On the weekend of Oct. 10, President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, his former adviser Stephen K. Bannon and a prominent new ally, a Chinese billionaire and Mar-a-Lago member named Guo Wengui, gathered at Mr. Guo’s luxury apartment overlooking Central Park for dinner and cigars.
Each faced some combination of legal or credibility issues, but on this night they had reason to celebrate: a plan was coming together.
That weekend, Mr. Giuliani had delivered to The New York Post a copy of a hard drive purported to be from a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden, the son of Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The hard drive was filled with what the men claimed was compromising material about the younger Biden that they hoped would sully his father’s reputation.
It was the latest in an often-bumbling series of attacks that began two years ago with the goal of undercutting Mr. Biden as a threat to Mr. Trump’s re-election by linking him to the messy personal and business affairs of his son.
The main impact of the attacks to that point had been a spectacular backfire: the impeachment of Mr. Trump for trying to strong-arm the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation into the Bidens. And despite the efforts of Mr. Giuliani, who engineered the Ukrainian pressure campaign, Mr. Biden went on to win the Democratic nomination and to build a consistent lead in the polls against Mr. Trump.
Now Mr. Giuliani, undaunted and surrounded by a new cast of characters after some of his wingmen in the Ukraine caper were indicted, is trying again.
This time, he and his allies are using a mix of unsubstantiated assertions about the former vice president, innuendo and salacious material about his son, as well as records showing that Hunter Biden invoked his “family’s brand” as a reason he was valuable to a business venture, while his team’s business plan cited his father’s work in particular countries.
Mr. Giuliani and his allies — operating in parallel with a loosely linked network of conservatives — are in effect trying to recreate the blueprint Mr. Trump and his allies employed in 2016, when they used emails and documents, many stolen by Russian hackers, to paint Hillary Clinton as criminally corrupt and spread depraved conspiracy theories.
A Chinese-language media operation linked to Mr. Guo began promoting some of the material about the younger Mr. Biden weeks before it appeared in The New York Post.
The Post articles were quickly followed by others from Peter Schweizer, the conservative author who in 2016 had promoted unsubstantiated theories about corruption by the Clintons and who in this case was relying on material provided by a former associate of Hunter Biden who is serving a 30-month prison sentence for federal fraud charges. Hunter Biden was not charged in the case.
Mr. Schweizer’s work has been backed by some of the donors who fueled Mr. Trump’s rise in 2016, including the hedge fund heiress Rebekah Mercer’s family, the principal owner of the now-defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica, which also came under federal investigation after exploiting the private data of Facebook users in 2016.
Among the new participants in 2020 are some with close ties to Mr. Trump, including the former White House lawyer Stefan C. Passantino, a current White House official, Eric Herschmann, and the former Speaker Newt Gingrich. They worked to promote documents and claims by Tony Bobulinski, yet another unhappy former business partner of Hunter Biden.
But, as the anti-Biden forces quickly discovered, 2020 is not 2016.
While the president has promoted the material relentlessly, many of the Trump-friendly news outlets and other organizations that sustained the effort four years ago have been diminished or sidelined. Their 2020 replacements have had less reach, and the anti-Biden material they have been pumping out has been met with heightened skepticism from traditional news outlets and social media platforms determined to avoid being seen as abetting dirty tricks.
The New York Post articles based on the contents of the mysterious hard drive delivered by Mr. Giuliani failed to drive a broader narrative about Mr. Biden in the way that WikiLeaks did with the Clinton materials. Twitter and Facebook blocked or flagged the Post’s articles, which were published despite concerns from the paper’s newsroom.
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The National Enquirer dropped its pro-Trump political advocacy after its 2016 coverage landed it in legal trouble. The Drudge Report, which had driven huge web traffic to anti-Clinton pieces, has taken a hard turn against Mr. Trump.
Provocateurs who aided Mr. Trump four years ago, like Roger Stone, one of his oldest advisers, and Alex Jones, the founder of the Infowars conspiracy site, have faced legal troubles and seen their social media accounts suspended. The foreign and domestic troll networks that carried the most outlandish anti-Clinton charges have been muted by tougher policing of their efforts from the social media platforms.
Even as Fox News has covered the anti-Biden material prodigiously, some of its staff members have challenged claims that the material is damaging to the former vice president, and have questioned Mr. Giuliani’s credibility.
While highlighting questions about the business activities of Hunter Biden and the former vice president’s brother James Biden, Mr. Giuliani and his allies have failed to prove that Joe Biden was involved in or a beneficiary of them. And they have distracted from the documents about which there are fewer questions related to the chain of custody by making unsubstantiated claims and publishing salacious pictures and videos that have no apparent relevance to Mr. Biden’s candidacy.
Mr. Giuliani expressed frustration with the way the news media was keeping its distance, and said he would have preferred to have pushed out the materials earlier.
“I would have loved to have had this six months ago,” he said in a recent interview. “It would have solved a lot of my problems.”
A Confluence of Interests
The three men gathered for dinner and cigars in Mr. Guo’s apartment that October evening were united by similar travails and self-interests that give them reason to curry favor with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Guo, who faces accusations of bribery, money laundering and rape in China that he describes as a government campaign to smear him, is seeking asylum in the United States. A company that he and Mr. Bannon helped start, GTV Media, is reportedly under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the F.B.I.
Mr. Giuliani came under scrutiny from federal prosecutors over whether he violated foreign lobbying laws early in the anti-Biden effort, and intelligence officials warned the White House last year that Russian agents were using him as a conduit for anti-Biden disinformation.
Mr. Bannon, Mr. Guo and Mr. Giuliani have all maintained their innocence.
They each brought something to the table: Mr. Guo’s fortune and fledgling media business, Mr. Bannon’s experience as a right-wing media warrior, and Mr. Giuliani’s influence with Mr. Trump and erratic, if determined, record of assaulting the Bidens.
Mr. Guo, who is also known as Miles Kwok, left China in 2014, as the government there began leveling corruption allegations against his business associates and eventually Mr. Guo. He moved to New York, buying a $67.5 million apartment along Central Park and spending time aboard the Lady May.
In the years since, he has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party. But his former association with a Chinese intelligence official and his criticism of some Chinese dissidents in the United States has fueled questions about his agenda.
As he seeks asylum, he has built bridges into Mr. Trump’s orbit. He is a member of Mr. Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., Mar-a-Lago, and he is represented by a lawyer, Daniel T. Podhaskie, who had worked as an outside counsel for the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign.
When Mr. Bannon left the White House, Mr. Guo gave him a $150,000 loan, which Mr. Bannon later told The New York Times was related to a film project about the Chinese Communist Party.
Soon afterward, a media company associated with Mr. Guo, Guo Media, gave Mr. Bannon a $1 million contract to introduce its executives to “media personalities” and advise it on industry standards, subjects on which Mr. Bannon had expertise as the former head of Breitbart News.
Mr. Guo’s representatives have said he is merely the face of Guo Media and not an owner, though its central property, G News, is closely identified with Mr. Guo and his cause. In April, an associated venture linked to Mr. Guo and Mr. Bannon registered as a new business in New York, GTV Media, whose central hub is a Chinese-language, anti-Communist Party video platform.
In a GTV video posted on Twitter in July, Mr. Guo described Mr. Bannon and Mr. Podhaskie as directors, noting their ties to Mr. Trump, though Mr. Bannon was removed from the board the next month after his arrest.
The venture quickly raised $300 million, but as The Wall Street Journal reported in August, its fund-raising drew scrutiny from federal and state authorities, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the F.B.I.
The media properties soon seized on a subject that represented a confluence of interest between Mr. Bannon and Mr. Guo — claims that Hunter Biden used his father’s name to make money from China.
In September, the Guo-related media world started noting chatter about hard drives purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden. In late September, the material was teased by the host of an anti-Beijing YouTube show who goes by Lu De. He is closely associated with Mr. Guo and appeared in a photograph with Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Bannon that was posted on G News and later Twitter shortly before he first brought up the material.
Weeks before the New York Post articles, Lu De, whose real name, according to GTV, is Wang Dinggang, claimed without evidence on his YouTube program that Chinese sources had sent “three hard disks” with damaging material about Chinese leaders and about Mr. Biden, including videos recorded by the Communist Party, to the Justice Department and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
That broadcast was first reported by The Daily Beast, which also noted that three days later, a Twitter account associated with Mr. Bannon and Mr. Guo picked up that report. The tweet described “3 hard disk drives of videos and dossiers of Hunter Biden’s connections with the Chinese Communist Party” and said they had the makings of a “Big money and sex scandal!”
Salacious material published on the Guo-linked sites is being picked up regularly by fringe outlets like Infowars and Gateway Pundit, providing it a conduit to English-speaking audiences in the United States. Those outlets, though, have faced hurdles on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms that have sought to block the explicit videos and suspend accounts circulating them.
In recent days, GTV featured a notice saying it would continue to publish the videos but would “do our best” to filter graphic depictions.
Mr. Bannon asserted that the effort to limit the spread of the New York Post’s articles on social media had backfired, drawing more attention to them. “Social media overplayed this and did us a favor,” Mr. Bannon said.
It is unclear if the material featured on the sites linked to Mr. Guo is the same as that provided to The New York Post by Mr. Giuliani, which Mr. Giuliani said came from a laptop turned over to his lawyer by a computer store owner in Delaware.
Mr. Giuliani did not respond to questions about the origins of the materials featured by the Guo-linked outlets, nor did Mr. Guo’s lawyer.
But in a statement, Mr. Guo said, “I support GTV’s efforts to make the public aware of the C.C.P.’s ability to infiltrate and gain influence in the U.S. government, the media and their families and friends through corruption, drugs and sex scandals.”
He also said he had “not been involved in providing any information to The N.Y. Post regarding this story.”
Mr. Bannon said that Mr. Guo had not been connected to the acquisition of the hard drive that Mr. Bannon helped Mr. Giuliani provide to The New York Post.
But Mr. Bannon acknowledged that he pushes content to GTV, which also carries his podcast, War Room.
Conservative Networks Kick Into Gear
At the same time Mr. Bannon and Mr. Giuliani were shopping the purported hard drive, two other efforts were afoot to disseminate related information on Hunter Biden.
In one, Mr. Schweizer had obtained a cache of emails from Bevan Cooney, the former Hunter Biden associate who is in prison for fraud.
Using those emails, Mr. Schweizer and a researcher for his watchdog group, the Government Accountability Institute, have published several stories, including one trying to draw a link between Hunter Biden’s dealings in China and his associates’ efforts to arrange meetings in Washington for Chinese business leaders during the Obama administration.
Mr. Schweizer’s institute, of which Mr. Bannon was a co-founder, has received funding from Ms. Mercer’s family, according to tax records. The Mercers have also provided funding to Breitbart News, which was previously run by Mr. Bannon and which has been publishing Mr. Schweizer’s articles.
Separately, Mr. Schweizer was consulted in September about the claims made by Mr. Bobulinski, who had worked in 2017 with Hunter and James Biden on a joint venture with a Chinese conglomerate that fizzled.
According to two people familiar with the events, Mr. Bobulinski, an investor who had done business related to China, had approached allies of Mr. Trump, seeking assistance to publicize his claims.
Mr. Bobulinski, who was admittedly bitter about the way the proposed deal unraveled, was referred to Mr. Passantino, who previously worked in the White House Counsel’s Office and works with a campaign-affiliated group, Lawyers for Trump.
In an effort to vet Mr. Bobulinski’s claims and documents, Mr. Passantino was referred by Mr. Gingrich, a longtime client, to Mr. Schweizer, who wrote a book in 2018 about business dealings involving Hunter Biden in Ukraine, China and elsewhere.
Mr. Passantino “just asked advice,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And I said, ‘Look, the guy who knows the most about this is Schweizer,’ so I sent him Schweizer’s email address.”
Mr. Passantino and Mr. Bobulinski met with Mr. Schweizer in September to review the materials, and Mr. Schweizer said they comported with his own research.
Armed with that assurance, Mr. Passantino and Mr. Herschmann, who had worked first as a private lawyer for Mr. Trump, then as a member of the impeachment defense team and more recently as a West Wing official, attended a meeting in Virginia to provide Mr. Bobulinski’s documents and outline his claims to a reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Bobulinski has asserted that the former vice president was aware of, and stood to potentially profit from, the joint venture. Mr. Bobulinski says he met twice with the former vice president after he left office.
The Journal dug into Mr. Bobulinski’s account, and in the end reported that corporate records showed “no role for Joe Biden” in the deal and that the documents provided by Mr. Bobulinski “don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.”
Still, Mr. Gingrich, who posted a video this week highlighting some of the material, says it has resonated with Mr. Trump’s supporters, adding that if “you want to maximize your turnout, this is not a bad way to do it.”
Ben Decker and Michael Forsythe contributed reporting.