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An ex-business partner of Hunter Biden, in a news conference organized by the Trump campaign, alleged that former Vice President Joe Biden was part of discussions around his son’s efforts to form an investment venture with a Chinese oil company.
The Biden campaign denied Joe Biden had any involvement in the venture or stood to gain by it.
In a statement to reporters Thursday, Anthony Bobulinski said that in 2017 Hunter Biden consulted his father about a planned venture with Chinese oil company CEFC China Energy Co. to invest in the U.S. and elsewhere. Mr. Bobulinski was also a partner.
The venture—set up in 2017 after Mr. Biden left the vice presidency and before his presidential campaign—never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter. Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.
“Joe Biden has never even considered being involved in business with his family, nor in any overseas business whatsoever. He has never held stock in any such business arrangements nor has any family member or any other person ever held stock for him,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates in a statement.
Mr. Bobulinski said that he was rankled by Joe Biden’s public statements that he never discussed the international business activities of Hunter and other family members. He also cited nearly $5 million in payments that a Senate Republican report last month said CEFC made to Hunter Biden’s law firm as another reason to come forward.
Mr. Bobulinski said he took part in a meeting with Hunter, Joe Biden and Joe Biden’s brother James Biden in Los Angeles in 2017 when they discussed “the Biden family business plans with the Chinese, of which [Joe Biden] was plainly familiar at least at a high level.”
A Biden campaign spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a question about the alleged meeting with Mr. Bobulinski. James Biden and an attorney for Hunter Biden didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Bobulinski, who was a guest of Mr. Trump’s at Thursday’s debate in Nashville, didn’t take any questions after his statement or provide further details on any remarks made by the former vice president. He displayed three phones which he said contained information that he would hand over to the FBI. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee and the Senate Finance committee have received material from Mr. Bobulinski and are holding an informal interview with him on Friday.
The venture with CEFC, known as SinoHawk Holdings, was half held by Mr. Bobulinski, who served as chief executive, and four other partners—Hunter and James Biden; Rob Walker, a former Clinton administration official; and James Gilliar, a British national—according to the corporate documents reviewed by the Journal.
Text messages and emails related to the venture that were provided to the Journal by Mr. Bobulinski, mainly from the spring and summer of 2017, don’t show either Hunter Biden or James Biden discussing a role for Joe Biden in the venture.
Mr. Gilliar told the Journal: “I would like to clear up any speculation that former Vice President Biden was involved with the 2017 discussions about our potential business structure. I am unaware of any involvement at anytime of the former Vice President. The activity in question never delivered any project revenue.”
In the correspondence provided by Mr. Bobulinski, an email he received from Mr. Gilliar in May 2017 proposed a possible equity arrangement for the five partners. The email references “10 held by H for the big guy?” Mr. Bobulinski said the “H” referred to Hunter Biden and the “big guy” was Joe Biden. Mr. Gilliar didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did the other partner in the venture, Mr. Walker.
SinoHawk was created to find investments in the U.S. and elsewhere for CEFC, relying in part on James and Hunter Biden, as well as their partners, to make introductions to politicians and influential figures, according to company strategy documents.
Mr. Bobulinski, 48, who said he served four years in the Navy, leaving with the rank of lieutenant, said through his business ventures he met Mr. Gilliar, who brought him into the proposed venture.
CEFC, whose founder and chairman had a background in military intelligence, was in the midst of a rapid, well-funded global expansion that often made investments that dovetailed with the priorities of China’s president, Xi Jinping, and his global program to build infrastructure. Its founder, Ye Jianming, was put under investigation in China in 2018 and hasn’t been seen in public since. CEFC has gone into receivership and been put under control of the Shanghai government.
—Andrew Restuccia contributed to this article.
By early October, even people inside the White House believed President Trump’s re-election campaign needed a desperate rescue mission. So three men allied with the president gathered at a house in McLean, Va., to launch one.
The host was Arthur Schwartz, a New York public relations man close to President Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. The guests were a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and a former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Mr. Herschmann knew the subject matter they were there to discuss. He had represented Mr. Trump during the impeachment trial early this year, and he tried to deflect allegations against the president in part by pointing to Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine. More recently, he has been working on the White House payroll with a hazy portfolio, listed as “a senior adviser to the president,” and remains close to Jared Kushner.
The three had pinned their hopes for re-electing the president on a fourth guest, a straight-shooting Wall Street Journal White House reporter named Michael Bender. They delivered the goods to him there: a cache of emails detailing Hunter Biden’s business activities, and, on speaker phone, a former business partner of Hunter Biden’s named Tony Bobulinski. Mr. Bobulinski was willing to go on the record in The Journal with an explosive claim: that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had been aware of, and profited from, his son’s activities. The Trump team left believing that The Journal would blow the thing open and their excitement was conveyed to the president.
The Journal had seemed to be the perfect outlet for a story the Trump advisers believed could sink Mr. Biden’s candidacy. Its small-c conservatism in reporting means the work of its news pages carries credibility across the industry. And its readership leans further right than other big news outlets. Its Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, recently remarked at a virtual gathering of Journal reporters and editors that while he knows that the paper often delivers unwelcome news to the many Trump supporters who read it, The Journal should protect its unique position of being trusted across the political spectrum, two people familiar with the remarks said.
As the Trump team waited with excited anticipation for a Journal exposé, the newspaper did its due diligence: Mr. Bender and Mr. Beckett handed the story off to a well-regarded China correspondent, James Areddy, and a Capitol Hill reporter who had followed the Hunter Biden story, Andrew Duehren. Mr. Areddy interviewed Mr. Bobulinski. They began drafting an article.
Then things got messy. Without warning his notional allies, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now a lawyer for President Trump, burst onto the scene with the tabloid version of the McLean crew’s carefully laid plot. Mr. Giuliani delivered a cache of documents of questionable provenance — but containing some of the same emails — to The New York Post, a sister publication to The Journal in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Mr. Giuliani had been working with the former Trump aide Steve Bannon, who also began leaking some of the emails to favored right-wing outlets. Mr. Giuliani’s complicated claim that the emails came from a laptop Hunter Biden had abandoned, and his refusal to let some reporters examine the laptop, cast a pall over the story — as did The Post’s reporting, which alleged but could not prove that Joe Biden had been involved in his son’s activities.
While the Trump team was clearly jumpy, editors in The Journal’s Washington bureau were wrestling with a central question: Could the documents, or Mr. Bobulinski, prove that Joe Biden was involved in his son’s lobbying? Or was this yet another story of the younger Mr. Biden trading on his family’s name — a perfectly good theme, but not a new one or one that needed urgently to be revealed before the election.
Mr. Trump and his allies expected the Journal story to appear Monday, Oct. 19, according to Mr. Bannon. That would be late in the campaign, but not too late — and could shape that week’s news cycle heading into the crucial final debate last Thursday. An “important piece” in The Journal would be coming soon, Mr. Trump told aides on a conference call that day.
His comment was not appreciated inside The Journal.
“The editors didn’t like Trump’s insinuation that we were being teed up to do this hit job,” a Journal reporter who wasn’t directly involved in the story told me. But the reporters continued to work on the draft as the Thursday debate approached, indifferent to the White House’s frantic timeline.
Finally, Mr. Bobulinski got tired of waiting.
“He got spooked about whether they were going to do it or not,” Mr. Bannon said.
At 7:35 Wednesday evening, Mr. Bobulinski emailed an on-the-record, 684-word statement making his case to a range of news outlets. Breitbart News published it in full. He appeared the next day in Nashville to attend the debate as Mr. Trump’s surprise guest, and less than two hours before the debate was to begin, he read a six-minute statement to the press, detailing his allegations that the former vice president had involvement in his son’s business dealings.
When Mr. Trump stepped on stage, the president acted as though the details of the emails and the allegations were common knowledge. “You’re the big man, I think. I don’t know, maybe you’re not,” he told Mr. Biden at some point, a reference to an ambiguous sentence from the documents.
As the debate ended, The Wall Street Journal published a brief item, just the stub of Mr. Areddy and Mr. Duehren’s reporting. The core of it was that Mr. Bobulinski had failed to prove the central claim. “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden,” The Journal reported.
Asked about The Journal’s handling of the story, the editor in chief, Matt Murray, said the paper did not discuss its newsgathering. “Our rigorous and trusted journalism speaks for itself,” Mr. Murray said in an emailed statement.
And if you’d been watching the debate, but hadn’t been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Mr. Trump was talking about. The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.
The gatekeepers return
The McLean group’s failed attempt to sway the election is partly just another story revealing the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation — a far cry from the coordinated “disinformation” machinery feared by liberals.
But it’s also about a larger shift in the American media, one in which the gatekeepers appear to have returned after a long absence.
It has been a disorienting couple of decades, after all. It all began when The Drudge Report, Gawker and the blogs started telling you what stodgy old newspapers and television networks wouldn’t. Then social media brought floods of content pouring over the old barricades.
By 2015, the old gatekeepers had entered a kind of crisis of confidence, believing they couldn’t control the online news cycle any better than King Canute could control the tides. Television networks all but let Donald Trump take over as executive producer that summer and fall. In October 2016, Julian Assange and James Comey seemed to drive the news cycle more than the major news organizations. Many figures in old media and new bought into the idea that in the new world, readers would find the information they wanted to read — and therefore, decisions by editors and producers, about whether to cover something and how much attention to give it, didn’t mean much.
But the last two weeks have proved the opposite: that the old gatekeepers, like The Journal, can still control the agenda. It turns out there is a big difference between WikiLeaks and establishment media coverage of WikiLeaks, a difference between a Trump tweet and an article about it, even between an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal suggesting Joe Biden had done bad things, and a news article that didn’t reach that conclusion.
Perhaps the most influential media document of the last four years is a chart by a co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Yochai Benkler. The study showed that a dense new right-wing media sphere had emerged — and that the mainstream news “revolved around the agenda that the right-wing media sphere set.”
Mr. Bannon had known this, too. He described his strategy as “anchor left, pivot right,” and even as he ran Breitbart News, he worked to place attacks on Hillary Clinton in mainstream outlets. The validating power of those outlets was clear when The New York Times and Washington Post were given early access in the spring of 2015 to the book “Clinton Cash,” an investigation of the Clinton family’s blurring of business, philanthropic and political interests by the writer Peter Schweizer.
Mr. Schweizer is still around this cycle. But you won’t find his work in mainstream outlets. He’s over on Breitbart, with a couple of Hunter Biden stories this month.
And the fact that Mr. Bobulinski emerged not in the pages of the widely respected Journal but in a statement to Breitbart was essentially Mr. Bannon’s nightmare, and Mr. Benkler’s fondest wish. And a broad array of mainstream outlets, unpersuaded that Hunter Biden’s doings tie directly to the former vice president, have largely kept the story off their front pages, and confined to skeptical explanations of what Mr. Trump and his allies are claiming about his opponent.
“SO USA TODAY DIDN’T WANT TO RUN MY HUNTER BIDEN COLUMN THIS WEEK,” the conservative writer Glenn Reynolds complained Oct. 20, posting the article instead to his blog. President Trump himself hit a wall when he tried to push the Hunter Biden narrative onto CBS News.
“This is ‘60 Minutes,’ and we can’t put on things we can’t verify,” Lesley Stahl told him. Mr. Trump then did more or less the same thing as Mr. Reynolds, posting a video of his side of the interview to his own blog, Facebook.
The media’s control over information, of course, is not as total as it used to be. The people who own printing presses and broadcast towers can’t actually stop you from reading leaked emails or unproven theories about Joe Biden’s knowledge of his son’s business. But what Mr. Benkler’s research showed was that the elite outlets’ ability to set the agenda endured in spite of social media.
We should have known it, of course. Many of our readers, screaming about headlines on Twitter, did. And Mr. Trump knew it all along — one way to read his endless attacks on the establishment media is as an expression of obsession, a form of love. This week, you can hear howls of betrayal from people who have for years said the legacy media was both utterly biased and totally irrelevant.
“For years, we’ve respected and even revered the sanctified position of the free press,” wrote Dana Loesch, a right-wing commentator not particularly known for her reverence of legacy media, expressing frustration that the Biden story was not getting attention. “Now that free press points its digital pen at your throat when you question their preferences.”
On the other side of the gate
There’s something amusing — even a bit flattering — in such earnest protestations from a right-wing movement rooted in efforts to discredit the independent media. And this reassertion of control over information is what you’ve seen many journalists call for in recent years. At its best, it can also close the political landscape to a trendy new form of dirty tricks, as in France in 2017, where the media largely ignored a last-minute dump of hacked emails from President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before a legally mandated blackout period.
But I admit that I feel deep ambivalence about this revenge of the gatekeepers. I spent my career, before arriving at The Times in March, on the other side of the gate, lobbing information past it to a very online audience who I presumed had already seen the leak or the rumor, and seeing my job as helping to guide that audience through the thicket, not to close their eyes to it. “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see — not to ignore it,” my colleague John Herrman (also now at The Times) and I wrote in 2013. In 2017, I made the decision to publish the unverified “Steele dossier,” in part on the grounds that gatekeepers were looking at it and influenced by it, but keeping it from their audience.
This fall, top media and tech executives were bracing to refight the last war — a foreign-backed hack-and-leak operation like WikiLeaks seeking to influence the election’s outcome. It was that hyper-vigilance that led Twitter to block links to The New York Post’s article about Hunter Biden — a frighteningly disproportionate response to a story that other news organizations were handling with care. The schemes of Mr. Herschmann, Mr. Passantino and Mr. Schwartz weren’t exactly WikiLeaks. But the special nervousness that many outlets, including this one, feel about the provenance of the Hunter Biden emails is, in many ways, the legacy of the WikiLeaks experience.
I’d prefer to put my faith in Mr. Murray and careful, professional journalists like him than in the social platforms’ product managers and executives. And I hope Americans relieved that the gatekeepers are reasserting themselves will also pay attention to who gets that power, and how centralized it is, and root for new voices to correct and challenge them.
President Trump’s insistence on saying the opposite of whatever the press demands is a source of more than a little of his political success as well as many self-defeating blunders. An example of the latter is his answer Wednesday to a deliberately tendentious question about whether he would commit to “a peaceful transferral of power.”
The media and intelligentsia have worked themselves into a frenzy over imaginary fears that Mr. Trump will somehow remain in office by force if he loses the 2020 election. “Well we’re going to have to see what happens,” he said when asked to disavow this fantasy. “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.”
Start with the obvious: The notion that Mr. Trump could stop a peaceful transition of power is preposterous. On Jan. 20 his term legally ends. If Congress hasn’t certified an Electoral College winner on that date—or settled a tie— Nancy Pelosi will be President if she is still House Speaker. GOP House and Senate leaders have already repudiated Mr. Trump’s remarks. If he tried to remain after Joe Biden was certified as the winner, his political support would collapse.
As for the notion that Mr. Trump could execute a coup—he’s been warring with his own security agencies as long as he’s been in office. He’s been denounced by dozens of retired generals, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for appearing with him publicly during the unrest in Washington, D.C.
The rule of law is vital to free and fair elections, and Mr. Trump is right not to forswear his legal options. Yet his reckless comments give credence to Democratic hysteria, and he should clarify his views if he doesn’t want to lose more voters who think he lacks the temperament or self-control for the office.
As for a peaceful transition, last month the New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, participated in an election “war game” in which states threatened secession after a Trump electoral victory. No less an authority on defeat than Mrs. Clinton said recently that Joe Biden “should not concede under any circumstances,” in expectation of a drawn-out fight. Mr. Biden has predicted that Mr. Trump might try to steal the election. Who’s really plotting the coup?
Mr. Trump was also investigated relentlessly by his own government after taking office—an investigation sparked in part, we have since learned, by opposition information provided by the Clinton campaign that hasn’t been substantiated and may have been Russian disinformation.
But Democrats’ bad behavior is no excuse for Mr. Trump to join them in undermining democratic legitimacy. And he made another mistake Wednesday by suggesting that confirming a new Supreme Court Justice could help him in a post-election legal fight. “This scam that the Democrats are pulling,” he said, “will be before the United States Supreme Court.” He added: “I think it should be eight-nothing or nine-nothing, but just in case it would be more political than it should be, I think it’s very important to have a ninth Justice.”
This answer hands Democrats a ready-made line of attack in Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Senate Democrats will charge that Mr. Trump’s nominee is being installed to help him steal the election. They’ll also demand that she recuse herself from election-related cases.
We’ve been warning about ill-conceived mail-in voting plans and extended ballot deadlines orchestrated by Democrats and liberal interest groups. The worry isn’t that these would “rig” the election but that they would make litigation and complaints of election theft more likely. The Supreme Court may have to rule, however reluctantly, on ballot questions. Mr. Trump’s comments hurt his nominee, the Court, and maybe his own interests.
The sad reality is that Democratic opinion leaders have been waiting for a Reichstag fire moment from the minute Mr. Trump took office. Their thirst to be vindicated has grown more intense as his term draws to a close. Perhaps they want to save face after misunderstanding their country and its citizens so fundamentally for four years. Mr. Trump should stop fueling their destructive ideas, because the legitimacy of election results is the bedrock of American democracy.
As a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a commentator for Fox News, Kim Strassel is a card-carrying member of the mainstream media. But Strassel is appalled by the media’s treatment of Donald Trump, and not just from journalists from the left. She describes the “resistance” in detail in her recent book, Resistance (at All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America. She and Peter Robinson discuss the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the way the media has covered it and disseminated the information to the public. They also discuss the upcoming presidential election (yes, we are still having one) and the politics of the $2 trillion stimulus bill, with more spending on the way, and the realities of restarting the economy in a post- or partial-post-COVID-19 world. Finally, they discuss the pluses and minuses of Donald Trump’s temperament, and the possibility of something good coming from this current crisis.
If it’s true that the novel coronavirus would kill millions without shelter-in-place orders and quarantines, then the extraordinary measures being carried out in cities and states around the country are surely justified. But there’s little evidence to confirm that premise—and projections of the death toll could plausibly be orders of magnitude too high.
Fear of Covid-19 is based on its high estimated case fatality rate—2% to 4% of people with confirmed Covid-19 have died, according to the World Health Organization and others. So if 100 million Americans ultimately get the disease, two million to four million could die. We believe that estimate is deeply flawed. The true fatality rate is the portion of those infected who die, not the deaths from identified positive cases.
The latter rate is misleading because of selection bias in testing. The degree of bias is uncertain because available data are limited. But it could make the difference between an epidemic that kills 20,000 and one that kills two million. If the number of actual infections is much larger than the number of cases—orders of magnitude larger—then the true fatality rate is much lower as well. That’s not only plausible but likely based on what we know so far.
Population samples from China, Italy, Iceland and the U.S. provide relevant evidence. On or around Jan. 31, countries sent planes to evacuate citizens from Wuhan, China. When those planes landed, the passengers were tested for Covid-19 and quarantined. After 14 days, the percentage who tested positive was 0.9%. If this was the prevalence in the greater Wuhan area on Jan. 31, then, with a population of about 20 million, greater Wuhan had 178,000 infections, about 30-fold more than the number of reported cases. The fatality rate, then, would be at least 10-fold lower than estimates based on reported cases.
Next, the northeastern Italian town of Vò, near the provincial capital of Padua. On March 6, all 3,300 people of Vò were tested, and 90 were positive, a prevalence of 2.7%. Applying that prevalence to the whole province (population 955,000), which had 198 reported cases, suggests there were actually 26,000 infections at that time. That’s more than 130-fold the number of actual reported cases. Since Italy’s case fatality rate of 8% is estimated using the confirmed cases, the real fatality rate could in fact be closer to 0.06%.
In Iceland, deCode Genetics is working with the government to perform widespread testing. In a sample of nearly 2,000 entirely asymptomatic people, researchers estimated disease prevalence of just over 1%. Iceland’s first case was reported on Feb. 28, weeks behind the U.S. It’s plausible that the proportion of the U.S. population that has been infected is double, triple or even 10 times as high as the estimates from Iceland. That also implies a dramatically lower fatality rate.
The best (albeit very weak) evidence in the U.S. comes from the National Basketball Association. Between March 11 and 19, a substantial number of NBA players and teams received testing. By March 19, 10 out of 450 rostered players were positive. Since not everyone was tested, that represents a lower bound on the prevalence of 2.2%. The NBA isn’t a representative population, and contact among players might have facilitated transmission. But if we extend that lower-bound assumption to cities with NBA teams (population 45 million), we get at least 990,000 infections in the U.S. The number of cases reported on March 19 in the U.S. was 13,677, more than 72-fold lower. These numbers imply a fatality rate from Covid-19 orders of magnitude smaller than it appears.
How can we reconcile these estimates with the epidemiological models?
- First, the test used to identify cases doesn’t catch people who were infected and recovered.
- Second, testing rates were woefully low for a long time and typically reserved for the severely ill.
Together, these facts imply that the confirmed cases are likely orders of magnitude less than the true number of infections. Epidemiological modelers haven’t adequately adapted their estimates to account for these factors.
The epidemic started in China sometime in November or December. The first confirmed U.S. cases included a person who traveled from Wuhan on Jan. 15, and it is likely that the virus entered before that: Tens of thousands of people traveled from Wuhan to the U.S. in December. Existing evidence suggests that the virus is highly transmissible and that the number of infections doubles roughly every three days. An epidemic seed on Jan. 1 implies that by March 9 about six million people in the U.S. would have been infected. As of March 23, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 499 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. If our surmise of six million cases is accurate, that’s a mortality rate of 0.01%, assuming a two week lag between infection and death. This is one-tenth of the flu mortality rate of 0.1%. Such a low death rate would be cause for optimism.
This does not make Covid-19 a nonissue. The daily reports from Italy and across the U.S. show real struggles and overwhelmed health systems. But a 20,000- or 40,000-death epidemic is a far less severe problem than one that kills two million. Given the enormous consequences of decisions around Covid-19 response, getting clear data to guide decisions now is critical. We don’t know the true infection rate in the U.S. Antibody testing of representative samples to measure disease prevalence (including the recovered) is crucial. Nearly every day a new lab gets approval for antibody testing, so population testing using this technology is now feasible.
If we’re right about the limited scale of the epidemic, then measures focused on older populations and hospitals are sensible. Elective procedures will need to be rescheduled. Hospital resources will need to be reallocated to care for critically ill patients. Triage will need to improve. And policy makers will need to focus on reducing risks for older adults and people with underlying medical conditions.
A universal quarantine may not be worth the costs it imposes on the economy, community and individual mental and physical health. We should undertake immediate steps to evaluate the empirical basis of the current lockdowns.
Dr. Bendavid and Dr. Bhattacharya are professors of medicine at Stanford. Neeraj Sood contributed to this article.