Fox Promoted Informant's Dubious Tale To Bolster Right-Wing Lies About Ukraine

Sean Hannity

Sean Hannity

Photo by MediaMatters

Fox News credulously promoted an extraordinary story about President Joe Biden taking a $5 million bribe, now described by federal prosecutors as false, because it appeared to confirm a conspiracy theory the network had pursued for years — one that its own research “Brain Room” had warned was “disinformation” back in 2019.

A federal grand jury last week charged Alexander Smirnov, an FBI confidential informant, with lying to the bureau about Biden and his son, Hunter, in an interview memorialized in a 2020 FD-1023 form. Special counsel David Weiss’ indictment alleges that Smirnov fabricated numerous claims purportedly sourced to an official with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. Smirnov had claimed the official told him — in communications Weiss says never took place — that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to “protect us, through his dad, from all kinds of problems,” and that Joe Biden accepted $5 million in bribes from the company. On Tuesday, Weiss filed a detention memo stating that Smirnov had claimed significant ties with Russian intelligence.

Fox had trumpeted the allegations in the FD-1023 memo, with its hosts and contributors citing the purported Biden bribe as evidence of massive corruption and criminality. Prime-time star Sean Hannity led the charge, touting those dubious and since-refuted claims in at least 85 segments in 2023. The network is now flailing in response to Smirnov’s indictment for making it all up, while journalists at other outlets highlight how Fox is implicated in the debacle.

Fox’s propagandists were willing to run with Smirnov’s story without question — even though all they really knew was that an FBI informant had offered it — because it seemed to support a bogus tale they’ve been telling for years: that Biden, as vice president, corruptly forced the Ukrainian government to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, to benefit Hunter’s business interests. In their telling, Biden sought Shokin’s removal in order to halt an investigation Shokin was purportedly conducting into Burisma.

Rudy Giuliani, then Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, launched that lie back in 2018, working with GOP lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, Soviet-born con men Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. They laundered dubious information through the conservative writer John Solomon and Hannity, whose Fox program became the nexus of the monthslong disinformation campaign. The story eventually attracted the interest of Trump himself, who responded by corruptly seeking to condition military aid to Ukraine on Ukraine’s announcement of an investigation of the Bidens, eventually leading to his first impeachment. Last July’s release of the FD-1023, with its claims that Burisma officials told Smirnov they expected Hunter to “take care” of Shokin’s probe of the company “through his dad” and that father and son had both received large bribes, breathed new life into the story for Fox.

Prosecutors now say that that meeting never happened. But the underlying story Fox was so eager to confirm was wildly wrong all along, according to the testimony of U.S. officials appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, government documents, and reams of contemporaneous and more recent reporting. In reality, U.S. policy called for firing Shokin, who was viewed as unwilling to prosecute corruption by U.S. diplomats, foreign governments, international bodies, and Ukrainian anti-corruption groups, and his office had not been actively investigating Burisma at the time then-Vice President Biden sought his removal.

Fox’s research department, known internally as the “Brain Room,” warned that this was the case. A leaked memo, most recently updated in December 2019, accused Giuliani, Toensing, diGenova, and Solomon — at the time, all frequent guests on Fox’s most popular programs — of “spreading disinformation” about Biden and Ukraine, and singled out Hannity’s program for particular criticism.

A legitimate news operation would question how it came to be promoting such disinformation and try to ensure it didn’t happen again — but Fox is a Republican propaganda operation. Since that memo was released, the “Brain Room” has been hit with layoffs, while the network has hired former Trump officials and GOP operatives. And Hannity still enjoys his prime-time platform.

So when Republican politicians started promoting the incendiary nature of the FD-1023, Hannity and his allies went to work making it a focus of Fox’s coverage. GOP legislators touted its importance, with Hannity favorite Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) telling him it was the “heart” of the party’s impeachment case. Now they’re scrambling to explain how that case hasn’t been devastated by Smirnov’s indictment.

Hannity and company were working backward from a fatally flawed conclusion, so of course all the evidence they can amass turns out to originate with liars and grifters.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

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