President Donald Trump’s reported abuse of power in pressuring a foreign government to investigate his political opponent has its roots in efforts by his political and media allies that have been supercharged in particular by Fox News.
Trump and his allies have baselessly suggested that as vice president, Joe Biden improperly pushed the government of Ukraine to fire Viktor Shokin, the country’s general prosecutor, to benefit his son Hunter Biden, who was serving on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings, which they claim Shokin was investigating. In fact, Shokin had been widely faulted by Western governments and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists for failing to prosecute corruption, including corruption by Burisma’s founder; the Burisma probe had reportedly been “shelved” under Shokin; and his successor has said that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
While mainstream outlets had reported on Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma, the story first gained traction on the right when conservative activist Peter Schweizer wrote about it in his 2018 book, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends. Schweizer is a Breitbart senior editor-at-large and president of conservative think tank the Government Accountability Institute, both of which have been heavily funded by the pro-Trump billionaires Robert and Rebekah Mercer and which were previously headed by former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon. Schweizer’s 2015 book, Clinton Cash, promoted a series of false allegations about the Clinton Foundation in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
The Hill opinion columnist John Solomon, whose shoddy reporting had triggered complaints from other staffers at that newsroom, brought the story to a new level when he reported April 1 that Shokin had been fired because he was “leading a wide-ranging corruption probe” into Burisma. Solomon quoted Shokin’s claim that “he had made ‘specific plans’ for the investigation that ‘included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden’” and reported that the probe had recently been reopened, posing a “Ukrainian nightmare” for Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
The next month, The New York Times reported that Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, had been pressuring Ukrainian prosecutors to reopen the probe. Giuliani had reportedly become interested in the story the previous fall, when Shokin had told him he was fired because of the investigation into Burisma.
At every stage of the story, Fox News played a key role in amplifying these smears and providing a platform for Schweizer, Solomon, and Giuliani to discuss them without facing critical questions. Fox host Sean Hannity, a close Trump ally who has been termed a “shadow” chief of staff by White House aides, has highlighted Biden’s purported malfeasance in forcing Shokin’s removal in regular segments. Even Trump himself pushed false claims about the story during a Fox interview.
The story had largely receded in recent months, only to reemerge as reporting revealed that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. Fox’s pro-Trump propagandists have rallied to defend the president while pivoting to criticize Biden’s conduct in the firing of Shokin. And both Hannity and Giuliani have subsequently claimed on Fox that the result has been great for the president because it forces the media to talk about the Biden-Ukraine story.
February 2014: Vice President Biden takes “lead role” in response to Ukraine crisis. As The Wall Street Journal noted, “Soon after Moscow invaded the country in 2014 and annexed its peninsula of Crimea, Mr. Biden took a lead role in U.S. efforts to support the fragile government in Kiev. He shuttled back and forth to the Ukrainian capital, coordinating U.S. aid packages and cajoling the officials to enact reforms even as the country fought off Russian-backed rebels in the country’s east.” [The Wall Street Journal, 9/22/19]
May 2014: Hunter Biden joins board of Burisma Holdings Ltd. Biden, a lawyer, also took over responsibility of the gas firm’s legal department. The firm was controlled by Nikolai Zlochevsky, who served as a minister in the previous pro-Russia Ukrainian administration. [The Wall Street Journal, 5/13/14]
2014-2015: Ukrainian probe of Burisma is “shelved.” The U.S. government had supported investigations into Zlochevsky and his holdings, including Burisma, but Obama administration officials worried that top prosecutor Viktor Shokin, appointed in February 2015, was not pursuing them. The investigation “was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015,” according to former Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor General Vitaliy Kasko. [The New York Times, 5/1/19; Bloomberg, 5/7/19]
December 2015: NY Times, WSJ report Hunter Biden’s Burisma role may undermine Joe Biden’s credibility pushing anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine. With Joe Biden visiting Ukraine to urge its government to step up its anti-corruption efforts, both the Times and the Journal contrasted his message with, as the Times put it, “the association of his son, Hunter Biden, with one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas companies, Burisma Holdings, and with its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky.” Each article included a statement from a vice presidential spokesperson saying that his son’s business dealings did not impact Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy positions. [The New York Times, 12/8/15; The Wall Street Journal, 12/7/15]
February 2016: Criticism over lax Ukrainian anti-corruption effort intensifies. On February 10, 2016, the International Monetary Fund warned that it would halt its financial support for Ukraine if the government did not step up its fight against corruption. Days later, Shokin deputy Vitaly Kasko resigned, criticizing his boss for obstructing those efforts. [CNN.com, 9/23/19]
March 2016: Joe Biden threatens to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Ukraine doesn’t remove top prosecutor Shokin. During a trip to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital formerly known as Kiev, Vice President Biden “threatened to withhold $1 billion in United States loan guarantees if Ukraine’s leaders did not dismiss the country’s top prosecutor, who had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption in his own office and among the political elite.” [The New York Times, 5/1/19]
March 29, 2016: Ukrainian Parliament votes to remove Shokin. The Times reported the move came after “the United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.” [The New York Times, 3/29/16]
January 23, 2018: Joe Biden tells story of pushing out Shokin at public event. During a Council on Foreign Relations event, Biden said that during the March 2016 trip to Kyiv, he told Ukraine’s leaders that if Shokin was not fired, the U.S. would not provide the $1 billion loan guarantees. He added, “He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.” [CFR.org, 1/23/18]
March 20, 2018: Right-wing activist Peter Schweizer writes about “Bidens in Ukraine” in book. Schweizer’s 2018 book, Secret Empires, includes a chapter titled “Bidens in Ukraine” which purports to explain the conflict of interest created by Hunter Biden’s position with Burisma. Notably, rather than alleging that Joe Biden had forced the removal of Shokin in March 2016 to help his son, Schweizer insinuates malfeasance based on a report that the Burisma probe was closed nearly a year later, shortly before a different vice presidential visit to Kyiv. [Peter Schweizer, Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends, 3/20/18]
March 2018: Fox News runs with Schweizer’s story. The week the book came out, Schweizer promoted it during interviews on Fox News’ Hannity and The Story with Martha MacCallum that detailed Hunter Biden’s business practices. [Fox News, Hannity, 3/19/18; Fox News, The Story with Martha MacCallum, 3/21/18]
Late 2018: Giuliani reportedly begins looking into Ukraine-Biden allegation. In November 2018, Giuliani reportedly “got wind of” allegations that a Democratic National Committee contractor had pressured Ukraine to interfere with the 2016 presidential election -- a frequent Hannity complaint -- and began examining them as part of his effort to undermine the special counsel probe into Russian interference. He also claimed to have learned about the Biden allegation as part of that process. In late 2018, Giuliani was reportedly connected with Shokin, who detailed the investigation into Burisma and suggested Joe Biden had forced Shokin’s firing to protect his son. [The Hill, 9/20/19; The New York Times, 5/1/19; BuzzFeed, 7/22/19]
Early 2019: Giuliani meets twice with top Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, asks about Burisma-related investigations. Bloomberg reported: “From his office in Kiev, Lutsenko said Giuliani had extended an invitation to meet in New York late last year. When the two finally met in January, they spoke over two days about the Ukrainian political situation and the fight against corruption, he said. Giuliani asked him about investigations into the owner of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, as well as whether the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was 'not loyal to President Trump.' The men met again in February in Poland, where Giuliani gave a speech at an anti-Tehran rally on the sidelines of a U.S. summit on Iran.” [Bloomberg, 5/16/2019]
April 1: The Hill’s John Solomon reports the Burisma probe has been revived, calls it “Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian nightmare.” Solomon linked Shokin’s firing to his role in “leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings that employed Biden’s younger son, Hunter, as a board member.” He also quoted Shokin’s claim that at the time of his firing, he “had made ‘specific plans’ for the investigation that ‘included interrogations and other crime-investigation procedures into all members of the executive board, including Hunter Biden.’” Solomon further reported that “part of the Burisma investigation was reopened in 2018,” and quoted Lutsenko stating that he would like to share portions of it with Attorney General William Barr. The Times later indicated that Lutsenko’s revival of the probe was an attempt to “curry favor from the Trump administration for his boss and ally, the incumbent president, Petro O. Poroshenko.” [The Hill, 4/1/19; The New York Times, 5/1/2019]
April: Fox runs with Solomon’s story, calls it an “international corruption scandal.” Over the course of the month, Fox ran segments on Solomon’s report during at least 12 broadcasts. Hannity’s program discussed the story on seven different episodes, including interviews with Solomon himself on April 3 and 25. Hannity also claimed that Solomon had caught Joe Biden in an “international corruption scandal” on the April 3 program. [Fox News, Hannity, 4/3/19, 4/25/19]
April 7: Giuliani calls for Justice Department investigation into Ukraine issues on Fox. Giuliani claimed Burisma is “one of the most crooked companies in Ukraine” and suggested that Joe Biden forced Shokin’s firing to protect his son, who he claims “was under investigation by that very prosecutor at the time.” He later added, “The Justice Department should investigate this.” [Fox News, MediaBuzz, 4/7/19]
April 21: Volodymyr Zelensky elected president of Ukraine. [BBC.com, 4/22/19]
April 25: Joe Biden launches presidential campaign. [NPR.org, 4/25/19]
May 1: NY Times reports out Biden-Ukraine story and Giuliani’s effort to push it as Joe Biden kicks off 2020 campaign. Under the headline “Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies,” Ken Vogel and Iuliia Mendel reported that Hunter Biden “had a stake in the outcome” when Joe Biden pushed for the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor because he “was on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general.” The reporters said new details “pushed the issue back into the spotlight just as the senior Mr. Biden is beginning his 2020 presidential campaign,” but eventually acknowledged, “No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.” They also detailed Rudy Giuliani’s effort on the president’s behalf to compel Ukrainian prosecutors to restart the investigation. [The New York Times, 5/1/2019]
May: Led by Hannity, Fox goes into overdrive pushing the Biden-Ukraine story. Fox ran more than 20 segments discussing the Biden-Ukraine story in the wake of the Times report. Hannity again led the way, covering the story on eight separate broadcasts. The Fox host claimed on May 1 that the Times report was “trying to protect Joe Biden,” who “literally held hostage American tax dollars as a means of browbeating the firing of the top law enforcement official in Ukraine who was investigating his own son.” Solomon was invited to discuss it twice on Hannity’s show, while Schweizer appeared on The Ingraham Angle and The Story with Martha MacCallum. [Fox News, Hannity, 5/1/19, 5/2/19; The Ingraham Angle, 5/2/19; The Story with Martha MacCallum, 5/13/19]
May 6: Bloomberg News reports “Timeline in Ukraine Probe Casts Doubt on Giuliani’s Biden Claim.” Bloomberg reported based on Ukrainian documents and an interview with Kasko that at the time Joe Biden demanded Shokin’s firing, the probe into Burisma and Zlochevsky “had been long dormant.” The story quoted Kasko saying, “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky. It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.” [Bloomberg, 5/7/19]
May 9-11: Giuliani says he plans to travel to Ukraine to urge that government to target Biden, then cancels trip following uproar. The Times’ Vogel reported May 9 that Giuliani “said he plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries” into Biden. He added: “Mr. Giuliani’s plans create the remarkable scene of a lawyer for the president of the United States pressing a foreign government to pursue investigations that Mr. Trump’s allies hope could help him in his re-election campaign.” Vogel quoted Giuliani saying, “We’re meddling in an investigation,” which he acknowledged might be seen as “improper.” Following an uproar, Giuliani announced he had canceled the trip. [The New York Times, 5/9/19; Politico, 5/11/19]
May 16: Top Ukraine prosecutor Lutsenko tells Bloomberg News the probe underway is unrelated to Hunter Biden and there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. Bloomberg News reports that Lutsenko “said that neither Hunter Biden nor Burisma were now the focus of an investigation” and that the information he planned to offer Barr dealt with whether Hunter Biden had paid U.S. taxes on Burisma board payments. He also volunteered that his office had not reopened the case against Burisma but was “pursuing information about the company’s owner” regarding “a transaction unrelated to Hunter Biden.” [Bloomberg, 5/16/19]
May 17: Kyiv Post denounces Giuliani effort in editorial. The Post editorial stated that Giuliani’s canceled trip “would have been politically destabilizing for Ukraine,” adding that he is pushing “fundamentally flawed narratives” and that his Biden smear “has been refuted by countless experts and anti-corruption activists.” [Kyiv Post, 5/17/19]
May 19: Trump pushes Biden attack over Ukraine in interview on Fox. Trump told Fox’s Steve Hilton: “Look at Joe Biden … he calls them [Ukrainian government leaders] and says, ‘Don’t you dare prosecute. If you don’t fire this prosecutor’ — the prosecutor was after his son — then he said, ‘If you fire the prosecutor, you’ll be okay. And if you don’t fire the prosecutor, we’re not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees,’ or whatever he was supposed to give. Can you imagine if I did that?” [Fox News, The Next Revolution with Steve Hilton, 5/19/2019]
July 22: Shokin tells Wash. Post he was removed due to Biden connection to probe. The former Ukrainian prosecutor said, “I will answer that the activities of Burisma, the involvement of his son, Hunter Biden, and the [prosecutor general’s office] investigators on his tail, are the only, I emphasize, the only motives for organizing my resignation.” [The Washington Post, 7/22/19]
Summer: Giuliani continues meetings with Ukrainian government officials over Joe Biden. In June, Giuliani met with an official from the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office in Paris. In August, he met with Andriy Yermak, a top Zelensky aide, in Madrid. Both meetings touched on a possible Biden probe. [The Wall Street Journal, 9/21/19]
September 16-23: Bombshell reports reveal Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden after withholding military aid to Ukraine. In a series of reports, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that an intelligence community whistleblower complaint has been withheld from Congress; that the complaint dealt with “promise” Trump made on a call to an unnamed foreign leader; that the complaint “centers on Ukraine” and came two and a half weeks after a June 25 Trump call with Zelensky; that on that call, Trump pressured Zelensky to work with Giuliani and investigate Hunter Biden; and that shortly before the call, Trump ordered that military aid to Ukraine be withheld. The reports triggered a new slew of calls for impeachment proceedings against Trump. [The Washington Post, 9/16/19, 9/18/19, 9/19/19; 9/23/19; The Wall Street Journal, 9/21/19]
Late September: Fox’s pro-Trump commentators rally to support the president. As news about the whistleblower complaint trickled out, the president’s Fox propagandists offered a series of defenses of his conduct. They criticized the media for reporting on the story and the whistleblower for “snitching out the president’s phone calls to a foreign leader,” lauded Trump’s reported promise as an example of “The Art of the Deal,” and said the story was alternately “pure nonsense” and great news for the White House. Once it became clear that the complaint dealt with Trump’s abuse of power in which he pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden, the network’s stars pivoted to pushing misinformation about that story and attacking the former vice president. [Media Matters, 9/20/19, 9/24/19]
September 23: Giuliani, Hannity thank the media for giving oxygen to Biden story. Giuliani told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo on Monday that the media firestorm following reports of the whistleblower complaint was “the only way you can get this out. The only way they would cover this story is by punching the president in the face and then the president deflects the punch which he’s done, the story has come way down from where it was and then he hits them with a right hand that’s more powerful.” Likewise, Hannity opened his show that night by saying, “We need to thank the mainstream media mob in their latest rage-filled psychotic effort to smear President Trump. They accidentally did his campaign and frankly the country a huge favor. In fact, the media unintentionally stumbled upon our serious credible claims of corruption surrounding one of the president's potential 2020 opponents.” [Fox Business, Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, 9/23/19; Fox News, Hannity, 9/23/19]
September 25: White House releases memorandum of Trump call in which he asks Zelensky to “do us a favor” and “look into” Biden. [Memorandum via The New York Times, 9/25/19]