New evidence shows exactly how influenced by the right-wing online echo chamber Giuliani and his associates were — turns out the answer is: a lot.
House Democrats released dozens of pages of new documents related to the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Tuesday night, including texts between Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer working for the president, and one of his associates, Lev Parnas, who in spring and summer 2019 was helping him dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden. These texts provide a glimpse of what these men were consuming online and how that impacted their investigation.
WhatsApp messages from Parnas to Giuliani and Republican congressional candidate Robert F. Hyde are included in the evidence. These messages suggest that someone working with Hyde was physically surveilling then–US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch — whom Trump removed in May 2019. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry announced a criminal probe Thursday into alleged illegal surveillance of Yovanovitch following the release of Parnas and Hyde’s messages.
On Wednesday night, Parnas told Rachel Maddow that he never took Hyde seriously about the surveillance of Yovanovitch and claimed Hyde was always drunk when he saw him. But as they discussed Yovanovitch’s whereabouts, it was Parnas who was regularly sending Hyde material gleaned from hyperpartisan news sites and right-wing influencers.
Parnas’s text messages are the clearest indication yet of what Giuliani and his team were paying attention to online during a critical moment that would eventually lead to Trump’s impeachment. Many of the details make little sense without the context of a sprawling and nonsensical pro-Trump conspiracy theory built by anonymous message boards, Facebook Groups, rabid Twitter gangs, radicalized YouTube channels, and Fox News segments — all of which was shared among the men.
With this new evidence, we’re now closer than ever to knowing exactly how influenced by this digital morass they were — turns out the answer is: a lot.
In March 2019, Parnas was working with Yuriy Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general of Ukraine, to investigate Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma. On March 21, Parnas entered an encrypted WhatsApp chat with Hyde, a Republican currently running for Congress in Connecticut.
Facebook posts from Hyde’s campaign are heavily promoted by two anonymously run pro-Trump networks of pages previously identified as coordinating with each other to share right-wing memes and stories, some of which are false or misleading. When asked about his relationship to the network of pages, Hyde told BuzzFeed News in November 2019 that he does not run them.
“These are bad people, I’m out to expose their actions. Attack me all you want, get the facts first,” Hyde tweeted last night. “The media is against me because they’re either complicit or have a hand in it, I welcome an investigation. I’ll provide my email password and hand my phone over, bring it on.”
After the two men entered the encrypted chat, Parnas texted Hyde five links in quick succession. The first was a tweet from Fox News host Laura Ingraham, which linked to an article by right-wing publisher the Washington Examiner titled “Mark Meadows: US Ambassadors Conspired With DOJ to Take Down Trump.”
Ingraham’s tweet was retweeted close to 2,000 times, but the Examiner article went viral elsewhere as well. It ended up on two different r/The_Donald posts and several big pro-Trump Facebook Groups. The article centered on an interview Sean Hannity did with North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who claimed an upcoming release of documents would prove that US ambassadors conspired with the FBI and the Justice Department to harm President Trump. (No such documents were subsequently revealed.)
The next link Parnas sent was an article from the Hill featuring an interview between Lutsenko and then–Hill columnist John Solomon, whose stories about Ukraine have set the agenda for much of the conservative news coverage leading up to Trump’s impeachment. As with the Examiner article, the Hill piece was shared heavily inside Facebook Groups like Team Trump 2020 and Texas for Donald Trump 2020 as well as the r/The_Donald subreddit.
Parnas also shared a tweet from Hannity. The tweet is no longer available, but, according to an archived version of it, the host was promoting Solomon’s interview with Lutsenko.
A minute later, Parnas sent two more Hill articles: another write-up of a Solomon interview with Lutsenko, and an article by Solomon about a “Ukrainian plot” to help Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election.
Hyde didn’t reply.
The next day, March 22, 2019, Parnas continued to send links to Hyde. First, a Washington Examiner article titled “White House Personnel Official Described Trump GOP Nomination As ‘End of the World’,” which included Slack messages from Courtney Mullen, a staffer at a conservative voter outreach organization inviting her colleagues to an “end of the world” happy hour following Trump’s presidential victory.
Then Parnas sent Hyde a tweet from Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who is now a far-right radio show host.
“What was Joe Biden doing in Ukraine during the month his son Hunter was named to a key board position in an influential Ukrainian company[?]” Bongino tweeted.
Hyde then responded to Parnas for the first time since their encrypted chat started the day before. “Fuck that bitch,” he texted, seemingly in reference to Mullen.
The two men spent the next day texting each other, and Hyde claimed he was closely monitoring Yovanovitch’s movements in Kyiv. In response, Parnas shared a story about her from the right-wing news site Daily Wire titled “Calls Grow to Remove Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.”
At one point Hyde seemed confused by the volume of links that Parnas sent. Hyde sent back the link about the anti-Trump happy hour and wrote, “what should I do with this?”
On March 27, 2019, Parnas sent by far the most obscure piece of media in the exchange, a YouTube video titled “Trumps takedown of FBI (Winning montage!).” The YouTube channel it comes from has only nine subscribers. By the time Parnas texted it, it was already a year old, having all but died in obscurity. As of this week, it’s only been watched around 4,000 times.
But the video did receive a bit of activity from Trump supporters the week it was dropped into Parnas’s WhatsApp, though. That week, it was featured on r/The_Donald in a post titled “SOON,” was promoted heavily by QAnon-affiliated Twitter accounts, and was tweeted several times by one account called “Deplorable Nurse Ratchett luvs Q.”
The majority of links Parnas sent Hyde that March were all being heavily shared within radicalized communities like Reddit and by conspiratorial pro-Trump influencers on Twitter. If Parnas wasn’t directly visiting r/The_Donald, the WhatsApp chat logs released on Tuesday night make it clear that he was drawing his misinformation from the same well. It also gives us a better understanding of how Parnas used pro-Trump internet ephemera to reinforce what Hyde was doing in Ukraine — even if the investigation was based on internet conspiracy theories.
According to the Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees, Parnas “continues to provide material responsive to the subpoena on a rolling basis.”