Russian government proxies “helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network” as part of the Kremlin’s wide-ranging effort to influence the 2020 presidential election by falsely accusing President Joe Biden of corruption in Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence community revealed in a report Tuesday.
The report does not explicitly identify the documentary or network in question. But the timeline and subject matter match The Ukraine Hoax: Impeachment, Biden Cash, and Mass Murder, which the pro-Trump One America News Network aired in late January 2020. Former Trump aide Michael Caputo hosted that one-hour special, which featured separate interviews with a former Ukrainian official later sanctioned by the federal government for his role in a Russian influence operation and with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), at the time the chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
According to the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized Russian influence operations aimed at undermining Biden’s campaign and supporting then-President Donald Trump during the 2020 election cycle. The report assesses that Russian intelligence services and their Ukraine-linked proxies -- including “Russian influence agent” Konstantin Kilimnik and Ukrainian legislator Andriy Derkach -- sought to use U.S. media outlets and prominent Americans to launder allegations of corrupt ties between Biden, his family, and Ukraine, and to falsely accuse Ukraine of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
The report does not specify which Americans or media outlets were caught up in the Russian plot. But it's clear to anyone who followed political news in 2019 that the intelligence community is referencing Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s anti-Biden disinformation campaign. Giuliani sought to bolster Trump’s reelection by working with shady Ukrainians, some with links to Russia, to dig up dirt on Biden and then spread it through right-wing writer John Solomon, Fox News, and OAN. The effort blew up in Trump’s face when the then-president’s corrupt effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to open an investigation into the Bidens became public, triggering his first impeachment by the House of Representatives later that year.
According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as part of the effort by Kilimnik, Derkach, and their associates to use U.S. media outlets to damage Biden’s political standing on behalf of the Russian government, the Russian proxies “helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network in late January 2020.”
That timeline matches the release of The Ukraine Hoax, which first aired on January 25, 2020. Moreover, the content of Caputo’s film echoes the Kremlin-backed narratives described in the report, as well as other Russian government talking points.
OAN CEO Robert Herring Sr. described the special as “exactly what our One America News Investigates series is all about” in a press release announcing its premiere. That’s undoubtedly true -- in keeping with his network’s general aesthetic, The Ukraine Hoax is an hour of conspiracy theories united by slavish devotion to Trump. Caputo argues that Trump’s impeachment is an unjust persecution that emerged from U.S. meddling in Ukraine, corrupt dealings by the Bidens, and joint efforts by Democrats and Ukrainians to stop Trump’s election that resulted in Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe. He concludes, “as Democrats pursue Trump, they're destroying America and Ukraine.”
Caputo denied Russian government involvement in his film and said he had not talked to Derkach or Kilimnik, the proxies named in the report, in an interview with Mother Jones.
But Caputo’s star interview is with Andrii Telizhenko, a former low-level Ukrainian diplomat and Giuliani ally who the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned in January for his role in a “Russia-linked foreign influence network associated with” Derkach.
Treasury’s press release describes Telizhenko as a member of Derkach’s “inner circle” and states that he participated in Derkach’s disinformation campaign aimed at influencing the 2020 U.S. presidential election. According to the release, Telizhenko “orchestrated meetings between Derkach and U.S. persons to help propagate false claims concerning corruption in Ukraine.” Telizhenko previously sought to distance himself from Derkach.
In his interview with Caputo for OAN, Telizhenko falsely claimed that the Ukrainian government, with the encouragement of the Obama administration, interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
Telizhenko became a fixture in right-wing media circles for that allegation because it allowed Trump propagandists to argue that Clinton, and not Trump, had been the real beneficiary of foreign interference in the 2016 election. The intelligence community report released Tuesday describes the effort to “falsely blame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election” as one of the aims of the Russian proxies.
The documentary also features an interview with then-House Intelligence Committee chairman Nunes. Nunes was one of several Trump allies that congressional Democrats said received materials from Derkach aimed at smearing Biden during the impeachment push.
In his interview, Nunes criticized pro-democracy organizations backed by American philanthropist George Soros, saying that they “have agendas” and that Soros “is extreme left-wing and he supports extreme left-wing causes.” He apparently agreed with Caputo’s claim that Soros was “building an extreme left-wing government” in Ukraine. Nunes also lashed out at “the Russia hoax,” saying that “if people are not held accountable, you’re going to have generations of Americans, part of the Republican Party, who will never trust the FBI, the Department of Justice, the CIA.”
Elsewhere in the film, Caputo described the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, in which protesters ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, as a violent coup instigated by the U.S. government and Soros.
The description of the revolution as a U.S-backed coup echoes language used by Putin in defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine later that year, while the Russian president and Russian-backed governments have for years targeted Soros over his pro-democracy efforts.
Caputo also revived the false right-wing smear that as vice president, Biden improperly pushed the government of Ukraine to fire Viktor Shokin, the country’s prosecutor general, to stop the investigation of a Ukrainian company and benefit his son Hunter Biden. The Ukraine Hoax includes clips from Shokin himself make that claim.
In fact, Shokin had been widely faulted by Western governments and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists for failing to prosecute corruption, including corruption by the company’s founder; the probe had reportedly been “shelved” under Shokin; and his successor acknowledged that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. The intelligence community report appears to reference this false claim, stating that the Russian proxy network “sought to discredit the Obama administration by emphasizing accusations of corruption by US officials.”
After producing a pro-Trump documentary, allegedly with Russian assistance, Caputo went on to bigger and better things. Less than three months after OAN aired his special, Caputo joined the Trump administration as assistant secretary for public affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services. He subsequently drew criticism for politicizing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports about the coronavirus pandemic, and took a leave of absence after his Facebook video accusing CDC scientists of “sedition” became public.
In an interview promoting his special with OAN correspondent and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, Caputo bemoaned that some of the people he wanted to interview “ghosted” him during the filming process. But apparently he found help from other sources.
Update (4/30/21): The FBI warned One America News, along with Rudy Giuliani and members of Congress, in late 2019 that “they faced a risk of being used to further Russia’s attempt to influence the election’s outcome,” according to a Washington Post report.
Update (5/3/21): The Washington Post published a correction to its April 30 story, stating that it had “incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation,” and that Rudy Giuliani has disputed its report that he received a similar warning from the FBI.