The seeds of the Ukraine scandal were planted in the fertile soil of right-wing media many months before most people ever heard about an alleged “quid pro quo.”
In fact, many of President Trump’s shadow foreign policy maneuverings happened in plain sight, on the pages of The Hill website and in the prime time hours of Fox News.
Names like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, both of Fox, and John Solomon, a Fox contributor formerly of The Hill, pepper the 2,677 pages of deposition transcripts that have come out of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Hannity, in particular, appears to have a nexus to much of the shenanigans. Hannity and Fox were mentioned at least dozen times during the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former US Ambassador to Ukraine.
In her recent testimony, Yovanovitch described how Hannity publicly advocated for her removal and said she could tell, even from half a world away in Ukraine, that the Fox host “appeared to be close to the president.”
The Hannity factor
Hannity serves as an intense booster for Trump on the air and an informal advisor to Trump off the air.
He is also cozy with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who was publicly pushing for Ukraine to announce investigations that could help Trump politically, and was pushing for Yovanovitch to be removed from her post.
Both Giuliani and Hannity are also friendly with Solomon, whose disputed columns for The Hill helped light the fuse of the Ukraine scandal.
Solomon has defended his work at The Hill which was championed by the President’s defenders for playing to their favored narratives. But he became so controversial at The Hill that the outlet started classifying his work as opinion and appending its disclaimer to his articles saying that “the views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill.”
In March, Solomon interviewed General Yuriy Lutsenko, the former Ukraine prosecutor general, who claimed Yovanovitch gave him a “do-not-prosecute list.” Lutsenko later admitted the list never existed. In a statement to The Hill at the time, the State Department had also dismissed Lutsenko’s claim as “an outright fabrication.”
In his testimony, U.S. diplomat George Kent said Solomon’s columns were, “if not entirely made up in full cloth, it was primarily non-truths and non-sequiturs.”
“Both the Hannity Show and the Laura Ingraham Show covered this topic extensively,” Kent added.
Indeed, Hannity led the March 20, 2019, edition of his top-rated show with news from Solomon about Ukraine.
Solomon described a Ukrainian effort to “try to influence the United States election in favor of Hillary Clinton.” Then lawyer Joe diGenova, a frequent Fox guest and a close Trump ally, falsely claimed Yovanovitch “bad mouthed the president of the United States to Ukrainian officials.”
“This woman needs to be called home to the United States,” diGenova continued.
Hannity responded, “Oh, immediately.”
But after some of the deposition transcripts came out, Hannity criticized the media coverage on his show and said, “I don’t know anything about this woman.”
“The ambassador was barely ever mentioned on our show, we went back and looked,” he said, but he also admitted that “her name came up a few times on the show.”
Yovanovitch testified that there was an effort inside the State Department to get Hannity to stop criticizing her.
She explained that she was told that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or “somebody around him” was “going to place a call to Mr. Hannity on Fox News to say, you know, ‘What is going on? I mean, do you have proof of these kinds of allegations or not? And if you have proof, you know, telI me, and if not, stop.’”
“And I understand that that call was made,” she said, adding that “for a time, you know, things kind of simmered down.”
Hannity said in response, on his show on November 4, “I never talked to Secretary Pompeo about Ukraine. I never talked to anyone in the State Department about this ambassador.”
A few days later, on November 7, the transcript of Kent’s testimony was released, and it contained more detail.
According to Kent, the call to Hannity was made by State Department’s counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl.
Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees U.S. policy on Ukraine, was asked, “Are you aware of anyone from the Department of State at around the end of March or beginning of April reaching out to Sean Hannity?”
“Yes,” Kent replied. “I believe, to the best of my recollection, the counselor for the Department, Ulrich Brechbuhl, reached out and suggested to Mr. Hannity that if there was no proof of the allegations, that he should stop covering them.”
Hannity has had no further comment on the matter on the air since the Kent transcript came out last Thursday.
Through a Fox News spokesperson, Hannity said: “I stand behind my comments that have been repeated on both radio and TV. The ambassador was only mentioned a few times in passing on my show. I have also stated numerous times on both radio and TV that I have never been contacted about Ukraine by Secretary Pompeo or anyone else at the State Department.”
“We’re in an environment where people believe an awful lot of things.”
During Yovanovitch’s deposition, Democratic Congressman Sean Maloney directly asked her if the smears on Hannity’s show were related to “the desire to get you fired.”
She replied, “That appears to be the case.”
Then Maloney asked, “Well, it worked, didn’t it, Ambassador?”
She replied, “Yes.”
Fiona Hill, the former White House aide on the National Security Council, confirmed Yovanovitch’s allegations in her deposition.
Hill said that Yovanovitch was removed from her position because of a “mishmash of conspiracy theories” and a “meta-alternate narrative” started by Giuliani.
Hill said, “I understood this to be the result of the campaign that Mr. Giuliani had set in motion in conjunction with people who were writing articles and, you know, publications that I would have expected better of, and also, you know, just the constant drumbeat of these accusations that he was making on the television.”
The television outlet Giuliani frequented the most is Fox, especially Hannity’s show.
Hill said Giuliani “created an atmosphere in which [Yovanovitch] was under great suspicion, and… these accusations seem to stick to people even when they’re proved not to be true.”
According to reporting by ProPublica, Giuliani and his associate Lev Parnas, who was recently indicted by federal prosecutors though he plead not guilty, “collaborated closely” with Solomon “to fuel spurious allegations involving the Bidens and Ukraine.”
Hill described a “very large universe of information” in which conspiratorial reporting from The Hill and fringe theories from InfoWars existed and flourished. She explained that bad information was “really affecting an awful lot of people’s judgements.”
“We’re in an environment where people believe an awful lot of things,” Hill observed.
In a separate deposition, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman also poured cold water on Solomon’s reporting. During his testimony, Vindman repeatedly told pro-Trump Congressman Lee Zeldin that “all the key elements” of a crucial story on Yonanovitch “were false.”
“Just so I understand, are you referring to everything John Solomon stated or just some of it?” a seemingly dismayed Zeldin asked.
“All the key elements that I just laid out for you,” Vindman said. “The criticisms of corruption were false.”
At another point in Vindman’s testimony, Zeldin appeared to be fishing for the name of the potential whistleblower — though Zeldin denied doing so — and Vindman’s lawyer shot back, “I don’t want to hear the Fox News questions, okay?” — a seeming nod to GOP lawmakers and conservative media figures who have been gunning to unmask the whistleblower whose complaint prompted the impeachment inquiry.
CNN’s Marshall Cohen contributed reporting.