WASHINGTON — In weeks of closed-door testimony, American officials who worked in Ukraine kept circling back to the work of one journalist, John Solomon, whose articles they said appeared to have considerable currency with President Trump’s inner circle.
They had never known Mr. Solomon to be an authority on Ukrainian politics before, and certainly not someone with particular insights into the American ambassador to Ukraine who was a frequent target of his. So when Rudolph W. Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and the president himself started talking about his stories, those officials began closely following what he wrote.
Asked how she first learned of Mr. Giuliani’s interest in Ukraine, Fiona Hill, Mr. Trump’s former adviser on Russia and Europe, replied, in part, “John Solomon.”
Mr. Solomon has been a surprisingly central figure in the impeachment proceedings so far. But the glare has not been so kind.
One witness testified to Congress that an article of his was full of “non-truths and non sequiturs.” Another witness said that he could not recall a single thing that was correct in one of Mr. Solomon’s stories, then added sarcastically, “His grammar might have been right.”
So who exactly is John Solomon? A Washington-based reporter and Fox News personality who had until recently been working at the politics outlet The Hill, Mr. Solomon, 52, is not well known outside conservative media. But, according to interviews and testimony, his writing and commentary helped trigger the chain of events that are now the subject of the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump.
Though he worked for years at The Associated Press and briefly at The Washington Post, he moved on from mainstream outlets and now sits at the center of a network of conservative journalists, radio hosts, cable news pundits and activists whose work reaches millions of Americans every day, and shapes the way a large swath of the country sees this pivotal moment.
Understanding their work is key to explaining how Mr. Trump’s approval ratings remain so durable with his base — and why, as some polls suggest, far more direct and damaging evidence would have to emerge from the impeachment hearings that begin their public phase on Wednesday for that support to crack.
According to transcripts released last week, Mr. Solomon and his pieces for The Hill are a focus for congressional investigators as they look into Mr. Trump’s efforts to push Ukrainian officials to investigate his rivals. One particular area of interest for Democrats, the transcripts show, is Mr. Solomon’s role in advancing claims by Mr. Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, that former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family deserved to be investigated for their own dealings in Ukraine.
In an interview, Mr. Giuliani said he turned to Mr. Solomon earlier this year with a cache of information he believed contained damaging details about Mr. Biden, his son, Hunter Biden, and the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I really turned my stuff over to John Solomon,” Mr. Giuliani said. “I had no other choice,” he added, asserting that Obama-era officials still “infected” the Justice Department and wouldn’t have diligently investigated the information he had compiled.
“So I said here’s the way to do it — I’m going to give it to the watchdogs of integrity, the fourth estate,” he said.
‘The Woodward and Bernsteins of our time’
Mr. Solomon’s work has been endorsed by some of the most influential figures on the right like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and the president, who has highlighted Mr. Solomon’s articles on Twitter.
Mark Levin, the radio and Fox host, recently said that Mr. Solomon and Sara Carter, a journalist with whom he frequently appears on television, were “like the Woodward and Bernsteins of our time.”
Media scholars describe the environment that has elevated Mr. Solomon’s stories as an information ecosystem entirely sealed off from other news coverage.
Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Columbia University who studies the conservative media, said people often mistakenly refer to the Fox News-talk radio world as an “echo chamber” of opinion when in fact it is more like “an interconnected set of authorities.”
“Sean Hannity talks about John Solomon,” she said, “and then that gets picked up on Rush and Levin.” The effect, she added, is that his reporting carries weight with conservative audiences. “That gives it an authority when they’re hearing it from multiple sources every day.”
When Mr. Solomon appears on television and the radio, Mr. Hannity and other conservative hosts often identify him as an investigative reporter and cite his decades of experience at news organizations like The A.P. But his critics see this as a sleight of hand to give his writing a veneer of nonpartisan objectivity.
“Part of the issue is that for years he was identified with the mainstream media,” said James Manley, a former aide to Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader who tangled with Mr. Solomon in the 2000s over stories insinuating Mr. Reid had benefited inappropriately from his office. The Columbia Journalism Review later singled out Mr. Solomon’s reporting, saying it was “much ado about very little.”
An examination of Mr. Solomon’s reporting methods and interviews with people who have worked with him during his decades-long career in Washington show that his techniques blur the boundaries meant to keep journalist-source relationships at an arm’s length. And for some of his biggest stories on Ukraine, he has relied on a prosecutor with a history of making inconsistent statements who is now under criminal investigation.
At one point while he was employed as a columnist for The Hill and publishing regular pieces favorable to the president, Mr. Solomon discussed with colleagues a proposal to create a transparency office in the Trump White House. Some colleagues believed he might have wanted to run this office, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation.
(Unlike Fox, The Hill put a disclaimer over Mr. Solomon’s writing indicating that it was opinion starting in May of 2018 after complaints from colleagues about what they saw as one-sidedness in his work, The Post reported at the time.)
Mr. Solomon denied that he has ever sought work in any administration and said the transparency office proposal had “nothing to do with seeking a job.” He added, “It had to do with fostering an idea for more transparency.” As for the attacks on his work from the impeachment witnesses, he said, “The N.S.C. and State officials are entitled to their opinions of my reporting.”
A close look at one piece by Mr. Solomon shows how far one of his assertions, later called into doubt, can reverberate at the highest levels of the government.
In late March, Mr. Solomon and his team published pieces in The Hill making sensational claims of misconduct at the State Department: The American ambassador to Ukraine, a career foreign service officer who assumed her post during the Obama administration, had privately bad-mouthed Mr. Trump and, separately, had previously provided to Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general at the time, a list of individuals that Mr. Lutsenko should not prosecute. In conservative circles, where suspicion of anti-Trump officials working inside the government runs high, the allegation fit with the narrative that institutions like the State Department are rife with bad actors.
But there was less to the do-not-prosecute list than it appeared. The State Department dismissed it as “an outright fabrication.” Mr. Lutsenko changed his story and acknowledged that what he is quoted describing in Mr. Solomon’s report — “a list of people whom we should not prosecute” given to him by the ambassador — did not actually exist.
In an interview with The New York Times last month, Mr. Lutsenko blamed the confusion on the interpreter who handled his interview with The Hill. But he insisted that the ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, had in fact asked him not to target certain politicians and activists who worked with the embassy on its anti-corruption efforts.
But among Mr. Trump’s allies and media boosters, the story line was set: A corrupt ambassador who did not like the president was misusing her authority to protect her friends. In the whistle-blower complaint that set off the impeachment inquiry, those articles and others by Mr. Solomon are cited as among the key events leading up to Mr. Trump’s demand that the Ukranians do him “a favor” and investigate the Bidens.
Mr. Solomon said in an email that Mr. Lutsenko was adamant he had not changed his story when the two spoke for a follow-up interview. The back-and-forth over the existence of a formal list, he said, is a “classic he-said, she-said dispute,” which he believes his coverage accurately reflected. “The idea I should have some regret for accurately quoting a major news figure in Ukraine is preposterous,” he said.
The “don’t prosecute” story gained considerable traction in conservative media. It drew the attention of the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who in March tweeted that Ms. Yovanovitch was a “joker” who shouldn’t be in the job. In May, the Trump administration recalled her from her position.
In his testimony, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, seemed alarmed at how quickly Mr. Solomon’s story was amplified by high-profile figures like Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump’s son. He testified that the entire thing “smelled really rotten.”
‘Reporting truth’ with unusual methods
Mr. Solomon grew up in Connecticut where his father was a police officer and later served as chief of police for the town of Easton. Before working for conservative outlets, he held senior reporting jobs at a number of mainstream organizations, including The A.P., where he worked for almost 20 years, and The Post, where he pursued investigative projects that often focused on federal law enforcement.
Mr. Solomon won an award in 2002 for coordinating the A.P.’s investigations into the law enforcement failures that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks. He joined The Post in 2007 but stayed only a short period before leaving for the Washington Times, telling his bosses that he could not pass up the large salary the conservative paper was offering.
His work at The Hill since 2017 has generated the most notice and controversy of his career. His reporting was of considerable value to the outlet’s publisher, James Finkelstein, who has been friends with Mr. Trump for decades and saw Mr. Solomon as a high-profile hire whose frequent Fox News appearances could help generate buzz and traffic for the website.
While Mr. Solomon was at The Hill, his relationships with sources were sometimes closer than reporters typically get with the people they cover. In March, according to documents uncovered as part of the impeachment inquiry, he shared a draft of one of his stories before publication with a noteworthy group: people who had helped gather the information that Mr. Giuliani had provided to Mr. Solomon.
They included Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, two lawyers who have been working with Mr. Giuliani to undermine the investigations into Mr. Trump, and Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-American businessman who helped connect Mr. Giuliani to Mr. Lutsenko. Mr. Solomon said “I do go over stories in advance” with sources for accuracy, not to tip them off to the content.
Mr. Solomon left The Hill in September under circumstances that neither he nor the paper have fully described. He has not said what his new venture will be — or how it is being funded — other than to describe it to former colleagues as a media start-up. For the time being, he is publishing his work on his personal website. His slogan is “Reporting Truth.”
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.