The FBI is investigating whether alleged emails of communications between Hunter Biden and a senior executive at the Ukrainian natural-gas company Burisma Holdings were part of a foreign intelligence operation, NBC News reported.
The emails first surfaced in a dubious and widely discredited story from the New York Post this week purporting to feature "smoking-gun" emails showing the Burisma executive discussing with Hunter the prospect of meeting his father, Joe Biden, when Biden was vice president in 2015.
Though the article offered little new information and contained a multitude of falsehoods, Trumpworld seized on it as incontrovertible proof that Ukrainian officials took advantage of Hunter Biden's position at Burisma to extract special treatment from Joe Biden during the Obama administration.
The two Bidens have long been at the center of unfounded conspiracy theories promoted by President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, alleging that the elder Biden leveraged his role as vice president to shut down a criminal investigation into Burisma while Hunter was serving on its board in 2016. They've also circulated a bogus allegation suggesting that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help Democrats and hurt Trump.
As Business Insider reported, based on media reports, intelligence assessments, witness testimony, and public statements, there is no evidence that these theories hold merit. But they've been amplified by Trump's allies in Congress and conservative media, as well as by Russian government officials and state-run media outlets.
News of the FBI investigation into the Hunter Biden emails came shortly after it was reported that US officials warned the White House last year that Russian operatives were using Giuliani to funnel disinformation to Trump. The warning came as Giuliani was in Ukraine on a mission to dig up dirt on the Bidens. While there, he met with a man who was sanctioned by the US Treasury last month for acting as a Russian agent.
Giuliani is currently under federal criminal investigation over whether he violated foreign lobbying laws related to his efforts to obtain dirt on Biden. He was also one of the primary sources of the New York Post story.
It's unclear when exactly the FBI began investigating if the alleged Hunter Biden emails were part of a foreign intelligence operation. But NBC News' report adds yet another layer to an already convoluted saga about disinformation, kompromat, and foreign intelligence operations on the eve of a US presidential election.
Here's a detailed breakdown of key events in the timeline:
April 2019: Unidentified person allegedly drops off a damaged laptop containing compromising Hunter Biden material at a computer repair shop in Delaware
According to the New York Post story, the emails came from a water-damaged laptop and external hard drive that an unidentified person dropped off at a repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware, in April 2019.
The shop's owner, who Business Insider identified as a man named John Paul Mac Isaac, is an avid Trump supporter and told The Washington Post that he is legally blind. Despite that, Mac Isaac said, he was almost sure the person who dropped off the laptop was Hunter Biden. But the laptop was never picked up, he said.
July 2019: Trump brings up Biden and Burisma in a 'perfect' phone call; Mac Isaac discovers contents of the laptop and hard drive
In July, about three months after the laptop and external hard drive were left at his store, Mac Isaac gained possession of the devices per his contract, and he began sifting through them, he told the Washington Post. When he discovered the material, he said he contacted at least three lawmakers and used an intermediary to contact the FBI. Mac Isaac refused to name any of the people he said he got in touch with.
He said that FBI agents said they did not want to take possession of the hard drive and made a copy of it. He also claimed to have reached out to Giuliani in the summer because he was frustrated the Hunter Biden material wasn't yet public, the Washington Post said, but it's unclear if Giuliani got back to him at the time.
On July 25, Trump spoke on the phone with the newly inaugurated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and asked him to work with Giuliani to launch politically motivated investigations targeting the Bidens and Burisma.
November 2019: Russian hackers attack Burisma's servers for the first time
In November, when the House's impeachment inquiry into Trump's actions surrounding the phone call was well underway — and while Trump and Giuliani were both insisting that the real wrongdoing involved the Bidens and Burisma — hackers associated with Russia's main military intelligence agency tried to breach Burisma's servers for the first time in search of passwords, emails, and other sensitive material.
December 2019: Giuliani meets with a Russian agent for Biden dirt and obtains alleged Hunter Biden hard drive; officials warn Trump that Giuliani is a Russian intelligence target
December is a critical point in the timeline. Giuliani traveled to Ukraine that month in search of dirt on the Bidens, and he met on December 5 with Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian national who has since been sanctioned by the US for acting as a Russian agent and spreading disinformation related to the 2020 election. Giuliani has said he met with Derkach several times after that.
While the former New York mayor was in Ukraine, US intelligence agencies intercepted troubling communications that indicated Russian intelligence operatives were using Giuliani as a conduit to funnel disinformation to Trump, The Washington Post reported. Officials warned the White House of what they had discovered, and national security adviser Robert O'Brien thought it serious enough that he cautioned the president to treat anything Giuliani told him with extreme skepticism.
One source told The Post that the message to Trump was, "Do what you want to do, but your friend Rudy has been worked by Russian assets in Ukraine."
Also in December, around the time Giuliani was traveling in Ukraine, Mac Isaac contacted Giuliani's lawyer, Robert Costello, and gave him a copy of the hard drive, the New York Post's article said. However, it remains unclear when exactly Giuliani himself obtained the material.
Shortly after Mac Isaac said he gave Costello a copy of the hard drive, he turned over the device and laptop to federal authorities pursuant to a court subpoena, The New York Post said. According to NBC News, the "subpoena had been issued by a federal prosecutor who already had the serial numbers of the devices when they were ordered to be handed over in early December 2019, indicating federal law enforcement was aware of the specific devices they want to examine."
On December 19, Trump was formally impeached.
January 2020: Russian hackers successfully breach Burisma
In January, according to The New York Times, Russian military intelligence officials successfully hacked Burisma's systems and stole a trove of material.
September 2020: US intel officials learn of Russia's plans to dump hacked Burisma emails; and Steve Bannon tells New York Post about Hunter Biden-Burisma emails
In September, US intelligence analysts became aware that Russia planned to release hacked and forged emails from Burisma, The Times reported.
After US intelligence identified the plans, analysts contacted "several people with knowledge" of the Burisma hack, The Times said, adding that the analysts were concerned "Burisma material would be leaked alongside forged materials in an attempt to hurt" Biden.
Later in the month, the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon contacted New York Post reporters and alerted them to the existence of the Hunter Biden emails, according to the tabloid's article. Bannon was arrested and charged in August with fraud in connection to an online fundraising campaign.
October 2020: Giuliani gives the New York Post a copy of the hard drive purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden
On Sunday, October 11, the New York Post said that Giuliani gave the paper a copy of the hard drive. The story was published three days later, on October 14.
After the story dropped, several reporters tracked down Mac Isaac, who could not get his facts straight about the timeline of events laid out in the Post's story for which he was the source.
The Daily Beast reported that "throughout the interview, Mac Isaac switched back and forth from saying he reached out to law enforcement after viewing the files in the laptop to saying that it was actually the Federal Bureau of Investigation that contacted him."
"At one point, Mac Isaac claimed that he was emailing someone from the FBI about the laptop," The Daily Beast said. "At another point, he claimed a special agent from the Baltimore office had contacted him after he alerted the FBI to the device's existence. At another point, he said the FBI reached out to him for 'help accessing his drive.'"