Former Twitter executives told lawmakers Wednesday that they made a mistake when they censored the Hunter Biden laptop computer story weeks before the 2020 presidential election, but they brushed off accusations that they were directed to do so by the federal government.
Testifying before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, Twitter’s former chief legal officer Vijaya Gadde, former deputy general counsel James Baker and former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth said they regretted the platform’s suppression of the New York Post’s story on Oct. 14, 2020, exposing the laptop.
“At that moment, with limited information, Twitter made a mistake,” Mr. Roth testified. “I’ve been clear that in my judgment at the time, Twitter should not have taken action to block the Post’s reporting. And just 24 hours after doing so, the company acknowledged its error.”
Ms. Gadde acknowledged that “Twitter had not fully appreciated the potential impact of the policy on the free press and others” when it decided to suppress the story.
Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, seized on the witnesses as they dismissed concerns that the government was involved. He noted that the FBI held weekly meetings with Twitter executives before the company suppressed the New York Post’s report.
Mr. Jordan refused to believe that the FBI did not have a hand in Twitter’s move to spike the story on the platform.
“I think you guys wanted to take it down,” Mr. Jordan told the witnesses. “I think you meet with these guys every week. They send you all kinds of emails. I think you guys wanted to take it down and you got played by the FBI. And that’s the scary part.
“The information operation was run on you guys and then by extension run on the American people,” he said. “And that’s the concern.”
Mr. Jordan asked Mr. Baker, who worked at the FBI before he joined Twitter, “Simple question: Did you talk to the FBI about the Hunter Biden story?”
“To the best of my recollection, I did not talk to the FBI about the Hunter Biden story before that day,” Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Jordan then asked whether Mr. Baker spoke with the FBI after the story was censored. Mr. Baker said he couldn’t remember.
The steady drip of internal documents by new Twitter owner Elon Musk has exposed the extent to which the FBI worked with company executives to moderate content on the platform. Those efforts included weekly meetings with Twitter executives.
During those meetings, which included officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security, Twitter executives were cued to rumors that Hunter Biden would be the target of a “hack and leak operation.”
Mr. Biden’s campaign branded the now-authenticated laptop as Russian disinformation, a theory that was peddled by more than 50 former U.S. senior intelligence officials in an open letter to the public.
Mr. Baker told lawmakers that Twitter “acted in a manner that was fully consistent with the First Amendment,” even though he disagreed with Twitter’s handling of the New York Post’s story.
“I think the best reading of the law is that as a private entity, the First Amendment protects Twitter and its content moderation decision,” he said. “I do not believe that the facts in the public record indicate that Twitter became a ‘state actor’ as that concept is defined under existing precedent such that the First Amendment would have constrained it.”
The FBI took possession of the laptop in December 2019, 10 months before the newspaper published materials from the computer, raising questions as to whether the bureau actively sought to discredit materials it had already authenticated.
The Post’s report set off an avalanche of embarrassing emails, photos and text messages pulled from the laptop. It revealed details about Hunter Biden’s struggles with addiction and his hugely profitable foreign business dealings that critics say smack of influence peddling.
The emails also refuted Mr. Biden’s claims that he never spoke with his son about overseas business deals.
The laptop contained embarrassing photos of Hunter Biden, including one of him passed out with a crack pipe in his mouth.
The hearing is the first in a series focused on “protecting speech from government interference and social media bias,” according to the committee. It also is the opening salvo in the committee’s probe into President Biden and his family’s long trail of suspicious business dealings.
Citing evidence obtained from Hunter Biden’s laptop and through whistleblowers, Committee Chairman James Comer, Kentucky Republican, said the panel had uncovered a “decade-long pattern of influence peddling, national security risks and political cover-ups” committed by the Biden family with the direct knowledge and involvement of the president.
Republicans on the oversight committee said in a 31-page report that the president was directly involved in his family’s business deals, including those involving foreign interests, despite claiming he did not know the details.
Democrats dismissed the Republican-led probe as a politically driven pursuit of debunked conspiracy theories.
“Instead of letting this trivial pursuit go, my Republican colleagues have tried to whip up a faux scandal about this two-day lapse in their ability to spread Hunter Biden propaganda on a private media platform,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee. “Silly does not begin to describe this obsession.”
The White House went on offense ahead of the hearing Wednesday by blasting Republicans for a “bizarre political stunt.”
“This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to question and relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said.
Republicans remained undeterred.
“Immediately following the story’s publication, America witnessed a coordinated campaign by social media companies, mainstream news, and the intelligence community to suppress and delegitimize the existence of Hunter Biden’s laptop and its contents,” Mr. Comer said.
“We owe it to the American people to provide answers about this collusion to censor information about Joe Biden’s involvement in his family’s business schemes,” he said.