John Solomon

John Solomon

The right-wing scandal machine relies on confusing the public with references to an obscure cast of characters and a plethora of minute details which they claim prove their political foes engaged in nefarious deeds. But when you dig through the labyrinthine particulars they rail about, you often find that the core of their story is total nonsense. Here is one such case.

The right-wing conspiracy theory that Joe Biden, as vice president, pushed for Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor in order to aid his son Hunter’s business dealings is a pillar of House Republicans’ push to impeach him. Even some GOP members of Congress have pointed out there is “no evidence” to support this long-debunked narrative. But the hypothesis is further demolished by a document published last month by — of all people — the fabulist John Solomon, which indisputably confirms that at the time of that meeting, it was the policy of the U.S. government to seek that prosecutor’s removal.

The right has baselessly claimed for years that when Biden told Ukraine’s leaders during a December 2015 visit that the U.S. would not release $1 billion in loan guarantees unless they fired Viktor Shokin, the country’s prosecutor general, he was acting to benefit Hunter by halting Shokin’s purported probe of Burisma Holdings, on whose board Hunter served. Solomon, a former Fox News contributor and Washington Times editor, played a key role in concocting this pseudoscandal, alongside Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Fox News host Sean Hannity, and others, as they sought to damage Biden’s 2020 presidential run.

Their allegations were nonsense: Biden was carrying out U.S. policy, Shokin had been widely faulted by Western governments for failing to prosecute corruption, and his Burisma probe had stalled, as detailed in contemporaneous news reports and sworn testimony during then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. But House Republicans have revived the conspiracy theory as the core of their Biden impeachment plan.

The GOP’s narrative has now taken another hit: A briefing memo published by Solomon last month documents that it was U.S. policy to seek Shokin’s removal at that time. The memo, generated by the State Department for Biden in preparation for his meeting with then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko during a December 7-8, 2015, Ukraine trip reads in part under the heading “Background” (emphasis added):

Unity and Reforms: With local elections in the rear-view mirror and an economy that while still in difficulty, seems to have moved back from the precipice, the time is ripe for President Poroshenko to reanimate his reform agenda. You should recommend that he give a state of the nation speech to the Rada in which he reenergizes that effort and rolls out new proposed reforms. There is wide agreement that anti-corruption must be at the top of this list, and that reforms must include an overhaul of the Prosecutor General’s Office including removal of Prosecutor General Shokin, who is widely regarded as an obstacle to fighting corruption, if not a source of the problem.

Under “Talking Points,” the document states that “anti-corruption efforts … will also require changing the Prosecutor General who is damaging your credibility and obstructing the fight against corruption.” Similar language appears in a separate memo for Biden’s meeting with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, which Solomon also published.

Solomon, naturally, is unwilling to accept that these documents blow a hole in the narrative he and his allies have pushed for years. He stressed in an August 22 article for his Just The News site and on Fox that night that the same memos call for Biden to sign the $1 billion loan guarantee rather than using it as leverage to force Shokin’s firing.

“The Biden White House knew that this Shokin investigation posed a political threat to the family, a personal threat to Joe Biden’s son's company, the company paying him a million dollars a year,” Solomon told Hannity. “And it’s in that moment when all this is happening that Joe Biden flips the switch and goes from the recommendation giving the billion dollars to you’re not getting the billion dollars until you fire Shokin and son of a b, they fire Shokin.”

The reason for Biden’s divergence from the plan described in the memos is unclear. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported Friday that a source told him Biden had “called an audible” during the plane trip to Ukraine, but that “by the time Biden landed in Kyiv, four people with direct knowledge told The Fact Checker, the Obama White House was firmly on board with the plan.”

”Others,” Kessler wrote, “recall a more disciplined policy process preceding the trip that led to consensus on linking the firing to the loan.”

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in 2015, and Victoria Nuland, who oversaw European affairs at the State Department at the time, both testified in 2020 congressional depositions that they recalled that conditioning the assistance on firing Shokin had been “U.S. government policy” developed through an interagency process. Pyatt further testified that the policy had already been conveyed to Ukrainian officials at the time of the trip.

Pyatt also downplayed the importance of the memos’ recommendations, saying they had been “written by a desk officer” and that in his experience, high-ranking officials would never “take a State Department product like this and sort of use that as their script.”

Nuland, meanwhile, stated that the interagency community had at the time been “dissatisfied that past investigations of Burisma had not been brought to conclusion” and thought that Shokin’s removal “would be counter to Burisma's interests.”

That’s consistent with last month’s testimony from Devon Archer, Hunter Biden’s former business partner and fellow Burisma board member, who told congressional investigators he had not been aware of any Shokin investigation into the company and that Shokin’s firing “was bad for Burisma because he was under control.”

But ultimately, the tick-tock of how Biden came to use the particular strategy of leveraging the loan guarantee is fundamentally irrelevant: The memos show that Biden, in seeking Shokin’s firing, was acting consistent with U.S. policy rather than freelancing to help his son.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

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Trump and Biden

Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) finally succumbed to pressure from Fox News and its caucus and announced an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden on Tuesday that nonpartisan experts, Senate Republicans, and even some of his own members acknowledge lacks evidence of presidential wrongdoing. A pillar of the effort apparently involves reviving a right-wing conspiracy theory that was debunked during the impeachment inquiry into then-President Donald Trump four years ago.

That conspiracy theory is that Joe Biden corruptly pushed the government of Ukraine to fire Viktor Shokin, the country’s general prosecutor, when he was vice president in 2016, in order to benefit his son Hunter, who served at that time on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company which they claim Shokin was investigating.

Hunter’s work for Burisma is involved in one of the six flawed predicates McCarthy raised in announcing the need for an impeachment inquiry to probe “allegations of abuse of power, obstruction and corruption” by Biden.

House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, one of the three co-chairs of the impeachment probe, issued a press release the same day highlighting the Shokin conspiracy theory and seeking documents from the State Department regarding its “perception of the Ukrainian Office of the Prosecutor General” at the time.

And during a Wednesday morning Fox & Friends interview, another co-chair, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), pointed to Shokin’s allegations as the “central facts” that suggest illegal behavior by Biden and demand an impeachment inquiry.

These moves come just weeks after Fox heavily promoted its interview with Shokin, who claimed he was fired “because I was investigating Burisma” and accused Joe Biden of “corruption,” while skipping over the glaring flaws in his story. On Tuesday night, Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity, a Trump partisan whose show is a major hub for dubious claims about the Bidens, alleged that “evidence of Biden's wrongdoing is now quite overwhelming and questions around the family's shady dealings,” touting in particular the “slam dunk case” of Shokin’s firing.

The Republican claims may sound familiar, as they are a rehash of the Ukrainian disinformation campaign spun up by Rudy Giuliani and his allies and parroted incessantly by Hannity, John Solomon, and other Fox propagandists as they sought to kneecap Biden’s presidential campaign back in 2019. Trump regurgitated their conspiracy theories when he tried to condition military aid to Ukraine on Ukraine’s government announcing a probe of Biden. Public disclosure of that corrupt abuse of power triggered a House impeachment inquiry and ultimately Trump’s first impeachment.

But the underlying allegation that Joe Biden demanded Shokin’s firing to help his son’s business dealings never made sense and was thoroughly dismantled during Trump’s impeachment inquiry, as U.S. officials testified that Shokin had been widely faulted by Western governments for failing to prosecute corruption, they were unaware of Shokin reviving a probe into Burisma (it was reportedly moribund at the time), and Biden’s actions were consistent with U.S. policy. Those officials’ testimony is explained below.

George Kent, Ukraine deputy chief of mission (2015-18)

George Kent, who served as deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, Ukraine, from 2015 to 2018 and then oversaw U.S. foreign policy in the country as deputy assistant secretary of State, addressed the allegation during his public testimony before the inquiry on November 13, 2019.

“What former Vice President Biden requested of former President of Ukraine [Petro] Poroshenko was the removal of a corrupt prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who had undermined a program of assistance that we had spent, again, U.S. taxpayer money to try to build an independent investigator unit to go after corrupt prosecutors,” Kent said. He went on to agree that Biden was participating in a “whole-of-government effort to address corruption in Ukraine.”

Kent repudiated the claims in greater detail in his sworn deposition. He explained that Biden was following the official U.S. government position that Shokin must be removed because he was “an impediment to the reform of the prosecutorial system, and he had directly undermined in repeated fashion U.S. efforts and U. S. assistance programs.”

“And so,” he added, “because we had a strategic interest in seeing the Ukrainian prosecutor system reformed, and because we have a fiduciary responsibility for U.S. taxpayer dollars, it was the consensus view that Shokin needed to be removed so that the stated goal of reform of the prosecutor general system could move forward.”

Kent also testified that the State Department had put forward the plan for Biden to leverage the U.S. aid to get Shokin removed.

“To the best of my knowledge, the idea originated with [then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey] Pyatt in discussion with Assistant Secretary [Victoria] Nuland and then was pitched to the Office of the Vice President,” he said.

Pyatt had denounced “the failure of the institution of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to successfully fight internal corruption” in a September 2015 speech, adding, “The United States stands behind those who challenge these bad actors.”

Kent further stated that any possible Shokin investigation into Burisma “was not something that I ever recall coming up or being discussed” and that he was unaware of any probe into that company at the time.

Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations (2017-19)

Kurt Volker, a former diplomat who served in the White House and State Department under the Bush administration and then as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations during the Trump administration, concurred in his own deposition before the inquiry.

“There is clear evidence that Vice President Biden did indeed weigh in with the President of Ukraine to have Shokin fired, but the motivations for that are entirely different from” the portrayal by Solomon, he said. “When Vice President Biden made those representations to President Poroshenko he was representing U.S. policy at the time.”

“And it was a general assumption – I was not doing U.S. policy at the time – but a general assumption among the European Union, France, Germany, American diplomats, U.K., that Shokjn [Shokin] was not doing his job as a prosecutor general. He was not pursuing corruption cases,” Volker continued.

Volker went on to say that Shokin’s “reputation is one of a prosecutor general who was protecting certain interests rather than prosecuting them” and reiterated that Biden had been “executing U.S. policy at the time and what was widely understood internationally to be the right policy, right.”

Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (2016-19)

Marie Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, similarly testified that “Vice President Biden, the IMF, pretty much every country that is present in Ukraine all felt that Mr. Shokin as prosecutor general was not doing his job,” leading to calls for his ouster.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.