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Analysis

A NY Times reporter dug into Ukraine and the Democrats. Critics are still howling.

Former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in before testifying at House Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 15, 2019. During the hearing, articles written by New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel repeatedly came up to validate President Donald Trump's theory about Ukrainian officials during the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By PAUL FARHI | The Washington Post | Published: November 16, 2019

New York Times reporter Kenneth P. Vogel was on the Ukraine conspiracy story early and in depth.

Vogel was the co-author of a Times story in May that suggested that Joe Biden intervened in Ukraine in 2016 to help a company that employed the former vice president's son, Hunter. As a staff writer at Politico in early 2017, he co-authored another piece that suggested that the Democratic National Committee had cooperated with Ukrainian efforts to thwart Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign.

Both articles have been cited by President Trump's allies as support for a broader theory that Ukrainian sources sought to influence the 2016 election in Democrat Hillary Clinton's favor and that Biden acted corruptly as vice president, thus justifying an investigation.

These claims are a crucial part of Trump's defense in the House impeachment inquiry. 

Both Politico and the Times defended the reporter's work, and Vogel told The Washington Post on Friday: "Not a single fact in either story has been successfully challenged. Both stories were prescient, revealing information that has come to play a central role in the impeachment saga."

He added, "The Politico story revealed the genesis of Trump's grudge against Ukraine, and the Times story exposed the Trump team's pressure campaign against Ukraine."

Vogel's January 2017 Politico article (co-written with David L. Stern, now a freelance contributor to The Washington Post) extensively detailed Ukrainian efforts to undermine Trump in 2016, such as publicly questioning his fitness for office, disseminating documents implicating Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman at the time, in corruption and helping a Clinton ally research damaging information about him.

The lead of the story implied an equivalence with Russian efforts to undermine Clinton: "Donald Trump wasn't the only presidential candidate whose campaign was boosted by officials of a former Soviet bloc country," Vogel and Stern wrote.

The story came up repeatedly during Wednesday's impeachment hearing. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Republican counsel Stephen Castor cited it several times in questioning diplomat William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine. Both Nunes and Castor strongly suggested that the story validated Trump's theory about Ukrainian officials during 2016.

The story "gives rise to some concern that there are elements of the Ukrainian establishment that were out to get the president," Castor said during the hearing. "That's a very reasonable belief of [Trump's], correct?"

Taylor said he didn't know and was unfamiliar with the story until recently.

Castor again brought up Vogel's articles in Friday's hearing to suggest that "influential elements of the Ukrainian establishment" were out to get Trump.

But in testimony by Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, she dismissed these as "isolated incidents," not a government-orchestrated initiative. She replied, "I would remind you again that our intelligence community has determined that those who interfered in the [U.S.] election" were Russians.

Top officials from Trump's National Security Council have dismissed the notion of Ukrainian interference. In depositions given to congressional investigators earlier this month, former National Security Council staffers Fiona Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified that they saw no evidence of Ukrainian meddling in 2016. Hill called such a notion "a fiction."

Politico implicitly contradicted its own 2017 story by reporting last week that "no evidence has emerged to support" the idea of a Ukrainian campaign.

Vogel's New York Times story, published May 1, was among the earliest to raise questions about Biden's role in Ukraine during his time as vice president.

The Times story recounted Biden's threat in March 2016 to withhold $1 billion in American loan guarantees if Ukraine's leaders didn't fire the country's top prosecutor, who was long suspected of ignoring corruption in the country. It juxtaposed Biden's advocacy with Hunter Biden's role as a board member of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company headed by a Ukrainian oligarch "who had been in the sights of the fired prosecutor general." The article noted that the conflict-of-interest claim was being fanned by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and allies in the conservative media.

The suggestion that Joe Biden had acted improperly was driven home by the web headline on the story: "Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies." The print headline on the front-page story raised an eyebrow, too: "For Biden, a Ukraine Matter That Won't Go Away."

It wasn't until the 19th paragraph, however, that the story noted that the conflict-of-interest angle was dubious. "No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor general's dismissal," it said.

In the months since the Vogel story's publication, critics have slammed it, saying it advanced Trump and Giuliani's smear campaign against Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate in 2020.

In a letter last month to Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, Kate Bedingfield, Biden's campaign manager, compared Vogel's May 1 piece to fringe conspiracy stories. She called it an "egregious act of journalistic malpractice." (The story generated a secondary controversy when Vogel's co-author, freelancer Iuliia Mendel, announced soon after publication that she would become the chief spokeswoman for Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's newly elected president).

A Times spokeswoman, Eileen Murphy, said Vogel's May 1 story is "accurate and consistent with our mission to seek the truth and help people understand the world."

Politico spokesman Brad Dayspring also defended Vogel's reporting. He said the 2017 article detailed instances in which Ukrainian officials "sought to raise questions" about Trump and his campaign, and detailed cooperation by Ukrainian officials with a Democratic National Committee consultant, Alexandra Chalupa, who was researching Manafort's activities in Ukraine.

But Dayspring stressed that the article was limited in its assertions. It didn't say these acts were comparable to Russia's meddling in the 2016 election, nor did it assert a broader conspiracy, he said. It "did not state that the Ukrainian government conspired with the Clinton campaign or the DNC," he said.

Murphy also noted what the Times story didn't say - that Biden's actions were intended to help his son. Instead, she said, it raised questions for the first time about whether Trump was behind an effort to push a foreign government to investigate a political opponent and exposed other ways in which Giuliani and Trump were seeking to "weaponize" allegations against Joe and Hunter Biden.

Baquet, in a brief email, said, "My only addition is that I believe Ken has done amazing work on this story." 
 

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