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The story behind Gaetz citing Chinese propaganda at a hearing

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Feb. 28 asked a Biden administration defense official about an article from the Chinese state-affiliated Global Times newspaper. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
5 min

In 2021, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) decried what he labeled “a fusion of the interest of the Chinese Communist Party and much of the apparatus of the United States government.”

At a hearing Tuesday, Gaetz cited, and entered into the record, an article from a newspaper which the Trump administration designated as a propaganda outlet — apparently without knowing that’s what he was doing.

The moment added some color to an otherwise relatively uncontentious hearing on oversight of U.S. funding for Ukraine. And even aside from the article’s provenance, it was a remarkable document to point to at a congressional hearing.

Gaetz, who has emerged a leading critic of the Ukraine funding, asked Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl a number of questions about potential U.S. involvement in Ukraine beyond what is publicly known.

Ultimately, he asked about a far-right military group in Ukraine: “Is the Azov Batallion getting access to U.S. weapons?”

Kahl said he wasn’t aware of such a thing, but he asked whether Gaetz had any information he could address. Gaetz then asked to enter into the record an article from the Global Times and asked if Kahl disagreed with it.

“I’m sorry, this is the Global Times from China?” Kahl asked.

Gaetz initially said no, but then checked and acknowledged, to his apparent surprise, that it was.

“As a general matter, I don’t take Beijing’s propaganda at face value,” Kahl responded.

When Gaetz pressed again and Kahl repeated that statement, Gaetz responded: “Fair enough. I would agree with that assessment.” And then he moved on.

The Trump administration in 2020 designated the Global Times and three other outlets as “foreign missions” because they are “effectively controlled by the government of the People’s Republic of China.”

“This designation recognizes PRC propaganda outlets as foreign missions and increases transparency relating to the CCP and PRC government’s media activities in the United States,” the State Department said.

Some media scholars have likened the Global Times to China’s Fox News. The New York Times in 2019 labeled it “a 24-hour propaganda machine” whose top editor at the time was “seen as a combative public voice of the administration of President Xi Jinping in an era of more open rivalry with the United States.”

Responding to a request for comment from The Washington Post, Gaetz spokesman Joel Valdez said, “Congressman Gaetz wanted to ask if the report was true. The panelist said it wasn’t true, and that was a good enough answer for him.” He did not address the congressman’s apparent surprise at where his source came from.

Gaetz has promoted his question-and-answer period from the hearing on Twitter, while cutting off the video before the above exchange.

The Global Times’s relationship with the Chinese government aside, there’s the substance of the particular article Gaetz cited. While he pitched it as a “Global Times investigative report,” the piece in question appears almost wholly derivative of other sources. Indeed, as evidence that the Azov Battalion got U.S. weapons, the piece cites “public information from the US government and some investigative reports by Western journalists.”

(The Azov Battalion, which has fought alongside Ukrainian soldiers against Russia on the front lines, is controversial and has been linked to recruiting extremists such as neo-Nazis. Some American politicians have pushed for designating it a foreign terrorist organization.)

The article includes a quote saying American weapons in Ukraine are “flowing directly to the extremists of Azov,” but doesn’t say where the quote came from. It appears to be from a blog post in 2018, which in turn cites various other sources. One of that post’s main sources, the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab, said Texas-made grenade launchers wound up in the hands of the Azov Batallion around that time, but that the weapons “were reportedly used only in training exercises and likely returned to arms depots.” Another source, a 2015 Daily Beast article, didn’t reach a firm conclusion about whether Azov fighters were being trained by U.S. forces.

The Global Times article goes on to cite various experts accusing the United States of “inciting conflicts between Ukraine and Russia” and “being very much conniving with the neo-Nazi forces” in Eastern Europe.

It cites the United States and Ukraine having voted against a United Nations resolution on “combating the glorification of” Nazism and neo-Nazism. But it does not explain that this is a resolution frequently pushed by Russia, which many European countries abstain from voting on. The United States has repeatedly said the resolution calls for “unacceptable limits on the fundamental freedom of expression” and that it’s a thinly veiled political attack on Ukraine and even a pretext for Russia’s invasion.

In other words, even if you don’t know the Global Times’s background, the article itself has some real red flags.

But instead of reading it with the requisite skepticism, a member of Congress decided to ask a high-ranking U.S. government official to respond to it.