweeted Sunday that the emails represent “a disaster for the entire Biden family” and claimed without explanation that they make it impossible for Biden to ever assume the office of president. At rallies over the weekend, he called the Biden family a “criminal enterprise” as supporters chanted, “Lock him up.”

“They finally caught him, COLD, and he knows it. Laptop is devastating!” Trump said on Twitter Monday.

The Biden campaign has mostly shrugged off Trump’s attacks, remaining focused on a closing message about protecting health care coverage, fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and reviving the economy. The former vice president ignored questions about the emails during a campaign stop in North Carolina Sunday, and he snapped at a CBS News reporter who asked him about The New York Post stories earlier in the weekend.

Biden has no further public appearances planned until the second debate Thursday in Nashville. The former vice president is leading Trump nationally by an average of 9 points, according to RealClearPolitics, and surveys conducted in the second half of last week do not signal any significant erosion of support after the first email story broke.

“We haven’t seen any real movement in the national or state polling averages, and in a month of October surprises, this one just doesn’t really seem to have resonated with voters,” Dyck said.

Trump’s constant attacks on Hunter at the first debate, even as Biden was paying tribute to his late son Beau, had little apparent impact with audiences and gave Biden an opportunity to speak earnestly about his son’s addiction problems. Experts are skeptical Trump confronting Biden about Hunter’s emails will sway undecided voters, but they say Biden needs to be prepared to address the question.

“Biden needs to make clear he is not in public service to profit and that investigations by two U.S. Senate committees, led by Republicans, found no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Joe Biden,” Honan said. “Laughing off Trump’s charges at the debate is not a sufficient answer for Biden to give.”

Amid a pandemic, an economic crisis, a wave of racial justice protests, and several other urgent challenges facing the nation, focusing on Biden’s family profiting off his name might not be Trump’s best strategy. With the clock ticking down and Biden far ahead in the polls, experts say harping on Hunter’s issues does little to help the president shift the dynamics of the race.

“The Hunter Biden allegations don’t resonate with anyone who isn’t already in Trump’s camp,” Greenberg said. “To win over undecideds, Trump needs to talk more about the economy or other issues.”

Also, turning voters’ attention to families using the White House to enrich themselves is not necessarily a net positive for Trump. Since taking office, his properties have profited heavily off businesses and foreign governments who critics say are trying to influence his administration, his daughter and son-in-law work in the White House, and his sons have been running the Trump Organization while campaigning for him.

“Biden could easily reel off three or four examples that would negate the whole thing,” Greenberg said. “Everyone has gotten inured to Trump’s conflicts of interests, but a reminder of a few of them would go a long way.”

Dyck noted the Center for Public Opinion’s most recent poll found 50% of likely voters think Trump is more corrupt than Biden, and only 34% say Biden is more corrupt. That gives Biden an opening to effectively counterpunch when Trump brings up the issue.

“Trump’s difficulty here is that he is not a reliable messenger, and it would be a lot better for him if the debate moderator were to ask this question and Biden were to have difficulty responding,” he said. “But that really isn’t Trump’s style.”

Although New York Post stories over the weekend shifted focus to delving into Hunter Biden’s personal and family life, Trump allies say there is more damaging information to come in the final weeks of the campaign. There is also another set of emails that Breitbart News senior contributor Peter Schweizer claims to have obtained from one of Hunter’s former business partners that reveal more about the “Biden business model.”

During a call with campaign staff leaked to reporters Monday, President Trump said there would be an “important piece” coming up in The Wall Street Journal and a scandal that would make Biden “almost an impotent candidate.” “We found stuff yesterday, we gave it to the press,” he added, according to The Associated Press.

Despite Biden’s comfortable lead in national polls, Honan stressed recent surveys in several key swing states have been much tighter. Trump was down by 7 points nationally at this point in 2016 and still won, so he cautioned Democrats against coasting through the next two weeks on cruise control.

“This is a race still in play, although millions of ballots have already been cast,” Honan said.