WASHINGTON — An anti-Joe Biden conspiracy theory pushed by President Donald Trump, his personal lawyer and his favorite television network has been labeled Russian interference into the coming U.S. election — by Trump’s own administration.
“Andrii Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday in a statement announcing sanctions against the pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker and three Russian employees of a “troll farm” that generates divisive social media content for U.S. consumption.
Derkach had been working with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and One America News network, which Trump has come to favor in the past year, to push the falsehood that the Democratic presidential nominee acted improperly when, as vice president, he worked to remove a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor, supposedly to protect a company his son, Hunter, had been working for. In fact, Joe Biden was advancing the consensus goal of the United States, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and others to rid Ukraine of corruption.
Trump, who was impeached last year for his efforts to extort Ukraine’s new president into opening an investigation into Biden, has nevertheless continued to push that conspiracy theory. “Where is Hunter? — Where is Hunter? — I call him ‘Where is Hunter?’” Trump said at a White House news conference Monday. “He walked away with a fortune from Ukraine.”
His own handpicked Cabinet members, however, on Thursday, issued statements that describe Derkach’s work as part of ongoing Russian attempts to sway the outcome of the coming election.
“This action sends a clear signal: the United States will not hesitate to use all tools of national power to respond to foreign actors that seek to interfere in or otherwise influence our elections by any means,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that referred to a criminal indictment in federal court against the troll farm employees.
“From at least late 2019 through mid-2020, Derkach waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, spurring corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day,” the Treasury statement said. “Derkach’s unsubstantiated narratives were pushed in Western media through coverage of press conferences and other news events, including interviews and statements.”
“Between May and July 2020, Derkach released edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials, and he levied unsubstantiated allegations against U.S. and international political figures. Derkach almost certainly targeted the U.S. voting populace, prominent U.S. persons, and members of the U.S. government, based on his reliance on U.S. platforms, English-language documents and videos, and pro-Russian lobbyists in the United States used to propagate his claims,” the statement said.
One of those investigations was started by Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, despite warnings from U.S. intelligence that the efforts to malign Biden were being pushed by Russia.
A committee spokesman released a statement from Johnson and fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, who has also supported the probes: “Foreign election meddling in all of its forms from any corner of the globe cannot be tolerated. We commend the Trump administration for holding accountable perpetrators of foreign interference.”
The spokesman added that the committee had not received any information from either Derkach or Giuliani, who was actively disseminating it. Last month, however, Johnson defended the probe to a Wisconsin television station and would not rule out accepting material from them. “We are getting information from a variety of sources,” he said.
Neither Giuliani nor Charles Herring, president of One America News, responded to HuffPost queries Thursday.
OAN, which behaved as a fairly mainstream conservative news outlet during the 2016 primaries, quickly morphed into a pro-Trump propaganda channel after his election.
The White House Correspondents Association board voted to ban it from the media’s shared workspace in the West Wing for repeatedly violating the group’s agreed-upon coronavirus guidelines this spring. But its White House reporter has continued to attend briefings at the express invitation of senior Trump aides.
The outlet was deeply involved in Giuliani’s efforts to malign Biden, and heavily promoted video packages that featured him and his efforts to promote Derkach’s conspiracy theory.
Trump was so heavily invested in that theory himself that he tried to extort Ukraine’s new president into smearing Biden publicly, using $391 million in congressionally approved military aid as leverage. He was exposed because of a whistleblower’s complaint, and was ultimately impeached for the offense.
Trump, nevertheless, has ridiculed the impeachment after Republican senators — with the exception of Utah’s Mitt Romney — voted to allow Trump to remain in office despite his actions. Trump also continues to push those same groundless accusations against Biden.
“What he’s done is so incredible. ‘I won’t give them the billion dollars,’ he says. ‘I won’t give them, unless they get rid of that prosecutor.’ And then, voila, they got rid of the prosecutor,” Trump said Monday. “And the press doesn’t even want to talk about it. You talk about quid pro quo. With me, there was none. With him, he’s right on tape, and you don’t want to cover it. You should be ashamed of yourselves. The press should be ashamed of themselves.”
The new disinformation effort mirrors Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s role in 2016, when emails stolen by his intelligence services from the Democratic National Committee and from a top campaign aide to nominee Hillary Clinton were released through WikiLeaks on a near daily basis in the final month before the election. Then-candidate Trump had been informed starting with an August intelligence briefing that Russia was behind the email thefts, and that connection was announced publicly on Oct. 7 by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Despite this, Trump began using the material anyway, starting with his Oct. 10 rally straight through Election Day, citing it in his speeches and news interviews as evidence that Clinton was corrupt.