The public impeachment hearings have just gotten underway, but we’ve already learned quite a lot about the arguments that Democrats and Republicans plan to make.

A particularly revealing moment came in the middle of the first day’s testimony, when Stephen R. Castor, attorney for the Republican side, questioned William B. Taylor Jr., acting ambassador to Ukraine:

CASTOR: And the information published by Serhiy Leshchenko, former Ukrainian investigative journalist and then he was a member of the parliament, about the Manafort black ledgers in August 2016, I mean, the very day that was published Mr. Manafort resigned from the campaign, correct?
TAYLOR: I don't know, Mr. Castor.
CASTOR: But certainly that gives rise to some concern that there are elements of the Ukrainian establishment that were out to get the president. That's a very reasonable belief of his, correct?
TAYLOR: I – I don’t know.
https://plus.cq.com/doc/congressionaltranscripts-5767782?7&searchId=nc4t6N08

Castor was of course referring to Paul Manafort, then acting as Donald Trump’s campaign manager. On Aug. 26, 2016, Leshchenko — the Ukrainian lawmaker referenced by Castor — held a news conference in Kyiv, where he revealed information from the “black ledger,” a notebook allegedly documenting $12.7 million in cash payments made to Manafort by his former client, ex-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort resigned soon after.

To Castor and other Republicans, Leshchenko’s action was part of a conspiracy to hurt Trump’s prospects and hand the U.S. presidency to Hillary Clinton. By arguing that the Ukrainians were acting to favor the Democratic candidate, Republicans can claim that Trump was perfectly justified in pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to reveal the details of such a conspiracy. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, had elaborated on the theory earlier in the hearing, citing the “many indications that Ukrainians actually did meddle in the election.” Assuming the Ukrainians had done so, he said, “President Trump would have a perfectly good reason to want to find out what happened.”

But there is a problem with this narrative. It turns out that Manafort actually did receive money from Yanukovych — specifically, “tens of millions of dollars in income as a result of his Ukraine work,” according to the text of an indictment filed by then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in June 2018. That September, Manafort pleaded guilty to charges that he laundered funds (and evaded taxes on them) from his overseas lobbying work for Yanukovych and other clients. He’s serving a 7 1/2-year prison sentence.

Any notion that Ukrainians made all of this up out of whole cloth to influence the outcome of the U.S. election is, to put it mildly, far-fetched — just like the debunked theory, repeatedly aired by Trump, that Ukraine was somehow involved in the hacking of the server of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.

The Republican attempts to concoct nefarious narratives about Ukraine betray either a willful ignorance or a cynical will to distort the truth. The simple reality is that, over the past five years, Ukrainians have had little time or resources to spare for worrying about U.S. domestic politics. They’ve been focused instead on the existential struggle engulfing their own country. In 2014, a popular uprising toppled Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader who had alienated Ukrainians by rejecting an agreement that would have aligned their country more closely with the European Union. That agreement symbolized the future that most Ukrainians wanted: rule of law, democratic accountability and an end to rampant corruption.

Yanukovych sought refuge in Russia, where he remains today. Moscow responded to his ouster by seizing the Crimean peninsula and invading eastern Ukraine — all part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless plan to keep the country in the Russian sphere of influence. Leshchenko’s Manafort revelations were part of Ukrainians’ efforts to fight back and safeguard their country’s independence.

It is true that some aspects of the “black ledger” story remain unclear. Questions about the origins and authenticity of the documents persist; as Post reporters noted, Mueller’s office didn’t introduce the ledger at Manafort’s trial. It’s worth noting, though, that a 2017 investigation by the Associated Press appears to have confirmed a specific payment documented by the ledger.

The bottom line, though, is that the substance of Leshchenko’s claims has been borne out by subsequent events. Manafort acted corruptly — and worked to maintain the power of a Ukrainian leader who did profound damage to his own country’s interests. Leshchenko shed light on that reality:

Ukraine continues to fight Russian-sponsored forces in the east; 13,000 people have died in that war so far. The fight against the kind of corruption embodied by Manafort and Yanukovych continues, too. The success of these two intertwined struggles remains far from assured.

The United States has a clear interest in making sure that Ukraine remains free and democratic. If the hearings show that Trump’s policies indeed undermined those goals, his Republican defenders will have a great deal to answer for.

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