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More details emerge in federal investigation into Hunter Biden

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's fresh scrutiny on Hunter Biden, the president's son, as he is under investigation. Part of that investigation appears to center on emails that showed up on a notorious laptop that was publicized before the 2020 election and then dismissed by much of the news media. Many of these emails have now been authenticated. NPR's David Folkenflik joins us now. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Pleasure.

SIMON: And what have we learned so far?

FOLKENFLIK: We've learned a bunch more detail about Hunter Biden's vision to help a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma handle bad press in the U.S. and some other ramifications here although he didn't register as a lobbyist. We also learned about a Chinese energy company presumably with links to the Chinese communist government that made Hunter Biden seven figures in a short amount of time. To be clear, Hunter Biden has not been charged with any wrongdoing on this. He's said in the past that he's done stupid things but nothing illegal.

SIMON: How did that information surface?

FOLKENFLIK: Mostly through new reporting. You got to start with revelations in a book last fall by Politico's Ben Schreckinger and more recently in articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Much of these reports appear to center on materials related to the federal investigation of Hunter Biden. And there are a lot of witnesses and a lot of lawyers who have been asked about some of those Hunter Biden emails and correspondence and documents between him and some of his associates.

SIMON: The New York Post broke this story just weeks before the 2020 election. Remind us of what ensued then.

FOLKENFLIK: So The New York Post presented this story as a bombshell, and it said the emails were a smoking gun showing effectively Hunter Biden's corruption and suggesting much the same about candidate Joe Biden. Yet, its scoops were based on emails that could not at the time be independently authenticated, on a laptop that had not been positively identified as belonging to Hunter Biden, which was said to be abandoned at a repair shop.

The laptop was provided, it's worth remembering, by President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to The New York Post. That's a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, a political ally of Donald Trump. And I think it's also worth noting, Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and Fox News had reporters who had the same material. They passed on the story concerned about how authentic it might be.

SIMON: Hmm. Are conservative critics of the president correct, though, in saying that in retrospect, the media was just too deferential to the Bidens?

FOLKENFLIK: Maybe. I do think you have to understand the context of the moment. Think of what happened in 2016. You had the Russian involvement in the leaking of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, and that caused incredible havoc during the election season. And think, too, a bit later of the so-called Steele dossier that attracted a ton of press coverage. It was posted in full by BuzzFeed News, and it turned out that contained a lot of misinformation not about Hillary Clinton and Democrats, but about the conduct of Donald Trump.

SIMON: Hmm. Does that let off the media too easily? You wrote at the time that the mainstream press was right to be wary of the reporting at The New York Post.

FOLKENFLIK: And I still think so. I don't think it lets them off too easily. I do think, though, there are two important points I want to make here. First, let's acknowledge social media's role. A number of platforms tamped down on sharing of the Post's story. In the case of Twitter, not only did they try to block sharing of it, they suspended The New York Post's actual Twitter account for sharing its own article. That was a wild overreach, and even Twitter had to acknowledge that.

And then there was this cohort of paid pundits - 50 former national security officials, many of them appearing frequently in mainstream media outlets - who came together for a statement saying that this surfacing of the laptop bore all the hallmarks of a Russian misinformation campaign. And they pointed to the Russia's hacking of emails back in 2016, and their claims were not sufficiently and rigorously enough tested and questioned.

I will go back to what I wrote at the time. None of the criticism from conservatives to do this seeming expose on Hunter Biden should force reporters to accept The New York Post's claims as true without additional reporting and additional verification.

SIMON: And there are now Republicans and conservatives who say what we do know now, in their mind, demonstrates corruption by a sitting president.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, from the evidence we have now - and that's important to note, the timing - President Joe Biden's actions have not been shown to be corrupt. What has been shown is a seeming tolerance for close family members - Hunter Biden, the president's brother - who are willing to trade on the family name in a way that seems, if not corrupt, untoward. And there is now more heft to a storyline that we already knew a lot about and yet remains one we're still pursuing.

SIMON: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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