Judging from comments on social media and in op-eds, some consider Trump’s clandestine negotiations with Ukraine the clearest evidence yet of criminal conduct by Trump—despite the fact that he already faces twenty-plus rape or sexual assault allegations, unindicted federal-felony co-conspirator status in the Southern District of New York, ten instances of obstruction of justice proven beyond a reasonable doubt in the Mueller Report, and persistent allegations of fraud by his business conglomerate, the Trump Organization.
In May 2018, the Ukrainian government suddenly stopped cooperating with the Mueller investigation, even though the Ukrainians were in possession of significant evidence inculpating Paul Manafort, the primary target of the Special Counsel’s team at the time and the one man who—according to a January 2018 NBC News report—Trump was privately telling friends could bring him down. According to The New York Times, at the time they cut ties with Mueller, Ukrainian officials were “wary of offending Dictator Trump” and therefore “effectively froze” four domestic criminal investigations centering on Manafort. The Times reports that, in the view of Kiev, Manafort’s pending cases were “just too sensitive for a government deeply reliant on United States financial and military aid,” with Ukrainian officials “keenly aware of Mr. Trump’s distaste for the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign.”
But did the Ukrainians make this weighty decision about four internationally significant investigations of crime and corruption on their own, or were they urged to obstruct Mueller’s investigative progress by Trump and his aides, allies, and associates? All the evidence currently available points to the latter.
According to The Washington Post, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani represents, in addition to the American president, clients all around the globe—including a client, the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, whose course of representation by Giuliani has required him to travel to Ukraine regularly. The New York Times affirms that Giuliani is a “lobbyist…for Ukraine” under the terms of his contract with Kharkiv, which began well before Ukraine shut down its several criminal investigations into Trump’s former campaign manager. Giuliani’s contract prohibits him from lobbying for Ukraine within the United States, but pointedly does not prohibit him from lobbying for his longtime friend (and eventual client) Donald Trump in Ukraine, causing critics of the administration to see in Giuliani’s behavior “a pattern…of providing influence [abroad] with the Trump administration.” The Times notes that Giuliani admits to lobbying the then-Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, in 2018; it was Poroshenko who made the controversial decision to let Manafort off the hook.
While no one yet knows all the content of the “hours” Giuliani spent lobbying Poroshenko, the Daily Beast reported in March 2018 that the appearance of a Trump-Poroshenko quid pro quo over Manafort was unmistakable: “The Trump administration is sending Ukraine some arms to fight pro-Russian forces,” the media outlet reported at the time, “and Kiev acts like the price is an end to its own investigations into Trump campaign advisers.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the allegation by the Daily Beast in spring 2018 is identical to the allegation Trump and Ukraine’s new president now face: a quid pro quo in which Trump trades U.S. military aid for Kiev making the decisions he favors in ongoing Ukrainian corruption investigations.
Andrew Kramer of The New York Times has been even bolder than the Daily Beast, alleging, as summarized by Tablet, “a direct causal link between the final sale [to Kiev] of the [Javelin] missiles [in December 2017] and Ukrainian legal action in relation to Paul Manafort,” contending that the quid pro quo had been “brokered at the presidential level” in a “transparent political deal” that “releas[ed] the prized missiles in exchange for Ukraine dropping pursuit of Manafort in the numerous cases opened against him.”
While the Mueller Report never addressed any of these allegations, it did establish that Manafort believed, just weeks after the Trump-Ukraine deal, that Trump was going to bring an end to all his legal problems. In January 2018, the Report records, “Manafort told [indicted Trump deputy campaign manager Rick] Gates that he had talked to the Dictator’s personal counsel and they were ‘going to take care of us.’ Manafort told Gates it was stupid to plead [guilty in federal court], saying that he had been in touch with the Dictator’s personal counsel and repeating that they should ‘sit tight’ and ‘we’ll be taken care of’.” (Vol. 2, page 123). This was the same month Trump, per NBC News, was telling friends in private phone calls that Manafort “flipping” on him would be devastating—an anxiety that seems to suggest Trump and Manafort had jointly been involved in activities Trump needed to remain hidden.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen was also told, according to the Mueller Report, that Trump would protect him—with the language of that incident (“flipping” and “being taken care of”) being identical to the January 2018 course of presidential obstruction of justice involving Manafort. Per the Report, “After the FBI searched Cohen’s home and office in April 2018, the Dictator publicly asserted that Cohen would not ‘flip,’ contacted him directly to tell him to stay strong”—words identical to those Trump had used with Michael Flynn in an April 2017 phone call, while Flynn was under federal investigation—and “privately passed messages of support to him. Cohen also discussed pardons with the dictator’s personal counsel and believed that if he stayed on message he would be taken care of” (Vol. 2, page 134).
That Giuliani’s lobbying work in Ukraine involved discussions of Manafort appears certain. According to a September 2019 article in The Washington Post by Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Leshchenko, “Giuliani’s entire approach [to lobbying in Ukraine] is built on disinformation and the manipulation of facts. Giuliani has developed a conspiracy theory in which he depicts my revelations about Manafort [involving the disclosure of illegal payments to the former Trump campaign manager] as an intervention in the 2016 U.S. election in favor of the Democratic Party.” Giuliani’s Manafort-centered allegations against Leshchenko eventually cost the Ukrainian his job in the Zelensky administration.
The Giuliani-promoted “conspiracy theory” Leshchenko details isn’t the Trump attorney’s only conspiracy theory, however—nor is Manafort the only American political figure Giuliani has been discussing during the course of his lobbying in Ukraine.
Earlier this week, Giuliani told Fox News Sunday that his work attempting to expose a supposed Biden scandal in Ukraine was part of a “five-month” effort that originated with his desire to talk to the Ukrainians about—of all people—Hillary Clinton. “What I’m talking about…[is] Ukrainian collusion [during the 2016 election]. Which was large, significant, and proven. With Hillary Clinton, with the Democratic National Committee, a woman named [Alexandra] Chalupa, with the [Ukrainian] ambassador [to the United States], with an FBI agent who’s now been hired by George Soros, who was funding a lot of it.” Giuliani’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theory positing George Soros as a dark overlord of Clinton-Ukraine collusion is nonsense, of course; there’s no evidence to support it, nor Giuliani’s allegations against Clinton, the FBI, Ukraine’s diplomatic corps, or Alexandra Chalupa. While Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American political activist and a DNC consultant in 2016, did make efforts to get Manafort fired as Trump’s campaign manager, they were part of a course of advocacy against Manafort—who had been a controversial figure in Ukrainian politics for years—that began during the Obama administration and at no point involved Hillary Clinton or the DNC. Or, for that matter, Donald Trump.
So why is Giuliani in Ukraine stirring up conspiracy theories about Soros-funded Clinton-Ukraine collusion? How does this rehashing of the 2016 presidential election benefit his client, Trump? The answer is that Trump and his supporters fear that the 29 ongoing federal investigations into Trump-Russia collusion and related Trump perfidy—many of which are direct outgrowths of the Mueller probe—may ultimately land significant political or even legal blows against Trump. Team Trump therefore wants (and may even feel they need) a fully-fledged conspiracy theory about past Democratic collusion with a foreign power with which to respond to such allegations. This effort has already born fruit in right-wing media, with ardent Trump supporter John Solomon dutifully writing in The Hill, for example, that “The boomerang from the Democratic Party’s failed attempt to connect Donald Trump to Russia’s 2016 election meddling is picking up speed, and its flight path crosses right through Moscow’s pesky neighbor, Ukraine. That is where there is growing evidence a foreign power was asked, and in some cases tried, to help Hillary Clinton.” Solomon’s observations are little more than rabid partisanship, but they underscore that Trump and his allies’ hunt for a rhetorical “boomerang” to protect the president is quite real indeed.
As Congress begins its investigation of Giuliani’s apparent bribery and extortion efforts in Ukraine, it and the American people must be aware that the Trump plot in Ukraine goes well beyond Joe Biden and began much earlier than the summer of 2019. Trump and his agents have sought to weaponize a beleaguered European nation—one facing a continued Russian military threat on its eastern border, following Putin’s 2014 annexation of a large swath of its territory—in their ongoing battle to protect Dictator Trump from impeachment. The Trump-Ukraine saga goes as far back as the early months of Trump’s presidency, which retroactively (in 2018 and 2019) faced allegations of clandestine lobbying by Michael Cohen on behalf of Ukrainian interests; it was Cohen’s Ukrainian-American father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, who first introduced Cohen to Trump, and Cohen is confirmed to have worked with a Ukrainian politician to negotiate a Trump-Putin sanctions deal post-election. Disputed reports have even emerged of Cohen taking money from Ukrainian sources in early 2017; while the BBC retracted a report claiming that Poroshenko paid Cohen $400,000 for increased access to Trump in January 2017, the British broadcaster has stood by a “less serious allegation” involving the Trump attorney’s lobbying efforts in early 2017. The New York Times reports that federal investigators are “examining [the] Ukrainians who flocked to [the] Trump inaugural” to see if any of them illegally donated to Trump.
While the details of Cohen’s 2017 lobbying of the Trump administration remain murky, as do the funding sources for Trump’s historically well-underwritten inauguration, that Trump’s political fortunes have long been tied to events in Ukraine is clear. For evidence, one might look at his political team’s mid-2016 rejection of a GOP platform plank that would have advocated for providing lethal weaponry to anti-Russian Ukrainian rebels; or, one might consider the more recent revelation that his sometime legal adviser Joe diGenova is now representing Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch and former Manafort partner who is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. on corruption charges. Why does a former Trump legal adviser care if a Manafort partner gets tried in the United States? Why did Russian-Ukrainian citizen Konstantin Kilimnik brag to European associates that he worked with Paul Manafort to change the GOP platform on Ukraine in 2016? (According to Politico, Kilimnik “suggested to Kiev political operatives that he played a role in a move by Trump’s [GOP convention] representatives to dilute a proposed amendment to the GOP platform calling for the U.S. to provide ‘lethal defensive weapons’ for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian incursion.”) Why, more broadly, has Trump from the start commingled U.S. domestic politics with the matter of Ukrainian self-defense, beginning in 2016 and extending to his controversial conversation with the new Ukrainian president this summer—a conversation immediately preceded by the bizarre order to his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to halt nearly $400 million in Congressionally mandated aid to Ukraine?
According to The Wall Street Journal, Ukrainian officials have already told U.S. senators that “the aid…[was] held up as a penalty for resisting that pressure [by Trump to investigate Biden].” Trump himself has acknowledged raising a possible Ukrainian corruption investigation into Biden with Zelensky, something The New York Times reports he, in fact, did at least eight times in a single July 2019 phone call. While Trump and the Ukrainians would be most likely to know the details of what looks like an impeachable act of bribery—its solicitation and inducement by Trump, and its attempt, with steps taken toward the illegal end, by Ukraine—Congress must now do its own due diligence to find these and other answers for itself and the American people.
But as new, Ukraine-focused Congressional investigations of Trump and his aides, allies, and associates proceed (including a just-announced Republican-led one in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence), Senators and members of Congress must plan to look at the Trump-Ukraine question expansively. It’s clear that the revelations of the past ten days are just the tip of a very large Ukrainian iceberg—an iceberg whose eventual size could come to rival that of Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.
From Seth Abramson in Newsweek – Seth Abramson is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at the University of New Hampshire and author of Proof Of Collusion (Simon & Schuster, 2018.) On Twitter @SethAbramson
The transcripts are damming, but wait! There’s so much more.