House Oversight Republicans are bringing in former Twitter leaders to grill them about their roles in the Hunter Biden laptop incident, the first in a series of hearings on "government interference and social media bias."
While Republicans will likely beat up on the former Twitter executives for allegedly censoring conservative viewpoints, the GOP's own framing suggests there's a bigger political goal at play: To spend some time throwing shade at President Joe Biden and his family.
The Wednesday hearing is focused on a single October 2020 incident when Twitter decided to quash the circulation of a New York Post story about the contents of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden. While Twitter quickly reversed its decision and its former CEO Jack Dorsey has since admitted it was a "mistake," Republicans continue to harp on it as a tacit move to help load the dice for Biden over Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
Witnesses were prepared to further clarify their position on the decision to censor the story and the media account. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter's former chief legal officer, reiterated in her opening statement that they'd made the wrong calls.
"In hindsight, Twitter should have reinstated the New York Post's account immediately given the circumstances," Gadde said.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, House Oversight Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) said he was focused on understanding how Twitter identifies misinformation and what role the federal government allegedly played in pressuring the platform to remove content.
"I'm hopeful we can find out a lot of things," Comer said, before listing a series of questions he wants answered. "What exactly Twitter's policy was on determining what was disinformation and what wasn't? Who was in charge of that? What role did the government play in telling Twitter what was disinformation and what wasn't? What role did the government play in determining who was kicked off a platform? Were any tax dollars spent by the government?"
In promoting the hearing in the weeks leading up to Wednesday, though, Comer has framed it as part of an investigation of the Biden family itself, referring to the "Biden family's shady business schemes." The laptop purportedly included Hunter's promises to arrange meetings between foreign executives and his father, who at the time was vice-president in the Obama administration. POLITICO has not undergone the process to authenticate the Hunter Biden laptop that underpinned the New York Post story, but reporter Ben Schreckinger has confirmed the authenticity of some emails on it.
And in the opening statement of Jim Baker, the former Twitter counsel and ex-FBI general counsel, he stressed that he had "urged caution with respect to the matter and noted that we needed more information to fully assess what was going on."
"Moreover, I am aware of no unlawful collusion with, or direction from, any government agency or political campaign on how Twitter should have handled the Hunter Biden laptop situation," he said.
Comer has said the committee's investigation will "inform legislative solutions" related to protecting Americans' First Amendment right to free speech and a free press, although his committee lacks the ability to introduce legislation.
When asked for comment on the panel's investigation into the Biden family, White House spokesperson Ian Sams reiterated a White House talking point that American voters wanted their political leaders to focus elsewhere, pointing to economic issues Biden emphasized during his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
"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. This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on."
Either way, the hearing is likely to have little impact on the current operations of Twitter- given it's now run by Elon Musk, the tech billionaire who has been courting Republicans since he bought the company in late October.
Committee members will also focus on information released in Musk's "Twitter files" - reports purporting to show collusion between the FBI and company executives to quash the New York Post story. However, the files themselves showed no evidence that the FBI asked Twitter to censor the story, and multiple federal officials have denied the allegation.
And one lawmaker on the panel says she intends to use her time to confront the ex-Twitter officials about her own suspension from the platform, which was rooted in the spread of misinformation about Covid. Musk later reinstated her account.
"They permanently banned me for nearly a year," said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) before the hearing. "I get to face the executives - we should say, former executives - that are responsible for doing that."
Across the aisle, Democrats want to use the hearing for something completely different: To remind viewers of Twitter's role in spreading right-wing extremist content ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member and a key leader on the Jan. 6 committee, wants to focus on how social media companies can contribute to violent events offline - and is not concerned about the politics of the Hunter Biden laptop story.
"Twitter is a private company," Raskin said in an interview. "It's not Congress' role to run around second guessing the editorial judgements of private news entities."
"On the other hand, if social media are being used for the purposes of inciting violent insurrections and coordinating violence against the government, I think that presents a serious problem under the First Amendment because the First Amendment does not allow deliberate incitement of imminent lawless action," Raskin added.
Raskin has secured former Twitter employee Anika Collier Navaroli to be his Democratic witness. Navaroli appeared before the Jan. 6 committee to discuss Twitter's failure to stop extremist posts leading up to the insurrectionists takeover of the U.S. Capitol.
Although social-media bias and platform regulation have grown into significant political issues over the past several years, the current House GOP has shown little appetite for serious regulation of the industry. Last week, party leaders passed over one of the industry's strongest Republican critics, Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), in favor of a more industry-friendly figure to run the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.
House leadership has, however, remained laser-focused on the Biden angle of the Twitter story.
Comer sent a letter to Musk last October demanding that he hand over Twitter records pertaining to the laptop story immediately after the billionaire bought the company - and before the GOP had even won the House in the 2022 midterms.
The opening line of the letter read "Committee on Oversight and Reform Republicans are investigating the Biden family's pattern of influence peddling to enrich themselves and President Biden's involvement in these schemes."
Three weeks after the Republicans won office, Musk obliged with what has now become the "Twitter files." Comer, who has not called Musk to testify, referred to the billionaire as "a great American" last week.
The three former Twitter executives called by Republicans are:
Gadde, who played a central role in blocking and then later reinstating the New York Post's reporting on Hunter Biden's laptop - saying initially that tweets about the reporting violated Twitter's 2018 policy against publishing hacked materials.
Baker, who previously worked as general counsel at the FBI during the investigation of whether Trump colluded with Russia, will also testify. He will likely face many questions from Republicans, especially related his past involvement in the Trump probe and claims Musk fired him in December for allegedly interfering in the publication of additional Twitter files.
Yoel Roth, Twitter's former global head of trust and safety, who left in November after Musk's takeover.
The witnesses are all appearing under an agreement that will allow them to share privileged information from when they worked at Twitter.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.