Byron York: What standard of proof for Hunter Biden’s emails?

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 23, 2020

By Byron York

Republican and conservative journalists and politicos need to avoid a trap when discussing the Hunter Biden laptop story. The trap might be called the “can’t prove untrue” maneuver that we saw from Democrats and their allies in the media when discussing the Steele dossier during the Trump-Russia investigation.

Remember that the dossier was the collection of false and defamatory accusations against then-candidate Donald Trump compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele during the 2016 campaign. Remember also that the dossier was financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. And remember that the FBI, in a move that is still jaw-dropping, wanted to hire Steele to do his anti-Trump digging for the U.S. government during the campaign. (The only reason it didn’t happen was that Steele couldn’t resist talking to the press, which violated his agreement with the bureau.)

When Buzzfeed dumped the entire dossier on the web in January 2017, everyone could see that it was preposterous. But who could say for absolute sure? My new book, “Obsession,” describes the dossier’s impact on the Trump transition team. They had no idea where it came from and were desperately trying to find out what was behind the allegations:

“Were some true, or partially true? They zeroed in on something that, it appeared, could easily be proven true or false. The dossier said that Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen had met Russian officials in Prague in August 2016 to arrange secret payments to the Russian hackers who attacked the Clinton campaign. A threshold question seemed simple enough: Had Cohen ever been to Prague? ‘I asked him a million questions about where were you on this date,’ recalled one Trump aide. ‘Were you ever in the Czech Republic? Where’s your passport? I want to see your passport.’ Cohen said that he had never been in Prague, had never been in the Czech Republic, and that the story was entirely false. He left Trump Tower to go to his apartment, returning with his passport, which showed no evidence of such a trip. Trump aides were convinced that Cohen was telling the truth, and the false Prague story gave them something about the dossier to criticize in a round of media appearances.”

Now, imagine if the Biden campaign took a similar approach to the Hunter Biden laptop story. They could address a few threshold questions, like, is the laptop Hunter Biden’s? Did he drop it off at a repair shop and then fail to retrieve it? Answering those very simple questions would go a long way toward establishing the accuracy of the New York Post’s stories on the emails.

Then, of course, journalists could actually try to verify the emails. Some are doing that right now. But some of the nation’s biggest press organizations are instead trying to knock the story down, suggesting without evidence that it is Russian disinformation or focusing on staff dissatisfaction at the New York Post. In the case of the Steele dossier, the situation was just the opposite: Some of the country’s top journalists tried very hard to verify something, anything, in the dossier before and after the 2016 election. They failed.

But here is the trap Republicans and conservatives need to avoid. Even after the dossier had been public for months, and then years, and journalists had failed to verify it, and — unknown to the public — the FBI had failed to verify it, Democrats and their allies in the media clung to the hope that it might be true. And they adopted the argument that since it had not been definitively been proven untrue, then it must be true.

“Not a single revelation in the Steele dossier has been refuted,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, tweeted this: “Retweet if, like me, you’re aware of nothing in the (Trump) dossier that has been shown to be false.” MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said, “The dossier has not been proven false.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” moderator Chuck Todd said to former CIA director John Brennan, “So far with this dossier, nothing has yet been proven untrue. How significant is that?” Brennan responded, “Just because they were unverified does not mean they were not true.”

That was the wrong standard to apply to the dossier, to the journalists’ everlasting discredit. Now, it is the wrong standard to apply to the Hunter Biden emails. It is not fair to anyone involved to say that the emails must be true because they have not been proven false. Rather, the job is to try to find what evidence supports them and what evidence does not. Fox News has already made some progress on that front, having gotten confirmation from one of the recipients of a 2017 email that it was indeed genuine. But more work needs to be done. Don’t look for any help from the big media organizations that are trying to kill the story. But for other, more traditionally open-minded journalists, it’s an important job at an important moment.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.