As President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani attempts to alter the course of the election through the leaking of materials allegedly from the computer of Hunter Biden, fellow Republicans—including some in the president’s orbit—are holding their breath.
Some of Trump’s staunchest allies conceded recently that they are reluctant to attack former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter over the more salacious content purportedly found on the now infamous laptop. Raising concerns about Hunter Biden’s overseas business ethics may be kosher, they argue. But going after his personal demons by attacking his drug use, suggesting the existence of lurid photos, and using it all as a means to question Joe Biden’s judgment as a politician and parent—all of which Giuliani has done—are most decidedly not.
“Leave the crack and sex stuff to Rudy,” said one senior Trump campaign official.
Another top Trump 2020 adviser, as well as another source close to the president, agreed that it was politically wise to leave the personal attacks out of official messaging on the Hunter Biden allegations. The problem, they said, is that Giuliani not only doesn’t see the benefits of this strategy, but also has what is essentially carte blanche from the president himself to operate as he deems fit.
“Rudy is going to do his thing and there’s nothing we can do about it,” the person close to Trump characterized it.
Giuliani’s role as Trump’s pugnacious, untethered attack dog has never been up for debate. Back in 2016, he was among the few Trump surrogates comfortable enough to go out in public to defend the notorious Access Hollywood “grab ’em by the pussy” tape. And though he never got the administration post he felt he deserved, he remained an undying loyalist. His thirst for doing Trump’s dirty work was what, in the end, helped get the president impeached.
The former New York City mayor was unbowed by it all. And this past week he’s brought his gusto for shit-stirring to a new level. Claiming that he’s obtained thousands of Hunter Biden emails from a laptop discovered by a computer repairman in Delaware, Giuliani has played the role of both conduit in getting those emails published (primarily in the New York Post) and hype man for the emails’ content. He has brushed aside concerns that this might all be a disinformation campaign orchestrated by a foreign government. He’s attacked the younger Biden for his public struggles with addiction. And he’s insisted that it’s all fair game because the emails could leave the elder Biden politically compromised with his son supposedly susceptible to blackmail.
Through it all, Giuliani has claimed that he’s having the time of his life. But not everyone in the GOP tent is all that comfortable with it. Some see it as likely to backfire by engendering sympathy for the Bidens and showing, as a recent New York Post piece did, the former vice president as caring and concerned with his son’s personal struggles.
“He seems to live entirely in a fever swamp with no conception of how much damage he does to the president.”
— Brendan Buck
“This is a guy who almost single-handedly got the president of the United States impeached,” said Brendan Buck, a former top Republican House aide. “He seems to live entirely in a fever swamp with no conception of how much damage he does to the president. It may well please hardcore Trump voters, but it continues to damage the demographics where the president has been hemorrhaging support. It’s also a hell of a gift to Biden to remind average people that he’s a loving father.”
Others wish the campaign would just choose something else to discuss.
“Whatever Hunter Biden did in 2014 is not going to put enough lead on the target. Team Trump needs Joe Biden’s fingerprints on a weapon or they need to move on,” Dan Eberhart, a major Trump donor and businessman, told The Daily Beast last week. “I would rather see Trump’s team focused on what [Joe] Biden didn’t accomplish while in government or his failure to answer his views on court packing.”
Acutely aware of the delicate nature of the attack, some Republicans have tried to thread the needle. An “RNC Pundit Prep” memo, obtained by The Daily Beast, that was distributed to Republican National Committee media surrogates and allies late last week did have a long section about the Hunter Biden content. But none of the talking points dealt with the issues of “crack and sex.” On a conference call with reporters on Monday, top Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller similarly talked about the younger Biden only in the context of how the Biden campaign wasn’t addressing the issue. And in an appearance on Fox on Monday, contributor Marc Thiessen—who had recently interviewed the president—pleaded with him to stop talking about Hunter Biden altogether, saying voters didn’t care about the topic.
Even Giuliani indicated he thought it was a good idea for the president to take a step back from wallowing in the more sordid details of his “hard drive” trove. In an interview with The Daily Beast late last week, Trump’s attorney said he declined to show Trump images that depicted “sexually explicit” or drug-related content, and that before the initial New York Post story came out, he privately advised the president not to comment on any of the lurid content.
Trump, however, has not shied away from talking about Hunter Biden’s drug use in the past. And Giuliani did concede that his client “probably [will] talk about the drug addiction” in the future too.
And yet, it’s difficult to know the impact it all will have, in part because it is difficult to know how far the claims about Hunter Biden have spread on social media because both Facebook and Twitter took steps to stop its spread, according to Dr. Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. Facebook had taken steps to limit the spread of the New York Post story, while Twitter briefly made it impossible to post links to the Post story on its site, a step the social media giant eventually reversed.
“It’s hard to get a really good approximation, because Facebook throttled it and Twitter throttled it,” Donovan said.
The furthest fringes of the right-wing media have begun to push unsubstantiated allegations against Hunter Biden that echo 2016 internet disinformation. Pro-Trump personality Wayne Allyn Root, who has served as a warm-up speaker at Trump rallies and whose latest book touts positive blurbs from both the president and Donald Trump Jr., launched a lurid, unverified allegation about the material on Biden’s laptop that earned more than 30,000 retweets on Twitter.
Natural News, a hoax website tied to Alex Jones’ InfoWars, ran with similar unsupported allegations about Hunter Biden’s laptop, citing a video made by a supporter of Chinese billionaire and Steve Bannon patron Guo Wengui. Bannon was arrested on Guo’s yacht in August over allegations of fraud related to a privately funded border wall.
But so far, Donovan said, the more outlandish claims about Hunter Biden have failed to achieve the viral liftoff of Pizzagate and the other conspiracy theories that led up to the 2016 presidential race, in part because Hunter Biden is a comparatively “minor character” compared to 2016 conspiracy targets like Hillary Clinton.
“Because of the ways in which people doubt the veracity of the source and the complexity of the conspiracy alone, it just makes it really hard for it to become this viral sensation,” Donovan said.