As the Senate votes to acquit President Trump over his bid to extort the Ukrainian government into providing him with domestic political help, TPM has new evidence suggesting that the pressure campaign came far closer to succeeding and at an earlier stage than was previously known.
Months before President Trump pressured Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations during the infamous July 25 phone call, henchmen working for his attorney nearly succeeded in doing the same with the previous Ukrainian leader.
Text messages obtained by TPM show that former Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko was scheduled to announce investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election to John Solomon of The Hill in March 2019. Ultimately, Poroshenko backed out of the interview at the last minute.
The planned appearance came in the wake of a late February meeting that the then-Ukrainian leader held with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in which they offered what Parnas has described as a “quid pro quo” on behalf of Rudy Giuliani and his client, President Trump: announce investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election, and receive in return a state visit to the U.S. that could bolster Poroshenko’s re-election chances.
Poroshenko’s planned appearance suggests that he had, at least initially, agreed to the deal, before backing out. It also highlights that the campaign to turn Ukraine into a domestic political bludgeon for Trump began far earlier than Giuliani’s aborted May 2019 dirt-digging trip to Kyiv.
“This was not just the July 25 call, it was a months-long scheme, or effort, or whatever you wanna call it put together by the President, Giuliani, and others,” Parnas told TPM in a telephone interview with his attorney Joseph A. Bondy.
It took Trump and Giuliani months of pressure to convince Poroshenko’s successor, Zelensky, to agree to a TV news appearance, on CNN in September. Zelensky also backed out at the last minute.
Parnas sent Poroshenko’s press secretary a list of questions ahead of the planned interview: “this will be questions,” Parnas said in an accompanying text. The questions, obtained by TPM, goad Poroshenko into describing the allegations that Trump would later want Zelensky to investigate.
The questions cover two distinct topics: allegations that Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was bad-mouthing President Trump in Kyiv and allegations that Joe Biden had abused his position to have a Ukrainian prosecutor fired in a bid to protect his son Hunter Biden from an investigation.
One question on the Yovanovitch portion appears to reference a May 2018 letter sent by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, demanding the ambassador’s removal.
“I recently was shown a letter from a member of Congress who suggested Ambassador YO-van-NO-witch was saying derogatory things about president Trump. Do you have any evidence that has happened?” the question reads.
The line of questions about the Bidens conclude in the following sequence:
“Did VP Biden have an interest personally in the prosecutor’s office and its activities?”
“Was the VP’s son and his company Barisma Holdings under investigation and how serious were the allegations?”
“What happened to that case after the vice president’s intervention?”
Parnas told TPM that Solomon formulated the questions. The topics do not cover allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — a right-wing hobbyhorse raised on Trump’s call with Zelensky, and a story in which Poroshenko is supposedly implicated.
Robert Costello, an attorney for Giuliani, denied that his client was involved in a scheme to pressure Poroshenko, calling Parnas’ allegation “untrue.” Costello accused Parnas in a statement to TPM of “trying to inflate his role and importance because he thinks it is in his best interest or he is being given bad advice to do that.”
Darya Khudyakova, the Poroshenko spokeswoman who communicated with Parnas, did not deny the matter in a statement to TPM, but also did not directly address the allegations.
“We greatly value the relations of strategic partnership between Ukraine and the US, and thus would ask you not to drag Ukraine into the internal debates that belong to the US and American people only,” Khudyakova said.
The White House would not comment to TPM for this story. Solomon did not reply to repeated requests for comment, but has said in the past that he stands by his reporting.
The planned interview with Solomon was set to occur as Poroshenko fought a losing battle for re-election, against Zelensky and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
On Feb. 20, Poroshenko had effusively praised President Trump in a separate Fox News appearance during a visit to New York City.
“I have a feeling that this U.S. administration clearly understands the possible danger of Putin,” Poroshenko told America’s Newsroom host Bill Hemmer. “Only the leadership of President Trump can keep the world safe.”
Parnas’ allegations about the Poroshenko pressure campaign are supported by contemporaneous Russian-language texts between Parnas and Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general at the time.
A series of texts beginning in early March shows Parnas attempting to arrange the Poroshenko interview through Lutsenko, who was present at the February meeting in Kyiv.
The House Intelligence Committee released the texts the week before the Senate began the third impeachment trial in U.S. history. Parnas supplied the panel with the texts after receiving them from Manhattan federal prosecutors as discovery in his criminal campaign finance case.
On March 8, Parnas sent Lutsenko the names of Solomon and Fox News’ Sean Hannity along with a March 5 Washington Post article that took a critical look at “the feedback loop between Fox News and the Oval Office.” In the same exchange, Parnas sent Lutsenko a story from The Hill from December 2018, casting doubt on the FBI’s conduct in the Russia investigation.
In response to the messages, Lutsenko began to complain about Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and the State Department’s support for her as a response.
But then, Parnas told Lutsenko, using a diminutive for Yuriy, that, “Yura, we’re aware of everything.”
“Try to do an interview tomorrow at one,” Parnas added, apparently referring to an interview that Lutsenko later had with Solomon.
Lutsenko replied that he would try to call, and then wrote that an unnamed person “will definitely be in the Administration,” apparently referring to the Presidential Administration, which houses Ukraine’s executive offices. “I will try to connect you earlier.”
One minute later, Parnas wrote “and be sure that this will be a friendly interview with the President of Ukraine, a state partner of America !!!” Parnas added in a later text that “we will try to agree that that they do an interview with you tomorrow as well.”
Lutsenko gave Parnas the phone number of Poroshenko’s press secretary, Svyatoslav Tsegolko.
Parnas wrote that “we are now in the [studio] and will now call the President’s secretary.” He followed up with screenshots of what appeared to be Solomon interviewing Nazar Kholodnytsky, a Ukrainian prosecutor whose firing Yovanovitch demanded.
TPM obtained texts between Parnas and Darya Khudakova, Poroshenko’s foreign media press secretary.
In the March 8 exchange, Khudyakova asked Parnas if it would be possible to schedule an interview that Tsegolko had made her “responsible to negotiate.”
Khudyakova described the interview to Parnas as “an important moment for us.”
Parnas sent her an image showing a document with the list of questions, covering allegations against both Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and Joe Biden.
Khudyakova told Parnas that she received the questions, and initially agreed to have Poroshenko do the interview on Monday, March 11, after Parnas proposed the day.
But something happened in the intervening time, and Poroshenko called it off.
Lutsenko told Parnas “these are not questions for an acting President — in the heat of the campaign he cannot respond to questions about the ambassador, Biden, etc.”
Khudyakova wrote to Parnas on the day that the interview was supposed to be held that “it seems that a probability of interview with the President late tonight today is very unlikely.”
It would appear from the texts that Poroshenko’s team chose at the last minute to walk away from the interview, perhaps sensing it unwise.
Or, as Lutsenko wrote a few days later, “I’m ready to screw your competitor, but you just want more.”
It would appear from the context that Lutsenko is referring to “Biden” as the “competitor,” but it’s unclear from the text itself.
But Lutsenko himself eventually spoke to Solomon and got his end of the deal, or at least part of it: Yovanovitch was removed from her post as ambassador in late April, and formally removed from Kyiv in early May.
Lutsenko told Bloomberg in a May 16 interview after Yovanovitch’s departure that there was no evidence to suggest wrongdoing on Biden’s part.
“I do not want Ukraine to again be the subject of U.S. presidential elections,” Lutsenko told Bloomberg. “Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing.”