What do a Ukrainian steel magnate, Puerto Rico and the Le Pain Quotidien a block from the White House all have in common? They were all a part of the latest fringe conspiracy theory to make it into the congressional record on Tuesday.
Puerto Rico is only marginally involved: Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) brought up the conspiracy during a hearing on the fiscal control board that governs Puerto Rico’s debt. Why? Natalie Jaresko, the executive director of that board, used to be Ukraine’s finance minister.
Gohmert asked Jeresko at the hearing if she had been aware, in her past post, of “Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dispatching Olga Bielkova or any other Ukrainian official to the U.S. in order to conduct an influence campaign on the 2016 election here in the United States?”
Gohmert asked another question out of left field: “Are you aware of Ukrainian parliamentarian Bielkova’s April 12 meetings with Liz Zentos and Eric Ciaramella of the Obama National Security Council?”
Again, Jeresko wasn’t.
To understand what the heck Gohmert is talking about, and why it matters, we need to back up a little bit.
Amid a House’s impeachment inquiry focused on whether President Donald Trump used his office to pressure Ukraine for political dirt that would help him in the 2020 election, Republicans have sought to flip the script, focusing on debunked allegations about Ukrainian election interference in 2016. This is the basis of a nonsensical conspiracy theory about CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm the Democratic Party hired in 2016 after it was hacked by Russians. Two Republican members of Congress brought up that theory during a separate hearing today.
Gohmert was pointing on Tuesday to another such conspiracy theory, now appearing in the murkier corners of the right-wing internet. It alleges that Ciaramella, the former National Security Council staffer whose name Gohmert raised with Jeresko, was in fact the whistleblower who kicked off the impeachment inquiry.
But the right’s interest in Ciaramella actually goes back at least two years, when online personality and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich wrote a Medium post alleging that Ciaramella was the source of multiple leaks about the Trump administration. “His entire life arc indicates he will sabotage Trump and leak information to the press whenever possible,” Cernovich wrote of Ciaramella, after detailing the staffer’s past as an Arabic-studying “social justice warrior” at Yale.
Ciaramella served on the Obama administration National Security Council and for a time served on Trump’s under then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. But after Cernovich’s article prompted death threats on Twitter, Foreign Policy later reported, Ciaramella left the NSC.
Ciaramella popped up again in the right-wing discourse earlier this month as theories about the whistleblower’s identity spread. The baseless speculation ramped up after the Washington Examiner reported that the whistleblower had a “professional” tie to Joe Biden.
So what was Gohmert talking about? His specific questions to Jaresko, about the meeting on April 12, can be traced back to a Foreign Agents Registration Act filing submitted by lobbyist Doug Schoen in 2016. Schoen registered his work representing the Ukrainian steel magnate Victor Pinchuk.
As part of that work, Schoen wrote, he attempted to arrange dozens of meetings for Ukrainian parliamentarian Olga Bielkova with politicians and journalists during a trip she took to the U.S. in April 2016. Only four are listed as having occurred.
One of those meetings took place at Le Pain Quotidien, the one around the corner from the White House on 17th Street. Ciaramella and Liz Zentos, then the director for Eastern Europe on the National Security Council, attended. All three of them — Bielkova, Ciaramella and Zentos — showed up in Gohmert’s questions for a bewildered Natalie Jaresko Tuesday.
Why this meeting was of interest to Gohmert is unclear. There’s no evidence that Bielkova’s trip was part of an “influence campaign,” as the congressman said. But Schoen’s FARA filing has made the rounds online for other reasons.
Specifically, Bielkova also met with David Kramer on April 12, according to Schoen’s filing. Kramer is a former aide to the late Sen. John McCain and alerted both the FBI and BuzzFeed News to the existence of the so-called “Steele Dossier,” the 2016-era packet of research on Trump. Despite the fact that Schoen testified he’d first heard of the Steele dossier months after his meeting with Bielkova, in November, his April meeting with the Ukrainian has become grist for the conspiracy mill in the right-wing fever swamps.
If it turns out Eric Ciaramella is Schiff’s informant, people ought to know that Billionaire Clinton donor Victor Pinchuk sent 🇺🇦 MP Bielkova to meet with him same day she met with David Kramer and kicked Steele Dossier operation into high gear. ie “Whistleblower” = Dossier 2.0 pic.twitter.com/TuoTGjzv3K
— Seamus Bruner (@seamusbruner) October 11, 2019
Pinchuk, the magnate who hired Schoen, is also known for having donated millions to the Clinton Foundation, driving the conspiracy mongers wild.
Pinchuk also donated to the Trump foundation. In 2015, he made a $150,000 payment to the foundation in exchange for Trump’s brief appearance via teleconference at the annual conference Pinchuk hosted. “Victor I’ve known for a long time and he is a tremendous guy, tremendous guy,” Trump told conference attendees, appearing via video link. That donation was reportedly of interest to Robert Mueller’s investigators.