Report

How a D.C. News Site Amplified Dubious Ukraine Claims

Inside the story of how the Hill became part of the Trump whistleblower scandal.

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, as seen on Jan. 22, 2018.
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, as seen on Jan. 22, 2018. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The whistleblower complaint released Thursday details how a familiar Washington, D.C., news site called the Hill helped amplify dubious claims made by a senior Ukrainian official, which preceded similar allegations later made by U.S. President Donald Trump during his July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The Hill interviews helped propel the claims into the conservative media in the United States and into the president’s Twitter feed, although the source cited by the news outlet, then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, has since walked back many of the allegations. The original articles remain on the Hill website without an update or retraction.

But based on interviews and documents, it’s clear that the content of these articles was controversial at the time.

In March and April, the Hill’s published a series of articles that appear to be based off of the same Skype video interview with Lutsenko conducted by then executive vice president for digital video, John Solomon.

In them, Lutsenko makes a number of explosive claims about the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, and Vice President Joe Biden’s activities in the country, which closely align with the basis of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to find potentially damaging information on the president’s political rivals in Ukraine. Lutsenko has acknowledged that he has met with Giuliani on three occasions this year.

The episode highlights the role that Trump, his surrogates, and conservative media circles have played in spreading an amorphous and incorrect narrative around Ukraine that has tarnished career diplomats and one of the leading candidates in the democratic presidential race in order to advance the president’s own political ends.

It is not clear how Solomon, who announced this month that he plans to leave the Hill and its Hill.TV video platform to start his own media firm, and Lutsenko came to be in contact. Anti-corruption activists in Ukraine have characterized Lutsenko as an unreliable narrator who had hamstrung anti-corruption efforts.

“He was a very discredited person, with almost zero trust from the citizens of Ukraine,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Ukrainian Anticorruption Action Centre.

According to a document reviewed by Foreign Policy, in May of this year a coalition of 20 Ukrainian nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations sent a request to the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control that sanctions be placed on Lutsenko under the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the United States to impose asset freezes and visa bans on people suspected of involvement in human rights abuses or corruption overseas. Being recommended for sanctions is not proof that a person is guilty of the allegations made by those who nominate them.

Kaleniuk said that she did not think the claims made in Lutsenko’s interviews with the Hill were intended for a Ukrainian audience. “They were meant for the United States. Basically he was playing a role designed for him by someone who understands well how politics in the United States and in Ukraine works,” said Kaleniuk, but she said that she did not know who that could be.

The Hill did not respond to a request for comment.

On Thursday, Solomon tweeted, “Lots of reporters calling me after reference to my reporting in whistleblower complaint. Here’s my response. I stand by my stories 100 percent, all of which are completely accurate and transparent. We embedded the documents and videos we collected in each story for all to see.”

In an interview published by the Hill in late March, Lutsenko said that the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine handed him a list of names of officials and instructed him not to prosecute them. The claims created so much pressure around the ambassador that she was removed from her post early, according to the whistleblower complaint published on Thursday.

In March, the State Department denied the claims against Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and, in a statement given at the time to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, said it was intended to “tarnish” her reputation.

The next month, Lutsenko walked back his claim about the ambassador in an interview with the Ukrainian media.

Days after the Hill interview was broadcast, the ambassador came under fire from conservative commentators in the United States, some of whom called for her to be removed, saying that she had badmouthed the president—a claim that current and former officials have told Foreign Policy was unfounded. Shortly after the attacks unfolded, Yovanovitch was removed from her post in what Democratic lawmakers described as a “political hit job.”

The whistleblower complaint notes that Lutsenko’s allegation about the ambassador began shortly before the first round of the Ukrainian presidential elections on March 31, when former President Petro Poroshenko—whose government had been criticized by the ambassador for not doing more to tackle corruption—was trailing in the polls against Zelensky, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

In another article published by the Hill on March 20, which appears to be based off of the same Skype interview with Lutsenko, the Ukrainian prosecutor told Solomon that he had opened an investigation as to whether Ukrainian officials had inappropriately released information ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in a bid to put their thumb on the scales in favor of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

That allegation centers on the idea that Ukrainian officials fabricated and leaked financial ledgers belonging to the ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych detailing payments made to Paul Manafort in a bid to damage Trump’s former campaign chairman. The claim has been widely refuted by Ukrainian anti-corruption activists.

According to the memo released by the White House yesterday, Trump suggested in his July call with Zelensky that the roots of the Mueller investigation lay in Ukraine, not Russia, although Mueller himself has said it was triggered by 2016 revelations by a Trump campaign staffer that Russia had damaging information on Clinton.

Unconfirmed allegations about Biden, who is running to unseat Trump, and his son, as well as reports about collaboration between Ukrainian officials and the Clinton campaign, have been fanned by conservative media since Trump’s election, but the publication in the Hill led to renewed attention and scrutiny.

Solomon appeared on Sean Hannity’s nightly Fox News Network program Hannity to discuss the March 20 article quoting Lutsenko. The TV spot aired days before special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference was submitted, and the segment was touted by Trump on his Twitter account and later amped by Giuliani as evidence that Democrats had in fact colluded with Ukrainian officials to interfere in the 2016 election.

The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. also tweeted about the claims circulating following the release of the first article in the Hill, saying: “We need more ⁦@RichardGrenell’s and less of these jokers as ambassadors,” referring to Yovanovitch and Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, an outspoken supporter of the president.

“As this story was spread, it became clear to me that it was going to become a political football,” said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center. “Since then, the narrative has shifted more towards the Bidens.”

In an April article, Solomon called for greater scrutiny into the Bidens’ activity in Ukraine, in which Lutsenko claimed he had information about the gas company where Hunter Biden served on the board that would be of interest to U.S. Attorney General William Barr. In an article published by the Washington Post on Thursday, Lutsenko said he had no evidence Hunter Biden was involved in any wrongdoing.

Six days later, Giuliani appeared on Fox News and said that he wanted the Department of Justice to look into Biden’s dealings in Ukraine. During a late April interview on Fox News, Trump told Hannity that Barr is focused on “incredible” and “big” allegations dealing with leaked information from Ukraine about Manafort, Clinton, and the 2016 election.

Solomon, a longtime reporter for the Associated Press who also served stints with the Washington Post and the Washington Times, among others, before joining the Hill in 2017, has grown into a prominent conservative political commentator with a somewhat controversial track record. His stories at the Hill and regular appearances on Hannity also were reportedly a source of frustration for staffers at the publication, who worried that his partisanship could tarnish them and the newspaper.

In May, reports first surfaced that Giuliani was planning to go to Ukraine to look further into allegations around Biden and his son. Amid growing criticism, Giuliani called off his trip, but he still managed to secure meetings with Ukrainian officials and has continued to appear on television and speak with journalists.

“The Hill played an important role in feeding this story,” Jankowicz said, ”but I’m not sure if this would have come about without Giuliani’s central role.”

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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