For months now, Trump and his Republican enablers have been selling a counter-narrative, to distract from Trump’s effort to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, and Russia’s attempt in 2016 to help Trump win the election.
How did they do it? Nine steps:
Step 1: Find a source of half-baked lies and innuendo. In a 2018 book, Secret Empires, conservative author Peter Schweizer, an editor at Breitbart News, raised Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings.
Schweizer didn’t allege any illegality – Ukraine’s prosecutor general found no evidence of wrongdoing – but Schweizer lead readers to conclude that it reeks of influence-peddling and self-dealing.
Step 2: Dig up dirt. Eager to advance a story that would damage Joe Biden, who Trump knew was most likely to be his major political opponent in the 2020 election, Trump tapped Rudy Giuliani to do the digging.
Step 3: Feed it to the mainstream press. Giuliani told CNN that “a well-regarded investigator” brought Hunter Biden’s story to his attention. He then told the New York Times that he was going to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to push the new government to investigate two matters of intense interest to Trump. One was the involvement of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son in a gas company, Burisma, owned by a Ukrainian oligarch. The other was the origin of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
After Giuliani’s planned trip attracted a lot of media attention, Giuliani canceled it.
Step 4. Hire a disreputable team of dirt-diggers. Giuliani looked for whatever he could find about the Bidens and the Mueller investigation, employing people who are more schooled in public relations than in investigations.
Those who helped Giuliani included Victoria Toensing and her husband Joe diGenova. On social media and in regular appearances on Fox News, these two operatives advanced the bunk theory that Mueller’s investigation resulted from the Justice Department’s efforts to frame Trump, and that the collusion “began in Ukraine.“
Another Giuliani dirt-digger was Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-American businessman and Giuliani crony who has since been arrested and charged with campaign finance violations on behalf of the Trump campaign.
Step 5: Find more news outlets seeking a scoop on the dirt. Giuliani fed the story to John Solomon, a reporter for The Hill – not to the Justice Department or any other government agency charged with investigating wrongdoing.
Giuliani claimed he had “no other choice,” because Obama-era officials still “infect” the Justice Department and won’t diligently investigate the information he’s compiled.
Step 6: Make it look like investigative reporting. The Hill doesn’t have a reputation as a right-wing publication, even though its publisher, James Finkelstein, has been friends with Trump for decades. So Solomon’s columns were presumed to be legitimate products of investigative reporting.
According to documents uncovered in the impeachment inquiry, Solomon shared drafts of what he wrote with Giuliani’s team before publishing the articles.
Step 7: Muddy the waters. One of the columns alleged evidence of a “Ukrainian plot to help Clinton.” Another mentioned the Bidens. The whistleblower complaint that set off the impeachment inquiry cites this article as among the key events leading up to Trump’s demand that the Ukrainians do him “a favor” and investigate the Bidens. Former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch recalled in her impeachment testimony that other Solomon articles launched a campaign to discredit her.
Step 8. Amplify the narrative in conservative media. Once published in The Hill, Solomon’s articles were repeated on Fox News and tweeted by Trump and his son Donald, Jr. Fox’s Hannity and other conservative hosts often identified Solomon as an investigative reporter.
Besides writing for The Hill, Solomon himself appears on Fox News and on right-wing radio. In effect, conservative audiences heard Solomon’s stories from multiple sources.
Step 9: Repeat as often as possible. By the time of the impeachment hearings, this counter-narrative about the Bidens and about Ukraine helping Clinton in 2016 – although based on literally nothing – had months of apparent confirmation in conservative media. Mainstream media, trying to be “balanced,” gave it air time.
Trump’s weaponization of information was complete.
Robert B. Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock”, “The Work of Nations,” and”Beyond Outrage,” and, his most recent, “The Common Good,” which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, “Inequality For All.” He’s co-creator of the Netflix original documentary “Saving Capitalism,” which is streaming now.