the national interest

Trump Extorted Ukraine in 2017 and 2018 Before Getting Caught This Year

Donald Trump Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry report demonstrates in exhaustive detail that President Trump and numerous aides pressured Ukraine to open investigations for Trump’s political benefit. The report describes this as “a months-long effort by President Trump to use the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election.”

But the effort almost certainly took place over years, not months. Indeed it grew directly out of the ties developed between Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign.

The Ukraine scandal burst into the view of Congress and the public this summer when the House Intelligence Committee obtained a whistle-blower’s report. The report focused on a July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, and Trump’s plot to withhold military aid as leverage. But the fact that this sequence of events was exposed does not mean it is the entirety of the plot. The sequence of events instead suggests that Trump has been extorting Ukraine for his own political gain not only in 2017, but during the previous two years as well.

Begin with Trump’s notion that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked Democratic emails. This is the idea he raises in his call with Zelensky, asking his befuddled Ukrainian counterpart to locate a server that, according to this bizarre conspiracy theory, was handed by Democrats over to Ukrainians and that would prove Russia had been framed. American intelligence officials have described the theory as a Russian-backed disinformation campaign.

Where did Trump get this idea from? He seems to have first heard it in the summer of 2016, from Paul Manafort, his campaign manager. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, told Robert Mueller that Manafort had been spouting the theory that Ukrainians framed Russia since the summer of 2016, and that the theory seemed to come from Manafort’s partner, Konstantin Kilimnik, who American officials believed was a Russian intelligence operative.

By April 2017, Trump was repeating this theory in public, falsely telling an Associated Press reporter that a “Ukrainian-based” company had taken the Democratic server with the stolen emails. A few months after that, Rudy Giuliani began meeting with Ukrainian officials. Giuliani recently explained that he pursued the theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked Democratic emails because it would exonerate Trump. Obviously, Trump could not have colluded with Russia to exploit stolen emails if Russia hadn’t stolen the emails in the first place. “I knew they were hot and heavy on this Russian collusion thing, even though I knew 100 percent that it was false,” he told Glenn Beck. “I said to myself, ‘Hallelujah.’ I’ve got what a defense lawyer always wants: I can go prove someone else committed this crime.”

Giuliani undertook what appear to be two previous episodes of trading diplomatic favors to Ukrainians in return for steps to protect Trump from the Mueller investigation. The first apparent trade involved a meeting between Trump and Ukraine’s then-president Petro Poroshenko in return for a Ukrainian investigation that would exonerate Manafort, then a prime target of Mueller’s.

Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake summarizes the timeline:

June 8, 2017: Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani meets with Poroshenko and then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko.
June 9, 2017: Lutsenko’s office joins an existing investigation into the “black ledger,” which implicated former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The investigation had previously been handled only by Ukraine’s independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), and critics alleged the new move was meant to bury the scandal.
June 14, 2017: Reports in Europe indicate Poroshenko will meet with Trump.
June 19, 2017: Spicer says Poroshenko will meet with Vice President Pence, but doesn’t confirm a meeting with Trump.
June 20, 2017: Poroshenko gets a brief “drop-in” visit with Trump.
This is either a direct trade, or an exchange of mutually-beneficial actions that coincidentally occurred in very rapid succession.

The next apparent quid pro quo took place the next year. The U.S. sold desperately needed Javelin missiles to Ukraine that year, and the New York Times reported at the time that Ukraine suspended cooperation with the Mueller investigation. (This is another one of those Trump-era episodes where a credible report of shocking misconduct immediately sinks without a trace into the vast ooze of other Trumpian outrages.) “In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” one Ukrainian lawmaker and close ally of President Poroshenko explained to the Times.

The benefit of this move to Trump was immense. Manafort and Kilimnik were key figures in the Mueller probe. Mueller found that Manafort had slipped Kilimnik 75 pages of polling data during a meeting in the summer of 2016. Here you have proof that Trump’s campaign manager gave valuable, detailed information to a known Russian spy, at a time when the Russians were running a pro-Trump media operation. But Mueller never determined what the polling was for. And Kilimnik was able to leave Ukraine and escape to Russia, where Mueller could not interview him. A State Department document concluded that Lutsenko, who had met with Giuliani, allowed Kilimnik to leave the country.

Neither of these episodes has been investigated in anything like the depth of the 2019 episodes. But both bear all the same superficial hallmarks to what occurred this year. In both instances, Giuliani had contacts with Ukrainian officials, and traded the same things (a presidential meeting and military aid). Also in both cases, Ukraine put its famously corrupt judicial system at the disposal of Trump’s domestic interests.

In 2017 and 2018, Trump was consumed by the Mueller investigation, and seems to have pushed Ukraine to take steps to stymie it. By 2019, Giuliani had taken an interest in claims of wrongdoing by Joe Biden, and added demands for a Biden probe to his push for investigations that would exonerate Russia’s (and therefore Trump’s) behavior in 2016.

By 2019, Trump and Giuliani were barely hiding their actions. Giuliani was boasting about his activities to every reporter who would listen. And Trump was directing a growing array of officials to follow Giuliani’s lead, despite the obvious impropriety of placing American foreign policy in the hands of his private attorney who was openly working on his political behalf.

Why did they flaunt their scheme so widely and carelessly? Most likely because they had already been doing the same thing for two years.

Trump Extorted Ukraine in 2017, 2018 Before Getting Caught