Now imagine that you are both the son of a man running for president and a lawyer and lobbyist accustomed to mixing with powerful people and doing business overseas premised on your proximity to those powerful people, and that you are in the throes of a divorce and a midlife catastrophe brought on by the early death of your older brother and that, in your distortion field of grief, on a hell-bent drug-and-alcohol binge, you have been making even more horrible choices, taking up with your brother’s widow and, while in considerable financial debt, hiring prostitutes and zoning out with camgirls and staying awake for days at a time on crack cocaine and generally hurting everyone in your life who is trying to help you with your cruel and idiotic behavior.
And imagine that, in the middle of all of this, you lose control of 217 gigabytes of your personal data: videos in which you have sex; videos in which you smoke crack; bleary-eyed selfies; selfies that document your in-progress dental work; your bank statements; your Venmo transactions; your business emails; your toxic rants at family members; analysis from your psychiatrist; your porn searches; your Social Security number; explicit photos of the many women passing through your bedrooms, photos of your kids, of your father, of life and death, despair and boredom.
Imagine revealing this kaleidoscopic archive of all your different selves to anyone else. Now imagine it’s not just anyone but the same political opposition that has already sought to destroy your father’s candidacy by improperly pressuring a foreign leader to offer up dirt about your (sketchy, for sure) business dealings. Imagine, in a country with toxic and broken politics, how explosive this collection of data might appear to your enemies in the days leading up to a presidential election, and how valuable it might become after their defeat, as they seek to overturn and then undermine the results. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call this nebulous cloud of data a “laptop.”
It is hard to think of a single living individual who has experienced as total an annihilation of digital privacy since our devices became extensions of our consciousness. A suite of executives and thousands of employees were victimized by the Sony hack. In the iCloud hack known as “the Fappening,” nude photos of dozens of celebrities ended up on Reddit and 4chan. The 2016 hack of DNC servers and John Podesta’s Gmail exposed the private communications of a major political party. But in terms of the vastness of the data breach, the narrowness of its target, and its capacity to be deployed as a political weapon, none of those compare to the exposure of Hunter Biden’s entire virtual life.
Hidden inside the laptop, according to those (almost exclusively on the right) who have reviewed the data or who trust the word of those who claim they have, is a corruption scandal that implicates not just Hunter but other members of the Biden family, including the president. The laptop details Hunter’s involvement with a Ukrainian natural-gas producer that paid him millions of dollars to serve on its board — the relationship at the center of Donald Trump’s first impeachment. It shows how a Chinese energy company directed millions of dollars in consulting fees to Hunter and his uncle. It reveals White House meetings and slush-fund dinners and wheeling and dealing, from Romania to Monte Carlo to Cafe Milano. Most important, these people claim the laptop contains proof that, despite his denials, Joe Biden — allegedly referred to in emails as “the big guy” — was fully aware of, and looking to profit from, his son’s business activities.
The most serious allegations remain unproved. The White House has whistled past the issue, with ritual “no comments” on the occasions it is questioned about matters related to the laptop. (In response to a request from New York, a White House spokesperson said, “You can say the White House declined to comment for the story.”) Without a counterargument from the White House or the Biden family, and with mainstream political reporters only now trying to catch up to the tabloid coverage and the ideologically motivated actors who have been advancing the story, Democrats in Washington simply don’t know what to say. There has been no penalty for silence while they’ve been in power, just the vague assumption that it does seem like there’s something to the story, if only anyone credible would bother to check it out.
But the present stalemate, in which one side treats the subject with polite indifference while the other side foments and fundraises off it, is unsustainable. Maybe it will be broken by the Justice Department, which is reported to be conducting a wide-ranging criminal investigation into Hunter Biden, examining whether he violated various tax, money-laundering, and lobbying-disclosure laws. In July, CNN reported that the Justice Department had “debated the strength of the case for months,” as it faced an unofficial September deadline to file charges ahead of the midterm election. Biden paid off a large tax liability with the help of a loan from an entertainment attorney (one of at least three lawyers on his team) in an apparent attempt to head off a potential indictment.
Even if the DOJ doesn’t bring charges against Hunter, Republicans may gain control of at least one chamber of Congress — and, with it, subpoena power — in November. If they do, they have vowed to start their own investigations, which would lead to months or years of manufactured drama. (The laptop has already been entered into the Congressional Record on a motion by Florida Republican Matt Gaetz.)
When you look at it as merely a political object, the laptop may not seem all that remarkable. But the implications of what happened to Hunter Biden go far beyond politics. Whether or not he turns out to be the perpetrator of a crime, he is certainly the victim of a violation — an invasion of privacy that is staggering in its totality. Even the people who are responsible for disseminating the laptop admit that, on a human level, what happened to Hunter is horrifying. “A lot of stuff I do, I don’t feel great about,” says one of them, Steve Bannon. “But we’re in a war.”
[NOTE: there’s about 10,000 more words of this story, much more than would fit here. It detais among other things the many copies and alterations that have been made to the purported laptop, and the manic marathon of rightwing efforts to get it into the center of public attention. They see it as the keystone of a Trumpist tower of scandal that, some believe, would fall on and bury Joe Biden.
But the chain of custody and the handling of its files are likely to be a nightmare for actual prosecutors (and a billing goldmine for defense attorneys). One evidence specialist said the laptop hard drive was like a crime scene which police had left littered with burger wrappers. Not a good look in a real court.
But meantime, we’ll close with the article’s last glimpse of Hunter, post-rehab, married again, parenting a toddler and keeping busy with a seemingly very profitable business selling his original paintings and other artwork.
Hunter Biden, a hot-selling artist?
Well, why not? Picasso was a dissolute scoundrel too; among other greats who filled up canvases. And Gauguin, as the The New York Times art critic pointed out, was a stockbroker. If you don’t believe Biden’s work is real, join the club . . . .