Democracy in peril: Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign began months before Zelenskyy took office

Ukraine may have saved our democracy and its own back in 2019 by resisting Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the country’s government into announcing an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden.

What many people don’t realize is that Rudy Giuliani had already begun pushing to get the Ukrainian government to announce such an investigation as early as January 2019, when he met in New York with Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko. That’s months before Volodymyr Zelenskyy, running on an anti-corruption platform, won the April 21, 2019, presidential run-off election against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Biden officially announced his candidacy just four days later.

I would recommend that everyone read the Ukrainegate timeline prepared by Just Security, an online forum that analyzes U.S. national security policy. It outlines the complex chain of events in the campaign to pressure Ukraine that eventually resulted in Trump’s first impeachment. And there was a a quid pro quo offered to Poroshenko—although it did not involve withholding weapons, according to the Just Security timeline.

The Wall Street Journal reported that in late Feburary 2019, Giuliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman met with Poroshenko to press him to initiate an investigation of Hunter Biden and a debunked theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Hillary Clinton. They said if Poroshenko went along he would be rewarded with a state visit to the White House. That would have been a boon to Poroshenko, who was in a tough campaign for reelection against Zelenskyy.

Now imagine an alternate history in which Ukraine’s top prosecutor had announced an investigation of the Bidens in March 2019. Poroshenko was pushed to the brink, but did not yield to the pressure.

Poroshenko and Trump in 2017

It would have come completely out of the blue, since there was no “perfect” phone call or whistleblower at the time. Just think about how CNN or The New York Times would have reported on the investigation. How would Biden have reacted to a nasty smear campaign against his sole surviving son, who was in a fragile state as he struggled to recover from substance abuse problems? 

New York Times story dated Feb. 26, 2019 said Biden had held a family meeting earlier that month in which there was a “consensus” that he should run for president. But at the same time, Biden acknowledged in a speech at the University of Delaware that he had been uneasy about “taking the family through what would be a very, very, very difficult campaign” against Trump. “I don’t think he’s likely to stop at anything, whomever he runs against,” Biden said.

If Ukraine had done Giuliani’s bidding, Biden might very well have decided against entering the race. At best, Biden would have entered the campaign as a weakened frontrunner, with a dark cloud hanging over his head. Either way, Democrats would have faced an even more contentious primary contest, which might have yielded a weakened candidate whom Trump would have had a better chance of defeating.

A second Trump term would have posed an undeniable threat to our democracy. As for Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s puppet would have continued undermining NATO and done little to help Kyiv resist Russian aggression.

In Trump’s mind, Ukraine, not Russia, was his enemy. 

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Let’s look more closely at what happened in the months before Zelenskyy’s inauguration on May 20, 2019. What happened after his inauguration was well-documented by Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson in March 14’s “Trump’s Ukraine extortion campaign didn’t begin or end with `I would like you to do us a favor.”

In August 2018, polls showed that Biden was leading Trump in a head-to-head matchup, and also leading the potential Democratic primary field. Biden indicated that fall that he was strongly considering a 2020 presidential bid. Around the same time, Giuliani Partners was hired by the Boca Raton, Florida, company Fraud Guarantee, co-founded by Parnas, a Ukrainian-American businessman. Giuliani ultimately was paid $500,000 for undisclosed business and legal advice, according to Reuters.

Lev Parnas in 2020
Parnas and his associate Igor Fruman were later convicted in a campaign fraud finance case, for using funds from a foreign investor to try to influence political candidates through campaign donations. There was a $325,000 donation to the pro-Trump American First PAC from a shell company set up by Parnas and Fruman. That was enough for both men to get invited to an exclusive donors’ dinner in April 2018 with Trump at his Washington hotel, at which both men urged the president to fire U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, an anti-corruption crusader, claiming that she was unfriendly to Trump, The Washington Post reported
Parnas and Fruman became Giuliani’s facilitators and translators as he revved up efforts to go after Biden, even though he had yet to declare his candidacy.
 

WAS RUDY A “USEFUL TOOL” FOR A DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN BY RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE?

Now there’s one big unanswered question: Was Giuliani wittingly or unwittingly acting as a “useful tool” to spread disinformation prepared by Russian intelligence aimed at derailing Biden’s presidential campaign? It’s not implausible, because U.S. Intelligence has already confirmed that Russia was spreading disinformation about Biden’s mental health
Giuliani and Trump in 2016
The Washington Post reported in October 2020 that U.S. intelligence agencies had warned the White House in 2019 that Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence and being used to feed disinformation to Trump. Giuliani did ask Ukraine to probe accusations that Ukrainian officials plotted to rig the 2016 presidential election in Hillary Clinton’s favor, by leaking evidence against Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager. Giuliani wanted Ukraine to investigate a mysterious Democratic National Committee server that Trump believed was hidden in Ukraine.
During the November 2019, House Intelligence Committee hearings, Fiona Hill, the former Russia expert for the National Security Council, called out House Republicans for pushing the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” Hill said.
Giuliani was pushing allegations that Biden, while vice president to Barack Obama, pushed to get Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin dismissed, in order to avoid a corruption investigation of Ukraine’s Burisma energy company, whose board members included Hunter Biden. But Giuliani could not have come up with this conspiracy theory on his own, because it was totally baseless. It’s logical to assume that this notion was spoon fed to Giuliani, who eagerly swallowed it.
One method used by Russian intelligence operatives is to put ideas into the head of someone who is receptive to the same goal—in this case derailing Biden’s candidacy. The notion that Biden stood a good chance of defeating Trump in 2020 must have really stuck in Giuliani’s craw. It was Biden who turned “America’s mayor” into a national laughingstock in an October 2007 Democratic presidential debate.

“Rudy Giuliani. There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence — a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else! There’s nothing else! And I mean this sincerely. He’s genuinely not qualified to be president,” Biden said.

At the time, Giuliani was the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. He ended up running one of the most humiliating campaigns in modern U.S. political history, raising more than $60 million and winning only one delegate before dropping out. Giuliani then vanished into the political wilderness for eight years, only to reemerge as Trump’s personal lawyer and hatchet man.

Giuliani had access to Trump, who had repeatedly expressed his willingness to get dirt on his political opponents from foreign sources. Giuliani’s international consulting practice had clients in Ukraine dating back to at least 2008, including Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion.
During Trump’s first impeachment trial, Giuliani put out this intriguing tweet:

...incriminating documents. It was already a fully-intact bribery/extortion case. The reason you don’t know about it is because of the cover up by the corrupt Democrats and their establishment media!

— Rudy W. Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) January 27, 2020

The dossier was allegedly handed to Giuliani sometime in the fall of 2018. That raises some obvious questions: Who prepared it? What were its contents? Who were the witnesses? And who gave the dossier to Giuliani?

There are many possible suspects. A month before Trump’s first impeachment trial, NBC News published a guide to the controversial figures helping Giuliani dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. The story noted that “most of them have ties to pro-Russian political figures or oligarchs.” Three names stand out in this rogues’ gallery: Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia member of Ukraine’s parliament; Kostiantyn Kulyk, a former prosecutor; and Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian energy tycoon with deep ties to Russia.

Derkach studied at the FSB intelligence service academy in Moscow in the 1990s. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote that a top-secret CIA assessment had concluded that Putin and his top aides are “probably directing” a Russian foreign influence operation which involves Derkach, identified by U.S. intelligence as a Russian agent, who has been providing anti-Biden information to Giuliani.

Kulyk did prepare a seven-page, English-language dossier in late 2018 that accused Hunter Biden of corruption related to his service on Burisma’s board, according to The New York Times. The dossier also made the dubious claim that U.S. diplomats covered up for crimes committed by the Bidens. Ukrainian officials said Kulyk had ties to a warlord in eastern Ukraine, accused of working for the Russian intelligence services. It’s not clear whether this was the same dossier that Giuliani was referring to in his tweet.

Firtash has been fighting extradition from Austria to the U.S. on bribery and racketeering charges. Parnas has alleged that Giuliani offered help with Firtash’s U.S. legal problems, in exchange for helping with the hunt for compromising information on the Bidens. Federal prosecutors also alleged that Parnas received a $1 million loan from a lawyer for Firtash. 

Firtash was also involved in investment projects with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who previously was paid millions of dollars to work as a political consultant for Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

HOW GIULIANI PUT THE SQUEEZE ON UKRAINE BEFORE ZELENSKYY’S ELECTION 

At the annual White House Hannukah party on Dec. 6, 2018, Parnas and Fruman held a private meeting with Trump and Giuliani. CNN reported that Trump tasked them to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, according to associates of Parnas. 

Parnas and Giuliani in 2018

In December 2018, Parnas and Fruman arranged a Skype call between Giuliani and Shokin, the former Ukraine prosecutor general who was the source of the debunked reports that Joe Biden had him fired to stop him from investigating wrongdoing in Burisma.

Biden actually was among multiple Western officials who had urged Ukraine to dismiss Shokin from his post at the country’s top prosecutor because of his insufficient efforts to combat corruption.

Bloomberg News reported that Giuliani met for the first time with then-Ukraine Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko in New York on Jan. 25-26, 2019. Giuliani held another meeting with the Ukrainian prosecutor in Warsaw, Poland, in mid-February. Parnas and Fruman attended both meetings.

And then in late February we get to the quid pro quo, with Giuliani’s associates telling Poroshenko that if Ukraine announced an investigation of the Bidens, he would be rewarded with a state visit to the White House.

Yet why didn’t the Trump administration try to extort Poroshenko by withholding shipments of lethal weapons? Perhaps because there might have been a previous quid pro quo.

In March 2018, the Pentagon approved the sale of 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. In early April, a Ukraine anti-corruption prosecutor froze four cases involving Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, The New York Times reported. Ukraine also announced it was halting all cooperation with the Mueller investigation. One of the cases resulted from the mysterious black ledger. In August 2016, Ukraine officials revealed the existence of a secret ledger, which appeared to detail payouts totaling $12.5 million to Manafort for his work as a consultant to Yanukovych.

But there was a catch that rendered the Javelin sale mostly symbolic. The U.S. insisted that the missiles be stored in western Ukraine, hundreds of miles from the frontlines in the eastern Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces were battling pro-Russian separatists, The Atlantic reported.

During their early 2019 meetings, Lutsenko fed some information to Giuliani, including bank records that detailed Burisma’s payments to Hunter Biden. But the records did not indicate any wrongdoing by Hunter Biden, according to a New Yorker profile of the Ukrainian prosecutor. Lutsenko told The New Yorker that he suggested to Giuliani that, if U.S. authorities opened an investigation into the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine, the prosecutor-general’s office would share any relevant information.

But Lutsenko soon realized that what seemed most important to Giuliani was to get him to announce investigations into the Bidens and into claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to The New Yorker. Lutsenko said he didn’t have any grounds to open such investigations under Ukrainian law. Lutsenko said he sensed that Poroshenko was worried that publicly announcing such investigations would damage Ukraine’s relations with the Democratic Party.

Ukraine had enjoyed strong bipartisan support until Trump came along. Trump’s Republican loyalists were already spouting conspiracy theories put forth by Russian intelligence that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election to help Clinton.

“I was near the red line, but I didn’t cross it,” Lutsenko told The New Yorker. “I was wondering what kind of game he (Giuliani) was playing. I felt like we were getting scammed.”

WE NEED A COUNTERESPIONAGE INVESTIGATION OF TRUMP, GIULIANI, MANAFORT, ET AL.

Imagine the consequences today if Poroshenko and Lutsenko had crossed that red line back in early 2019.

Instead, Giuliani and his associates were back at square one with Zelenskyy’s election. That set in motion the series of events leading to Trump’s “perfect” phone call to Zelenskyy, the arms-for-dirt extortion plot, and the president’s eventual impeachment (the first one, anyway).

The Mueller probe barely uncovered the tip of the iceberg, because its scope was limited to looking only into collusion between Russia and Trump during the 2015-2016 presidential campaign.

The DOJ should make a deal with Parnas and/or Fruman to reduce their sentences in exchange for information about whether Russian intelligence used Giuliani to interfere in the 2020 election by undermining Biden’s campaign. It is also high time that a counterespionage investigation be opened against Manafort, if it is not already under way.

And above all else, we need a comprehensive investigation of Trump’s dealings with Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs over the decades. With the help of former Attorney General William Barr and others, Trump has been able to escape any consequences for his ties to Russia.

Our nation will never be secure until these criminals are exposed and held to account.