Like a grotesque buddy comedy, the story of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump’s pressure campaign to extract beneficial political information from Ukraine is equal parts absurd and horrifying.
And the story only gets weirder following a look at the details of the whistleblower complaint released by the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, which contains a narrative — and sophisticated analysis — of the Ukrainian political snakepit in which the pair enmeshed themselves.
The complaint presents a complex view of various Ukrainians involved in the pressure campaign, each with their own axe to grind. It alleges efforts by Ukrainian actors — many of whom corresponded with Giuliani — to advance their own interests through the U.S. political system by aiding the former New York City mayor’s quest for political dirt.
The nuanced view of Ukrainian politics makes sense given a Thursday New York Times report which suggests that the whistleblower is a CIA officer well-versed in Eastern European politics with access to detailed information about that part of the world.
The whistleblower’s story of a symbiotic relationship between Ukrainian politicos and Giuliani is similar to one advanced in May 2019 by the Trump administration’s special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker. At that time, it was clear from press reports and Giuliani’s own statements that he was attempting to dig up dirt on Biden in Ukraine.
“Other people in Ukraine are trying to use the U.S. domestic politics as a vehicle for their own engagement either in fighting their domestic enemies inside Ukraine or trying to feel like they’ve got some special relationship with people in the United States,” Volker said.
(Perhaps ironically, later that summer, Volker would end up arranging a meeting between Giuliani and a senior Ukrainian official in furtherance of the effort.)
Volker’s May 2019 remarks came as Giuliani was escalating what the complaint portrays as a campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government into manufacturing information against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and regarding the supposed origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
But the story begins months earlier, with a bevy of articles published in The Hill’s opinion section by conservative journalist (and noted reporter of Republican opposition research) John Solomon. These columns first elevated the Biden allegations, among other narratives about Ukraine that have taken hold on the U.S. political right.
Solomon’s main source for these articles appeared to be a Ukrainian politician named Yury Lutsenko — the country’s then-prosecutor general.
Lutsenko came to the job after Viktor Shokin, the prosecutor who Trump has falsely accused Biden of firing to protect his son.
Lutsenko appears to have also been a main source for Giuliani. The two met in January 2019. Lutsenko, as Ukraine’s general prosecutor, lent a veneer of legitimacy to Giuliani’s claims against Biden.
Solomon published his first interviews with Lutsenko in late March 2019, as the Mueller investigation drew to a close.
In one story, Lutsenko claimed that he had “opened a probe into alleged attempts by Ukrainians to interfere in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.” The then-chief prosecutor played into allegations that Kyiv had interfered in 2016 to help Democrats, in part by releasing damaging information about Paul Manafort.
In another, he accused then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch of giving him a “do-not-prosecute” list.
Other Ukrainian officials — including another prosecutor named Nazar Kholodnytsky — appeared in Solomon’s articles, making allegations against Biden while also claiming that the Ukrainian government fabricated — and leaked — financial records that forced the August 2016 resignation of Paul Manafort as chairman of the Trump campaign.
The information Lutsenko and Kholodnytsky gave to Solomon can be viewed as helping to advance their own political standing. At the time of the interviews with Solomon, Lutsenko’s political position had deteriorated. He was closely linked to the outgoing regime and was fighting to hold onto his position as the new government — led by Zelensky — prepared to take power.
Yovanovitch’s firing, for example, came after she criticized Lutsenko and demanded Kholodnytsky’s removal. Weeks after Yovanovitch did that, Solomon published articles citing both, accusing her of giving the prosecutors a “do-not-prosecute” list.
The whistleblower complaint suggests that Yovanovitch was fired “because of pressure stemming” from Lutsenko’s allegations.
It’s not clear how Solomon got in touch with the Ukrainians in the first place. In one of Solomon’s articles, Lutsenko said that he wanted to inform Attorney General Bill Barr about the allegations.
Regardless, both Trump and Giuliani promoted the allegations in the articles.
In an April 25 Sean Hannity appearance, Trump commented on Solomon’s reporting. “It sounds very interesting with respect to the Ukraine,” he said, adding that he had just spoken with Zelensky, a congratulatory phone call following Zelensky’s electoral win that would be their only conversation until July.
Hannity replied that Ukraine was “offering this evidence” to the U.S. about “collusion” in favor of “Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.”
“Does America need to see that information in spite of all of the attacks against you on collusion?” he asked.
Trump replied, “frankly, we have a great new attorney general who has done an unbelievable job in a very short period of time.”
“He is very smart and tough and I would certainly defer to him,” Trump added. “I would imagine he would want to see this.”
Through a DOJ spokeswoman, Barr has denied that he knew of requests to work with Ukraine to investigate Biden.
Giuliani also promoted the allegations, and reportedly remained in contact with Lutsenko through May.
If you doubt there is media bias and corruption then when Democrats conspiring with Ukrainian officials comes out remember much of press, except for Fox, the Hill and NYT, has suppressed it. If it involved @realDonaldTrump or his son it would have been front page news for weeks.
— Rudy Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) May 10, 2019
Later in May, a former staffer at Ukraine’s embassy in Washington named Andriy Telizhenko also met with Giuliani.
Armed with his own ambitions at building a political consulting career and desire to exhibit connections and influence in U.S.-Ukraine relations, Telizhenko has long propagated a narrative in which the DNC attempted to “collude” with Ukraine’s D.C. embassy against the 2016 Trump campaign.
That appears to have been enough for Giuliani, who met with both Telizhenko and Kholodnytsky in May.
Lutsenko left his position as general prosecutor in August; he was replaced by a Zelensky ally. Neither Telizhenko nor Kholodnytsky have positions in Zelensky’s government.
Zelensky, meanwhile, is left to handle the aftermath of their dealings with Giuliani.