Written by Kenneth P. Vogel, Andrew E. Kramer and David E. Sanger
Petro O. Poroshenko was still the president of Ukraine earlier this year when his team sought a lifeline. With the polls showing him in clear danger of losing his reelection campaign, some of his associates, eager to hold on to their own jobs and influence, took steps that could have yielded a signal of public support from a vital ally: President Donald Trump.
Over several weeks in March, the office of Ukraine’s top prosecutor moved ahead on two investigations of intense interest to Trump. One was focused on an oligarch — previously cleared of wrongdoing by the same prosecutor — whose company employed former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. The other dealt with the release by a separate Ukrainian law enforcement agency to the media of information that hurt Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The actions by the prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, did not come out of thin air. They were the first visible results of a remarkable behind-the-scenes campaign to gather and disseminate political dirt from a foreign country, encouraged by Trump and carried out by his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. In the last week their engagement with Ukraine has prompted a formal impeachment inquiry into whether the president courted foreign interference to hurt a leading political rival.
The story of how Trump and Giuliani operated in Ukraine has emerged gradually in recent months. It was laid out in further detail in the past week in a reconstructed transcript of Trump’s phone call this summer with a new Ukrainian president and in a complaint filed by a whistleblower inside the U.S. government.
Along with documents and interviews with a wide variety of people in Ukraine and the United States, the latest revelations show that Trump and Giuliani ran what amounted to a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine that unfolded against the backdrop of three elections — this year’s vote in Ukraine and the 2016 and 2020 presidential races in the United States.
Despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies and the Justice Department that Russia was responsible for interfering in the 2016 election, Trump was driven to seek proof that the meddling was linked to Ukraine and forces hostile to him, even fixating on a fringe conspiracy theory suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s missing emails might be found there.
Backed by Trump, Giuliani, who once aspired to be secretary of state, sought to tar Biden with unsubstantiated accusations of impropriety, while he and associates working with him in Ukraine on the president’s agenda pursued their own personal business interests.
With the political landscape scrambled by Poroshenko’s defeat in April and the arrival of a new cast of Ukrainian officials, the approach pursued by Giuliani and Trump undercut official U.S. diplomacy.
And the signals sent by Trump — long skeptical of the strategic value of backing Ukraine against Russia, its menacing neighbor to the east — complicated efforts by the new Ukrainian government to fortify itself against Moscow.
The intensifying overlap this summer between Trump’s political agenda in Ukraine and his official foreign policy apparatus is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry that will examine whether the president of the United States directed or encouraged his subordinates to lean on a vulnerable ally for personal political gain.
Among the subjects covered in a subpoena sent Friday by House Democrats to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and demands for depositions from American diplomats was Trump’s decision to freeze a $391 million military aid package to Ukraine this summer not long before his July 25 call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who defeated Poroshenko this spring.
Democrats are also looking into the recall in the spring of the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, Marie L. Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer who was seen as insufficiently loyal to Trump by some of his conservative allies. On Friday evening, the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, abruptly resigned, not long after receiving a summons from House Democrats to sit for a deposition in the coming week.
Trump has dismissed the impeachment investigation as another “witch hunt.”
In an interview on Friday, Giuliani defended his efforts to push the Ukrainians to investigate Biden, his son, Hunter Biden, and others. He asserted that he was not doing it to try to influence the 2020 presidential election, though Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump.
“I was doing it to dig out information that exculpates my client, which is the role of a defense lawyer,” he said.
Mixing Business and Politics
In the months before the steps taken in March on the politically explosive investigations sought by Trump, Giuliani had met at least twice with the man who would become a central figure in his efforts and a target of criticism in both countries: Lutsenko, 54, Ukraine’s top prosecutor.
First at a meeting in New York and later in Warsaw, Giuliani pushed Lutsenko for information about — and investigations into — a pair of cases of keen interest to his client.
They included the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine and the release during the 2016 campaign of incriminating records about Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman. Giuliani said early this year he had become increasingly convinced that the Manafort records were doctored and disseminated by critics of Trump to sabotage his campaign, and later used to spur the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
No evidence supports this idea, and Manafort’s own retroactive filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act corroborated the Ukrainian documents, which also matched U.S. financial records.
Still, it was not long before Trump, sensitive to any questions about the legitimacy of his 2016 victory, began echoing Giuliani’s language about what they viewed as the Ukrainian origins of the Russia investigation.
But Trump and Giuliani had also taken a growing interest in the role played by Biden, as vice president, in the dismissal of a previous Ukrainian prosecutor who had oversight of investigations into an oligarch who had served in a previous Ukrainian government and whose company had employed Hunter Biden. No evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the dismissal of that prosecutor, whose ouster was being sought by other Western governments and institutions concerned about corruption in the Ukrainian government.
In their first meeting, in January, Lutsenko later told people, Giuliani called Trump and excitedly briefed him on the discussions. And once Lutsenko’s office took procedural steps to advance investigations involving the Manafort records and the oligarch linked to Hunter Biden, Giuliani, Trump and their allies aggressively promoted stories about the developments to conservative journalists at home, further turning a foreign government’s action to the president’s advantage.
“As Russia Collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges,” Trump wrote on Twitter in March, echoing the headline of one of the first such pieces by a Trump-friendly journalist.
Giuliani had seemed to slide eagerly into his new role. After his hopes of becoming secretary of state were dashed — in part, former administration officials said, because of his extensive foreign business ties — he became a personal lawyer for Trump when the president came under scrutiny by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
Trump was publicly lobbying his own Justice Department for an investigation of Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. When he got no satisfaction on that score, Giuliani volunteered to take on the role of independent investigator, empowered by nothing other than Trump’s blessing.
Giuliani rejected the suggestion that he was interfering in the execution of U.S. foreign policy, noting that Volker and the State Department eventually helped connect him with a top aide to Zelenskiy.
“If they were concerned, I don’t think they would ask me to handle a mission like this that’s sensitive,” he said. “I feel perfectly comfortable with what we did in Ukraine.”
Ukraine was familiar ground to Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and presidential candidate who had built a thriving consulting and security business.
Giuliani’s activity on behalf of Trump allowed him to maintain, and increase, his marketability to prospective clients around the world. Hiring him came to be seen as a way to curry favor with the Trump administration.
That perception has been fed in Ukraine by the dual roles played by some of his business associates. Chief among them is a Ukrainian-American businessman named Lev Parnas. Parnas gathered information on the ground in Kyiv about the Bidens and the Manafort documents, and he helped connect Giuliani with Lutsenko and other Ukrainians with information about the cases that interested Trump.
But Parnas also has advised Giuliani on energy deals in the region, and pursued energy deals of his own in Ukraine, while presenting himself as a representative of Giuliani on the Trump-related matters.
In the early spring, as he was helping Giuliani in Ukraine, Parnas pitched a deal to the chief executive officer of the Ukrainian government-owned gas company, Naftogaz. Parnas also advised Giuliani on an effort related to a methane project in Uzbekistan for which Giuliani and his associates were to be paid at least $100,000. Giuliani said the project in Uzbekistan did not pan out.
Parnas, a donor to Trump, rejected the suggestion that his efforts to assist Giuliani in Ukraine were related to his private business, explaining in an interview on Saturday that he was funding them himself because “I think it’s outrageous that our president is getting blamed for things that he had nothing to do with.”
Parnas said he has not done business with Giuliani in years, that his discussions with Naftogaz did not yield a deal, that he had no involvement in the Uzbekistan effort, and in fact urged Giuliani to avoid doing business there.
Giuliani’s business in Ukraine dates to 2004, when he said he was invited to give a speech there. In 2008, one of his companies consulted for Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing and kickboxing champion who lost a bid that year to become mayor of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, but was elected mayor in 2014.
Giuliani said he no longer represents Klitschko, but still advises him informally. He chastised the new president, Zelenskiy, this month for moving to limit the authority of Klitschko, who had endorsed Poroshenko in this year’s election.
“Reducing the power of Mayor Klitschko of Kyiv was a very bad sign particularly based on the advice of an aide to the President of Ukraine who has the reputation of being a fixer,” Giuliani wrote on Twitter.
Some of Giuliani’s work in Ukraine has found him on opposing sides in internal Ukrainian feuds.
In 2017, one of Giuliani’s companies signed a contract with Pavel Fuks, a wealthy Ukrainian-Russian developer who was among the many Ukrainians seeking access in Trump’s Washington. The contract was to help Fuks attract investment from the United States to his hometown, Kharkiv, Ukraine.
At the time, Fuks and others, including Sam Kislin, a Ukrainian-American businessman with ties to Giuliani, had become entangled in a complicated $1.5 billion deal to buy Ukrainian government bonds.
Lutsenko, the prosecutor, blocked the deal and seized the bonds by raising accusations of fraud. Kislin responded with suggestions that Lutsenko acted illegally.
Ukrainian media reported that the United States revoked Lutsenko’s visa for a time amid this dispute, though Lutsenko denied it. By January, he was able to travel to America, where he met with Giuliani to discuss investigating the Democrats.
Lutsenko’s eagerness to assist Giuliani was seen in some quarters in Kyiv as an effort to win influential support to resolve his visa problem, fend off Kislin’s claims and secure U.S. protection against potential political targeting in Ukraine.
Giuliani said he was not being paid for his work for Trump. He said he does not have any active projects at the moment in Ukraine, and that his connection to the president was not helping his business. “I don’t perceive it being down because I represent Trump, nor do I see a tremendous boost because I represent Trump,” he said.
Backing a Prosecutor, Criticizing an Ambassador
When Lutsenko was pursuing the matters sought by Giuliani in the spring, people around Poroshenko thought it might elicit a show of support for him from Trump, who had boosted the election prospects of other foreign leaders.
Or, if Poroshenko lost, the thinking in Kyiv went, Trump might at least feel compelled to try to protect Lutsenko, the helpful prosecutor, from the fate that often befalls aides to defeated Ukrainian leaders: prosecution by the victors and possible jail sentences or exile. As the whistleblower complaint pointedly noted, Zelenskiy had signaled during the campaign that he would replace Lutsenko if he won the election.
At first the strategy encouraged by Giuliani and pursued by Lutsenko seemed to be living up to those hopes.
Poroshenko’s allies were pleased when Trump’s associates, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and Giuliani, launched public attacks against one of Poroshenko’s perceived enemies, Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
That month, she had criticized Ukraine’s record on corruption, alluding to reports of vote-buying by Poroshenko and a rival candidate, and she was seen as an impediment to the investigations sought by Giuliani. Poroshenko’s allies told people that they interpreted the Trump allies’ attacks on her as a sign that the Trump team would reciprocate if the investigations into Trump’s rivals continued.
But Trump never delivered the signal of support Poroshenko’s team was hoping for, and Poroshenko lost his reelection campaign in a landslide to Zelenskiy, a political neophyte.
Poroshenko’s press service issued a statement Saturday denying he solicited help for his reelection campaign. “Any attempts to link the American scandal to Poroshenko is groundless and unjustified manipulation,” the statement said. “Poroshenko has never negotiated for U.S. support for himself, but for Ukraine.”
Zelenskiy told reporters on election night that he intended to replace Lutsenko, who had been accused of turning a blind eye to corruption, though he did not carry out the move until he formed a new government following parliamentary elections in July.
When Trump spoke by phone to the new Ukrainian leader on July 25, Trump went so far as to complain to Zelenskiy about the impending replacement of Lutsenko. “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair,” Trump said during the call. “A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down.”
Skepticism About Ukraine Policy
From the early days of Trump’s campaign, he questioned U.S. policy toward Ukraine, a former Soviet state that had received substantial support from the United States and the European Union. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Trump asked why the United States was so committed to the principle that seizures of territory must be opposed.
Trump called the Obama administration’s move to sanction Russia over the annexation “very confrontational,” and said in an interview with The Times in March 2016 that “it didn’t seem to me like anyone else cared other than us,” invoking his longstanding criticism that U.S. allies do not pay their share when it comes to protecting democracy around the world.
Trump would soon develop another issue with Ukraine: Manafort’s case, which he came to view as evidence that forces in Ukraine aligned with Democrats were out to get him.
When Zelenskiy, running on fighting corruption and Russia, won a lopsided victory in the presidential election on April 21, it only appears to have intensified Trump’s determination to find political advantage for himself in the country.
Within a few weeks of Zelenskiy’s victory, the American ambassador, Yovanovitch, was recalled, months ahead of schedule, amid the claims by Trump’s allies that she was undermining him.
Trump quizzed his aides on Zelenskiy, asking whether Zelenskiy would help him or hurt him.
“There was a friend-or-foe operation on,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official. “No one understood Zelenskiy.”
American Officials Get Increasingly Involved
By May, according to the whistleblower’s account, the Ukrainian leadership had been led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the two presidents would depend on “whether Zelenskiy showed willingness to ‘play ball’” on the political investigations.
The complaint does not identify who delivered this message to the Ukrainians. But the timing coincided with a visit to Kyiv of a U.S. delegation, led by the energy secretary, Rick Perry, for Zelenskiy’s inauguration. Trump had ordered Vice President Mike Pence to skip the inauguration, the whistleblower complaint said.
When members of the delegation returned to Washington, they stressed to Trump the importance of supporting the new Ukrainian government early on, and urged the president to demonstrate his commitment by granting Zelenskiy the White House visit he craved.
Trump was not convinced, saying he thought all Ukrainian politicians were corrupt and, alluding to Manafort’s case, that the country had tried to take him down.
In the meantime, as the whistleblower complaint notes, Lutsenko was seeking to remain in office under Zelenskiy, and was sending mixed signals about pursuing the case related to the oligarch on whose company board Hunter Biden sat.
But Zelenskiy would later decide to replace Lutsenko, cutting off Giuliani’s main point of access to the Ukrainian government.
It was against that backdrop that Zelenskiy dispatched one of his closest aides, Andriy Yermak, to open a line of communication with Giuliani.
During a trip to Washington in July, Yermak, over breakfast at the Trump International Hotel, asked Volker for a connection to Giuliani. Volker broached the idea to Giuliani over a separate breakfast days later, and Giuliani and Yermak were soon chatting by phone.
Yet, even as these discussions were ongoing, Trump personally ordered his staff to freeze more than $391 million in military assistance for Ukraine. The move, made with little explanation, puzzled and frustrated officials in the departments of defense and state, as well as members of Congress from both parties who viewed the assistance as critical to helping a close ally as it confronted Russia.
Days later, Trump and Zelenskiy had their fateful phone call. After reminding Zelenskiy of the assistance the United States has provided to Ukraine, Trump asked him to work with Attorney General William Barr on investigations into the Bidens and other matters, according to the reconstructed transcript. Among them was the unfounded conspiracy theory suggesting that Ukraine rather than Russia was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails in 2016 and that Hillary Clinton’s missing emails might be on a server in Ukraine.
He also repeatedly asked Zelenskiy to work with Giuliani.
Zelenskiy assured Trump that “one of my assistants spoke with Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.”
The day after the call, Volker and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, were in Kyiv meeting with Zelenskiy. A week later, Giuliani and Yermak met face to face in Madrid.
Trump then raised eyebrows in August when he called for ending President Vladimir Putin’s pariah status on the global stage by readmitting Russia to the Group of 7 industrialized nations. Trump has quietly been urging a deal to reduce tensions between Ukraine and Russia that would pave the way for a removal of Western sanctions on Moscow, long a goal of Putin’s.
Trump himself hinted that was his goal when asked about Zelenskiy two weeks after the July 25 call. “I think he’s going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House,” Trump told reporters.
In response to an approaching hurricane, Trump canceled a Sept. 1 trip to Warsaw at which he would have met Zelenskiy in person for the first time, instead sending Pence, who told reporters that he and Trump “have great concerns about issues of corruption,” linking them to the delayed military assistance.
Only after a bipartisan outcry did the White House release the assistance this month.
After hearing on Friday that Pompeo’s records had been subpoenaed in the impeachment investigation, some State Department officials said they hoped to learn why a career foreign service officer was recalled as ambassador, and whether Pompeo was complicit in — or had opposed — putting Giuliani in touch with Ukrainian officials.
Zelenskiy is still waiting for his White House meeting, as he noted when he finally met with Trump on Wednesday in New York.
“I want to thank you for the invitation to Washington,” Zelenskiy said at a joint news conference, “but I think you forgot to tell me the date.”