GOP conspiracy mentality…

Living here in Georgia, I get to witness some of these unhinged conspiracy thoughts from those on the Right. With the possibility of a Trump loss, I can only expect many on the Right will even fall even further down the rabbit hole…

SOROS! SOROS! SOROS!

Wow. Do they really believe this stuff? Where does it come from?

SOROS! SOROS! SOROS!

How a veteran reporter worked with Giuliani’s associates to launch the Ukraine conspiracy

Photo by Trevin Rudy on Unsplash

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Last March, a veteran Washington reporter taped an interview with a Ukrainian prosecutor that sparked a disinformation campaign alleging Joe Biden pressured Ukrainians into removing a prosecutor investigating a company because of its ties to the former vice president’s son. <script type=”text/javascript” src=”https://pixel.propublica.org/pixel.js” async=”true”></script> The interview and subsequent columns, conducted and written by a writer for The Hill newspaper, John Solomon, were the starting gun that eventually set off the impeachment inquiry into the president.

Watching from the control booth of The Hill’s TV studio was Lev Parnas, who helped arrange the interview.

Parnas and his partner Igor Fruman were working with the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to promote a story that it was Democrats and not Republicans who colluded with a foreign power in the 2016 election. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicted the duo this month on allegations that they illegally funneled foreign money into U.S. political campaigns.

Interviews and company records obtained by ProPublica show Parnas worked closely with Solomon to facilitate his reporting, including helping with translation and interviews. Solomon also shared files he obtained related to the Biden allegations with Parnas, according to a person familiar with the exchange. And the two men shared yet another only recently revealed connection: Solomon’s personal lawyers connected the journalist to Parnas and later hired the Florida businessman as a translator in their representation of a Ukrainian oligarch.

Solomon’s interview and columns were widely amplified. Giuliani praised them, and Trump said he deserved a Pulitzer Prize. Fox News hosts Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs trumpeted them. They later become a key point in the CIA whistleblower complaint that set the impeachment inquiry in motion.

Parnas’ unusual and extensive involvement in the production of the stories has not been previously reported.

Solomon, 52, told ProPublica his reporting was accurate and defended his sourcing, saying, “No one knew there was anything wrong with Lev Parnas at the time.”

“Everybody who approaches me has an angle,” he said. “My mother has an angle when she calls me.” A lawyer for Parnas, who along with Fruman has pleaded not guilty, didn’t return requests for comment.

More than a year before his Ukraine columns published, The Hill had serious concerns about Solomon’s credibility and conflicts of interest. Hill staffers began raising alarms, including the paper’s publisher at the time, who warned in an internal memo that Solomon was engaged in “reputation killing stuff” by mixing business with journalism.

In response, The Hill’s management took steps to limit Solomon’s reporting — rebranding him as an opinion writer — but did not prevent him from writing his Ukraine series.

“Nothing I did would have put The Hill’s reputation at risk,” Solomon said.

Solomon came to The Hill, which specializes in inside-the-Beltway news, in July 2017 after a decades long career that included stretches at The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The Washington Times. His work has earned accolades, including a series examining what the FBI knew ahead of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He is now a contributor to Fox News.

Brought in as an executive vice president overseeing a new digital video enterprise now known as Hill.TV, Solomon continued to operate as a journalist, publishing news articles in the paper, while also playing a role on The Hill’s business side. That began to trouble colleagues within months of his hiring, according to internal memos and interviews with current and former staffers.

In late October 2017, The Hill published a story on the decisive role of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in the upcoming vote on the Trump administration’s tax bill. The article, authored by two journalists who reported to Solomon, included a quote from the executive director of Job Creators Network, a conservative group that claimed the bill would help small-business owners in Maine.

Soon after, Johanna Derlega, then The Hill’s publisher, wrote two memos to the company’s president, Richard Beckman, worrying that Solomon was tearing down the traditional wall separating the business side and the news coverage. She noted that Solomon had negotiated a nearly $160,000 advertising deal with Job Creators Network, targeting business owners in Maine. Solomon then had a quote from that group’s director inserted in the story.

Solomon “pops by the advertising bullpen almost daily to discuss big deals he’s about to close,” Derlega wrote, adding, “If a media reporter gets ahold of this story, it could destroy us.”

“While I highlight this one example, John has been given the freedom, and possibly financial upside, to work with advertisers while clearly sitting within editorial,” Derlega wrote.

Six months later, in April 2018, Derlega was forced out of The Hill. The Hill’s owner, president and top editors haven’t responded to detailed questions about Derlega’s memos and Solomon’s tenure at the paper. A spokesman for the advertiser, Job Creators Network, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

In interviews with ProPublica this week, Solomon repeatedly declined to discuss his activities on The Hill’s business side, saying, “I just simply can’t talk about anything business related with The Hill.”

A month later, the paper’s editor in chief, Bob Cusack, emailed staff that “effective immediately” Solomon would no longer publish stories under the banner of news but instead would be an “opinion contributor.”

From this new perch, Solomon broke in early spring what seemed to be an explosive piece of news: claims by Yuriy Lutsenko, then Ukraine’s top prosecutor, that a U.S. diplomat, serving under President Barack Obama, presented him a list of people and groups he could not prosecute. Additionally, Lutsenko said that he was reviving a probe into the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Holdings, seeking to determine whether Joe Biden, as vice president, interfered with the initial inquiry to protect his son Hunter, who sat on Burisma’s board.

Behind the scenes, Parnas had been central to connecting Solomon with Lutsenko. In a March 2019 email that included the businessman, the columnist wrote that he’d “just got word from Lev that the prosecutor general has agreed to do an interview tomorrow.”

Parnas watched Lutsenko’s interview live, inside the control room of The Hill’s TV studio. Solomon explained that he called in the businessman to act as a translator, but in the end his services were not needed.

Solomon recalls first encountering Parnas through Pete Sessions, the once-powerful Texas Republican member of Congress who is now in the middle of the Trump impeachment inquiry. Sessions accepted campaign donations from Parnas and Fruman, and had met with the two men as they sought to oust an American diplomat in Ukraine. Later, Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to replace the envoy Marie Yovanovitch, who had been the subject of extensive criticism in the conservative media. She was later fired and is a key witness for House Democrats trying to impeach the president.

Sessions, who has denied knowledge of the campaign finance scheme laid out by prosecutors, told ProPublica that he has no connection to Solomon.

“I don’t know John,” he said.

Solomon says his personal attorneys, Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a husband-and-wife legal team that regularly represents conservative luminaries, set up his first formal meeting with Parnas. He asserted that his editors “were aware” that he was seeking help from diGenova and Toensing on matters concerning Ukraine.

“I was doing that as an extra layer of protection,” Solomon said. “And so everything — everything — was above board. Everybody knew about it. I was just trying to be careful.” diGenova and Toensing did not respond to a request for comment.

As he compiled material for subsequent columns, Solomon and Parnas continued to work closely. In late March, less than a week after the first piece featuring Lutsenko appeared in The Hill, Solomon sent files via Dropbox to Parnas containing financial records purporting to be connected to Biden’s son. Around the same time, Solomon also sent Toensing and diGenova what appeared to be an advance copy of a Ukraine-related story. The Daily Beast reported that the email was included in a State Department Inspector General’s Office package of material turned over to lawmakers.

Solomon acknowledged that Parnas helped set up the Lutsenko interview, but he says he had originally requested it through official channels. Solomon maintains his relationship with the businessman was a typical one a reporter would have with a source. “Lev would call me,” he said, “and offer things he was hearing on the ground and I would look into some things.”

As Solomon’s relationship with Parnas developed, he learned over time that the businessman “was working for many people or several people in Ukraine,” including Giuliani and Solomon’s lawyers. Politico first reported Solomon’s lawyers also represented the Ukrainian oligarch. Giuliani hasn’t responded to messages seeking comment.

Solomon defended his work, including his reporting on the so-called do-not-prosecute list, which he said he went through “enormous efforts” to verify. “At the end of the day,” Solomon said. “it doesn’t matter what Lev Parnas did. It matters what I did.”

But a month after Lutsenko’s Hill TV appearance, the former Ukrainian prosecutor backed off of his allegations. He told a Ukrainian-language publication that he himself was the one who asked the U.S. ambassador for the list of supposedly untouchable figures. The State Department said there was never any list, calling it an “outright fabrication.” And Lutsenko told the Los Angeles Times last month that he saw no evidence of wrongdoing that would justify an investigation into Biden’s son’s business dealings in his country.

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Facebook poisons our world

And so does Google. Pretty much all media platforms, in fact:

The part that was so frustrating to me about the 2016 election was that there were clearly Russian trolls spreading the crazy about Hillary Clinton. And when I would point this out to the people disseminating this garbage, they would say, “So? It’s true!”

No, it wasn’t true. That was the problem. It sounded true. And it plays to the psychology that makes us insist we are “too smart” to fall for propaganda.

We’re not. We all have different entry points (PC vs. Mac, American League vs. National, etc.) but we all are susceptible to information that is repeated often enough.

And it’s not as simple as “don’t use Facebook.” It’s how many families stay in touch, and they’re just not going to give it up.

‘Disinvited’ Eagles weren’t going anyway

Swamp Rabbit was getting on my case for not being a football fan.

I’m a fan of the players,” I said. “It’s the NFL I hate — the overpaid commissioner and the spoiled rotten billionaires who own the teams. I hate the way they suck up to the U.S. military and bow down to Donald Trump when he waves the American flag at them.”

Swamp Rabbit wasn’t listening. “You live in Philly and you don’t even like the Eagles. I saw what you wrote about them.”

Au contraire, rabbit. I wrote that Eagles fans get carried away when the Eagles win. They act like holy rollers at a revival meeting.”

I added, “But I like the Eagles, especially since Trump disinvited them to the White House because he knew only a handful of them would show up.”

Swamp Rabbit dissed me some more. I shouldn’t get sports mixed up with politics, he said. Sports-watching should be an activity that brings people together instead of dividing them along political lines.

“Tell it to Trump,” I said. “He said players who knelt during the playing of the national anthem were unpatriotic, even after the players explained they were taking a knee to protest police brutality and meant no disrespect to the country. Trump made an issue of it because 70 percent of NFL players are black, and he knew calling them unpatriotic would play well with his racist supporters.”

Swamp Rabbit scowled at me. “Football ain’t politics. It should be a place you go to escape politics.”

“There’s no escaping Trump,” I said. “He seeps into everything.”

I told Swamp Rabbit about the airborne toxic event in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. A big black cloud descends on a small town, causing fear and suspicion. People exposed to the cloud develop symptoms — sweaty palms, deja vu, etc. — but it’s unclear whether the symptoms are caused by actual exposure to the cloud, or by exposure to news reports about the cloud.

“Trump is like an airborne toxic event,” I said. “Thanks to the media he’s everywhere, spreading fear and suspicion, even when there’s no reason for people to feel those things. Even when the subject matter is only football.”

“The media should ignore the guy,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Maybe he’d just go away.”

“I don’t think so, rabbit, but dream on.”

Robot videos

Trending FOX BUSINESS News: Google takes on Apple with YouTube Music service

I’ve been seeing these all over the place. I figured it was something like this:

A network of dozens of automated, robot-driven YouTube channels are pumping out thousands of right-wing propaganda videos that have racked up hundreds of millions of views — and it seems Google isn’t doing anything to stop it.

With the November midterms looming and worries growing that disinformation campaigns will undermine the outcome of the elections, channels with names like World Broadcast, Breaking News Today, Latest News Today, Breaking News 24h, Hot News Today 365, USA News Feeder, or simply Hot News are popping up all over YouTube, with one clear strategy: to turn fringe right-wing blog posts into machine-narrated videos they can promote as breaking news.

“They upload thousands of new videos every month and are getting tens of millions of views each month,” said Christoph Burseg, an online marketing expert who specializes in video trends on YouTube.

For years, YouTube has been plagued with conspiracy theories and fake news, but these automated accounts that pump out pro-Trump propaganda present a new problem for the company — and it appears there’s little they can do about it.

A fictionalized Trump? Too cliche

Does anyone doubt that Donald Trump, if elected president of a country with no democratic traditions, would have quickly muzzled any news organizations that didn’t suck up to him the same way Mike Pence does?

I asked my friend Swamp Rabbit, only because the answer is so obvious. Trump’s tweets remind us that the leader of the so-called free world has no sense of irony, no self-awareness, no tolerance for viewpoints that challenge his delusions of grandeur.

Trump’s favorite put-down is “fake news,” but he can’t get through a public statement without telling a lie, or a series of lies, depending on how long he talks. He accuses reporters of being negative but built his whole campaign on the (correct) assumption that he could win by exploiting the fears and resentments of working-class whites.

“Blah, blah,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Let it go, dude. Get on with your miserable life.”

He was right. Bitching about the malicious fraud in the White House won’t change anything. It might not even be therapeutic.

The problem is I write fiction and consider Trump an affront to good fiction, just as he is to good government. I take it personally. He’s an insult to countless fiction writers who labor to make their characters come alive on the page.

“That don’t make no sense,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Just ’cause you don’t like him don’t mean he ain’t alive.”

I tried to explain: Fictional characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to seem genuine and show some glimmer of inner life. They needn’t evolve into full-fledged heroes or villains, but they must change, or at least learn something new about themselves, in order to fully engage smart readers.

Trump seems neither genuine nor capable of change. He’s a villain, but a predictable villain, greedy, vulgar and vain. Incapable of self-examination. The presidential Trump is as mean and contemptible as the pre-presidential Trump. He’s a cartoon villain — a character drawn from reality TV, not from reality.

“What you sayin’?” Swamp Rabbit said. “What’s wrong with Trump being a cartoon? Most people like cartoons.”

I like cartoons,” I replied. “I just don’t like cartoons that become President of the United States.”

Clarification: Trump would fail as a primary character in realistic fiction, but he’s a good fit for satiric fiction, or for the theater of the absurd. He’s a dead ringer for the cartoonish title character in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

Fool me once… OK, now fool me again

The race is on. In one lane we have Donald Trump using false evidence from Benjamin Netanyahu as an excuse to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, a first step in drumming up support for another Mideast war.

In the other, a diverse crew of investigators sifting through a trove of Trump lies, sorting them out, preparing a case that might topple our home-grown Mussolini.

So far Trump is winning, and each day brings more evidence that we’re right to worry — that Trump really might start a major war if that’s what it takes to keep Robert Mueller from overtaking him and making an airtight case.

This morning I visited my friend Swamp Rabbit, who is totally opposed to worrying. He thinks taking deep breaths and letting time pass is the best way to deal with situations you can’t control.

“But this is like the Iraq War in 2003, Rabbit. The chief and his minions let loose a stream of lies about a nonexistent threat, the media plays along with the lies, or do a halfhearted job of debunking them. Propaganda tamps down potential public outrage. The bombs start falling.”

“That’s just your ‘magination,” the Rabbit said. “Ain’t no way we gonna get fooled into fighting another of them disaster wars.”

“That’s what they said after Vietnam, you dumb rodent.”

My insult pissed him off. “You’re projecting, Odd Man. You got a shitty part-time job and can’t keep up with your bills or support your writing habit. Just because you in a downward spiral don’t mean the world is, too.”

I saw his point but resented his insistence that my bleak personal situation belied evidence that the world was in trouble.

“Trump is an existential threat,” I said. “He’s a monster con man with no redeeming qualities.”

“No shit,” the Rabbit replied. “But it took an army of morons to create the monster. It’s a little late to talk them into changing their minds, doncha think?”

“Maybe not. If public opinion can’t stop him, what will?”

The Rabbit broke the seal on a bottle of Wild Turkey and took a quick drink. “There’s Congress,” he said. “And then there’s the courts.”

I groaned and almost said something nasty, but in the end I just asked him to pass the bottle.

Footnote: As George W. Bush once said, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.”