POLITICS

A Lot Of Trump's Ukraine Conspiracy Theories Come From One Right-Wing Columnist

There's a direct line between John Solomon's shaky allegations and the president's brain.
John Solomon in 2008, when he was executive editor of the conservative Washington Times.
John Solomon in 2008, when he was executive editor of the conservative Washington Times.

Many of the allegations and fuzzy “facts” that President Donald Trump and his allies have cited to defend pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden gained traction in the press thanks to one journalist: John Solomon, whose stories and columns in The Hill have made him a Fox News regular (and now a contributor).

Solomon, who announced plans to leave The Hill last month, is now under fire ― as he has been in the past ― for deviations from normal journalistic practice. In search of a convenient narrative, Solomon has embraced questionable sources and even shared a pre-publication copy of one story with a Ukrainian American businessman who federal authorities now say was illegally trying to influence American politics.

Solomon’s articles are emblematic of the way the right-wing news pipeline to Trump functions: Shaky allegations get picked up by eager partisan journalists, who are then featured on Fox News where they grab the attention of the president. 

Last week, Solomon defended his decision to send a draft of a March 26 story on a Ukrainian anti-corruption organization to three Trump-associated operatives hours before its publication. The draft of his story ― titled “US Embassy pressed Ukraine to drop probe of George Soros group during 2016 election” ― was shown to Lev Parnas, an Ukrainian American associate of Rudy Giuliani’s who was arrested Thursday on charges of campaign finance violation, as well as frequent Fox News guests Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. Solomon suggested this was part of his fact-checking process even though the story did not appear to concern those three beyond their interest in potentially damaging information about Trump’s opponents.

“I typically spend a long period of time before any column or news story fact-checking information with numerous people,” Solomon tweeted.

But Solomon’s dedication to “fact-checking information with numerous people” didn’t appear to extend to a main subject of his story, the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, which he suggested was “collaborating with FBI agents” who were investigating Trump’s then-campaign chair Paul Manafort. Solomon also suggested that AntAC, a Ukrainian organization, avoided an investigation because of the support of the Obama administration and billionaire George Soros, a common bogeyman for conservatives and target for conspiracy theorists. (AntAC receives funding from Soros’ Open Society Foundations, as well as from the U.S. government and a range of other donors.)

Solomon never reached out to AntAC for comment about allegations made to him by former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko, according to AntAC’s executive director, Daria Kaleniuk. (Solomon’s story states that he repeatedly reached out to AntAC and Open Society Foundations, although he does not specify when.) And unlike the Republican operatives, Kaleniuk said AntAC received no draft of the article before The Hill published it.

“I wonder why the same approach was not given to me, as he was naming my organization and he was actually sliming it,” Kaleniuk told HuffPost.

Solomon did initially contact Kaleniuk in October 2018, many months before publishing his column in The Hill, saying he was “working on a story for publication Monday about the DOJ’s Kleptocracy Project and its success in Ukraine.” He asked for comment on a number of questions, including about connections between AntAC, Soros’ foundation and the FBI. Kaleniuk said she found the questions biased and conspiratorial and did not respond. Solomon did not publish anything to do with the Kleptocracy Project or Ukraine in the weeks after his email, according to The Hill’s archives. 

After Solomon’s story ran in March, Kaleniuk contacted The Hill’s editors requesting an opportunity to comment on the allegations against her organization. But her rebuttal clearly didn’t get as much traction: The Hill’s website says that Solomon’s original piece had over 36,000 shares, while Kaleniuk’s piece had just 118. A Twitter search of accounts run by The Hill or The Hill’s opinion section didn’t turn up any links to Kaleniuk’s piece, though the accounts did promote Solomon’s work. 

Solomon did not respond to a voicemail message and multiple emails from HuffPost. Editors at The Hill did not respond to requests for comment.

Questionable Methods And Uneasy Colleagues

Solomon has defended his journalistic practices on Twitter. In a series of tweets this month, he said he would sometimes send people a “summary of my reporting” before publication. But according to the Daily Beast, what Solomon sent to Republican operatives hours before his Ukraine story was posted online was no “summary.” It was a copy of his story ― headline, lede, and paragraph after paragraph.

Solomon also tweeted that this was part of a fact-checking process that he had followed at every job he’d held, “starting when I was a young reporter at AP and continuing today at The Hill.” It is common for journalists to send a list of fact-checking questions to a subject of an article. But sharing full, unpublished drafts ― especially with partisan political operatives who are not directly involved in the story ― is a violation of journalistic standards that wouldn’t fly at his previous publications.

“AP standards prohibit any behavior or activity that creates a conflict of interest, including sharing unpublished drafts of stories with sources,” a spokesperson for the Associated Press told HuffPost.

Solomon said that he had over “three dozen communications over three days involved in the fact checking process for that particular story.” He said his fact-checking process could catch mistakes and lead to better context and comments.

Solomon’s reporting has been a cause of concern for newsroom staff at The Hill, who have criticized his work for bias and shared their unease at his close ties to Trump associates. Over a dozen staff members sent a memo to The Hill’s management complaining about Solomon’s stories and accusing him of leaving out important context that didn’t fit his theories, The Washington Post reported last year. 

HuffPost last year debunked a misleading piece by Solomon that suggested FBI agents who’d exchanged anti-Trump text messages had leaked anti-Trump material to the media. They had not.

Solomon was shifted to the role of “opinion contributor” following the staffers’ memo, according to The Daily Beast, while Solomon claimed he had requested the change.

President Donald Trump is a big fan of Fox News host Sean Hannity (left) and often listens to what his guests say.
President Donald Trump is a big fan of Fox News host Sean Hannity (left) and often listens to what his guests say.

Shady Sources And The Fox News Pipeline

Questions have also been raised about the sources Solomon has used for his columns. His March series of stories on Ukraine ― a country with complex politics he had little prior history of covering ― carried a wide range of claims against U.S. Democratic officials and Obama-era appointees. He suggested that Ukrainian officials, urged along by then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, conspired with Democrats to influence the 2016 presidential election and release damaging information against Trump. He also contended that then-Vice President Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire prosecutor general Viktor Shokin in order to quash an investigation into his son Hunter Biden, who had business ties in Ukraine. (Shokin was, in fact, widely criticized for not pushing corruption cases hard enough.)

One of the main sources named in Solomon’s series on Ukraine was Yuri Lutsenko, who served as prosecutor general after Shokin. Many journalists, foreign policy experts and activists who focus on Ukraine have criticized the idea of treating Lutsenko as a reliable source, saying that he, too, is a discredited figure who has been an impediment to anti-corruption efforts. After the Trump administration recalled Ambassador Yovanovitch, Lutsenko texted AntAC’s Kaleniuk to brag about how he had gotten rid of the organization’s ally. 

Lutsenko has also repeatedly backtracked on his various claims, including telling the Los Angeles Times in late September that he never found any evidence of wrongdoing by the Biden family. Ukrainian authorities announced on Tuesday that they have launched a criminal investigation into Lutsenko over his alleged links to illegal gambling. Lutsenko, who traveled to the United Kingdom days before the announcement, has denied any wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, Solomon boosted Lutsenko’s conspiracy claims against the Bidens, Yovanovitch and Clinton not only in his columns for The Hill but also on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, which often serves as a direct pipeline to Trump. The president has tweeted about Solomon at least four times this year, usually in connection with the columnist’s Fox News appearances.

After Solomon was on Hannity’s program in March, Trump tweeted, “John Solomon: As Russia Collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges.” He was quoting the headline of Solomon’s March 20 column, which was based on an interview with Lutsenko. Appearing alongside Solomon on Fox News that evening were diGenova and Toensing, two of the political operatives to whom he emailed his draft of a later March column.

Solomon was back on Fox News nine days later, suggesting to host Laura Ingraham that Democrats were attempting to hide a conspiracy between Clinton and Ukrainian officials to target Trump during the 2016 campaign. 

“That’s what they don’t want people to start digging into,” Solomon said.

“You’re digging in it. I’ve been reading your reporting on that,” Ingraham responded. “We look forward to the next report.”

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