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Trump, Giuliani, and Manafort: The Ukraine Scheme

Yana Paskova/Getty Images
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaving his arraignment on multiple felony charges in Manhattan Criminal Court, New York, June 27, 2019

The effort by President Trump to pressure the government of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son had its origins in an earlier endeavor to obtain information that might provide a pretext and political cover for the president to pardon his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, according to previously undisclosed records.  

These records indicate that attorneys representing Trump and Manafort respectively had at least nine conversations relating to this effort, beginning in the early days of the Trump administration, and lasting until as recently as May of this year. Through these deliberations carried on by his attorneys, Manafort exhorted the White House to press Ukrainian officials to investigate and discredit individuals, both in the US and in Ukraine, who he believed had published damning information about his political consulting work in the Ukraine. A person who participated in the joint defense agreement between President Trump and others under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, including Manafort, allowed me to review extensive handwritten notes that memorialized conversations relating to Manafort and Ukraine between Manafort’s and Trump’s legal teams, including Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

These new disclosures emerge as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House would open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s conduct. What prompted her actions were the new allegations that surfaced last week that Trump had pressured Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Trump’s potential 2020 campaign rival, Biden, and his son Hunter, placing a freeze on a quarter of a billion dollars in military assistance to Ukraine as leverage. The impeachment inquiry will also examine whether President Trump obstructed justice by attempting to curtail investigations by the FBI and the special counsel into Russia’s covert interference in the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.  

New information in this story suggests that these two, seemingly unrelated scandals, in which the House will judge whether the president’s conduct in each case constituted extra-legal and extra-constitutional abuses of presidential power, are in fact inextricably linked: the Ukrainian initiative appears to have begun in service of formulating a rationale by which the president could pardon Manafort, as part of an effort to undermine the special counsel’s investigation.

From 2004 to 2014, Manafort had advised President Viktor Yanukovych, who advocated that his country sever ties with the United States and other Western nations, and align itself more closely with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. After Yanukovych fled the country in disgrace in 2014, a ledger was recovered from the burned-out ruins of his Party of Regions. Its records showed that Yanukovych and his political allies had made some $12.7 million in secret cash payments to Manafort. The disclosure led directly to Manafort’s resignation in August 2016 as chairman of the Trump presidential campaign. 

The records I have reviewed also indicate that on at least three occasions, Rudy Giuliani was in communication with Manafort’s legal team to discuss how the White House was pushing a narrative that the Democratic National Committee, Democratic donors, and Ukrainian government officials had “colluded” to defeat Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. (This story has since been debunked as baseless, though that has not prevented Trump, Giuliani, and other surrogates in conservative media from repeatedly pushing the story.) 

In particular, the records show that Manafort’s camp provided Giuliani with information designed to smear two people: one was a Ukrainian journalist and political activist named Serhiy Leshchenko, whom Manafort believed, correctly, of helping to uncover Manafort’s secret payments from Yanukovych; another was Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American political consultant and US citizen, whom Manafort suspected, mistakenly in this case, was also behind the exposé. The records also show that Giuliani and attorneys for Manafort exchanged information about the then US ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who Giuliani believed had attempted to undercut his covert Ukrainian diplomacy and fact-finding; the records are unclear as to whether it was Giuliani or Manafort’s attorney who first initiated their discussion about her.

After his arrest in 2017, Manafort continued to encourage President Trump and his lawyers to engage in this effort when they joined Manafort in a joint legal defense agreement. Attorneys are allowed to enter into such agreements in order share information and coordinate legal, public relations, and political strategies—in this case regarding the investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including that of the special counsel. Federal courts have long ruled that joint defense agreements are legal to protect the due process rights of those under investigation, as long as they are not used by potential defendants to coordinate providing cover stories or false information to prosecutors.

Trump’s dangling of pardons to Manafort and others who might provide damaging testimony against the president to law enforcement agents, such as his former personal attorney Michael Cohen, have been widely reported, both by news media outlets and in the Mueller Report. According to the participant in the joint defense agreement discussions, Manafort was distressed at the uncertainty about whether President Trump would pardon him. There was no formal understanding that Trump would do so, because this would instantly have raised the specter of whether such a pardon might constitute an obstruction of justice. 

Instead, Manafort and those around him took the very public efforts by Giuliani to press Ukraine to investigate Manafort’s accusers as a favorable signal that the president might still pardon him after the 2020 presidential election. Trump is famously transactional, and Manafort feared that the president might be leading him on, according to the person who was party to the joint defense agreement communications. Giuliani’s constant touting of the Ukraine issue proved “reassuring” to Manafort, albeit to “a limited degree,” according to this person.

If Giuliani’s own account can be believed, it was while he was looking into the purported Ukrainian collusion to defeat Trump that he stumbled upon Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine. “The reality is I came about this by accident, investigating Ukrainian collusion with Democrats to affect the election,” Giuliani said in an interview with Fox News on May 10. 

Giuliani did not add that he was also pressing for Kiev to investigate Manafort’s enemies. As I first disclosed last year in an article for Vox, Manafort encouraged the president and his top aides in this effort from the first days of the administration in early 2017. In recent months, both Trump and Giuliani have intensified those efforts, pressuring Ukraine to investigate not only Leshchenko and Chalupa, but also other Ukrainian government officials, activists, and journalists—and specifically to look into any part they may have had in publishing details of Manafort’s illicit political consulting work in the Ukraine. 

This past weekend, Trump acknowledged that he had also encouraged President Zelensky during a July 25 telephone call to have Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies investigate Hunter Biden’s business dealings. The White House has released a memorandum based on notes from officials, not a verbatim record. In it, Trump expressed concern to Zelensky that he was “surrounding [him]self with some of the same people,” an apparent reference to Leshchenko. Trump went on to disparage the Mueller Report, saying, “a lot of it started with Ukraine,” a seeming allusion to Manafort’s problems. And he urged the Ukrainian president to take calls from both his personal lawyer and Attorney General William Barr. Giuliani has admitted to repeatedly pressing the Manafort matter with Ukrainian officials.

The allegations that President Trump improperly pressured the head of state of a foreign government to improperly investigate the son of his potential Democratic opponent in the 2020 presidential race, and even withheld $250 million in military aid to that country, have become grounds for an impeachment inquiry. The new disclosures in this story underscore how this scheme originated in the long-running coordination between Trump, Giuliani, and Manafort to frustrate the Mueller investigation. 

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Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Then President-elect Donald Trump conferring with Rudy Giuliani, who later became Trump’s personal lawyer, Bedminster, New Jersey, November 20, 2016

Giuliani’s smear campaign already met with some success. After Giuliani had to cancel a trip to Kiev earlier this year to meet with Zelensky to press the president’s agenda of having Ukraine investigate Trump’s political adversaries, Giuliani blamed Leshchenko for generating the publicity about it. In 2016, Leshchenko had held a press conference in Kiev to publicize the “black ledger” that forced Manafort’s resignation from Trump’s campaign.

On May 10, Giuliani lashed out at Leshchenko, characterizing him as one of several people around Zelensky who were “enemies of the president” and “enemies of the United States.” Without offering any evidence to substantiate this disparagement, Giuliani now claimed that the ledgers had been doctored or forged. He even alleged that Hillary Clinton or the Democratic National Committee were involved in the effort to bring the ledger to light. On Fox News this past Sunday, Giuliani added to his conspiracy theory the claim that George Soros was somehow involved in “Ukrainian collusion.”  

Writing in The Washington Post on Saturday, Leshchenko—who had for a time been a member of the Ukrainian parliament—wrote that Giuliani’s accusations had “had a devastating effect on my political career.” “Giuliani’s smear,” he said, “cost me a job in the new administration.” Leshchenko had been an adviser on Zelensky’s team, but facing this onslaught from Trump’s attorney and his media allies, he had felt forced to withdraw in order to avoid creating problems for the Ukrainian president.

Alexandra Chalupa has faced similar attacks, encouraged by Manafort via the joint defense agreement. Chalupa had worked part-time as a political consultant to the Democratic National Committee, and Manafort claimed that she, too, had been involved in bringing the black ledger to light. Her consultancy for the DNC had involved outreach to Ukrainian-American voters, not opposition research; and she had conducted her research on Manafort entirely on her own account. Although Chalupa mentioned what she was doing to colleagues at the DNC, they took no interest in her efforts, and in July 2016 she quit working for the DNC to focus on human rights advocacy. Although she did independently report on Manafort’s work in Ukraine, she played no part in exposing the black ledger.

President Trump and his surrogates, however, had their own motives for attacking Chalupa. After the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian officials was revealed, they used Chalupa’s work to argue that Democrats had engaged in much the same conduct: Chalupa’s outreach to Ukrainian officials, they said, was no different. As I wrote for the Daily in January: “This argument does not stand up to scrutiny but the White House’s efforts were designed to persuade some—especially among the president’s conservative base—to believe that a moral and legal equivalence applied.”

Acting in part on Manafort’s advice, on July 10, 2017, then White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders encouraged reporters to investigate how, she claimed, “the Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy.” Two days later, Fox News’s Sean Hannity began efforts to repeatedly amplify the allegations evening after evening on his show. On July 24, Republicans on Capitol Hill, among them Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it would investigate whether Chalupa’s activity constituted a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (there would be no such finding). On July 25, President Trump himself tweeted: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign—‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G.”

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Manafort is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence of eight felony counts, including money-laundering, tax avoidance, and mortgage fraud. Following those convictions in August 2018, Manafort agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. As part of a plea bargain in which he admitted to additional crimes of witness-tampering and money-laundering, Manafort was guaranteed leniency as long as he were to “fully, truthfully, completely and forthrightly” answer any questions about “any and all matters” the government wanted to ask about.

But Manafort’s cooperation was a ruse. Little more than three months later, in December, the special counsel stated in federal court that Manafort had broken his cooperation agreement by telling prosecutors and FBI agents “multiple discernible lies.” Even more unsettling were disclosures that an attorney for Manafort had been constantly briefing President Trump’s attorneys on what Manafort was being asked and what he was telling the special counsel. Manafort and his attorneys argued that this conduct was legal under his joint legal defense agreement with the president—although many seasoned prosecutors were appalled that this had been allowed to continue. 

Harry Littman, a former United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, noted at the time in The Washington Post that “the open pipeline between cooperator Manafort and suspect Trump may have been not only extraordinary but also criminal”—potentially qualifying as crimes of obstruction and witness-tampering on both sides. Littman explained:

On Manafort’s and [his defense attorney’s] end, there is a circumstantial case for obstruction of justice. What purpose other than an attempt to “influence, obstruct, or impede” the investigation of the president can be discerned from Manafort’s service as a double agent? And on the Trump side, the communications emit a strong scent of illegal witness tampering (and possibly obstruction as well).

Littman also pointed out that Mueller had the right to compel attorneys for both the president and Manafort to testify about their discussions as part of an inquiry into whether they or their clients had obstructed justice. But Littman noted that “political considerations” might “possibly intercede.” Trump and his allies would criticize Mueller for overreach, he considered, and the then Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker might not permit Mueller to serve subpoenas. 

In the end, Mueller did not follow up. Nor have Democrats in the House, who had a similar legitimate right to independently investigate the matter. If they had, they would have discovered that as late as May of this year, Giuliani was in touch with Manafort’s attorneys to discuss how they could keep pushing the “Ukrainian collusion” narrative, as the records shown me demonstrate. In the absence of any branch of government holding them accountable, Trump and Giuliani faced no sanction for doing so. They had good reason, after all, to believe they were invincible.