Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters
All sorts of frauds, miscreants, liars, grifters, and charlatans are drawn to right-wing media. Even amid such a wretched group, it stands out when multiple witnesses testify to Congress that a conservative columnist colluded with agents of the president to advance a fabricated story intended to blow up an entire presidential election. Even more so, he did that while aiding in a plot to extort a foreign government into supporting the effort, which has led to the president of the United States being impeached.
For all of that and more, John Solomon is the 2019 Misinformer of the Year.
Who is John Solomon?
Years before he became a Sean Hannity sidekick, Solomon was a mainstream reporter, writing for The Associated Press and The Washington Post. At the time, he was more than once criticized for shoddy work that furthered a right-wing narrative. In 2004, a Solomon report on John Kerry had “a strong resemblance to an RNC press release.” A 2012 Columbia Journalism Review profile noted that “Solomon has a history of bending the truth to his storyline” and that he “was notorious for massaging facts to conjure phantom scandals.”
Solomon’s talent for conjuring “phantom scandals” was never more apparent than when he emerged as a Trump defender and anti-Robert Mueller figure on Fox News while working for Sinclair’s Circa website as chief operating officer. He and co-worker Sara Carter seemed to be primarily focused on undermining the origins of the Russia investigation to suggest Donald Trump’s campaign had been set up.
Solomon left Circa in July 2017, becoming executive vice president of digital video at The Hill. He started pushing another “phantom scandal” — the Uranium One conspiracy theory, which originated with Peter Schweizer and Steve Bannon’s lie that Hillary Clinton corruptly sold the United States’ uranium to Russia because donors to her family’s foundation stood to benefit. None of it was true, but that sure didn’t stop right-wing media and their Republican allies in Congress from seizing on the claim to go after Clinton. Solomon’s main contribution to the conspiracy theory was reporting on an informant who he said could corroborate the accusations. Later, we learned that Justice Department officials deemed the informant not credible, and when the informant testified before a House committee, he was reportedly unable to provide any information. The informant’s attorney was Victoria Toensing, a notable connection that would play out repeatedly over the course of Solomon’s reporting.
While Solomon was at Circa — and continuing into his time at The Hill — he emerged as a key figure on Hannity’s Fox show. Circa under Solomon fueled Hannity’s show with pro-Trump stories on a nightly basis. It was during this stretch, all the way into 2019, that Hannity was working to spin a counternarrative to the charges of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Solomon’s “slanted reporting” was a fundamental part of Hannity’s conspiracy theories. Hannity even wanted to award Solomon (and others like him, including Carter) a Pulitzer Prize. Solomon has penned dozens of columns and made numerous appearances on Fox in attempts to undermine investigations into Russia’s interference with our elections to benefit Trump.
All of this work was a precursor to Solomon’s involvement with Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine.
Ukraine and The Hill
Solomon is one of the most critical figures in Trump and Giuliani’s plot to extort the Ukrainian government into meddling in our 2020 election to help the president. Giuliani — who the president hired in late 2018 as part of his legal team responding to the Mueller investigation — claims to have stumbled upon information late last year regarding former Vice President Joe Biden’s alleged prior corrupt behavior in Ukraine as well as evidence that it was really Ukraine that interfered with our 2016 election, doing so to hurt Trump and benefit Clinton. With a heavy assist from two Soviet-born con men who have since been federally indicted for alleged campaign finance violations, Giuliani set out to “investigate” these claims by enlisting a series of corrupt Ukrainian political figures.
In March 2019, Giuliani completed his “investigation” into Biden and his son Hunter in Ukraine and sent the results to the Department of State — and also to Solomon. Solomon then began laundering Giuliani’s claims through his opinion columns in The Hill. The conspiracy theory they wove was complex, but it fit neatly into the right wing’s ongoing campaign to absolve Trump as having benefited from Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The theory roughly boils down to this: Corrupt Ukrainian officials worked with equally corrupt American officials to frame Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort in order to discredit Trump and benefit Clinton. As with most conspiracy theories on the right, George Soros is supposedly involved, through anti-corruption organizations funded by his foundations that worked to expose Manafort’s illegal activities stemming from his work in Ukraine. (Manafort is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence due to these activities.) Additionally, the conspiracy theory posits that not only was the Ukrainian government working to do Trump dirty, but it was also aiding Biden in supposedly getting investigations into the Burisma gas company shut down because his son Hunter served on the board. Of course, consistent with Solomon’s history, none of this is true.
Starting on March 20, Solomon published 45 columns in The Hill aimed at discrediting the Russia investigation, 12 of which were primarily focused on planting the seeds of this new Ukrainian element of the conspiracy theory. These stories relied on Giuliani’s sources (like disgraced former Ukrainian prosecutors Viktor Shokin and Yuriy Lutsenko) and spelled out Giuliani’s conspiracy theory in detail. Solomon helped Giuliani not only to plant the seeds of a disinformation campaign against Biden, but to make public a behind-the-scenes smear campaign targeting the then-American Ambassador to the U.S. Maria Yovankovitch. The campaign was championed by Giuliani’s now-indicted associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, as they viewed Yovankovitch as an obstacle to a shady oil and gas deal the two hoped to broker in Ukraine. Parnas worked closely with Solomon, assisting in and helping to secure interviews with Giuliani’s sources and sometimes listening in as they occurred. Also consistent with Solomon’s reporting, at least three of these columns featured information that may have been leaked from Ukrainian pro-Russia oligarch Dmitry Firtash, a client of lawyer Toensing and her husband/legal partner Joseph diGenova. The material Giuliani gave to the State Department included an email in which Solomon forwarded a draft of one of his columns to Toensing, diGenova, and Parnas.
Turns out Toensing and diGenova were working closely with Giuliani on his disinformation campaign, even employing Parnas as part of their efforts. After word of these relationships began to come out following the release of a whistleblower report about the July 25 phone call in which Trump pressured Ukraine’s president — which led to the launch of the impeachment inquiry — we learned for the first time that Solomon himself is a client of theirs as well.
We know now that Parnas had been working with diGenova, Toensing, and Firtash and that Parnas would eventually be paid $1 million by the Russian government. ProPublica reported that Parnas closely worked with Solomon during this entire endeavor.
None of this information was disclosed when Solomon brought the conspiracy theory to Fox News and Fox Business, where he has appeared at least 92 times since March 20 to push elements of the conspiracy theory, in some cases alongside his attorneys diGenova and Toensing. Hannity gushed over Solomon’s work, hosting him at least 65 times during this same time period. Solomon’s efforts paid off when Fox News announced in October that it was hiring him as a contributor; he had recently announced his departure from The Hill.
Solomon wasn’t the only one to cash in on this conspiracy theory. While Giuliani claims to represent Trump for free, he reportedly was paid at least $500,000 by Parnas last year, ostensibly for assisting him with a sham oil and gas import startup. Toensing and diGenova have also reportedly earned at least $1 million to represent Firtash and to use his case to further the smear campaign against Biden, while also reportedly kicking Parnas another $200,000 to help with that case.
Solomon’s propaganda called out at impeachment inquiry
After the whistleblower flagged Trump’s phone call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Solomon’s work became a critical part of the subsequent impeachment inquiry.
Multiple witnesses (former diplomat Kurt Volker, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman) testified that Solomon’s reporting was inaccurate. The three diplomats and Hill said the corruption claims Solomon published about Yovanovitch (which came from Lutsenko) were lies, and the former ambassador said his fabricated columns put so much pressure on her that the State Department couldn’t defend her and she was removed.
Here’s one example of Solomon’s faulty reporting: He published Lutsenko’s claim that Yovanovitch had given him a “do not prosecute” list. The Hill credulously put that claim in a headline, and from there it spread more. Within days, a Russian propaganda network also reportedly started circulating the claim. Several of the witnesses listed above testified before Congress that the idea of a “do not prosecute” list was absurd and ridiculous. Lutsenko subsequently walked back his claims before later doubling down on them after Giuliani continued to pursue dirt on Biden during Trump’s impeachment inquiry.
As the hearings went on, The Hill announced that it would review Solomon’s work; with the release of the House Intelligence Committee report into Trump and Giuliani’s plotting in Ukraine, the paper reiterated that it was planning this investigation. Included in the House Intelligence Committee report were phone logs that demonstrated the frequency with which Solomon was communicating with Parnas and Giuliani during crucial time periods in his reporting. Parnas’ attorney has also claimed that Solomon participated in a series of meetings at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., with Giuliani, Parnas, diGenova, and Toensing about their efforts in Ukraine. Solomon and his allies have loudly complained about the revelations. But their claims are baseless given the context.
Nothing Ends, Nothing Ever Really Ends
While Giuliani’s Ukraine plot has been exposed, it’s worth underscoring that the dishonest scheme at play here may yet still work, despite Trump’s impeachment. Removal seems unlikely, and with Biden still one of the Democratic front-runners for the presidential nomination, the entire incident has made Hunter Biden into the 2020 edition of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Giuliani, Trump, and their congressional allies have shown no sign of backing off of the Ukraine disinformation campaign they started. Fox News still runs with the story, and mainstream outlets are feeding into false comparisons between Biden and Trump. Further, it is often lost in the news around the impeachment that this Ukraine conspiracy theory is part of a larger effort to discredit the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign, an effort being led by Attorney General Bill Barr. Parnas, for his part, firmly believed that his efforts in Ukraine would also be beneficial for Barr’s investigation. Barr appears to be laying the groundwork to release the results of this investigation in the spring or early summer, just as the 2020 campaign hits a fevered pitch.
If 2020 plays out as 2016 redux, we will have John Solomon to thank.