At the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump lies a disinformation campaign led by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani that was aided and abetted by conservative writer John Solomon. Through Solomon, Giuliani injected his disinformation campaign straight into the heart of conservative media -- Fox News -- with seemingly full knowledge of at least some at Fox. And eventually, Solomon landed a job at the network.
It is now known that Trump blessed Giuliani to run a shadow foreign policy campaign in Ukraine, in which he sought information that would undermine the intelligence community's findings that Russia interfered in our 2016 election to benefit Trump. Giuliani was also trying to dig up dirt to smear former Vice President Joe Biden, a front-runner to challenge Trump in the 2020 election.
Much attention has focused on Giuliani’s actions and the shady cast of characters he worked with, but less has been paid to the right-wing media figures who colluded with the president’s lawyer to make his smear campaign public -- a plan that came dangerously close to succeeding.
What follows is a case study in how right-wing media work hand in hand with Trump cronies to smear his enemies, undermine democracy, and defend the president at all costs.
Here’s how it went down.
Rudy Giuliani, working with con men and Trump cronies, pursued an “investigation” in Ukraine that he claimed showed both Ukrainian collusion with Democrats in 2016 and evidence that then-Vice President Joe Biden acted corruptly in Ukraine to benefit his son.
In March, Giuliani sent the results of his investigation to the State Department to be investigated and to conservative columnist John Solomon.
The same month, Solomon began publishing a series of columns that mirrored the sourcing and claims Giuliani made in his State Department dossier.
Over the next six months, Solomon published 45 columns aimed at discrediting the Russia investigation, 12 of which focused primarily on Ukraine.
During that same time period, Solomon appeared on Fox News or Fox Business at least 72 times.
Fifty-one of those appearances were on Hannity, whose host dutifully promoted Solomon’s scoops and wove them into his ever-evolving conspiracy theory that deep state elements in the government have been plotting to overthrow Trump.
On October 5, John Solomon landed a job at Fox.
Rudy Giuliani -- the president’s personal attorney who has traveled around the globe attempting to dig up dirt on Democrats and discredit the Russia investigation on Trump’s behalf.
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman -- two Soviet-born con men with ties to Ukraine who worked with Giuliani to concoct the disinformation campaign and to get the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine fired, reportedly in the hopes of advancing their business interests in the country. The two have since been arrested for campaign finance violations related to making allegedly illegal campaign donations to Republican candidates and committees, as well as a pro-Trump super PAC. They also reportedly worked for Dmitry Firtash.
Dmitry Firtash -- a Ukrainian pro-Russian oligarch and former business associate of Paul Manafort who is in Austria fighting extradition to the United States to face charges related to a bribery conspiracy. At the same time Parnas and Fruman were working with Giuliani, the two were reportedly also working on Firtash’s behalf to push for the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine as part of a plan to install new leadership at Ukraine’s Naftogaz gas company. Part of this plan reportedly would have included Naftogaz paying “Firtash a debt of more than $200 million that Firtash believes he is owed by the company.” NBC reported that while this was happening, Firtash “was playing a key role in the effort by Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani to hunt for dirt on Donald Trump's political opponents in Ukraine.”
Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova -- two attorneys closely tied to Trump who also worked with Giuliani to support his efforts in Ukraine. The duo are known for their role in bolstering conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation and at one point were considered to join Trump’s personal legal team. The two quietly represent Dmitry Firtash in fighting his extradition to the United States. They hired Parnas as an “interpreter” to work with them on the Firtash case while Parnas was also working with Giuliani. They also represent conservative columnist John Solomon and have “for a very long time,” a business relationship that was not disclosed until October 24.
John Solomon -- a conservative columnist who until recently was the executive vice president of The Hill. Solomon was the conduit through which Giuliani, Parnas, Toensing and diGenova planted their stories in order to spread their coordinated disinformation campaign through the media.
Sean Hannity -- Fox News host who is close to Trump and worked with Giuliani to make his show an integral part of their media strategy, providing a place where they could sow the seeds of the smear campaign against Biden. Giuliani and Hannity discussed this strategy in January, and Solomon became a staple on Hannity’s prime-time programming.
According to Parnas, his friendship with Giuliani began two years ago as they were running in similar political circles and attending the same events. In late 2018, Parnas and Fruman began connecting Giuliani to a network of disgraced former and current Ukrainian officials and prosecutors to dig up dirt on Biden and the 2016 election.
The conspiracy theory they concocted went like this: Ukrainian officials worked with Democrats to find dirt on Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort in order to damage Trump. They did so, Giuliani claimed, by fabricating the “black ledger” that showed that Manafort had received millions of dollars from the former pro-Russia Ukrainian ruling party that had been recently overthrown. The revelation of this ledger helped force Manafort’s resignation from Trump’s campaign, and Manafort was eventually prosecuted and convicted of a wide range of crimes as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian electoral interference in the 2016 election.
In addition, according to Giuliani’s conspiracy theory, the Ukrainian Embassy was working with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and in return, the American Embassy and the Obama administration actively blocked investigations in Ukraine that Giuliani claims targeted Democrats’ political allies. As with most conspiracy theories on the right, George Soros is involved in this one too. The theory posits that a Ukrainian good governance, anti-corruption group -- the Anticorruption Action Centre (AntAC) -- was involved in framing Manafort and was corruptly tied to an FBI agent who was investigating Manafort. Giuliani also claims that an investigation into the group was shut down due to U.S. pressure and that the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine provided Ukrainian officials with a “do not prosecute” list that included people linked to AntAC. As a bonus, through the “investigation,” Giuliani claims to have been presented with evidence that then-Vice President Biden acted corruptly by withholding U.S. aid to force the resignation of a Ukrainian prosecutor investigating his son.
Nothing about this conspiracy theory is true. First, there’s no evidence that the infamous “black ledger” was fraudulent, and several payments listed in the document have been confirmed to be accurate. The Intercept reported: “Sergii Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist and reformist member of parliament who helped publicize the off-the-books payments” said that “Giuliani ‘is a liar’ for saying that the black ledger was a forgery. ‘It is a real document, with real signatures,’ Leshchenko said in a telephone interview, explaining that it had been examined by Ukrainian law enforcement experts.” Giuliani seems to have adopted the false claim about the ledger from Manafort, whose legal team has embraced it since 2017 and whom Guiliani has been meeting with to discuss the materials.
As for Giuliani’s claims that investigations into AntAC were dropped due to political pressure, the State Department has called claims of a so-called “do not prosecute” list “complete poppycock.” And an investigation into the group’s handling of foreign aid money was widely believed to be politically motivated retaliation for the group’s anti-corruption work. Finally, while Biden did pressure Ukraine to fire a prosecutor who was roundly criticized for blocking corruption investigations, there’s no evidence that he did so to benefit his son. In reality, the push to get the prosecutor in question, Viktor Shokin, fired was a part of an anti-corruption effort by advocates and international supporters of Ukraine. The United States’ well-established position was that ousting Shokin was a critical aspect of anti-corruption measures. The investigation into the energy company whose board included Hunter Biden was long dormant, and Hunter Biden was never the subject of the investigation.
Nonetheless, Giuliani says he completed his “investigation” in March and sent his findings to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with the understanding that Pompeo would investigate. (NBCNews.com, however, reported: “A source with knowledge of the events said ... that Pompeo never promised Rudy Giuliani that he would investigate the contents of the envelope or anything related to Ukraine.”) Giuliani also sent the materials to Solomon.
NBCNews.com obtained a copy of the documents that Giuliani sent to the State Department in March and reported that they contained “a glimpse of an intricate media strategy to spread the story including segments being placed on Fox News.” NBC said the “documents also show that Giuliani, through conservative writer John Solomon’s columns in The Hill, attempted to tie former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch to the liberal donor George Soros as part of a massive conspiracy to take down Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election.” The materials Giuliani sent included interview notes from interviews he conducted with then-current and former Ukrainian prosecutors that “paint the picture of the narrative that Giuliani has been pushing involving the Bidens.”
The media strategy
Giuliani and associates feed story to Solomon
Around the same time Giuliani sent his packet of materials to the State Department, he also sent the materials to Solomon, who began reporting on its contents through the opinion pages of The Hill without identifying the materials as having originated with Giuliani. Solomon’s writing for some time had focused heavily around trying to discredit the Mueller investigation and the notion that Russia meddled into the 2016 elections to help Trump. On March 20, he published the first of many scoops specifically related to Ukraine’s involvement in this effort. Over the next six months, Solomon published 45 columns aimed at discrediting the Russia investigation, 12 of which primarily focused on Ukraine.
In his reporting, Solomon spelled out Giuliani’s conspiracy theory in detail. For instance:
He reported that Ukrainian officials claimed to have “evidence of wrongdoing by American Democrats and their allies in Kiev, ranging from 2016 election interference to obstructing criminal probes,” at least some of it related to Biden.
Solomon reported that these officials tried to “deliver their evidence to Washington” but were unable because the American ambassador (Yovanovitch) “blocked” them “from obtaining a visa” to the U.S.
He weaved an elaborate story about Americans working with Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Trump’s one-time 2016 campaign manager Manafort, in order to damage Trump.
He claimed that the infamous “black ledger” that showed Manafort had received millions in undisclosed payments from Ukrainian officials was fabricated and released to damage Trump. He also suggested that in January 2016, Obama’s Department of Justice pressured Ukraine to help the department investigate Manafort in response to Trump’s rise in popularity in the Republican primary race (Manafort did not join the Trump campaign until March 2016).
He strongly suggested that the Obama State Department pressured Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into a Ukrainian good governance group linked to Soros because Soros backed Clinton.
He also claimed the U.S. ambassador’s “do not prosecute” list included people related to this organization, and he strained to link the group to the Manafort investigation by claiming that an FBI agent involved in the investigation is tied to the same group.
And, of course, he claimed that Biden withheld a billion dollars worth of U.S. aid to shut down an investigation into Burisma Holdings and Biden’s son Hunter through his position on the company’s board.
Solomon’s reporting relies heavily on the sources Giuliani fed him. In an interview with The Washington Post, Giuliani named three current and former Ukrainian prosecutors as persons he interviewed, specifically former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko, and Nazar Kholodnytsky, head of Ukraine’s Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. Giuliani is also known to have met with a former Ukrainian diplomat named Andrii Telizhenko and is linked to Kostiantyn Kulyk -- Lutsenko’s deputy who was indicted on corruption charges in 2016. Eight of the twelve columns Solomon wrote on the topic featured at least one of these five sources.
At least three of Solomon’s columns feature information meant to undermine the validity of the Russia investigation that may have been leaked from the Ukrainian pro-Russia oligarch Dmitry Firtash’s legal team, which included diGenova and Toensing. In addition to representing Solomon “for a very long time,” Toensing and diGenova have been working with Firtash since at least July -- and indeed Solomon published an entire column in July based exclusively off material and anonymous sources from Firtash’s legal team. They appear to have been involved with his case much earlier than July, though.
Included in the material Giuliani sent to the State Department is a March 26 email from Solomon -- titled “Fwd: Outline of Soros reporting, including embedded documents” -- in which Solomon forwarded a draft of his article before it was published to the same three people working with Giuliani who are also known to have been working with Firtash -- Parnas, Toensing, and diGenova. The column was the first of three that mentioned Firtash, and it attempted to tie AntAC -- and through it Soros -- “to highly visible U.S. actions against the oligarch Dmitri Firtash, a major target of the Soros group, and Manafort.” Solomon repeated the suggestion in his August 7 column on Soros’ “secret 2016 access” to State Department officials. In a fourth column, Solomon reported on an affidavit of a former Ukrainian prosecutor that he exclusively received. The affidavit was prepared “at the request of lawyers acting for Dmitry Firtash … for use in legal proceedings in Austria.”
Solomon brings the conspiracy theory to Fox
The next stage in the plan involved Solomon taking his “scoop” to Fox News, specifically to Sean Hannity. From March 20 -- when Solomon published his first story on the Ukraine conspiracy theory -- through October 2, Solomon appeared on Fox News or Fox Business at least 72 times. Fifty-one of those appearances were on Hannity, whose host dutifully promoted Solomon’s scoops and wove them into his ever-evolving conspiracy theory that “deep state” elements in the government have been plotting to overthrow Trump. Giuliani also appeared on those networks frequently, clocking in at least 64 appearances on Fox News and Fox Business during that time period. Toensing and diGenova appeared over 75 times on the two networks during this period.
The fact that they were working together on these stories, or -- in the case of Toensing and diGenova -- that they were legally representing Firtash and Solomon, was certainly not transparent to viewers. In perhaps the most egregious example, on the September 26 episode of Hannity, Hannity hosted Solomon to report on an affidavit he obtained from the disgraced prosecutor Shokin, who claimed he was forced to resign to stop the investigation into the company connected to Hunter Biden. Hannity then hosted diGenova and Toensing to discuss it, and the two hailed the affidavit as proof of their conspiracy theory and declared it would “shoot a hole in” Biden’s defense.
However, the affidavit states that it was prepared “at the request of lawyers acting for Dmitry Firtash … for use in legal proceedings in Austria.” In other words, diGenova and Toensing were part of the legal team that produced the affidavit that Solomon later exclusively obtained, wrote up, and then took to Hannity -- a fact not mentioned by any of them. Giuliani has since repeatedly referenced this affidavit in numerous media appearances to support his claims about Biden’s alleged corruption.
Hannity repeatedly gave clues suggesting he knew the full range of stories Solomon would be reporting. For instance, despite the fact that Solomon’s March 20 column did not mention Biden or corruption, Hannity teased on his radio show that day that “I just happen to have a little birdie telling me in my ear that, well, Joe Biden may have an issue here that is bigger than anything ever alleged about Donald Trump.” On September 23, Hannity and Giuliani admitted to having talked about the Biden Ukraine story as early as January.
Giuliani repeatedly touted and praised Solomon’s “blockbuster” reporting. He has at least twice opined that Solomon should “get a Pulitzer Prize” and has taken to Twitter to sing Solomon’s praises:
Hannity, too, repeatedly praised Solomon’s “great reporting” as he hyped Solomon’s columns. He regularly described Solomon as a “friend” of the program and declared that mainstream news outlets, like The New York Times, “peddled lies, conspiracy theories and hoax[es]” about the Russia investigation whereas Solomon “was right” all along. On April 25, Hannity asked Trump about Solomon’s and others' reporting around the Russia investigation, and the president replied: “These are great reporters. … These are people that should be getting Pulitzers.” Trump added, “These are the ones that should be winning. It sounds like big stuff. It sounds very interesting with Ukraine.”
Solomon’s efforts paid off. On October 5, Fox News confirmed that John Solomon had joined the network as a contributor. During his first appearance on Hannity as an official Fox News employee, Hannity said: “John Solomon, welcome to the family. It’s been a long time coming, sir.”
Update (10/24/2019): After this piece was published, it was disclosed that diGenova and Toensing also legally represent Solomon. It has been updated to reflect that information.