Kent noted that the invocation of Soros was not limited to AntAC. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney, had publicly accused then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch of leaving the State Department to work for Soros.
Asked if there was any truth to the claim, Kent was adamant.
“Fake news,” Kent replied, appropriating one of Trump’s favorite lines. “It was, you know — He stated something that was fake, not true, publicly.”
There’s been a lot of that of late. Giuliani’s ongoing role as Trump’s attorney overlaps with his ongoing efforts to bolster Trump in the media. This is with Trump’s blessing, Giuliani told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi earlier this month.
Trump "was annoyed because over the last couple of weeks I’ve been pulling all his facts together and I haven’t been on television," Giuliani said. "People who think he doesn’t like me on television, I don’t know where they get that from. It’s just the opposite."
Among the facts he was pulling together, he told Nuzzi, was a claim that he had received documentary proof of money laundering by former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. When he received the Russian-language document, Giuliani said, his go-to translator Lev Parnas had already been arrested for allegedly violating campaign finance laws. So he translated it with an app on his phone.
In an interview with the New Yorker’s Adam Entous in November, he offered a broader range of allegations.
Giuliani described some tips he was hearing from his sources in Ukraine, including allegations that a Ukrainian oligarch had made illegal campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton totaling forty million dollars, “that Biden helped to facilitate.” In addition, he said, “I was told Biden had participated in the hacking” — a reference to the penetration of Democratic National Committee computer servers in 2016, which U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed to Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U. The conspiracy theories were endless. “They may be true, they may be false,” Giuliani said of the rumors.
There is no reason to think that they are true, beyond that someone apparently said it out loud to the president’s attorney. As he has wandered the globe seeking out dirt that impugns Biden — the Democrat perhaps most likely at the moment to face Trump in next year’s presidential contest — Giuliani has demonstrated little interest in avoiding the sort of fake news Kent identified. Giuliani has met with a rogue’s gallery of individuals with suspect motivations, often passing their claims on without question. He has worked with the openly pro-Trump cable network One America News Network on a series of reports in which allegations from Giuliani and various Ukrainians are broadcast without question.
Entous’s point about the motivations of some of the allegations is important. Intelligence officials have briefed members of Congress on Russia’s effort to deflect blame for 2016 election interference onto Ukraine. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the president at one point told White House officials that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had informed Trump that Ukraine was to blame, something Trump accepted in defiance of the broad determinations of the intelligence community (and the publicly available evidence).
That line of argument may again be presented to Congress soon, in the form of a report Giuliani says he’s compiling that will aggregate the various allegations with which he has been presented in recent months. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) suggested over the weekend that any evidence presented by Giuliani should be scrubbed for possible Russian propaganda, an obviously important step, given the demonstrated links to Russia among several of those with whom he has been working.
But it addresses only part of the problem. The broader problem is Giuliani’s apparent lack of interest in validating the information he’s receiving.
Perhaps what he presents to the president is a more refined version of what he alleged to Entous or what he promoted on OANN. There’s not really any reason to think that it is, however, particularly since his allegations quickly permeate conservative media, where they will inevitably make their way back to Trump.
Remember that we’ve already seen one example of Giuliani sharing information with the government behind closed doors: a packet of material he provided to the State Department earlier this year introducing several of the narratives identified by Kent. (In one of the more evocative metaphors of the Trump presidency, the material was compiled in Trump Hotel folders, which were then slipped into a manila envelope identified inaccurately as coming from the White House.) It included summaries of interviews with former Ukrainian officials, a dubious timeline of unclear origin and a number of articles written by John Solomon for The Hill.
The packet, like the allegations earlier this year, center on Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general. It includes write-ups of two interviews with Lutsenko, including one in which he makes the exact allegation about money laundering, which Giuliani claimed to have needed to translate with the app on his phone after the arrest of his colleague Parnas. Parnas is identified in the summary document as having been present for the Lutsenko interviews.
It also includes a Solomon article attacking AntAC as Soros-linked and an article in which Lutsenko alleges that he had been given a list by Yovanovitch that identified certain Ukrainian individuals not to be prosecuted. The assertion was immediately denied by the State Department.
When the office of the department’s inspector general released the packet in September, it included some related communications from within the department assessing its claims and the broader effort to promote its allegations in conservative media. In one email, for example, Kent notes that “those behind the crude forgery [of the list] had not gone to the Gene Fishel school of how the [U.S. government] spells Ukrainian names in transliteration” — suggesting that it was not a government official who had written the list. (He signed the email “Jorje,” apparently a joke about how the list author might have written Kent’s own first name.)
Giuliani and Solomon, however, didn’t do a similar assessment before publishing the claims or passing them on to the State Department. Nor did figures like conservative commentator Dan Bongino, whose credulous embrace of Lutsenko’s allegation on his podcast was documented by State Department officials tracking “the fake news driven smear out of Ukraine.” Lutsenko later retracted the claim entirely.
What Giuliani is really doing, in other words, is adding a veneer of formality to the existing, largely political effort to target Trump’s enemies. He presents his activity as being conducted on behalf of the president and ferreting out the truth while simultaneously engaging right-wing or conservative outlets in promoting the allegations. Or, at times, simply making the allegations himself on social media, where they are often picked up by Trump’s defenders.
That Giuliani is also briefing the president on the allegations he’s hearing simply offers an unusual shortcut between a rumor’s creation and its introduction to Trump. Normally, rumors filter to the president through Fox News or through random people on Twitter; in Giuliani’s case, he gets direct face time with the president in which to present his case. It’s not surprising, then, that Attorney General William P. Barr has reportedly cautioned Trump about Giuliani. But Giuliani is certainly giving Trump what he wants — and, as Trump wants, pushing it out publicly.
Graham and other Republicans have been happy to entertain (or even embrace) some of the allegations Giuliani and others have promoted in the interest of defending Trump during the impeachment effort. Graham’s suggestion that a formal presentation of evidence from Giuliani would demand vetting is therefore welcome. But it doesn’t address the real problem: that Trump himself is apparently more interested in what Giuliani says than how accurate it happens to be.
Fake news is, as always, in the eye of the beholder.