Politics and policy could clash next week when top former legal officers at Twitter testify before the House Oversight Committee on the social media company’s handling of the controversial Hunter Biden laptop story.
The panel, which is headed up by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) under the new Republican majority, is the chamber’s chief investigative body.
Getting to the heart of the laptop story is one of his priorities as chairman, Comer said in a press conference this week, because it raises national security questions about foreign influence.
“All [critics] do is roll their eyes and say the audacity of raising these questions,” Comer said at the National Press Club on January 30. But, he added, Biden family members “have taken a significant amount of money from our adversaries for consulting. I want to know what kind of consulting they did.”
Meanwhile, attorneys for Hunter Biden have asked the Department of Justice, the Delaware attorney general and the IRS to investigate whether former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, the owner of a computer repair business where the laptop was left and others broke any laws by accessing the laptop and making its contents available to others, including the New York Post, whose story about the device became a lightning rod of controversy.
Twitter initially blocked the story as potential Russian disinformation when the New York Post tried to publicize it during the 2020 presidential election. It concerns alleged communication between a Ukrainian official and the president’s son, who was on the board of a Ukrainian company, Burisma, and did consulting work for international clients, including in China. Twitter later released the block but its actions fed concerns that it was trying to tip the scales in favor of Biden’s election.
Musk cited suppression of the story as one of the reasons he wanted to buy the company, and among his first actions on completing the sale last year was to fire the company’s two top legal officers, Vijaya Gadde, the long-time head of legal, policy and safety, and Sean Edgett, its general counsel. He later fired Jim Baker, the company’s deputy general counsel. Yoel Roth, the company’s head of safety and integrity and a key voice in the company’s content moderation policy, quit.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the laptop,” Comer said.
All three former legal team members had content oversight responsibilities, and Baker, the FBI’s general counsel before he joined Twitter, was one of the executives to recommend the company block the laptop story out of an abundance of caution.
“We need more facts to assess whether the materials were hacked,” Baker wrote at the time in an internal email.
Although some evidence pointed to the contents of the laptop having been hacked, Baker said, other evidence suggested otherwise, so the prudent move was for Twitter to assume the worst. “Caution is warranted,” he said,
Musk made these and other internal communications publicly available as part of a data dump last December that he called the Twitter Files.
Under Twitter policy, content moderation calls for suppressing posts that are based on hacked material.
Comer said he wants to learn more about the FBI’s role in asking Twitter to suppress the story.
“What’s concerning is that the FBI had the laptop,” he said. “Why were they doing that? That was during the Trump administration. That was Trump’s FBI. I’m not saying that was Biden’s FBI. That was Trump’s FBI. Why were they saying that was Russian disinformation?”
Comer said there’s evidence the material on the hard drive is legitimate and the New York Post was right to go out with the information.
“The New York Post is the fourth biggest newspaper in America,” he said. “They're a credible news organization. They did extensive reporting on the hard drive. So, we’re going to start with the hard drive because there’s a lot of evidence … that suggests Joe Biden knew very well what his family was involved in even though he said he never met with these people. There are pictures of Joe Biden with these people. … Some of these people [were] texting and emailing to Hunter Biden, saying, ‘Thanks for setting up the meeting with your dad.’”
As a former general counsel of the FBI, Baker can be expected to know something about the agency’s role in alerting companies, not just Twitter, to the possibility disinformation is circulating.
He was the agency’s top lawyer when it was investigating whether Russia was trying to influence the 2016 presidential election before he was reassigned in 2017, after Donald Trump won office and appointed Christopher Wray FBI director. He left the agency a year later, took a position as a senior fellow at Lawfare, a national security newsletter published by the Brookings Institution, and then joined Twitter in 2020.
His hiring and subsequent role in content moderation has fed concerns of a Twitter political agenda in how it decides what is, and isn’t, okay to run.
“So the General Counsel at the FBI during the Russia Hoax was also the General Counsel at Twitter during the Hunter Biden laptop scandal, where he helped cover it up,” Lori Mills, a 2022 California state assembly candidate who lost her race last November, wrote on Twitter after Musk released some of the company’s internal communications. “See a pattern?”