Despite aggressive efforts by Donald Trump and allies to make corruption allegations against Joe Biden and his son a centerpiece of the president’s closing 2020 argument, some Trump advisers are regretting the decision to try to put Hunter Biden and his emails front and center.
Nearly two weeks after the New York Post first reported on the contents of a trio of Hunter Biden’s computer hard drives, including emails showing him attempting to leverage his father’s position to advance business prospects abroad, the pro-Trump internet fringe remains wild over the story. But the reelection campaign has taken a subtler approach.
Though the president has repeatedly mentioned the allegations in rallies, on Twitter, and at a presidential debate last week, his campaign has barely supplemented it with its paid media. With the exception of a few promos for “Where’s Hunter?” merchandise, the campaign hasn’t mentioned the younger Biden in ads on Trump’s Facebook and Instagram pages since October 13, the day before the New York Post first reported on the contents of Biden’s hard drives. Pro-Trump super PAC America First Action hasn’t mentioned Hunter Biden at all in its Facebook or television ads since then.
The Trump campaign has cut a pair of television ads hyping Biden corruption allegations. But they’re just two of the 29 television spots the campaign has aired since the Post story broke, according to Advertising Analytics. The campaign has spent an estimated $1.1 million on those ads since they began airing last week. During the same period, it’s spent nearly four times as much on a single television spot hitting Joe Biden’s tax plan.
Among senior aides to the president, some Hunter-fatigue has already started to seep in. One official working on the Trump reelection effort privately expressed to The Daily Beast this week that they saw little point in harping on the Hunter Biden emails and foreign-dealings stories, as it had little chance of significantly altering the narrative, even at the margins.
This official had indeed been sent out by the Trump team to do media hits this month stressing why the story was so important to voters. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in this election, you don’t know what’s going to happen, nobody knows. But I will bet a lot of money that Hunter Biden is not going to win Pennsylvania for [Trump],” the official predicted.
Part of the problem for the Trump reelect is that, for all the material that’s been released from Hunter Biden’s computers, none of it has actually implicated his father in any corrupt dealings. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who is leading a Senate Republican investigation into the Bidens, conceded as much during a radio interview on Monday.
Asked whether he’s seen “any evidence...proving that Joe Biden made any money off of his son’s foreign entanglements,” Johnson admitted that he had not. “No, I don’t have hard proof that Joe Biden profited,” he said. “But I do have proof he lied boldfaced about never talking to his son Hunter in terms of overseas businesses.”
Absent that smoking gun, the Trump campaign signaled on Monday that themes like the economy and Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation—issues that would likely be emphasized by any presidential campaign—will be far more central to its messaging in the days before voters go to the polls than anything to do with Biden’s family members.
“The economy’s still going to remain front and center,” said Jason Miller, a senior campaign adviser, in call with reporters on Monday. The campaign plans to focus in particular on energy policy in states such as Pennsylvania, where Trump and his allies say Joe Biden’s opposition to fossil fuel extraction could be a key sticking point.
Only after economic issues, energy policy, and the Supreme Court did Miller bring up Hunter Biden on Monday’s call. But he did so solely in the context of framing it as a case of D.C. insider corruption. Neither Miller nor campaign manager Bill Stepien mentioned still unsubstantiated allegations that laptop computers belonging to Hunter Biden contained child pornography or that he was involved in even more lascivious behavior.
The relative restraint from the Trump campaign stands in contrast to four years ago, when many of the same individuals spent the close of the campaign harping on Hillary Clinton’s emails and repeatedly referring to her as “Crooked.” Indeed, on the call with reporters on Monday, Miller referred to Clinton solely by that moniker, rather than her name.
Still, there are some among the Trump faithful who continue to publicly maintain that the president and his party need to hammer away at the issue between now and Election Day, insisting that there will ultimately be a hidden benefit in the polls.
“Joe Biden’s corruption issue broke through the mainstream media blackout and Joe Biden lied in front of tens of millions of Americans. Republicans have to keep pressing that,” said John McLaughlin, a top pollster for the president and his 2020 campaign. “Trump and his voters will be energized. Biden will try to stall for the remaining…days.”
Try as they might to keep the focus on the narrow—and far easier to understand—issue of alleged Biden family self-dealing, the campaign’s allies in conservative media have devoured and parsed every detail of the emerging Hunter Biden story—and developed some truly bizarre, occasionally obscene, theories about the Biden family’s supposed misdeeds.
Fringe right-wing sites like The Gateway Pundit, InfoWars, and 4Chan’s “Politically Incorrect” forum, rather than more mainstream conservative outlets, have become the centers of discussion about the more outlandish Biden “leaks.” GNews, a website tied to Steve Bannon patron and dissident Chinese billionaire Miles Kuo, has become the leading outlet for images that supposedly came from Biden’s laptop.
And as the election has neared, the internet conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden have become ever more baroque. GNews, for example, has become obsessed with a picture that purports to show a series of tattoos on Biden’s back, which the site claims represent New York’s Finger Lakes region. Drawing from 4Chan threads and a local New York article about human trafficking in the area, the site has claimed that the tattoo is proof that Biden is involved in human trafficking.
It’s difficult to get a sense of how much traction the GNews conspiracy theories have received, because Twitter has taken steps to block the spread of the site’s articles. Accounts that post links to some of the GNews articles on Biden, for example, are automatically suspended from Twitter for twelve hours for breaking rules against “posting or sharing privately produced/distributed intimate media of someone without their express consent,” according to a test performed by The Daily Beast.
Even on 4Chan, though, Trump supporters are starting to get fed up. The forum’s pro-Trump denizens had embraced the hype around a Biden story that was set to be published Monday morning on The Gateway Pundit. But when the story failed to deliver a bombshell about Hunter Biden, 4Chan posters began to gripe that the Hunter Biden “scandal” had failed to meaningfully affect the election.