By reporting on a conspiracy theory promoted by the president as a political story, with two sides, journalists are helping to weaponize disinformation.
President Donald Trump appears increasingly desperate to deflect questions about the flagrant abuse of power he seems to have committed this summer by withholding aid to Ukraine as he pressed that country’s new president to open an investigation into the false claim that Joe Biden abused his power as vice president to protect his son’s business interests in Ukraine in 2015.
Since the news broke that Trump repeatedly pressed his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an investigation into Biden, while delaying $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, the president has urged reporters again and again to look instead at the viral conspiracy theory that the former vice president had admitted on camera that he blackmailed Ukraine’s former president.
In fact, as a detailed review of the evidence conducted by The Intercept in May showed, Biden’s intervention in Ukrainian affairs that year, when he successfully pressed Ukraine’s then-president to dismiss a chief prosecutor who had failed to pursue corruption investigations, was no secret and was widely praised by Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and international donors to the country.
The reason there is footage of Biden boasting about this intervention on stage at a public event in 2018 is that he knew he had nothing to hide.
Put simply, there is no evidence to support the conspiracy theory that Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani want Ukraine to validate by opening an investigation. Still, it has become an article of faith among Trump supporters that Biden got the chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, dismissed to derail a corruption investigation of a Ukrainian firm his son was paid to advise.
But journalists at leading American news organizations — including CNN, The New York Times, Politico, ABC News, and MSNBC — have helped weaponize this disinformation by repeating the baseless smear over and over, without promptly and accurately conveying that Trump and Giuliani are lying about what the former vice president did in Ukraine. So lies and misinformation have been broadcast nationwide, reaching millions of people who will never read subsequent fact checks debunking them.
This began in May, when Giuliani’s embrace of the conspiracy theory was reported on the front page of the Times, in an article that forced readers to wait until the 19th paragraph to find out that “No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general’s dismissal.” Even so, the Times politics reporter who interviewed Giuliani, Ken Vogel, claimed on Twitter that this meant “The BIDENS are entangled in a Ukrainian corruption scandal.”
As I reported at the time, the truth is not that hard to determine. There is little doubt that Biden’s son Hunter did benefit from his father’s position by securing a spot on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company in 2014, a legal but ethically dubious move. But when Joe Biden subsequently conveyed a threat from the Obama administration to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine unless the chief prosecutor was dismissed, his intervention made it more rather than less likely that the oligarch who paid his son would be subject to prosecution for corruption.
That’s because one of the most prominent cases of official corruption that Shokin had failed to pursue was against a former environment and natural resources minister, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had oversight of all Ukrainian energy firms, including the largest independent gas company, Burisma, which he secretly controlled through shell companies in Cyprus. After Zlochevsky was forced from office in 2014 — in the popular uprising that toppled a pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and forced his political adviser, Paul Manafort, to look elsewhere for work — Burisma appointed Hunter Biden to its board.
Shokin’s reluctance to pursue Zlochevsky was loudly condemned by the Obama administration shortly before Biden traveled to Ukraine at the end of 2015. In a speech to the Odessa Financial Forum that September, U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt complained that the chief prosecutor’s office had “undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” like, for example, “the case of former Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky.”
“Shokin was fired,” the executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, Daria Kaleniuk, told me in May, “because he failed to do investigations of corruption and economic crimes of President Yanukovych and his close associates, including Zlochevsky, and basically it was the big demand within society in Ukraine, including our organization and many other organizations, to get rid of this guy.”
Despite the debunking of this conspiracy theory by The Intercept and other news outlets when Giuliani first raised it in May, the president’s lawyer was invited on CNN this week and allowed, over the course of 20 minutes on national television, to make a series of false claims about Biden and Ukraine, uncorrected by the host, Chris Cuomo, who admitted that he had almost no knowledge of the facts of the case.
CNN's @ChrisCuomo: "Did you ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?"@RudyGiuliani: "Of course I did"— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) September 20, 2019
President Trump's attorney says he had spoken with a Ukrainian official about Joe Biden's possible role in that government's dismissal of a prosecutor who investigated Biden's son. pic.twitter.com/hqmqtmx2VW
Although Giuliani’s wild demeanor and rambling, self-contradictory remarks were widely mocked, Cuomo’s failure to interrupt his salvo of lies with corrections, captured in clips from the exchange created by Trump supporters, helped Giuliani’s false claims spread like wildfire online.
Had Cuomo been better prepared for the interview, he could have stopped Giuliani in his tracks and helped his viewers understand that the president and his lawyer have taken sides in a battle currently raging in Ukraine, between supporters of the old system and anti-corruption activists who are pressing for reform and transparency.
Trump and Giuliani have taken sides in a battle currently raging in Ukraine, between supporters of the old system and anti-corruption activists pressing for reform and transparency.
Giuliani began with an opening salvo of lies that, properly debunked, reveal the nature of the scam being perpetrated on the American people. The former New York mayor started by telling Cuomo that he had been looking into “complaints that the Ukrainian people, several people in Ukraine, knew about a tremendous amount of collusion between Ukrainian officials and Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, including a completely fraudulent document that was produced in order to begin the investigation of Manafort.”
This is a reference to what Ukrainians call the black ledger, a book of handwritten accounting records officials from Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau discovered among the papers of deposed president Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party after the 2014 uprising. Those records, which documented $12.7 million in secret cash payments made to Manafort by Yanukovych’s party, were posted online by the anti-corruption agency in August 2016, prompting Manafort to resign as Trump’s campaign chairman.
Despite Giuliani’s claim, there is no evidence at all that these records of off-the-books payments were “fraudulent.” Andrew Kramer, the Moscow-based Times foreign correspondent who first revealed the secret payments to Manafort, reported at the time that others in Ukraine who were also named in the ledger had confirmed that the document was genuine.
In 2017, The Associated Press obtained financial records which confirmed that, in 2007 and 2009, “at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the ledger next to Manafort’s name were actually received by his consulting firm in the United States.”
Sergii Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist and reformist member of parliament who helped publicize the off-the-books payments, told me on Friday 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.
But if there is no evidence that the payment records incriminating Manafort were fake, where did Giuliani get this idea? In his interview with Cuomo, he attributes the claim to “people in Ukraine” who “were trying to get to us, but they were being blocked by the ambassador, who was a Obama appointee, in Ukraine, who was holding back this information.”
This is a reference to a part of the conspiracy theory developed by John Solomon, an opinion columnist for the Hill in Washington, who relied on the word of a disgraced Ukrainian prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky. Last year, Kholodnytsky was wiretapped by Ukraine’s independent anti-corruption bureau and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught. Kholodnytsky told Solomon that the ledger “was not authenticated.”
After Kholodnytsky was caught in that sting operation, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, the Obama appointee who was the top American diplomat in Ukraine until May, demanded that he be fired. Kholodnytsky retaliated by helping Solomon and other right-wing pundits smear Yovanovitch as an anti-Trump, deep-state plotter, prompting the State Department to recall her from Kyiv.
Solomon’s other main source for the claim that the ledger was false was Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort’s former Ukrainian business partner, who has been linked to Russian intelligence.
Despite the questionable nature of his sources, Solomon’s reporting that the black ledger records were fake has been accepted as fact by the president and his surrogates.
Giuliani also wrongly claimed that, last December, there was “a finding by a court in Ukraine that a man named … Leschenko that he produced a phony affidavit that was given to the American authorities and an FBI agent named … Greenwood, and they found him guilty of that.”
In reality, as the reformist Ukrainian politician and journalist Sergii Leshchenko told me on Friday, “there was an administrative court ruling” in December that he, and the head of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, had wrongly interfered in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, by publicizing the secret payments to Manafort, who was then leading Trump’s campaign. “But this decision of the court was never implemented, because I appealed and won that appeal in July,” Leshchenko added. The appeals court overturned the administrative court’s ruling against both men.
“Giuliani is continuing to misinform American society” about the ledger, Leshchenko told me, “by saying it’s fraudulent.” As for the allegation that he gave false testimony to an American investigator, Leshchenko said, “It’s total nonsense. I never made any affidavit to the FBI.”
“I told the FBI only about one payment to Manafort,” he said. “I met with an FBI person in 2017 only once, and I gave them a contract found in the office of Manafort in Kyiv.”
That contract, Leshchenko explained, showed that “former President Yanukovych paid Manafort $750,000 in 2009 to sell 1,000 computers to an offshore company registered in Belize, and this company had its accounts in Kyrgyzstan.” The agent he met with was also not named Greenwood, Leshchenko said. Giuliani was possibly struggling to recall the name Karen Greenaway, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s International Corruption Unit, who supported the efforts of anti-corruption activists in Ukraine to recover looted assets and was attacked by John Solomon for doing so.
“I will always be angry at Manafort,” Leshchenko wrote in a rebuttal to Giuliani published on Saturday by the Washington Post. “His work contributed greatly to Yanukovych’s election victory in 2010; Yanukovych then used his position as president to enrich himself and his inner circle. I have no doubt that Yanukovych paid Manafort for his services out of the funds he robbed from Ukrainian taxpayers.”
“My desire to expose Manafort’s doings was motivated by the desire for justice,” he continued. “Neither Hillary Clinton, nor Joe Biden, nor John Podesta, nor George Soros asked me to publish the information from the black ledger. I wanted to obtain accountability for the lobbyist whose client immersed Ukraine in a blood bath during the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, when Yanukovych called on Russia to send troops.”
Early in the CNN interview, Giuliani also claimed that, by threatening to withhold loan guarantees unless the chief prosecutor who failed to pursue corruption cases was removed, Biden had, “bribed the president of the Ukraine in order to fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son.”
What’s most telling about this claim is that while there is no evidence at all that Biden abused his power over U.S. aid to Ukraine to advance his own interests, there is plenty of evidence that Trump did delay $250 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine this summer just as he was pressing its new president, Zelensky, to do him a political favor by opening a phony investigation into the man he trails in general election polls.
The whistleblower complaint filed by a member of the intelligence community last month reportedly concerns, in part, Trump’s conversation with Zelensky on July 25.
As the Kyiv-based foreign correspondent Christopher Miller noted, an account of that call released that night by Zelensky’s office reported that “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”
Senior administration officials admit that the American president suggested eight times during that call that his Ukrainian counterpart should work with Giuliani to open an investigation into the Biden family. On Sunday, Trump told reporters outside the White House that his call with Zelensky “was largely corruption — all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the — the corruption already in Ukraine.” He then urged reporters to pay more attention to “the horrible thing that Joe Biden said,” when he “bragged” in 2018 about his role in pressing Ukraine to fire its then-chief prosecutor during a trip to Kyiv in late 2015.
While Zelensky has clearly resisted calls to investigate Biden — “This is definitely not our war,” a source close to him told the Washington Post in May — he may also have antagonized Trump by resisting the American president’s efforts to have Russia readmitted to the Group of Seven industrialized nations. Last month, one day after Trump called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7, Zelensky tweeted, in English, that Russia should not be invited back to the group since it still occupies Crimea and sponsors separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Returning Ukraine’s occupied Crimea, cessation of hostilities in Donbas & releasing over 100 political prisoners & Ukrainian sailors that Kremlin currently holds would signal the world that Russia can be allowed back to its place at the top table of the global diplomacy.— ????????? ?????????? (@ZelenskyyUa) August 21, 2019
Since March 2014, when Russia was suspended from the G8, nothing has changed. The Ukrainian Crimea is still occupied, the Ukrainian Donbas is still suffering from the war. Grateful to those countries that have consistently supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty— ????????? ?????????? (@ZelenskyyUa) August 21, 2019
In his CNN diatribe, Giuliani also claimed that President Zelensky was under the influence of “people who worked for George Soros.” Pressed, gently, as to whether he had proof of that, Giuliani replied, “I absolutely do. I have proof.” He then said, “George Soros has a not-for-profit called Antac. Antac is the one that developed all of the dirty information that ended up being a false document that was created in order to incriminate Manafort.”
Antac is an acronym for Ukraine’s nonprofit Anti-Corruption Action Centre, run by the American-educated lawyer Daria Kaleniuk. It is not, in fact, controlled by Soros or responsible for the records of secret payments to Manafort.
As Kaleniuk wrote in April, in response to attacks by John Solomon on her group, the center has received funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundation but also from “the E.U., the U.S., the governments of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, the Global Fund,” and hundreds of concerned Ukrainian citizens.
The independent anti-corruption center is also not affiliated with Zelensky, a former television star who is new to politics but backed by a powerful oligarch who was accused by the previous administration of siphoning off millions of dollars in fraudulent loans from a private bank that had to be bailed out.
Since 2016, Kaleniuk wrote, she and her co-founder, Vitaliy Shabunin, have “faced a series of well-planned attacks from various corrupt officials and oligarchs” in retaliation for their efforts to expose corruption and demand transparency.
In much the same way that Russia’s leading anti-corruption activist, Aleksei Navalny, has been falsely accused of corruption and subjected to politically motivated prosecutions aimed at punishing him for exposing the kleptocracy overseen by President Vladimir Putin, the Antac activists have been constantly harassed by powerful Ukrainians who see their work as a threat.
“Smear campaigns on national TV owned by oligarchs, fake news, political harassment, physical attacks, U.S. lobbyists hired to intimidate Antac in foreign media and among decision-makers in the West — we’ve seen all that,” Kaleniuk wrote.
Later in the CNN interview, Giuliani referred to one of those attempts to discredit Antac. “The prosecutor was removed,” Giuliani said of Shokin, the focus of Biden’s intervention, “because he was investigating the son and he was investigating Soros’s charity or whatever the hell it was, Antac.”
As Kaleniuk explained on Twitter in response to Giuliani’s charge: “In 2016 we called for resignation of corrupt prosecutor Shokin for intimidating reformers in his agency and failure to investigate corruption crimes of Yanukovych associates, including Burisma case. In response Shokin fabricated criminal case against us.”
As the independent investigative journalist Scott Stedman revealed in May, court documents from a Canadian lawsuit show that the campaign of harassment against the Ukrainian activists even included the production of fictional news reports about Kaleniuk and Shabunin, apparently orchestrated by the private Israeli intelligence firm Psy-Group to mislead Ukrainians into believing that the politically motivated investigation by Shokin’s prosecutor general’s office was the subject of international news coverage.
Those actual examples of fake news, created to smear Antac’s founders, were, as The Economist noted, “an illustration of the increasingly hostile environment facing anti-corruption activists, journalists and reformist officials in Ukraine.”
Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, has described the pressure on the anti-corruption activists as part of “a counter-revolution” in Ukraine. “The counter-revolutionary propaganda machine is now trying to impose the idea that there are not, and cannot be honest people in Ukrainian politics. This blanket statement is supposed to convince people that the system is invincible, and fighting it is a waste of time,” Hrytsak wrote in the weeks after those fake reports were posted on YouTube.
For Giuliani to suggest now that Shokin’s investigation of those same anti-corruption activists was warranted means that he wants the United States government to take the side of Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchy in the counter-revolution against its reformers.
After watching Giuliani smear Antac on CNN as “Soros’s charity or whatever the hell it was,” Kaleniuk offered the president’s lawyer a simple explanation on Twitter. “We are a group of dedicated Ukrainians aimed to create hell for corrupt Ukrainian crooks and oligarchs,” she wrote. “We do that to stop thugs from robbing our country and thus turning it into a hell for Ukrainians.”
On Monday, she reposted images on Twitter of protests her group led in the summer of 2015, fivve months before Biden’s intervention, at which they demanded the resignation of Shokin, the chief prosecutor Giuliani now praises.
This is July 14, 2015. Our first protest in front of "tough prosecutor" (as @RudyGiuliani says) office. Shokin just opened criminal case against reformers in his office, who were investigating senior prosecutors corruption at PGO https://t.co/C6VJjmomZ1 pic.twitter.com/s54cI4Z2gJ— Daria Kaleniuk (@dkaleniuk) September 23, 2019
This is July 24, 2015. Jointly with other NGOs we are running protest in front of prosecutors general office demanding Shokin resignation - because of his corruption, attacks on reformers and failure to investigate corruption of Yanukivych associates https://t.co/kv46MavjH3 pic.twitter.com/kr8oELbPpR— Daria Kaleniuk (@dkaleniuk) September 23, 2019
Chris Cuomo’s failure to properly challenge Giuliani on the jumbled details of the conspiracy theory he presented on live television on Thursday was followed on Friday by more coverage of the smearing of Biden seen primarily through the lens of politics, in which a presumed obligation to treat both sides equally has obscured the fact that one side is lying.
A prime example was a new report that ran under the heading “Politics” in The New York Times, in which the uproar over the president pushing his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate his Biden was described as, “a clash between congressional Democrats and the White House over whether Mr. Trump used the powers of his office and United States foreign policy in an effort to seek damaging information about a political rival.” But Trump was not looking for “damaging information,” he was trying to coerce a foreign government into manufacturing false information about his Democratic rival so as to lend credence to a baseless conspiracy theory.
On the airwaves, coverage of the viral rumors about Biden pushed by the White House has led to a flood of commentary from political reporters and cable news pundits, who are more eager to talk about how effective the tactic might be than to clearly inform the American people that they are being lied to. Notably absent from the discussion have been the voices of anti-corruption reformers in Ukraine, who welcomed the former vice president’s efforts to help them tackle endemic corruption in a country still run by and for a small group of powerful oligarchs with outsized political influence.
On Saturday, the feedback loop — in which Trump and his surrogates fill the airwaves with lies about Biden, and political reporters discuss them as a problem for the Democrat — was closed with the release of an attack ad from Trump’s campaign, featuring a highlight reel of speculation about Biden from pundits, reporters, and anchors on six different news shows, all echoing the president’s false claim that Biden’s intervention in Ukraine, might, somehow, be scandalous.
This is the real and only story! pic.twitter.com/4z8eOcm6PA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2019
On Monday morning at the United Nations, the president who has refused to make his tax returns public, secretly pursued a deal to build a tower in Moscow as he campaigned for office, handed his daughter and son-in-law jobs in the White House without asking them to divest themselves of business interests, and used the presidency to constantly promote his golf resorts and hotels, told reporters that he was really just concerned about the former vice president’s son having apparently benefited from his father’s position. “What Biden did is a disgrace; what his son did is a disgrace,” he said.
Asked to say what he told the Ukrainian president about Joe Biden and his son during the phone call in July, Trump then accidentally offered a clear explanation of why Biden’s intervention as vice president — pressing Ukraine to tackle corruption in return for U.S. aid — was logical and correct. “We’re supporting a country, we want to make sure that country’s honest,” the president said. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? One of the reasons the new president got elected is he was going stop corruption. It’s very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption.”
President Trump: "It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?...It's very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption." pic.twitter.com/iPABuspMoA— CSPAN (@cspan) September 23, 2019
When another reporter followed up by asking, “Are you willing to clear this up by releasing the whistleblower report, sir?” Trump just pointed his finger at him and said, “Quiet.”
Later on Monday, at meeting with his Polish counterpart, the president continued his unlikely attempt to reinvent himself as an anti-corruption crusader, by stating flatly that “Joe Biden and his son are corrupt.” Without offering any evidence to support that debunked claim, the president who has used his office to enrich himself added, “If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they’d be getting the electric chair by right now.”
Trump's attacks on Biden will get increasingly insane, and they will get covered ad nauseam on cable news. In a month, half the country will think Biden did something wrong despite there being no evidence to support the attacks. We gotta fix how the press covers lying sociopath. https://t.co/kCiNlSYAm2— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) September 23, 2019
Updated: Monday, Sept. 23, 4:11 p.m. EDT
This article was updated to report new comments from the president of the United States at the U.N. on Monday and evidence of protests by anti-corruption activists against Ukraine’s then-chief prosecutor in 2015.
Updated: Friday, Nov. 15, 10:04 a.m. EDT
This article was updated to note evidence uncovered by The Associated Press confirming the veracity of the so-called black ledger of secret payments from the political party of the ousted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, to Paul Manafort and others.