The Hill's review of John Solomon's columns on Ukraine

The Hill's review of John Solomon's columns on Ukraine

On Nov. 18, 2019, The Hill announced it was reviewing John Solomon's opinion columns on Ukraine after State Department diplomats criticized several of those columns during House impeachment hearings.

This review was conducted independently by The Hill’s news staff under the direction of Editor-in-Chief Bob CusackRobert (Bob) CusackThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Chris Christie says Trump team wasn't aggressive enough early in COVID-19 crisis; Tensions between White House, Fauci boil over The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Fauci says focus should be on pausing reopenings rather than reverting to shutdowns; WHO director pleads for international unity in pandemic response MORE.

The Hill established working panels for each of 14 relevant pieces that appeared on TheHill.com. These working groups analyzed and discussed the columns at length, looking at possible corrections and/or context that could have been added at the time of the writings. In addition, The Hill reviewed congressional testimony and other public documentation related to Solomon's columns, as well as related media reports, to add editor's notes to the columns regarding what has been learned since the columns were posted by The Hill. The Hill also reviewed its editorial policies and processes.

Solomon has responded to critics during television appearances, on Twitter and on his podcast. The Hill has included some of his relevant public remarks in this report.

Background

Solomon was hired July 10, 2017, as The Hill's executive vice president for digital video and led the company's effort to launch Hill.TV, an online streaming channel that focuses on the politics of the day. Solomon left The Hill on Oct. 4, 2019.

Solomon also wrote numerous news articles for The Hill in 2017 and 2018. An editorial decision was made to label Solomon’s work as opinion as of May 14, 2018.

Starting in March 2019, Solomon wrote a series of columns on Ukraine, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Runoff elections in Texas, Alabama set for Tuesday Biden campaign slams White House attacks on Fauci as 'disgusting' Biden lets Trump be Trump MORE and his son, Hunter Biden, as well as U.S. diplomats in Ukraine. Solomon discussed his columns on television, most notably on Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityStone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Signs of a Trump, Fauci rift on display Hannity to interview Roger Stone on Monday MORE's opinion show on Fox News. These appearances amplified the reach of Solomon's work at The Hill.

The columns focused on a controversy surrounding the Bidens and Ukraine that initially surfaced during the Obama administration. Specifically, the columns raised questions about Hunter Biden working on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. When Hunter Biden joined Burisma, Joe Biden was the vice president and point person for U.S. policies on Ukraine. Joe Biden is currently a candidate for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWayfair refutes QAnon-like conspiracy theory that it's trafficking children Stone rails against US justice system in first TV interview since Trump commuted his sentence Federal appeals court rules Trump admin can't withhold federal grants from California sanctuary cities MORE seized on this issue, commenting on it on many occasions. The president asked the government of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens as his administration delayed $391 million of U.S. military aid to the country. Trump has said he was interested in rooting out corruption and that he did not expect nor request any quid pro quo.

The House opened a formal impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, 2019, holding impeachment hearings in the fall of 2019. The House voted to impeach Trump on Dec. 18, 2019. The Senate acquitted Trump on Feb. 5, 2020.

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The editing process

The Hill solicits and accepts opinion articles from both Republicans and Democrats and works to provide a balanced number of liberal, conservative, independent and nonpartisan opinions.

The Hill's opinion contributors and their columns are routinely checked and vetted for accuracy, conflicts of interest, and other relevant factors; when statements of fact are found to be incorrect, or conflicts of interest are found to have been undisclosed or overlooked, The Hill routinely corrects those or adds clarifications to columns. Writers are frequently asked to provide hyperlinks that provide supporting citations and sources for statements of fact and other material that are not widely known or accepted as authoritative. All columns are read and edited by at least one opinion editor, many are read by two editors, and some are reviewed by The Hill's legal counsel before posting or publication when warranted.

The same process was followed with Solomon's columns. In instances involving the use of unnamed sources in his columns, he provided or was asked to identify those sources by name and position or relevance to the topic; he also provided copies of documents that were referenced in his columns or that provided the basis for his citations of fact or his opinions and conclusions.

Solomon identified the original source for the allegations about U.S. officials and other figures involved in the U.S. government's Ukraine policy as a senior-level State Department official, which he has reiterated in other public remarks. He also mentioned Lev Parnas, a former associate of Trump personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came 'awfully close to bribery' MORE; Parnas — who was indicted in October 2019 for alleged U.S. campaign donation violations — was not a familiar public figure at the time. Solomon identified Parnas as someone with business interests in Ukraine. Told that The Hill did not want columns to rely on an individual whose background and motives were unclear, Solomon agreed and described Parnas as a facilitator — not a source of background information being cited in his columns — who was helping to arrange contacts with knowledgeable sources in Ukraine and was helping with some initial translation work.

No subjects of Solomon's columns contacted The Hill to demand corrections, clarifications or retractions when the columns were posted — with one exception: Daria Kaleniuk, co-founder and executive director of Ukraine's nonprofit Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC), wrote an April 2, 2019, column, rebutting Solomon's criticism of AntAC and the U.S. embassy's role in anti-corruption efforts.

What The Hill found

The Hill has added editor's notes to Solomon's work on Ukraine. In some columns, there was context and/or disclosure that should have been included at the time of his writings. In other cases, these editor's notes highlight what has been learned since Solomon's columns were initially published.

The 14 links that The Hill reviewed are below:

While Solomon's columns on Ukraine were labeled as opinion, they largely read like news stories. Adding to the potential confusion between opinion and news, Solomon was identified as "an award-winning journalist" in his column tagline. When appearing on television to discuss his Ukraine columns, Solomon was not typically labeled an opinion writer by the broadcast programs. The Hill did not contact television producers to label Solomon as an opinion columnist. It should have. 

Lending further support to an impression that the columns were more like news stories, rather than opinion columns, Solomon’s Ukraine columns were longer than typical opinion pieces, in many cases contained what could be viewed or was identified by him as original reporting, and stuck to one general topic. This may have suggested to many readers it was an investigative series, which normally resides in the news department, rather than opinion. Solomon’s subsequent appearances on Fox News where he was often identified as an investigative journalist further potentially blurred the distinction between news and opinion in the minds of some readers.

Certain outlets, including The New York Times and ABC News, followed Solomon's work on Ukraine with news articles of their own.

In many of his columns, Solomon did include caveats that Ukraine is infamous for corruption and disinformation operations, including Russian interference, and he did seek comment from parties who were mentioned critically in his columns. While appropriate for news reporting, that is not typical of opinion writing; it had the consequence of further blurring the distinction between news and opinion for some readers.

Unlike other employees, Solomon had a hybrid role at The Hill, working in Hill.TV, opinion and/or news. Solomon did not report to a specific management official in the newsroom, which was an unusual personnel situation at The Hill. This hybrid role further undermined the distinction between opinion contributor and news-based journalist, since Solomon could be seen as writing an opinion column in one section while reporting news as an interviewer on Hill.TV.

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In certain columns, Solomon failed to identify important details about key Ukrainian sources, including the fact that they had been indicted or were under investigation. In other cases, the sources were his own attorneys.

Solomon's first three Ukraine-related pieces ran on March 20, 2019. One was an opinion column titled, "As Russia collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges," and the two others were Hill.TV interviews with then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. All three pieces were derived from a Hill.TV interview with Lutsenko. In the Hill.TV interview, Lutsenko made two significant claims: that he had opened a probe into alleged attempts by Ukrainians to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and that then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchMarie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Cheney clashes with Trump Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November MORE had given him a do-not-prosecute list. Solomon quoted the U.S. State Department as dismissing Lutsenko's assertions as unfounded and also supporting Ambassador Yovanovitch. Solomon went on Fox News the same day to promote the story, which was highlighted by Trump in a tweet.

Notable questions about Lutsenko being a reliable source have been raised, especially when the events of the last year are reviewed. Although Solomon identified Lutsenko as an anti-corruption crusader, State Department officials, more than a year before the interview, had deemed the prosecutor general’s office to be an untrustworthy partner in that cause, suspecting him of undermining those very efforts. Most notably, Lutsenko's story has changed repeatedly. In April 2019, he told a Ukrainian newspaper that he himself had reached for pen and paper and asked Ambassador Yovanovitch for the do-not-prosecute list. He altered his comments again, in an interview with The New Yorker in November, when he said that he'd written the list himself, then ripped it up while Yovanovitch looked on.

According to Polygraph.info, a joint project of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, there was a "critical mistake" in the translation of Hill.TV's initial March interview. Polygraph.info said that Lutsenko said Yovanovitch did not provide a written list but, instead, "voiced" it — using the Ukraine word "oholosyla."

Contradicting assertions in Solomon's columns, in Politico and in some other media reports, State Department officials, U.S. national security agencies and the Senate Intelligence Committee have concluded that Ukraine did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian government officials, who have denied meddling in the 2016 election, have pushed the narrative that Ukraine interfered in that U.S. election.

To this day, Solomon has stood by his columns on Lutsenko, Yovanovitch and Ukraine meddling. He also has taken issue with assertions that he smeared Yovanovitch, noting that he included supportive remarks about her by the State Department in his columns.

Since the publication of Solomon’s Lutsenko/Yovanovitch columns, numerous media reports and documents have disclosed that Giuliani was working with others inside and outside the U.S. government to oust Yovanovitch from her Ukraine post. U.S. diplomats testified in House impeachment hearings that Trump empowered Giuliani to play a leading role in Ukraine foreign policy, specifically as it related to Yovanovitch and the Bidens.

In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, administration officials described Solomon’s articles about Yovanovitch as central to a “smear campaign,” spearheaded by Giuliani on behalf of Trump, and characterized them as false or inaccurate.

Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine in May 2019 and recently retired from the State Department.

On April 1, 2019, The Hill published a Solomon column titled "Joe Biden's 2020 Ukrainian nightmare: A closed probe is revived." This column highlighted that Joe Biden was a key player in convincing Ukraine to fire its then-prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in 2016. Shokin was replaced by Lutsenko, who at the time was regarded highly by some U.S. officials and deemed to be someone the U.S. could work with.

The column suggests that Joe Biden was protecting Hunter Biden because Burisma was the subject of a "wide-ranging corruption probe.” That account has been disputed by officials in both Kyiv and Washington and others who maintain the investigation had grown dormant, and that Joe Biden was pushing for Shokin’s removal, not because he was investigating corruption allegations, but because he was neglecting to do so. British officials investigating fraud at Burisma backed this account, dropping a case against the company in early 2015 — months before Joe Biden’s push to remove Shokinciting a lack of cooperation from the prosecutor general’s office in Kyiv. Furthermore, seeking Shokin's ouster was the official position of the U.S. and the European Union. The Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove Shokin in 2016. Like Lutsenko, Shokin's reliability as a source is in question. Shokin was among the figures Solomon interviewed during his research.

Hunter Biden, who had little to no energy expertise at the time he was hired by Burisma, has said it was "poor judgment" to accept the position on Burisma's board, acknowledging that he likely received the job offer because of his last name. State Department officials also said in impeachment inquiry testimony that they were concerned with Hunter Biden sitting on the company board while Joe Biden was overseeing the U.S. government’s Ukraine policies.

There has never been any proof of legal wrongdoing by the Bidens. Pressed on the matter in a recent interview, Joe Biden said the Bidens’ dual roles in Ukraine led some to say it set "a bad image."

Lutsenko himself in May 2019 said there was no evidence of legal wrongdoing. At the time of Lutsenko's initial interviews with Solomon in March 2019, there was tension between Lutsenko and Yovanovitch amid official U.S. concerns about Lutsenko's commitment to anti-corruption efforts.

Giuliani has indicated he was a key source of information for Solomon on Ukraine, telling The New York Times in November 2019 that he turned over information about the Bidens earlier in the year to Solomon.

“I really turned my stuff over to John Solomon,” Giuliani said.

The former New York City mayor later told The New Yorker he encouraged Solomon to highlight information on the Bidens and Yovanovitch, stating, "I said, ‘John, let’s make this as prominent as possible,’ ” adding, “‘I’ll go on TV. You go on TV. You do columns.’ ”

Disputing this notion, Solomon has said that he began working on Ukraine stories in 2018 before the issue was mentioned by Giuliani, the Trump White House or other U.S. government officials, but he did not have enough information and on-the-record sources until 2019. Solomon has said the notion of Giuliani being a principal source for his Ukraine columns is a “bogus narrative." In November 2019, Solomon said Giuliani was "never an on-the-record, off-the-record or on-background source for any of those stories."

Since the publication of Solomon's columns, Parnas delivered Ukraine-related communications to Congress that show repeated contact among Parnas, Giuliani, Solomon, and Victoria Toensing of the Washington law firm of diGenova & Toensing, among others.

In one exchange released by the House Intelligence Committee, an aide to House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesSunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide Lawmaker-linked businesses received PPP loans MORE (R-Calif.), who frequently brings up alleged Ukrainian election interference, asks Parnas, "Any documents for us or are you going to keep working through Solomon?"

Solomon has denied any coordinated effort with Giuliani, Parnas or others, insisting that he was merely dealing with those individuals in the course of reporting for his columns, and he has called Parnas a “facilitator” who helped him in setting up interviews with Ukrainian officials, including Lutsenko and Shokin.

Joseph diGenova and Toensing are attorneys who have long represented Solomon. In an article that ran in October 2019, diGenova stated that Solomon has been a client of his firm "for a very long time." Aside from Solomon, diGenova and Toensing had other clients with interest in Ukraine. According to Bloomberg, diGenova and Toensing were paid $1 million by a Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash, to find negative information on the Bidens. Firtash is fighting extradition to the U.S. on conspiracy charges, and the effort was designed to help win Giuliani's help in the case, Bloomberg reported. They have also met with Lutsenko, according to The New York Times.

In his Sept. 26 column, Solomon links to a Sept. 4, 2019, affidavit by Shokin that was made at the request of lawyers representing Firtash. According to media reports, diGenova and Toensing represented Firtash at that time.

Solomon also wrote about "Firtash's U.S. legal team" in a July 22, 2019, column and links back to that column in an Aug. 7, 2019, column. According to a July 2019 press account, Firtash cut ties with his prior counsel on July 20 and decided to be represented by diGenova and Toensing.

Solomon did not disclose that diGenova and Toensing represented him at the time of this column.

In addition, Solomon wrote several news articles for The Hill in 2017 that quoted Toensing but did not disclose that she was his attorney. Toensing and diGenova also appeared on Hill.TV at the time that Solomon was both their client and running the show.

In November 2019, Solomon said that diGenova and Toensing were his longtime lawyers during an appearance on Fox News. Pressed on why he did not disclose in his writings that Toensing was his attorney, Solomon initially denied he had quoted her while she served as his attorney and then said he would look into it and that if he did write about her, he should disclose the relationship. As part of this review, The Hill is adding disclosures — to Solomon’s news stories, opinion columns, and relevant Hill.TV appearances — that should have been made at the time of publication.

In the fall of 2019, it was reported that before one of his columns was published in The Hill, Solomon emailed a draft of it to Parnas, diGenova and Toensing without the knowledge of editors at The Hill. Solomon has defended the email, saying he has long done this as a normal practice to ensure accuracy and for legal reasons. Parnas, diGenova and Toensing are not mentioned in the column. It is worth reiterating that The Hill has legal counsel who reviews certain articles and opinion columns before they are published.

In a recent podcast, Solomon said he was fortunate that his attorneys had key contacts in Ukraine: "I was lucky. It turns out Joe [diGenova] and Victoria [Toensing] have a lot of relationships in Ukraine."

The true nature and extent of Parnas's role in Solomon's work remain unclear but potentially troubling. While Solomon has insisted that Parnas was simply facilitating contacts or arranging interviews in his native Ukraine, the number of alleged contacts or apparent references to Solomon in emails, text messages and other materials released by Parnas to congressional investigators raises questions about his involvement.

In October 2019, Parnas and an associate were arrested on an indictment charging federal campaign finance violations. Parnas and the associate allegedly donated money to the 2018 campaign of then-U.S. Rep. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson Sessions4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch Former FBI Director William Sessions dies at age 90 Texas kicks off critical battle for House control MORE (R-Texas), whose letter accusing Yovanovitch of being disloyal to Trump was cited in a Solomon column. Following his arrest, Parnas told various media that he met repeatedly with figures involved in the Ukraine investigation, including Solomon. The Hill has reached out to Parnas's legal counsel but has not received a response.

Lessons learned; The Hill's policies

This investigation has made The Hill reconsider some policies as well as reiterate guidelines it has followed for many years. Since its inception 25 years ago, The Hill has worked diligently to report the news in a nonpartisan and fair way and to provide a wide range of opinions reflecting all sides of public issues. The newspaper's editors and reporters have abided by standard journalistic principles and will continue to do so. The lessons learned, or other actions in the process of being taken, follow:

  • In November 2019, Editor-in-Chief Bob Cusack was given enhanced editorial authority over all content on TheHill.com.
  • The Hill reiterates that it does not condone sending out articles to sources or subjects before those are published.
  • Disclosures are vital to credibility in journalism, and reporters and editors must tell their readers when there might be a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • There should be clarity and distinction between opinion writers and news reporters, and opinion columns should not read like news stories. The Hill will consider and adopt changes in presentation to differentiate opinion and news more substantially than the current methods.
  • The Hill will endeavor to ensure its employees are accurately described when appearing on other media outlets.
  • The Hill will enhance communication between editors and reporters, creating a more open dialogue on newsroom issues.
  • The Hill will examine compiling our long-standing internal ethics and journalistic best-practices into a formal set of guidelines to help inform and advise our staff, outside contributors and readers. Editors and reporters will also consult with guidelines adopted by other news organizations as they seek to find the best guidance for The Hill moving forward.
  • Solomon's Ukraine columns represented a departure from The Hill's standard opinion content because they attempted to blend opinion and investigative, "original reporting" material. The Hill will avoid such blending of reporting and opinion columns going forward.