A federal lawsuit filed by Hunter Biden accuses former Trump aide Garrett Ziegler of hacking his data.
Ziegler denied the allegations and told Insider that he came by the data legally from Biden's laptop.
The case opens a second front in the war between the Bidens and the GOP. It could also impact First Amendment protections for opposition research.
Lawyers representing Hunter Biden have filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Garrett Ziegler, a former aide in the Trump White House who has since become a key figure in collecting and publicizing data alleged to have been obtained from one of Biden's abandoned laptops.
The suit alleges that Ziegler violated laws against hacking and fraud. It also claims that his team manipulated and altered some of the data, although it does not specify how other than redacting explicit photos that appear to show Biden naked, sometimes in the company of sex workers.
The lawsuit signals the opening of a second front in the emerging legal battle between GOP hardliners who want to impeach Biden's father, President Joe Biden, and Hunter Biden's camp, who say he is being unfairly targeted and that President Biden did nothing wrong. It could also redraw the legal boundaries around "opposition research," the longstanding practice of gathering as much derogatory information as possible on a political candidate in order to influence the outcome of an election. As media outlets have trimmed back spending on foreign bureaus and long-term investigations, they have grown increasingly reliant on tips developed by private researchers with bigger budgets and fewer ethical constraints. The Hunter Biden laptop story is only the latest product of opposition research to make headlines. Derogatory stories about the Clinton Foundation, anomalous server pings associated with a Russian bank, and the apparently mythical Donald Trump pee-tape, were all the fruits of opposition research.
Ziegler posted more than 100,000 emails from Hunter Biden's account online, along with photos and other documents. The provenance of the material continues to be debated along with the privacy implications, but the authenticity of the content has never been successfully challenged.
Ziegler once served in the Trump White House under Peter Navarro, the pugilistic trade adviser who was found guilty last week of contempt of Congress for ignoring a subpoena requesting information about the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. Ziegler himself reportedly escorted some of Trump's most pro-insurrection allies — Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell — into the White House for a December 2020 meeting. (Ziegler has disputed this.) He has backed the baseless claim that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election, and has reportedly accused the January 6 House select committee of being "anti-White" and "Bolsheviks."
Hunter Biden did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When reached by Insider on Wednesday, Ziegler claimed that the 14-page lawsuit is "not worth the paper it's printed on." He denied manipulating any of the data, beyond redacting explicit material, and claimed that the metadata he had posted would prove that. He denied that any hacking had occurred. Where the lawsuit alleges that Ziegler's team hacked into "an encrypted iPhone backup," Ziegler said that they were able to access the iPhone backup through a code found on the laptop's keychain app. "Everything was contained on the laptop," he said.
Ziegler told Insider that he obtained the data "directly from someone who got the copy from the laptop shop owner." That person, Ziegler said, was Rudy Giuliani, who was serving as then-president Donald Trump's personal attorney. It was Giuliani who first came forward weeks before the 2020 election and provided the New York Post with what he said were Hunter Biden's emails. Giuliani said that the emails were derived from a laptop that Biden had abandoned at a computer repair shop in Delaware.
Numerous reports indicate that Giuliani was travelling to Ukraine during the months before the election, where he pushed the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into Hunter Biden, and solicited derogatory information about Biden from his contacts.
Giuliani's spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It is possible that the lawsuit will expand beyond Ziegler to encompass others in Trump's circle. It names ten "Does," who are allegedly responsible for the alleged hacking and whose true names could be added to the complaint later.
Kevin Morris, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer who has provided Hunter Biden with millions of dollars in financial support, and reportedly meets with him regularly to discuss legal and public relations strategies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The complaint can be read in full below:
Mattathias Schwartz is chief national security correspondent at Insider. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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