It all comes down to April.
President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and his two now-indicted cronies had thought they had struck a deal with Kyiv for political dirt.
But everything changed in a matter of days. Whatever deal the group thought they had struck fell apart with the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky, forcing Trump and Giuliani to launch a new pressure campaign to bully Kyiv anew into helping them politically.
It was then that Giuliani, his two buddies, and Trump embarked on a flurry of activity to try to convey to the newly elected Zelensky the need to announce investigations into the Bidens and into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election, eventually trying to bring to bear the full might of U.S. foreign policy to serve their partisan political goals.
The fulcrum of the scandal was the April 21 election. It is the key to understanding what came before and to unlocking the sequence of events that followed, culminating in the impeachment inquiry against Trump.
TPM spoke with experts on the area and constructed a timeline of events based off of congressional testimony, revealing how the pressure campaign on Ukraine pivoted around the country’s April election.
Before the Election
The crucial piece in understanding the Ukraine scandal is that two months before Zelensky won power – in February 2019 – Trump thought that he had done a deal which would transform Ukraine into a domestic political bludgeon.
It came as then-President Petro Poroshenko prepared to fight for re-election in two successive rounds of elections: one in March, and a runoff scheduled for April. Poroshenko was facing an uphill battle with declining popularity, and doing Trump a solid could benefit Poroshenko politically at home.
Giuliani had already met with a key Poroshenko official, prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, in New York City in January, and then again in Warsaw in February. Giuliani was accompanied on both trips by Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were later indicted for an alleged campaign finance scheme.
Giuliani reportedly spoke with Trump about “investigations” after the January meeting, where Lutsenko spun Giuliani a tale about abuse of office by Joe Biden and supposed collusion in 2016 between Ukraine and the DNC.
By late February, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Poroshenko was open to a deal pushed by Parnas and Fruman in which the Ukrainian leader would get electoral help via a state visit to the U.S., while he would give Trump a lift by announcing investigations into the Bidens and potential Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections.
“There was pressure on Poroshenko,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told TPM. “And Lutsenko was clearly trying to arrange a deal.”
In any case, the agreement does not appear to have panned out entirely as planned.
Poroshenko never got a state visit to the U.S.
At the same time, however, Lutsenko did speak with American journalist John Solomon, then writing at The Hill newspaper. On March 20, Solomon began to publish a series of articles in which Lutsenko smeared the U.S. embassy in Kyiv and announced investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 elections.
According to the testimony of George Kent, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Lutsenko was only able to share information with Giuliani after Poroshenko “authorized” him to do so.
It’s not clear if those steps fit within whatever deal was contemplated.
When Poroshenko lost in a landslide to Volodymyr Zelensky on April 21, it set off a mad scramble in Trumpworld to make inroads with the new government. It’s no coincidence that the flurry of activity in early May which has been the focus of investigators comes in the weeks after Zelensky’s win and before his May 20 inauguration.
The available evidence suggests that Trump, through Giuliani, was scrambling to re-up the deal with his new Ukrainian counterpart.
At the time, Zelensky cut a contradictory profile. He was both a political neophyte and a well-connected political operator. A comedian without political experience, Zelensky had run a suave campaign which appealed to Ukrainians frustrated with the failures of the Poroshenko administration, but faced his own criticism for his ties to a notorious oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky, the powerful businessman who owned the TV channel on which Zelensky became famous.
Trump held a phone call with Zelensky hours after his victory was announced, and within days was referencing investigations. The President told Sean Hannity in an April 25 interview about his call with Zelensky that he was interested in reporting around allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections, saying, “I would imagine [Attorney General Bill Barr] would want to see this.”
At the same time, Giuliani and those around him embarked on a burst of activity, all oriented toward building contacts with the new leader.
Parnas and Fruman flew to Israel for a meeting with Kolomoisky in late April.
The pair reportedly approached Kolomoisky under the pretense of proposing a gas deal. But at the meeting, Kolomoisky and his attorneys have said, Parnas and Fruman switched tack, asking the oligarch for access to Zelensky, while offering to guarantee access to U.S. officials for a fee.
Kolomoisky says that he kicked the pair out of his office, telling them that he couldn’t give them access.
In early May, Giuliani himself began to plan a trip to Kyiv. He told the New York Times on May 9 that he would go to encourage Kyiv to investigate Hunter Biden, as well as allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections.
But that trip went nowhere. Giuliani was forced to cancel the venture amid a massive public outcry.
In the end, the most significant consequence of the group’s efforts was that the one American official who had built connections in Zelensky’s government was removed from Ukraine. U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had assembled direct channels into Zelensky’s government, according to a former American diplomat familiar with the situation. She was removed from her post in Kyiv on May 7 after lobbying by Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman.
The former diplomat noted that Giuliani and his group appeared to be caught off guard by Poroshenko’s defeat.
“That’s a sign of incompetence,” the former diplomat noted. “All the polls were showing that Zelensky would win.”
Inauguration and Beyond
As Zelensky’s May 20 swearing-in approached, the White House prepared to dispatch a delegation to Kyiv for the new president’s inauguration.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide, testified to House impeachment investigators that the delegation was planned on short notice, leaving Energy Secretary Rick Perry to attend with Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
After Zelensky’s inauguration, Trump told the returning delegation during a May 23 meeting at the White House that they needed to speak with Giuliani for policy on Ukraine and for handling Zelensky.
Trump, according to testimony, said he was worried about corruption in Ukraine and indicated that Giuliani – and his push for “investigations” into the matter – was necessary.
“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the President’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Sondland said in his amended testimony.
But from there, the self-appointed “three amigos” – Sondland, Volker, and Perry – launched an ultimately futile quest to get Zelensky to announce investigations. Trump continued to push as well, withholding more than $250 million in security assistance from mid-July in a bid to extort Zelensky into announcing investigations into Biden and the 2016 elections.
That culminated in Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president, in which he praised Lutsenko while telling Zelensky to “do us a favor” and open politically beneficial probes.
The informal channel of U.S. policy towards Ukraine continued over the summer, before sputtering out as an unnamed tipster blew the whistle on the whole endeavor.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told TPM that the “informal channel” had to have been created because all other options had failed.
“The only reason why there was an unofficial channel is because it wasn’t about the U.S. interest, it was about the personal political interest of the President,” Pifer said.