How Trump’s Attempt To Attack Biden Turned Into The Ukraine Scandal

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, January 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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September 20, 2019 11:40 a.m.
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It’s been going on all year.

The revelation last night that a mysterious whistleblower complaint focused on a July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shocked many, but also reveals a long-running story that has been playing out just beneath the surface of the news cycle over the past few months.

In sum, the scandal is about allegations that Trump – in part via his attorney Rudy Giuliani – applied Tony Soprano-style pressure on the Ukrainian government to produce information that could damage Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden, and which could discredit the prosecution of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for Ukraine-related financial misdeeds.

For Trump, the benefit was clear: political help. And, House Democrats have alleged, Ukraine was offered a powerful incentive: Trump had withheld $250 million in security assistance that had been appropriated as part of support for the former Soviet republic’s ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists, at the same time as Trump and his proxies told the Ukrainian government that they needed the country to produce politically helpful information.

The scandal emerged after Giuliani had embarked on a private lobbying career in Ukraine, which TPM has documented.

Giuliani moved from those connections to open discussions with Ukrainian prosecutors in January 2019 about criminally investigating the work of current Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, in Ukraine, and about opening probes that would discredit damaging financial revelations about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s work in Ukraine.

Ukraine elected a new president, Zelensky, in April. In early May, Giuliani announced a sort of fact-finding mission to Kyiv whereby he planned to spur the Ukrainian government to double down on its investigations of Biden’s son, all the while spinning an elaborate – and unfounded – conspiracy theory about the then-Vice President allegedly using his political power to protect his son from criminal investigation.

Giuliani cancelled the trip after a public outcry.

For the above, earlier attempts at getting dirt from Ukraine, there does not appear to have been any stick with which to beat Ukraine. Giuliani was asking, but there is no evidence that Trump or Giuliani,  via the U.S. government or independently, were applying pressure on Kyiv.

That all appears to have changed in late July.

On July 25, Trump and Zelensky held a telephone call. The White House did not release any information about the call, but the Ukrainian side released a readout of the conversation that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Specifically, the Ukrainians wrote that Trump said the following:

Donald Trump expressed the conviction that the new Ukrainian authorities would be able to quickly improve Ukraine’s image, concluding the investigation of corruption cases that have stymied cooperation between Ukraine and the USA.

One day after the phone call, the State Department got involved. U.S. special representative for the Ukraine crisis Kurt Volker was sent to Kyiv for an in-person meeting with Zelensky.

There, Volker reportedly helped arrange a meeting between a top Zelensky foreign policy adviser and Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani and the Zelensky adviser, Andriy Yermak, met in Spain on Aug. 3. The former New York City mayor tweeted about it from the scene:

Reporting from the Ukrainian side during this time period suggested that Zelensky was extremely wary of helping the Trump administration hurt its political opponents, out of fear that Ukraine’s relationship with the U.S. would become tied to one of the two political parties.

Over the same time period, however, the Trump administration made the decision to withhold $250 million in aid. On Aug. 12, the intelligence community whistleblower filed a complaint, reportedly about “multiple acts” stemming from the July 25 call with Zelensky.

That’s the basis for the allegation of pressure against the Ukrainian government. House Democrats opened an investigation into the effort on Sept. 9.

The same day, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson informed the House Intelligence Committee that a whistleblower had filed a complaint which the Trump administration was withholding from Congress.

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