When the New York Post published the alleged contents of a computer hard drive purporting to document the Ukrainian and Chinese business activities of Hunter Biden, the newspaper cast the information as a "smoking gun."
Enter the FBI.
Less than three weeks before one of the most contentious presidential campaigns in history, federal authorities are investigating whether the material supplied to the Post by Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, is part of a smoke bomb of disinformation pushed by Russia.
The inquiry, according to a person familiar with the matter, is at least in part, aimed at determining whether Russia has set its sights on a familiar target: Biden's father, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The person is not authorized to comment on the matter publicly and asked not to be named in order to speak candidly.
The FBI has declined to comment, refusing to either confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
The gauzy details of the newspaper's account trace the hard drive to a computer repair shop in Delaware, where a laptop had been left for service last year but was never reclaimed by the customer. Exactly how the material moved to Giuliani, who with Trump has long pushed debunked conspiracy theories about the Bidens, has raised as many questions as the authenticity of the laptop data the president's lawyer provided to the newspaper.
After months of investigation, two Republican-led Senate committees unveiled a report in September that found no evidence of wrongdoing or corrupt actions by the former vice president in connection with his son Hunter's business dealings in Ukraine.
But Trump and Giuliani have continued to lob allegations at the Democratic nominee, despite multiple investigations, including the recent GOP probes, that had found no basis for the claims.
On Wednesday, the president and his lawyer seized on the New York Post story, which focused on an email purporting to show an adviser to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma thanking Hunter Biden for arranging a meeting for him with Joe Biden, who was then the vice president.
The story provided no evidence that such a meeting ever occurred and has come under fire for its reliance on questionable sources and documents whose authenticity was not verified. Biden's campaign team told USA TODAY that no meeting ever occurred.
Giuliani, through his lawyer, declined to provide the material to USA TODAY for examination.
When Twitter initially blocked the sharing of links to the story, citing a "lack of authoritative reporting" on the origin of the source materials behind the story, the newspaper hit back in an editorial, calling the criticism "ridiculous."
The Post has not responded to requests for comment.
Here's what is known about the origins of the New York Post and the claims made about the Bidens by Trump and Giuliani:
What are Trump's claims about Biden and Ukraine?
The effort by Trump and Giuliani to dig up dirt on Biden and Ukraine was at the center of the impeachment inquiry launched against the president last fall by House Democrats.
The Democratic-controlled House last year approved two articles of impeachment – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The impeachment probe was set off by an anonymous whistleblower complaint accusing Trump of using the levers of U.S. diplomacy to try to cajole Ukraine into pursuing investigations of Biden for the president's own political benefit.
Multiple senior Trump administration officials testified that they became alarmed about a July 25, 2019, call the president had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he urged his counterpart to announce an investigation into the Bidens. Administration officials also testified of concerns that Giuliani was carrying out a "shadow diplomacy" in Ukraine focused on pressuring officials to investigate Trump's political rivals.
The Republican-controlled Senate this year acquitted Trump of the charges after a trial.
Trump and Giuliani have accused Joe Biden of seeking the ouster of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to thwart an investigation of Burisma – a claim that independent fact checkers and investigators have debunked.
Shokin was widely and publicly viewed by international organizations such as the European Union and International Monetary Fund, as well as anti-corruption investigators in Ukraine, as an impediment to reforming the country’s culture of graft.
Biden helped to oust Shokin because the prosecutor was not aggressively pursuing corruption cases. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden.
An examination of the matter by PolitiFact in 2019 said there was "no evidence to support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son's interests in mind. ... It's not even clear that (Burisma) was actively under investigation or that a change in prosecutors benefited it."
Last month, the two Republican-led Senate committees investigating the claims said in an 87-page report that Hunter Biden's role on the Burisma board was "problematic" but said it was "unclear" whether it ever affected U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration.
What did the New York Post report say?
The New York Post reported on unverified documents that were based on what it called a "massive trove" of data from a laptop computer. The newspaper said the data were provided by Giuliani and former White House adviser Steve Bannon.
The central claim of the documents is unclear. The article references an email from Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to Burisma, in which he thanks Hunter Biden for "giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent (sic) some time together."
The wording of the email leaves unclear whether Pozharskyi was referring to a past encounter or one he hoped to have in the future. There is also no evidence in the published documents that a meeting happened.
The newspaper characterized the documents as undercutting Biden's previous claims that he never spoke to Hunter about his son's business dealings in Ukraine.
But the Biden campaign categorically denied a meeting ever occurred between Joe Biden and Pozharskyi.
"They never had a meeting," Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, told USA TODAY.
“I’ve literally never heard of this guy in my life,” Amos Hochstein, a former Biden staff member, told Politico.
Facebook and Twitter flagged the New York Post story as spreading disinformation. Misinformation experts have noted that the story has many hallmarks of a disinformation campaign, with questionable assertions at its core.
The Post said the data it received were discovered on the hard drive of a laptop taken to a repair shop in Joe Biden's home state of Delaware.
In the newspaper's coverage, the emails are shared as image files, not in a file format that would contain header information and metadata. That makes it harder to analyze and verify the files.
The laptop was allegedly dropped off at the Delaware repair shop but never retrieved. The Post said the store owner then copied the documents on the device's hard drive and sent them to Giuliani's lawyer, Robert Costello.
The article does not explain the connection between Giuliani and the Delaware store owner.
Former White House aide Bannon later told the New York Post about the existence of the documents. Giuliani provided the documents to the tabloid.
The article also claimed the FBI seized the laptop for an inquiry.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware declined to comment when contacted by USA TODAY.
What did the Delaware computer shop owner say?
John Paul Mac Isaac, a computer repairman based in Wilmington, Delaware, identified himself as the store owner who gave a copy of the laptop hard drive to Costello, Giuliani’s attorney.
In a meandering session with reporters Wednesday, Mac Isaac said a man brought three liquid-damaged laptops to his repair shop in April 2019, according to the Wilmington News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Only one was left for repair, he said. No one returned to retrieve it, he said.
Mac Isaac said the laptop had a Beau Biden Foundation sticker on it – a reference to a nonprofit named after Hunter Biden's late brother – that led him to believe it belonged to Hunter Biden. He also said he has an unspecified medical condition that made it difficult for him to tell who had dropped off the laptop at his store.
Mac Isaac said he began hearing about Burisma and Ukraine shortly after the laptop was left at the repair shop. When a customer doesn't return after 90 days, Mac Isaac says he typically will reach out to them by phone.
Asked if he called Hunter Biden, Mac Isaac said, "No comment."
Mac Isaac said he had been in contact with the FBI over the contents of the laptop but did not say if the agency contacted him first or if he initiated the contact. He was vague about the timeline of the communications and suggested he was disappointed in the FBI's follow-up.
"I thought the FBI was going to help and then I got the overwhelming sense that they weren't going to help me," the shop owner said.
Mac Isaac dodged multiple questions about his intentions and his connections to Giuliani, repeatedly expressing fear "about saying the wrong things and getting in more trouble than I already am."
Mac Isaac, 44, is registered as a Republican, according to Delaware voter registration records. He said he voted for Trump in 2016 and remains an ardent supporter, calling Trump's impeachment a sham.
In an interview Saturday with the Wilmington News Journal, Mac Isaac said he's been the subject of a lot of "anger and hate" in the days since the New York Post story published, but he's heard from an equal amount of supporters, too.
He declined to comment on the news of the FBI investigation of disinformation.
"I don't want to talk about it anymore," he said. "I've gotten good at saying 'no comment.'"
What did the Biden team say?
Bates, the Biden spokesman, said any suggestion the former vice president did anything improper is false.
“Investigations by the press, during impeachment, and even by two Republican-led Senate committees whose work was decried as 'not legitimate' and political by a GOP colleague, have all reached the same conclusion: that Joe Biden carried out official U.S. policy toward Ukraine and engaged in no wrongdoing,” he said.
Last year, Biden pledged his family would not engage in any foreign business activities if he is elected president.
Why did Twitter, Facebook flag the story?
After the Post story published, posts promoting it on Twitter and Facebook were flagged as potential disinformation. Twitter and Facebook both said they were actively suppressing the story's visibility while independent fact-checkers investigated the story's claims.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said the platform would "reduce its distribution" as part of its effort to curb the spread of misinformation.
Zelensky responds to Trump's claims:'It's not true that Ukraine is a corrupt country'
"While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook's third-party fact checking partners," Stone wrote. "In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform."
Twitter went further, stopping users from posting links to the Post story while also cautioning users against retweeting posts that were already on the site.
The company cited its policy against allowing potentially hacked materials as a reason for its decision.
Conservatives denounced the media giants' moves as censorship. Subsequent statements from both Twitter and CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged a lack of transparency after the company faced backlash for its decision.
"We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner," reads a statement from Twitter Safety. "We should provide additional clarity and context when preventing the Tweeting or DMing of URLs that violate our policies."
Twitter then announced Thursday night it will no longer remove purportedly hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting alongside them. The platform will now also label tweets to provide context instead of blocking links from being shared on Twitter.
Are there any clear 'hallmarks' of disinformation?
The New York Post story's publication prompted some to draw parallels to the runup to the 2016 election, when emails from the Democratic National Committee were hacked by Russian-affiliated operatives and released by WikiLeaks.
The FBI is now examining whether Russia is tied to the information cited by the New York Post.
Some experts say the story has many hallmarks of a disinformation campaign.
"It is also an old Cold War disinformation tactic to pass information, especially but not exclusively when forged, to low-brow newspapers that have high circulation and low standards of investigation. Ideal for surfacing and amplification," Thomas Rid, a political scientist who focuses on disinformation and information warfare at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said in a tweet.
Russian operatives worked to sow partisan divisions in the U.S. and spread disinformation during the 2016 presidential election cycle, according to a 2017 report from U.S. intelligence services. That report found that Russian President Vladimir Putin "aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances," in part by discrediting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Trump's own intelligence officials have warned Moscow is interfering again in the 2020 election.
In September, the Treasury Department sanctioned Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Derkach, who met with Giuliani in December, for being an "active Russian agent for over a decade."
Bannon was indicted for fraud in August in connection to a border-wall fundraising effort that raised more than $25 million "under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction," according to prosecutors. Bannon has pleaded not guilty.
In the case of Giuliani associate Derkach, the Treasury Department's move was aimed at "exposing Russian malign influence campaigns and protecting our upcoming elections from foreign interference." It also made clear that Giuliani has engaged with Russian agents in his campaign against the Bidens.
Former Biden aides have also suggested that Russians are behind the story.
"This is a Russian disinformation operation,” Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense with a specialization in Eastern Europe who now heads the Penn Biden Center, said to Politico. "I’m very comfortable saying that.”
Contributing: John Fritze, Courtney Subramanian and David Jackson
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FBI looks for Russia link in Hunter Biden data given to NY Post