Americans who do not get all of their information about Ukraine from Fox News or right-wing Twitter and Facebook feeds have no doubt been baffled by the Republican cross-examination of witnesses called to give public testimony in the House impeachment hearings.
There have been frequent, context-free references to something called “the black ledger,” invocations of the supposedly nefarious role of George Soros in supporting Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, and even suggestions that Donald Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, who is serving seven and a half years in federal prison for financial crimes stemming from his work in Ukraine, might have been framed.
The resulting spectacle has confused viewers unfamiliar with a series of conspiratorial reports about Ukraine from the conservative columnist John Solomon, whose work has been promoted relentlessly on Fox, and caused many to simply tune the proceedings out. Virginia Tilley, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University, suggested on Twitter that making the impeachment hearings nearly unwatchable might even be the Republican strategy.
This bizarre performance stretched into a second week on Tuesday, as Republicans sought to distract from the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council expert on Ukraine, and Jennifer Williams, a Russia adviser for Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom heard President Donald Trump press his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open sham investigations of his Democratic political rivals.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, devoted a significant part of his opening statement at Tuesday’s first hearing to complaining that recent criticism of Solomon’s shoddy, misleading reports on Ukraine’s supposed “meddling in the 2016 election to oppose the Trump campaign” was some sort of plot directed by the mainstream media’s Democratic “puppet masters.”
“The media,” Nunes said, “is furiously smearing and libeling Solomon.”
Nunes went on to claim that there was a “concerted campaign by the media to discredit and to disown some of their own colleagues,” including Solomon and New York Times reporter Ken Vogel. What that characterization elides, however, is that there are good reasons to question the work of both Solomon and Vogel, who have helped propel far-right conspiracy theories about Ukraine by choosing to focus on certain facts and omit others. Solomon, whose work is now being reviewed by his former employer, The Hill, also recently joined Fox News as a contributor, which makes him a primary source of information about Ukraine for Americans overly reliant on Fox News, including the president of the United States.
In the hearings, the government officials called to testify so far have seemed at a loss when asked by Republicans to comment on claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election presented as fact by the president’s defenders in Congress.
Bill Taylor, the senior American diplomat in Ukraine, looked dumbfounded last Wednesday when he was asked by Steve Castor, the lawyer for House Republicans, if he would agree that the decision by a Ukrainian journalist and lawmaker to publicize evidence of Manafort’s crimes during the 2016 campaign proved that “there were elements of the Ukrainian establishment that were out to get the president.”
As Fox News viewers are well aware, the so-called black ledger mentioned repeatedly by Castor refers to a book of handwritten accounting records discovered among the papers of the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party after he fled to Russia following a popular uprising in 2014.
Those records, which were posted online by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau in August 2016, appeared to document secret payments, including $12.7 million to Yanukovych’s former political adviser, Manafort. One day after the records were made public, Sergii Leshchenko, a Ukrainian investigative journalist who was elected to parliament after the uprising, displayed pages from the ledger at a news conference in Kyiv, and Manafort resigned from Trump’s campaign.
Leshchenko, an anti-corruption activist who continued to work as a journalist while serving in parliament, has never been, as Castor suggested, a pillar of Ukraine’s establishment, so the idea that his publication of pages from the ledger was akin to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is absurd.
Leshchenko himself explained in a September Washington Post opinion piece that his motivation for exposing Manafort’s corruption was not, as Republicans now claim, part of a Ukrainian government plot to defeat Trump.
“I will always be angry at Manafort,” Leshchenko wrote. “His work contributed greatly to Yanukovych’s election victory in 2010; Yanukovych then used his position as president to enrich himself and his inner circle. I have no doubt that Yanukovych paid Manafort for his services out of the funds he robbed from Ukrainian taxpayers.”
“My desire to expose Manafort’s doings was motivated by the desire for justice,” he continued. “Neither Hillary Clinton, nor Joe Biden, nor John Podesta, nor George Soros asked me to publish the information from the black ledger. I wanted to obtain accountability for the lobbyist whose client immersed Ukraine in a blood bath during the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, when Yanukovych called on Russia to send troops.”
Despite claims by Manafort to the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that the ledger was a forgery, bank records described in an FBI search warrant, and reviewed by the Associated Press, confirmed that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the records next to Manafort’s name were actually deposited in one of his firm’s bank accounts in Virginia. (A record of one of those deposits was subsequently made public by Leshchenko.)
Andrew Kramer, the New York Times foreign correspondent who first revealed the secret payments to Manafort, also reported at the time that others in Ukraine who were named in the ledger had confirmed that the records were genuine.
Undeterred by the fact that there is no credible evidence that these records were forged, the lawyer for the House Republicans suggested on Friday to Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was forced out following a smear campaign by Trump loyalists, that “some have questioned whether the information that Mr. Leshchenko published was all correct, or whether it was doctored.” Yovanovitch, who is clearly not a dedicated viewer of Fox News, said that she had never heard that false claim.
“It is a real document, with real signatures,” Leshchenko told me in a telephone interview in September, explaining that it had been examined by Ukrainian law enforcement experts. “Giuliani is continuing to misinform American society” about the ledger, Leshchenko added, “by saying it’s fraudulent.”
On Friday, Leshchenko, who has been appalled by the Republican effort to rehabilitate Manafort by attacking him, drew attention on Twitter to a section of Yovanovitch’s testimony where she told Castor: “I think from a Ukrainian perspective — I realize we are looking at this from an American perspective — from a Ukrainian perspective, what Mr. Leshchenko and others who were looking into the black ledger were most concerned about was actually not Mr. Manafort, but former president Yanukovych and his political party and the amount of money that they allegedly stole and where it went.”
When Castor then asked Yovanovitch if she could see why Trump might have seen the publication of records damaging Manafort by a Ukrainian lawmaker as an attack on him, the former ambassador replied that Leshchenko is an investigative journalist, “and he got access to the black ledger and he published it as I think journalists would do.”
“I don’t have any information to suggest that that was targeting President Trump,” she added.
But if there is no credible evidence that the payment records incriminating Manafort were fake, how did the president’s defenders on cable news and in the House impeachment inquiry get this idea? In an interview with CNN in September, Giuliani referred to the ledger as “a completely fraudulent document that was produced in order to begin the investigation of Manafort.” People in Ukraine who knew about this plot, he claimed, “were trying to get to us, but they were being blocked by the ambassador, who was a Obama appointee, in Ukraine, who was holding back this information.”
That was a reference to extremely dubious reporting from Washington by Solomon, who relied on the word of a disgraced Ukrainian prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky. Last year, Kholodnytsky was wiretapped by Ukraine’s independent anti-corruption bureau and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught. Kholodnytsky told Solomon that the ledger “was not authenticated.”
After Kholodnytsky was caught in that sting operation, Ambassador Yovanovitch, who was the top American diplomat in Ukraine until May, called for him to be fired. Kholodnytsky retaliated by helping Solomon and other right-wing pundits smear Yovanovitch as an anti-Trump, deep-state plotter, prompting the State Department to recall her from Kyiv.
Solomon’s other main source for the claim that the ledger was false turns out to have been Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort’s former Ukrainian business partner, who has been linked to Russian intelligence and was indicted last year and charged with obstruction of justice by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Despite the questionable nature of his sources, Solomon’s reporting that the black ledger records were fake has been accepted as fact by the president and his surrogates. In June, two years after the bank records of payments to Manafort’s firm had been revealed, Solomon appeared on Fox Business Network, telling Lou Dobbs that the black ledger “was likely false, likely fake, a fraud.”
Solomon seems to have concluded that the black ledger records were fake by screening out all evidence to the contrary. That technique was on full display in a long Skype interview he conducted with Leshchenko in July, in which he essentially ignored the Ukrainian’s clear explanation that Manafort’s bank records suggested the ledger was real.
Later in that interview — which was posted on YouTube in two parts (1 and 2) — Leshchenko told Solomon that the ledger was not introduced as evidence in criminal proceedings because the chain of custody for the records was unclear (the pages in his possession had come to him in an email from an anonymous source).
Solomon responded by claiming that the ledger must be fake because the former accountant for the corrupt former president Yanukovych’s party insisted that it “was not an accurate representation of his books, and that his books, the official books of the party, burned during a looting” of the party’s headquarters in 2014.
Treating the accountant’s claim as undisputed fact, Solomon then asked Leshchenko if he had any regrets about releasing some of the ledger, “knowing that it turned out to be not an accurate representation,” of the truth. “No,” Leshchenko replied, since “we have no proof that the black ledger is a fake document.”
The smearing of Leshchenko by Solomon’s fans in Congress comes as other anti-corruption activists, like Daria Kaleniuk of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, known as Anatc, have also found themselves condemned by the president’s allies based on misleading reports from the same journalist. The unhinged accusation against Kaleniuk is that her group is supposedly collaborating in a plot secretly orchestrated by George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who has funded civil society groups in post-Soviet Eastern Europe.
In his CNN interview in September, Giuliani referred to Kaleniuk’s group as “Soros’s charity or whatever the hell it was, Antac,” and claimed falsely that the activists had “developed all of the dirty information that ended up being a false document that was created in order to incriminate Manafort.”
In fact, Antac, which has received less than 20 percent of its funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations, played no role in the publication of the ledger.
Behind all these lies there is an ugly truth. Under the guise of fighting corruption, the Trump administration and its Republican allies have thrown the full force of the United States government, and Fox News, into supporting what amounts to a counter-revolution in Ukraine. In a stunning reversal, Trump and his supporters have taken the side of the corrupt oligarchs and former officials ousted in 2014, as they seek to claw back power by undermining the reformers and anti-corruption activists supported by the Obama administration, under the leadership of former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and former Vice President Joe Biden.
In a column for the Kyiv Post published during Tuesday’s impeachment hearings, Leshchenko urged Republicans to stop lying about him to the American public. The former lawmaker wrote that it was absurd to argue that he had “tried to undermine Trump’s candidacy in 2016 by targeting his then-campaign manager Paul Manafort,” given that the 22 pages from the black ledger he published in May of that year included no reference to Manafort.
“I was not the original source of information about Manafort’s shady payments in Ukraine,” Leshchenko explained, contradicting the story told repeatedly by Republicans at the hearings. “I found out about it the same way that everyone else did — from a New York Times article.”
“I have been openly critical of Manafort since the time he worked as a political mentor to Yanukovych. And, of course, the fact of Manafort’s involvement in Trump’s presidential campaign, along with the change of the Republican Party’s attitudes towards Ukraine on the eve of the American elections in 2016, could not but cause a critical reaction from Ukrainians,” Leshchenko wrote.
“Many Ukrainian politicians and journalists have spoken out against Trump on social media. However, such criticism has always been made openly and published on personal accounts,” he added. “And such criticism has nothing to do with the whole set of measures to undermine American democracy on Russia’s part in 2016, which were established by the U.S. investigation. Now it appears that Russia, using some U.S. politicians as well as its agents of influence in Ukraine, is trying to shift the responsibility for interfering in the 2016 elections to my country.”
Speaking by telephone from Kyiv on Tuesday, Leshchenko told me that the conspiracy theory about him interfering in the 2016 election against Trump had originated in Ukraine. “I believe in the beginning it was crafted by Lutsenko,” he said, referring to Ukraine’s former chief prosecutor, who met several times with Giuliani and was a source for Solomon. “But now,” Leshchenko said, the conspiracy theory has mutated in the collective Republican imagination and “it lives its own separate life.”
Updated: Tuesday, Nov. 19, 6:07 p.m. ET
This article was updated to add new comments from Sergii Leshchenko, a journalist and former lawmaker, who published a column on Tuesday and spoke to The Intercept by Skype.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate