Forensic News Roundup: The 2016 playbook returns

October 20, 2020 9:12 am By

October surprise

Trump and allies are pushing an unverified and highly suspicious narrative to smear Joe Biden by trying to tie him to his son Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. Last week, the New York Post published emails and photos allegedly from a laptop belonging to Hunter – but without any proof of provenance.

>What we know<

The NYP story: Hunter Biden (who lives in Los Angeles) dropped off multiple laptops at a computer repair shop in Delaware in April 2019 and disappeared. The invoice he allegedly signed was for the low price of $85. The repair shop owner recovers and reads Hunter’s private emails, a few of which mention a possible meeting with his dad, and is so alarmed that he contacts the FBI in November 2019. Before handing the laptops over, though, the repair shop owner copies the contents. Once he realizes the FBI is not doing anything with them, he contacts Giuliani’s lawyer (sometime in early 2020) and hands over the contents of the drives. Giuliani and/or his lawyer then sits on the material for months, finally deciding to release them (with some prompting of Steve Bannon) three weeks before the election.

  • The NYP story was “mostly” written by longtime-NYP reporter Bruce Golding, but he “did not allow his byline to be used because he had concerns over the article’s credibility.” Instead, the lead reporter credited is Emma-Jo Morris, a former producer of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch, just like the NYP). Between Wednesday and Sunday, the NYP published more than 50 separate stories and columns tagged “Hunter Biden.”

What the docs published by NYP said: An email dated April 17, 2015, suggests Hunter Biden arranged for a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm to meet with the then-vice president when he was in charge of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. There is no proof the email is authentic, nor is there proof that such a meeting occurred or that “Hunter” even replied to it.

What experts say: WaPo journalist David Ignatius reports that an Eastern European expert in digital forensics who has examined some of the Ukrainian documents leaked to the New York Post said he “found anomalies — such as American-style capitalization of the names of ministries — that suggest fakery.” Thomas Rid, author of “Active Measures,” told WaPo: “Usually when emails are leaked, what investigators look for is the actual email file, and we don’t have that here.” When an email is presented without the metadata, he said, “then you become suspicious.”

Russian op: U.S. intelligence agencies warned the White House last year that Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence. The intelligence raised concerns that Giuliani was being used to feed Russian misinformation to the president, leading national security adviser Robert O’Brien to caution Trump in a private conversation that any information Giuliani brought back from Ukraine should be considered contaminated by Russia. Trump had “shrugged his shoulders” at O’Brien’s warning, the former official said, and dismissed concern about his lawyer’s activities by saying, “That’s Rudy.”

  • Former National Security Adviser John Bolton repeatedly told his staff to stay out of discussions with Giuliani due to warnings he received from intelligence officials about Trump’s lawyer spreading foreign disinformation. As early as Spring 2019 Giuliani was seen as a tool of Russian intelligence.
  • A reminder that when Giuliani came to Kyiv in December he not only met Andriy Derkach, identified and sanctioned by the US as a Russian agent, he also flew out of Ukraine on a private jet connected to some shady oligarchs. When asked about meeting with Derkach, a Russian agent, Giuliani said: “The chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50.” Apparently that’s a low enough risk for Rudy…

Trump knew: A source told the Daily Beast that Trump “knew [in recent weeks] that Rudy had something big coming on the Biden family…I remember hearing…something about files, and corruption, and something about sex and drugs…It was evident that the president was interested and wanted it done before the election.” Giuliani further confirmed that Trump knew about the planned leak/smear and approved of it: “Sure, sure. The president knows all about this,” Giuliani said, adding that he had briefed Trump on the “general” parameters of the files.

Chinese connection: Social media accounts connected to billionaire Chinese dissident Guo Wengui began posting about the laptop story weeks before the NYP story was published. You may recall that when Steve Bannon was arrested for fraud, he was aboard Guo’s yacht. Just days before the NYP published the alleged laptop emails, photos of Rudy Giuliani and Guo showed up on Twitter. If taken the same day as posted, that would mean he was with Guo when he reportedly gave NYP the alleged Biden materials.


Republican corruption

Oracle founder Larry Ellison donated $250,000 to a political action committee supporting Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) the same day his company was declared the first official U.S. partner for TikTok. Graham was reportedly pivotal in arranging the deal, saying he personally called Trump to advocate for the sale of TikTok to a U.S. business in lieu of a total ban. “If TikTok is saved, you can thank me,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, a Central Texas Republican and member of the House Financial Services Committee, used his powerful post in Congress to try to help a top donor in his dealings with a publicly traded bank, court records show. Williams allegedly used&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=referral) his position on the powerful House committee to try to force the CEO of UMB Bank into meeting with oil field investor Gary Martin of Marble Falls.

Attorney Kyle Hirsch testified under oath that Williams’ intervention exerted inappropriate pressure on UMB and that unless the CEO agreed to meet with his donor there could be problems for the bank in Congress. “The Congressman indicated that his role on the Financial Services Committee included legislation that was coming down the pike and that he was urging the bank to meet with his constituent or there would be adverse consequences as it relates to his role on the Financial Services Committee,” Hirsch said, according to his deposition in the case.

For at least seven years, GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn (MN-1) appears to have enjoyed rent-free use of a campaign office supplied by a political donor. “It sounds like something that could potentially be a fairly serious violation of campaign finance law and the ethics rules,” said Bryson Morgan, a former investigative counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Sen. Lindsey Graham used an on-camera interview after the Supreme Court confirmation hearings Wednesday to solicit contributions for his reelection campaign, a move that a congressional legal expert said is a clear violation of Senate ethics rules. Senate ethics rules prohibit members from soliciting campaign contributions in any federal building.

“I don’t know how much it affected fundraising today, but if you want to help me close the gap — LindseyGraham.com — a little bit goes a long way,” said Graham, R-S.C, who is locked in a highly competitive race against well-funded Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) has used her office’s taxpayer-funded resources to send out a robocall touting a key campaign issue—her work on COVID-19 policy—to Arizonans. Normally, mass official communication with constituents so close to an election would be prohibited. But a waiver approved by the Senate Rules Committee in March has made it permissible—if, and only if, the communication is for the purposes of “providing updated information about the pandemic, and providing information about the federal government’s response.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is spending $819,000 of taxpayer money on a Fox News ad promoting her state as a “place to safely explore” despite the pandemic. South Dakota currently has the highest positivity rate in the nation (36%) and the second-highest new cases per day (753 per million people), right behind North Dakota. Noem has also spent $130,000 to build a studio in the basement of the Capitol, which she has used frequently for Fox News appearances.


Court cases

The DC Circuit Court of Appeals will rehear the House’s case to enforce a subpoena for former White House counsel Donald McGahn. A three-judge panel earlier ruled 2-1 that the House Judiciary Committee could not enforce the subpoena absent a law explicitly giving it the authority to do so. The majority in the previous panel was made up of now-retired Judge Thomas Griffith, a W. Bush appointee (who made way for McConnell protege Justin Walker on the court), and Judge Karen Henderson, a H.W. Bush appointee. Judge Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, dissented.

  • NOTE: The D.C. Circuit has essentially allowed the White House to run out the clock. The subpoena to McGahn was first issued in April 2019. In taking up the case, the full court asked the parties to address “whether the case would become moot when the Committee’s subpoena expires upon the conclusion of the 116th Congress.” Oral arguments are not scheduled until February 2021.
  • If you’re confused about why the D.C. Circuit is hearing the McGahn case again, here is the reason: The first time the court ruled on the McGahn subpoena was in August, when the full bench determined the House has standing to sue the executive branch to enforce subpoenas. This time, the issue is “cause of action,” meaning whether House Democrats have legal ground to take the subpoena issue to court.

The Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by Democratic lawmakers against President Trump over his private businesses accepting payments from foreign governments. In declining to revive the case, the justices let stand a decision by a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit to dismiss the lawsuit – a win for Trump. The panel was made up of Judge Thomas Griffith (W. Bush appointee), Karen Henderson (H.W. Bush appointee), and David Tatel (Clinton appointee). All three unanimously ruled that the individual members did not have legal standing to take the president to court.

“Our conclusion is straightforward because the Members — 29 Senators and 186 Members of the House of Representatives — do not constitute a majority of either body and are, therefore, powerless to approve or deny the President’s acceptance of foreign emoluments,” the [earlier three-judge panel] ruled.

  • Note, there are still two other pending cases before the Court: Trump v. CREW and Trump v. Maryland & D.C.

Trump filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court to block the release of his tax returns. Last week, a federal appeals court ruled Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance can enforce a subpoena for Mr. Trump’s business records and tax returns.

SCOTUS cases coming up: On Nov. 30, SCOTUS will hear arguments to determine whether the Trump administration can exclude unauthorized immigrants from the 2020 census count. Next year, SCOTUS will take up two challenges to Trump’s immigration policies: his diversion of military funds to pay for construction of the southern border wall, and a policy that has required tens of thousands of asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims are processed.

  • Three Muslim men who said they were placed for years on a “no-fly” list because they refused to become FBI informants told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that they should be able to sue the agents for targeting them because of their religion.

A federal judge Sunday struck down a Trump administration rule that could have stripped food stamps from nearly 700,000 people. Chief Judge Beryl Howell (Obama appointee) of the D.C. District Court wrote: “The final rule at issue in this litigation radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving states scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.”


Miscellaneous

Russia: The United States on Monday unsealed criminal charges against six Russian intelligence officers in connection with some of the world’s most damaging cyberattacks, including disruption of Ukraine’s power grid and the release of a mock ransomware virus that infected computers globally and caused billions of dollars in damage.

DOJ: Attorney General Bill Barr’s “unmasking” probe has quietly ended with no prosecutions or findings of wrongdoing. The investigation, conducted by U.S. Attorney John Bash, was focused on whether Obama-era officials improperly requested the identities of individuals whose names were redacted in intelligence documents.

DOJ: Phillip Halpern, a 36-year veteran of the Justice Department, accused AG Barr of abusing his power to sway the election for President Trump and said he was quitting. He said he would have quit earlier but stayed on because he worried that the department under Mr. Barr would have interfered in his prosecution of former Representative Duncan D. Hunter, Republican of California, who pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy to steal campaign funds.

Trump campaign: A newly published trove of Cambridge Analytica emails and other documents from the 2016 election demonstrate how the data firm operated as a tool for a billionaire family to unlawfully influence U.S. politics and help elect President Trump. It includes a never-before-published 27-page post-election report from February 2017 shows that Cambridge Analytica claimed credit for creating, producing, and distributing ads for the Trump campaign, which included “5,000+ ad campaigns” on behalf of Trump that generated “1.5 billion impressions.”

Trump campaign: A Chinese national whose Instagram page features pictures of him wearing a VIP pass at a 2018 rally for President Donald Trump, is now on U.S. soil after being charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine and laundering the illicit funds, according to court documents filed earlier this week.

Trump campaign: For a fourth time, pro-Trump super PAC America First Action used stock footage from Russia and Belarus in a major ad buy that’s airing in three swing states.

HHS: The health department’s top lawyer is warning in an internal memo that President Donald Trump’s plan to give seniors $200 discount cards to buy prescription drugs could violate election law. The lawyer’s objection, coupled with his advice to seek approval from the Department of Justice, is a significant blow to Trump’s hope to promote the hastily devised plan before Election Day.

Trump money: The State Department says it has about 450 pages of records showing government spending at President Trump’s properties. But this week, it signaled that it plans to release only two of those pages before the November election. The State Department pays for hotel rooms and other expenses when foreign leaders visit Trump properties, and when federal employees, such as Secret Service agents, follow Trump and his family to the president’s overseas clubs.

Trump: Trump was receiving one of his first codeword classified briefings on Afghanistan, at his Bedminster club, when he suddenly got bored and ordered milkshakes. The incident became legendary inside the CIA, where like at other agencies, morale has slumped.

Voting: A deadlocked Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower-court ruling that requires Pennsylvania election officials to count absentee ballots received within three days after Election Day, Nov. 3, even if they are not postmarked. Four justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh – indicated that they would have granted the Republicans’ request.

  • While a temporary win for voting rights, the 4-4 decision is worrying because once Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, there will likely be five votes in favor of a radical, anti-democratic theory that would stop state Supreme Courts from enforcing state election laws to protect the right to vote. This Twitter thread goes into more detail.

Immigration: A total of 172 immigrants were arrested across six sanctuary cities within a six-day span, according to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The arrests were made in Baltimore, Denver, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, DC, between October 3-9.



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