President Trump went down in history this month as the third president to be impeached, in part over an abuse of power allegation involving an attempt to extort Ukraine into attacking Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden.
But the story of the pressure campaign actually begins long before this year, with an individual who has gone without much mentioned during the impeachment inquiry: Paul Manafort.
Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign in August 2016, in the wake of a damning New York Times story suggesting that he had taken $12.7 million in off-the-books payments from his Ukrainian clients. Steve Bannon, Manafort’s successor as campaign chairman, reportedly called the story a “killshot.”
But conversations with multiple people involved and a close look at the public record reveal that the circumstances of Manafort’s downfall were the seed from which the Ukraine pressure campaign — and, ultimately, President Trump’s impeachment — grew.
In the months after Trump’s victory in November 2016, he and his allies leaned on a narrative that Manafort was the victim of a Ukrainian campaign to fabricate financial records and release them to the media. Ukraine, they claimed, targeted Manafort in “collusion” with the Democratic National Committee.
Trumpworld began to use these interference accusations to defend the President against allegations of collusion with Russia. And, as time wore on, Giuliani began to investigate the underlying allegations themselves.
It’s not clear whether Trump, or other administration officials, took any official actions to pressure Ukraine to manufacture dirt before 2019. But for much of 2017 and 2018, there appears to have been a recognition among both Trump’s allies and officials in Ukraine that Manafort’s downfall was perceived in the White House as having been orchestrated by the Ukrainian government, and was detrimental to the two countries’ relations.
But looking at the pressure campaign through the prism of Manafort highlights the extent to which Ukrainian officials in 2016 perceived Trump’s candidacy as an existential threat. The then-Republican candidate had said in July 2016 that he would consider lifting sanctions on Russia, and might recognize the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea as Russian territory.
And when it came to Manafort, the situation was personal for both sides. The reigning government in Kyiv in 2016 had, after all, been installed following a violent revolution that led to Manafort’s client being deposed.
The black ledger
The August 2016 New York Times piece that precipitated Manafort’s ouster was based on a trove of documents known in Ukraine as the “black ledger.” It purports to show documentation of bribes paid out by the political party for which Manafort worked in Ukraine.
But what incensed Trump and his allies was less the allegations themselves than how they came to be. The New York Times cited Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau in its original story as having informed the newspaper that Manafort’s name appeared in the ledger.
That, in turn, has led to allegations from Trumpworld that it was Ukraine which interfered in the 2016 election — not Russia. Ukraine allegedly conspired with Democratic officials to hurt Trump by spreading doctored financial records about Manafort.
Much of this entered the media ecosystem through a January 2017 Politico article.
Citing Andrii Telizhenko, a former staffer at Ukraine’s embassy in Washington, Politico reported on allegations that the country’s D.C. delegation had tried to help the DNC “get enough information on Paul [Manafort] or Trump’s involvement with Russia” to merit a congressional hearing.
And once Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel in May 2017 and his investigation ramped up, Trump’s defenders increasingly began to suggest that Ukrainian attempts to damage Manafort were the real scandal.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said on July 16, 2017, that “Ukrainians were in direct contact with DNC officials,” while Trump himself addressed the theory, tweeting on July 25:
Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign – "quietly working to boost Clinton." So where is the investigation A.G. @seanhannity
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2017
Sean Hannity texted Manafort himself on Aug. 11 about “Ukraine interference,” after Manafort got in touch to praise a Hannity segment.
There’s no evidence to back up Telizhenko’s claims, and at least $1.2 million of the payments in the black ledger have reportedly been corroborated by bank records, though none of the transactions formed the basis of the charges for which Manafort was later prosecuted.
Nonetheless, the claim repeated by Trump allies was clear: Manafort was the victim of an attempt by the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2016 election.
But who, exactly, was responsible?
Telizhenko, via the Politico story, blamed the DNC and Ukraine’s embassy in Washington. But those following the story closely began to seize on another possible enemy: the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Ukrainian law enforcement body which identified Manafort’s name in the “black ledger.”
The agency — known by its acronym NABU — was set up partly at the behest of Ukraine’s Western backers, who saw the country’s existing law enforcement institutions as hopelessly corrupt. The U.S. hoped that NABU, with higher-paid detectives and backing from the FBI and U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, would be able to cleanse the Ukrainian political system by effectively serving as an independent anti-corruption prosecutor.
But NABU immediately encountered enemies. Many of these came in the form of the existing law enforcement bodies that the agency was meant to supplant.
Enter Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general who, before feeding dirt to Rudy Giuliani, opened a criminal investigation into NABU’s leadership.
Lutsenko’s interest in prosecuting NABU came around the same time as allegations of anti-Trump Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election caught the attention of legislators in both Ukraine and the U.S.
Ukrainian MP Andrii Derkach (who met with Giuliani in Kyiv in December), sent Lutsenko a letter on July 24, 2017, asking for an investigation into “interference in the U.S. electoral process” allegedly committed by “NABU leadership,” while asking Lutsenko to offer information about the issue to the FBI.
That same day, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) sent DOJ Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein a letter based on the same idea, asking whether federal prosecutors were examining if the DNC and Clinton campaign’s alleged “collusion” with Ukraine violated FARA.
A Grassley spokesman told TPM that the request was sent in advance of a “hearing on FARA enforcement that week where several examples of possible violations and enforcement failures were discussed.”
“So it was important to have this inquiry in the public domain in advance,” the spokesman said. “I’m not sure we were even aware of the Ukrainian MP inquiry you reference.”
So if — in the tale Trump allies were pushing — Manafort was the victim and Ukraine was the culprit, what could be done about the supposed crime?
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told One America News in its groan-inducing series on corruption in Ukraine that it was in late 2017 — around Thanksgiving — that he first started his investigation.
“I looked into Ukraine because it was thrown at me, put in my lap,” Giuliani said, recalling that an unnamed associate told him about the allegations on “Thanksgiving eve” 2017.
“I was told collusion, corruption, bribery — all affects 2016, all affects the way in which Democrats did in large measure everything they were hypocritically accusing the Republicans of,” he told the right-wing TV network this year.
Giuliani has said that it was then, in late 2017, that he began to speak with “sources” who knew about the alleged fabrication of Manafort’s financial records and about supposed collusion with the DNC in their release. Lutsenko has said that he first received an invitation to meet with Giuliani around November 2017.
Giuliani wasn’t hired as an attorney for Trump’s defense team in the special counsel investigation until April 2018, but had been ally of the President for more than a decade.
It’s not clear whether the activities that Giuliani described as occurring in 2017 were connected to his Trump representation. It’s also not clear what steps Giuliani took in 2017 or 2018 to “investigate” the claims.
We do, however, know what Manafort and Lutsenko were up to.
In early 2018, Manafort was seeking to defend himself in various ways that would get him imprisoned by a D.C. federal judge, including continued outreach to allies in Ukraine. Lutsenko, meanwhile, reportedly froze any Ukraine-related investigations into potential crimes by Manafort in April 2018.
Prosecutors revealed in documents from his breach hearing that Manafort had stayed in touch with people in Ukraine up until his June 2018 incarceration.
One exchange, which later became the subject of a legal dispute over whether he had violated his plea agreement by lying to the government, showed the former Trump campaign chair texting an unnamed intermediary approval in response to the question: “If I see POTUS one on one next week am I ok to remind him of our relationship?”
Lutsenko, meanwhile, reached out to a former U.S. attorney named Bud Cummins through intermediaries in September 2018, just as Manafort struck an initial plea bargain with the special counsel.
Cummins passed information from Lutsenko on to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman — the first half of the message, Cummins told TPM, focused on allegations that the financial records which implicated Manafort were falsified.
“I don’t remember even being conscious of what or whatever had been going on over there,” Cummins told TPM, when asked about Ukrainian interest in casting doubt on the Manafort prosecution.
The second half contained the now-familiar allegations about the Bidens.
By November 2018, Giuliani was making plans directly with Lutsenko. He would meet the general prosecutor in New York City in January 2019, and would discuss the country’s role in the 2016 election as well as allegations against Hunter Bidens.
A memorandum from the meeting leaked to Ukrainian media suggests that Lutsenko told Giuliani that the black ledger which implicated Manafort was fake, and that it was part of a U.S. embassy plot to help Hillary Clinton.
Within months, John Solomon of The Hill began to publish a series of articles on the topics that Giuliani wanted Ukraine to investigate.
The first story, published on March 20, was an interview with Lutsenko in which the general prosecutor said that he was opening a criminal investigation into NABU’s interference in the 2016 election.
From there, the timeline is well known, and culminates in a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky. On that call, Trump referenced the Mueller investigation, saying “that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
The Washington Post reported that Giuliani and Manafort’s legal team consulted multiple times in 2019 about the veracity of the financial records that led to the GOP consultant’s resignation.
Giuliani visited Kyiv on December 4 with a film crew from One America News, the right-wing TV channel filming a series meant to counter the impeachment narrative.
The trip — and documentary — saw Giuliani meet with the same characters who, in 2017, initiated key ingredients in the saga.
Derkach, the MP who first demanded that Lutsenko investigate Ukrainian interference in 2016, said that he gave Giuliani reams of documents showing malfeasance at NABU.
Lutsenko himself accused the U.S. Embassy of blocking his own investigation into the matter. Andrii Telizhenko, the former diplomat who squired Giuliani into Kyiv, altered his claims, saying now that the alleged whistleblower who tipped Congress off to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky invited him in January 2016 to an Obama White House national security council meeting where the participants demanded “dirt” on the Party of Regions — Manafort’s Ukrainian client.
It’s not clear what will come of the effort to exonerate Manafort.
The former Trump campaign chairman remains in jail, but finds himself in a better position, legally, after a New York state judge’s decision last week. The judge threw out a Manhattan DA indictment that would have kept the longtime GOP lobbyist behind bars in the event of a pardon.
Now, if the President chooses to issue a pardon, his former campaign chair will walk free.