On 28 October 2016, the then director of the FBI, James Comey, dropped a bomb into the middle of the presidential race. With just 11 days to go until election day, he announced that his agents were investigating a newly discovered batch of emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal server.
The highly irregular intervention led nowhere, but it was enough to wreak havoc in the final stretch of the contest, putting Clinton on the defensive and giving Donald Trump an artificial leg-up. To this day, many Democrats – and Republicans – are convinced it played a substantial role in Trump’s unexpected victory.
Twenty days before election day 2020, the Trump campaign dropped what it hoped would be a similar bomb into the middle of the current race. On 14 October, the New York Post (owner: Rupert Murdoch) splashed with the screaming headline “Biden Secret Emails”.
The paper alleged that a laptop had been discovered at a computer repair shop in Delaware, the home state of the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. On its hard drive, the Post said, were stored personal emails from Biden’s son Hunter Biden that pointed to inappropriate conflicts of interest between the younger Biden’s business interests in Ukraine and the elder’s diplomatic work as then vice-president.
It was a case of Clinton emails redux. Like the 2016 saga, the Hunter Biden emails were flimsy in their contents and, in this case, of dubious provenance.
The cast of characters involved in “discovering” the laptop was like a roll call of some of Trump’s most discredited associates. At the center of the ploy were Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has been charged with fraud and money laundering related to the border wall with Mexico; and Rudy Giuliani, who has questions of his own to answer over his blush-inducing appearance in Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
How the Hunter Biden story came to be put together from inside the New York Post also raised eyebrows. The New York Times reported that the journalist at the Post who wrote most of the account refused to attach his name to it because of doubts over the credibility of the material.
The lead byline on the story, Emma-Jo Morris, recently worked as a producer on the Fox News Show of the Trump loyalist Sean Hannity. The second byline, Gabrielle Fonrouge, had little to do with the article and only learned her name was on it after it was published, the Times reported.
Such machinations over a controversial story are nothing new within the Post’s newsroom, a former employee of the paper told the Guardian. “When I saw that Hunter Biden piece I had flashbacks to how shitty that place was. That’s happened to me there. I’d wake up and think, ‘I didn’t write that story,’” the journalist said.
The Hunter Biden story was a transparent effort to replicate the undoubted success of the Clinton emails hit of 2016. But as a work of political dirty tricks, it was too obvious to impress many.
“It’s blatant and it’s desperate,” was the assessment of Elaine Karmack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. It was also tired. “The Hunter Biden allegations were fully aired during impeachment. If you want a real October surprise you have to come up with something new,” she said.
If it failed to hit its mark, the Biden ruse did at least flag up the lengths to which Trump and friends are prepared to go to hang on to presidential power. Karmack predicted that more dirty tricks are yet to come.
“We have 10 days to go, who knows what else they could cook up. You have a president who has his back against the wall and is acting increasingly bizarrely,” Karmack said.
John Weaver, the chief strategist to John Kasich during his presidential battle with Trump in the Republican primaries in 2016 and now co-founder of the anti-Trump group of disaffected former Republicans, the Lincoln Project, urged the nation to brace itself for a wild ride in the final days. “The next two weeks are going to see dirty tricks on a scale we can’t imagine, nor would we want to.”
Weaver pointed out that dirty tricks in American politics are as old as the nation. They can be traced all the way back to the 1796 contest.
In that race between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, vying to replace George Washington as president, Alexander Hamilton, acting on behalf of Adams and their Federalist party, adopted the pseudonym of Phocion. He then wrote a scurrilous article in the Gazette of the United States accusing Jefferson of having an affair with a female slave.
If that sounds bad, it was as nothing compared with what we are witnessing today, Weaver said. “What we are seeing from Trump is on a scale, and in the crossing of norms and willingness to blatantly make things up out, and the mean-spiritedness of it, on another level. Even when Hamilton and Jefferson were going after each other they had respect for the new institutions they had just helped put in place – there’s no respect for any institution now.”
Hunter Biden is just the thin end of the wedge. The Trump coterie have also been trying to reheat the grotesque “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that did the rounds in 2016 claiming that Hillary Clinton was at the center of a pedophile ring – this time with the Bidens the focus.
The litany of dirty tricks pans out from there. They come in all shapes and sizes: doctoring digital material to create misinformation is a favorite. Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases official in the US, found himself at the receiving end of that technique in a Trump re-election ad that crudely took his words out of context to make it appear he was endorsing the president.
For Karmack, the most insidious dirty tricks this cycle have targeted the election process itself. Trump has repeatedly and falsely depicted the US voting system, and mail-in voting in particular, as being riddled with fraud; in fact the amount of substantiated fraud is infinitesimally small.
Ballot drop boxes where voters are encouraged to put their absentee ballots suspiciously began popping up in Los Angeles and other parts of California. They turned out to have been the work of the local Republican party which was duly ordered by state officials to remove them on grounds they are illegal.
“Disinformation about how to vote is the worst dirty tricks I see,” Karmack said. “Voting is already confusing in the pandemic, and if you add more confusion to that then efforts to suppress the vote could be successful in places.”
While Trump and his allies are busily stepping up their efforts at distortion, an important contrast with 2016 is that there is much less sign of the tactics working this time around. The FBI has so far resisted White House pressure to do another Comey and announce an investigation of the Bidens, much to Trump’s fury.
The media too has shown itself to be much more disciplined in dealing with Trump’s fireball of lies and misinformation. The Hunter Biden story was handled with care by most outlets, in stark contrast to the breathless treatment of the Clinton emails four years ago.
If the mud that is being thrown at the wall isn’t sticking in the same way as it did then, it is possible that the underhand tactics will backfire for the increasingly beleaguered president. Every dirty trick that is pulled is a distraction from Trump’s core message on the economy.
“Time is being wasted on Hunter Biden, QAnon and all this other circus activity,” Weaver said. “Voters don’t care about that stuff, and Trump is stepping on his own re-election chances every minute he devotes to it.”