“Check it out,” Victor Cortez said, changing channels on the old Zenith I’d pulled out of a trash dump for Swamp Rabbit. The subject on MSNBC was the impeachment hearings. Same thing on CNN. But the big story on Fox News was “Kanye West spreading his message of faith” and — this might have been fake news — selling $55 pancakes at a breakfast event.
Victor’s point was that Fox would rather show anything but a bad-news story about Trump. And when there are bad-news stories they have to cover — the actual hearings, for example, which started Wednesday — they will ignore the facts and pretend they’re good-news stories.
“But even Fox has shown a few cracks,” Victor said later in the week, after acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor testified on the first day of the hearings and Fox News host Chris Wallace called Taylor “a very impressive witness and… very damaging to the president.”
The hardcore Trump suck-ups — Hannity, Carlson, Ingraham, and so on — would follow Trump all the way to the Führerbunker, Victor explained, but actual reporters at Fox News with a shred of credibility are hedging their bets regarding Trump’s long-term political health.
“Not so with them Republicans in Congress,” said Swamp Rabbit, who had just arrived at my shack for his weekly appointment with Victor, his parole officer. “Trump got on the phone with Zelensky and said sure, you’ll get that military aid, but I want you to do something for me, meaning get dirt on Biden. That’s an impeachable offense, plain as day, unless you’re a Republican.”
“But Republicans are saying there was no explicit quid pro quo,” I said. “Trump didn’t explicitly say ‘You won’t get the aid unless you deliver dirt on Biden.'”
“It don’t matter,” Swamp Rabbit replied. “You don’t have to spell out the quid pro quo. All you gotta do is conduct it. If I’m holding your swamp cat and say ‘I’ll give your cat back to you but first I want you to do me a favor,’ then I’m abusing my power and breaking the law.”
I reminded Swamp Rabbit that Trump’s toadies — people like Lindsey Graham and Nikki Haley — know he’s the lowest of the low, a guy who has cheated big banks and small business owners, robbed his own charities, betrayed foreign allies, taken kids from their parents and jailed them, and worse. They don’t care; they’re afraid he will denounce them to his base, that vast horde of lost souls who’d be happy if he made himself president for life.
“But that don’t make no sense,” the rabbit said. “They’re propping up a monster. Don’t they care what history is gonna think of them?”
All three of us laughed at that one. “Does Trump care about history?” I said. “Does his brother, Kanye West?”
“So you’re telling me part of the multibillion-dollar wall Trump is having built on the Mexican border can be breached with a hundred-dollar saw? You’re not making this up?”
Swamp Rabbit wasn’t making it up. He was reading from a news article he’d called up on my laptop:
…When fitted with specialized blades, the saws can slice through one of the barrier’s steel-and-concrete bollards in minutes, according to [border] agents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the barrier-defeating techniques.
After cutting through the base of a single bollard, smugglers can push the steel out of the way, creating an adult-size gap. Because the bollards are so tall — and are attached only to a panel at the top — their length makes them easier to push aside once they have been cut and are left dangling…
Swamp Rabbit’s parole office, Victor Cortez, interrupted to vouch for the story’s accuracy. “I’ve got one of those reciprocating saws,” he said. “With the right blades it will cut through anything.”
I don’t believe you,” I said. “That reporter is tripping.”
“Just because you can’t drive a nail don’t mean some saw can’t cut through steel,” Swamp Rabbit replied.
I asked why the U.S. Border Patrol didn’t build a regular old brick wall. The rabbit said it was because they thought the concrete and steel bollard system was the best design they could afford.
“They can peek through the bollards — poles is what they are — and see them pesky refugees coming,” he explained. “And they can fix the poles that get wrecked if the refugees are too fast for them and sneak through.”
I persisted, just for the sake of argument. Didn’t Trump say the new wall would be “virtually impenetrable?” Didn’t he assure all those good old boys in the MAGA hats that he would save them from the marauding rapists he warned about?
“The Mexicans were gonna pay for the wall, too,” Swamp Rabbit noted. “If Trump said it, you can bet it ain’t true.”
Footnote: The refugees or aliens or whatever you want to call them are using ladders as well as saws to get past the wall. Who would have thought?
Mark Zaid, attorney for the Ukraine call whistleblower, has offered to GOP Congressional committee members written answers to questions directed to the whistleblower.
Trump has been calling for the determination and exposure of the whistle blower’s identity by the media.
“The whistleblower gave a very inaccurate report about my phone call. My phone call was perfecto. It was totally appropriate. He gave a report — he or she, but according to the newspapers it’s a he,” Trump told reporters.
“They know who it is. You know who it is. You just don’t want to report it. CNN knows who it is, but you don’t want to report it. And you know, you would be doing the public a service if you did,” he added. The whistleblower’s identity is not public. Trump did not give evidence for his claim that CNN or newspapers know the person’s identity.
A source says it would be unlikely this offer is taken by the GOP congressional members.
“I don’t think we will settle for scripted interrogatories,” the source said. “We need a full accounting of his actions and how this was orchestrated.”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
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.