▶ Watch Video: Hunter Biden tabloid story raises disinformation campaign fears

Wilmington, Delaware — President Trump and his allies have launched a late effort to again tarnish Joe Biden by tying him to his son Hunter Biden’s overseas business interests, publicizing emails and photos supposedly from a laptop alleged to have been abandoned by the younger Biden and timing their release in a manner reminiscent of Russia’s efforts to dump damaging material about Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, said his own attorney, Robert Costello, obtained the material from the owner of a computer repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware, after Hunter Biden allegedly left it there for months. Giuliani provided the material to the New York Post on Sunday, and the Post began running stories about the supposed documents this week.

But the owner of the computer store, John Paul MacIsaac, was unable and unwilling to answer key questions about how the laptop supposedly arrived in his store, and eventually, how the data was shared with Giuliani. CBS News interviewed MacIsaac for almost two hours on Wednesday and throughout the interview he contradicted himself about his motivations, raising questions about the truthfulness of one of the central figures in the story.

MacIsaac told CBS News he first turned over the hard drive to the FBI last December during the president’s impeachment, and provided a copy of its contents to Costello after becoming frustrated by the Senate trial in January. MacIsaac refused to provide key details about his interactions with Giuliani.

The Post’s first story ricocheted across major social media platforms on Wednesday before Facebook and Twitter moved to block its distribution, seemingly wary of allowing the dissemination of the kind of misinformation that spread across their networks in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Mr. Trump seized on the Post story and the ensuing tech crackdown to paint Biden as corrupt and the media as complicit before a massive crowd of supporters in Iowa on Wednesday night.

Giuliani apparently held the information for months and released it less than three weeks before the election. Giuliani has long been involved in efforts by the president and his allies to highlight Hunter Biden’s work overseas to damage Joe Biden and boost Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign, and in 2019 met with a Ukrainian lawmaker who has been deemed an “active Russian agent” by the U.S. government.

What was allegedly on the laptop?

CBS News has not seen or corroborated the data supposedly on the hard drive, and Giuliani has declined to allow other news outlets to review the information. In a story published Wednesday, 20 days before the election, the Post said it included a trove of Hunter Biden’s emails and photos, some of which it published.

The Post story trumpeted a “smoking-gun email” allegedly showing Hunter Biden had arranged for a meeting in 2015 between his father and an adviser to the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company. Hunter Biden was a member of the board.

A photo of the alleged email published by the Post shows it was written by Vadym Pozharskyi, the Burisma adviser, and reads, in part: “thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together.” The Post presents this line as evidence that Pozharskyi met with Joe Biden, who was spearheading the Obama administration’s policy toward Ukraine. If true, it could contradict Biden’s assertions that he “never discussed” his son’s foreign business interests with him.

But a spokesman for the Biden campaign said a review of Biden’s schedule for the period in question showed no such meeting with Pozharskyi, and several of Biden’s top advisers who worked closely with him on Ukraine policy have publicly said they’ve never heard of him. While they did not rule out the possibility that Biden and Pozharskyi interacted briefly on the sidelines of an event, they said a formal meeting did not happen.

“We have reviewed Joe Biden’s official schedules from the time and no meeting, as alleged by the New York Post, ever took place,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman.

Republicans and the president’s allies allege Biden pushed in 2016 for the ouster of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin to shield Burisma and, by implication, Hunter Biden from an anti-corruption investigation.

But both the U.S. and the European Union had called for Shokin’s ouster over his failure to prosecute officials for corruption, and an investigation into Burisma was at that point dormant. Biden eventually threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid from Ukraine unless Shokin was fired, and the country’s parliament voted to remove him in 2016.

Mr. Trump was impeached by the House last year over his efforts to pressure the current Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden’s ties to Burisma. After Mr. Trump was acquitted by the Senate, Senate Republicans launched their own investigation into Hunter Biden’s Ukraine connections, resulting in the publication of a report last month that called his actions “problematic” but did not allege the former vice president acted to protect his son, nor accuse him of any wrongdoing.

How did the laptop supposedly get to Giuliani?

The owner of the repair store’s political motivations came to light in the interview with CBS News and a few other reporters, raising even more questions about the veracity of how this supposed laptop became public.

MacIsaac, the owner, said several times how he felt Mr. Trump was treated unfairly during his impeachment trial and suggested if the alleged documents are true, the “sham” impeachment was reason to release them. He also repeatedly mentioned his girlfriend left him after he voted for Trump in 2016.

Asked about the timeline of events detailed in the Post story, MacIsaac told CBS News that a man who identified himself as Hunter Biden dropped off three laptops to have them repaired in April 2019. He said the man never paid him for the repairs and did not return to pick them up.

Standing in his shop on Wednesday, MacIsaac admitted he was unable to confirm it was actually Hunter Biden who dropped off the laptop because he is “legally blind” and only realized it was the former vice president’s son when Hunter stated his name for the point of contact.

The Mac Shop is equipped with indoor cameras that preserve recordings for two months. MacIsaac said he did not realize the significance of the laptops until after the footage was automatically deleted.

MacIsaac also would not reveal when he first looked through the data, and refused to provide key details about his handling of the material. Asked by CBS News if he actually saw the email purportedly from Pozharskyi, he repeatedly said “no comment” before saying he “believed” he had. MacIsaac refused to answer in any detail whether or why he would have searched through the laptop to find a four-year-old email, which seemingly appears to be an innocuous message about arranging a meeting for coffee.

MacIsaac provided no additional details to CBS News to corroborate he saw these alleged documents.

He told CBS News he reached out to the FBI through “people that [he] trusted” and was eventually put in contact with two FBI agents. On December 9, 2019, he was issued a subpoena demanding he turn over the laptop and hard drive to a federal grand jury in Wilmington, according to a photo of a copy of the subpoena published by the Post and confirmed by MacIsaac.

He said he complied and turned over the hardware, but first made a copy of the hard drive’s contents. MacIsaac described becoming frustrated while watching Mr. Trump’s Senate impeachment trial in January, with no updates from the FBI. “This country had its third impeachment, and I honestly felt like it was a sham, because of what I had seen,” MacIsaac said.

The FBI declined to comment, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wilmington said it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.”

MacIsaac contradicted himself repeatedly about why he wanted to share the alleged contents of the hard drive. He first asserted he went to the FBI for protection, fearing possible retribution from the Biden family. When the FBI supposedly did not act, he said he thought the FBI could be out to get him, which is why he turned to Giuliani.

MacIsaac responded to most questions about Giuliani with “no comment,” saying he “didn’t feel comfortable” discussing it. He declined to say whether he sought Giuliani out or vice versa, but he indicated he viewed the former New York mayor as a potential ally.

“When you are afraid and you don’t know anything about the depth of waters that you’re in, you kind of — you want to find a lifeboat,” he said.

“I was told not to talk to anybody else,” MacIsaac said at one point, refusing to provide specifics.

Giuliani told CBS News on Wednesday that MacIsaac had reached out to Costello “around the time of the impeachment hearings,” and that he has neither met nor spoken to him personally.

Over the course of the interview, MacIsaac said he felt his life and business were in danger by possessing this information, invoking debunked conspiracy theories of revenge, specifically mentioning false allegations that a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered in 2016 to cover up his supposed involvement in leaking Democratic Party emails. The emails were in fact stolen by Russian intelligence operatives, and the conspiracy theory surrounding his death was boosted by a Russian disinformation campaign.

Experts warn about potential foreign interference

The U.S. intelligence community has warned for months that Russia is actively working to “denigrate” Biden by amplifying allegations of corruption, and experts have issued dire warnings that Russia could orchestrate a “hack and dump” operation similar to its effort to steal and release stolen Democratic emails in the runup to the 2016 election.

Moreover, Russian hackers are believed to have breached Burisma’s systems earlier this year, and Giuliani himself has been tied to Ukrainian lawmaker acting as a Russian agent who has publicized private recordings of Biden speaking to Ukrainian officials in the past.

But as of now, there is no evidence that Russia was directly involved in obtaining or publicizing the alleged information on Hunter Biden’s laptop. The Biden campaign has also offered no alternate explanation for how this alleged personal information came to light.

George Mesires, an attorney for Hunter Biden, did not immediately reply to a phone call and email seeking comment on Wednesday. But in a statement to the Post, he said Giuliani “has been pushing widely discredited conspiracy theories about the Biden family, openly relying on actors tied to Russian intelligence.”

In August, an assessment by the U.S. intelligence community singled out the Ukrainian parliamentarian, Andriy Derkach, for “spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”

The Treasury Department leveled sanctions against Derkach in September, describing him as an “active Russian agent” who has done the Kremlin’s bidding for more than a decade. Derkach and Giuliani met in Ukraine last December at the height of the impeachment saga, as Giuliani worked to uncover damaging information about Hunter Biden.

In January, the cybersecurity firm Area 1 revealed Russian military operatives had launched a phishing attack against Burisma and accessed its systems. The extent of the breach was unclear, but the report said the attack “raises the spectre that this is an early warning of what we have anticipated since the successful cyberattacks undertaken during the 2016 U.S. elections.”

Catherine Herridge, Andres Triay and Olivia Gazis contributed reporting. 

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