Once he won the presidency, though, that changed. Ukraine has become a repeated and obvious political playing card for Trump over the past several years, in part because of its oppositional role to Russia. When questions about Russia have arisen, Trump and his allies have often tried to redirect America’s gaze to Ukraine.
The most recent example remains murky, the focus of a complaint from a whistleblower within the intelligence community, according to Washington Post reporting. Even that still-unclear allegation probably loops back to a very public, very loud assertion from Trump and his team — a loudness that they now seem to hope will aid them tactically.
The earliest iteration was an effort to wave away questions about Russia’s role in the 2016 election by suggesting that Ukraine was engaged in something equivalent. It was a line of argument that leveraged a January 2017 article from Politico, describing how a consultant working for the Democratic National Committee had sought information from Ukrainian officials largely centered on Paul Manafort, previously a political consultant in that country but at the time Trump’s campaign chairman.
When news broke about Donald Trump Jr.'s having embraced an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton that he believed came from the Russian government, the incident with the DNC contractor was lifted up as a counterpoint. Trump Jr.'s only media interview in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of the Trump Tower meeting was with Fox News’ Sean Hannity — who opened his show by walking through the DNC-Ukraine story in his own loaded, spottily accurate way.
Where this particular look-at-Ukraine effort fails is largely in scale. What’s alleged is that one contractor — who stopped working with the DNC in July — worked with staff at the Ukrainian embassy to examine Manafort’s record. Such research wasn’t part of her role with the party, and there’s no evidence that the DNC was broadly aware of her efforts. There’s no evidence that the Ukrainian government was actively engaged in a large effort to aid the Democrats or Hillary Clinton’s campaign. By contrast, U.S. intelligence officials uncovered evidence that Russia was trying to aid Trump at the highest levels — and was actively doing so in various ways.
“It sounds like big stuff, very interesting with Ukraine. I just spoke with the new president a while ago, and congratulated him. ... But that sounds like big, big stuff, and I’m not surprised.” — Trump, to Hannity earlier this year
Earlier this year, the idea that Ukraine had interfered in a Russia-like way expanded outward in a new direction. Manafort’s tenure with Trump’s campaign ended after a Ukrainian politician publicized what he claimed were documents maintaining an account of secret payments from a Russia-linked political party to Manafort. Trump was already battered by questions about his ties to Russia; the report of the secret ledger crystallized his desire to dump Manafort from his team.
There’s no question that Manafort worked for the party at issue. There have been questions raised about the legitimacy of the ledger itself, though the Associated Press has confirmed one of the payments it documents.
Last year, the Ukrainian government concluded that two officials — a member of parliament and the head of the anti-corruption bureau — had violated the law by publicizing Manafort’s name. That action was criticized as amounting to interference in the U.S. presidential election and thereby “harm[ing] the interests of Ukraine as a state.” It was not, however, evidence of an orchestrated attempt to help Clinton — or even obviously untrue.
Speaking to Hannity earlier this year, Trump claimed that this development amounted to “big, big stuff.” In a rambling interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Thursday night, Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani similarly evoked the incident as being problematic.
“I was investigating, going back to last year, complaints that the Ukrainian people, several people in Ukraine, knew about a tremendous amount of collusion between Ukrainian officials, and Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic National Committee,” Giuliani claimed, “including a completely fraudulent document that was produced, in order to begin the investigation of Manafort."
This was an inaccurate summary of the allegations above. Giuliani's broader claims to Cuomo centered on what might be involved in the whistleblower complaint.
While investigating what happened in Ukraine, Giuliani claimed, “I found out this incredible story about Joe Biden, that he bribed the President of the Ukraine in order to fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son.” This, Giuliani said, was “an astounding scandal, of major proportions” being covered up by the media.
“Look at Joe Biden … he calls them and says, ‘Don’t you dare prosecute. If you don’t fire this prosecutor’ — the prosecutor was after his son — then he said, ‘If you fire the prosecutor, you’ll be okay. And if you don’t fire the prosecutor, we’re not giving you $2 billion in loan guarantees,’ or whatever he was supposed to give. Can you imagine if I did that?” — Trump on Fox News in May
It hasn’t been covered up by the media. Trump himself tweeted out a New York Times report outlining the allegations. It just hasn’t gained much traction, for understandable reasons.
The allegation is that in March 2016, Biden, then vice president, threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless the country fired its prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. Shokin had been accused of not cracking down on corruption, and the Ukrainian parliament voted him out of office soon after.
Giuliani’s allegation of bribery centers on Biden’s son Hunter, who at the time served on the board of an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch. That oligarch and the company, Burisma, may have been under investigation by Shokin at the time of his firing. That’s the line Giuliani draws: investigation tangentially related to Hunter Biden, ergo Joe Biden wants investigator fired.
Except, as with so many of Giuliani's claims, that's not a fair presentation of what happened.
As our fact-checkers have explained, Shokin had been under scrutiny for a long time for his failures to crack down on corruption, and not just by Biden or the United States. There’s no indication that the push to dump Shokin originated from Biden; it instead apparently came from staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. An anti-corruption activist in Ukraine told the Intercept that Shokin “was fired because he attacked the reformers within the prosecutor general’s office, reformers who tried to investigate corrupt prosecutors.”
In short, then, there’s a dearth of evidence that Biden decided that Shokin had to go in order to protect his son, or that the company for which his son worked was under investigation or that his son was involved in aspects of the company that would have been investigated. In fact, Shokin’s ouster led to the appointment of a prosecutor who ended up opening an investigation into Burisma, anyway (though this, too, is complicated).
Giuliani’s effort to find evidence bolstering his case attracted attention at the time, raising questions about the willingness of Trump’s team to leverage international relationships to his own electoral benefit. A Fox News poll released on Wednesday shows Trump trailing Biden by 14 points in a hypothetical general-election matchup; uncovering a bribery scandal would presumably help Trump regain some ground.
But, then, this is precisely what Trump was accused of having done in 2016: seeking political aid from a foreign country. Here, such an effort was occurring to some extent in the open.
Perhaps not entirely, however. While the thrust of the whistleblower complaint remains unclear, Giuliani seemed to suggest to Cuomo that it might involve Trump’s demanding that Ukraine focus on “corruption,” which, in Giuliani’s explanation centered on this Biden interaction. There’s speculation that Trump might have withheld aid to Ukraine in part to compel the country to conduct this “corruption” investigation — speculation that comes from people including U.S. senators.
One theory is that Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to dig into the Biden claims in a phone call earlier this year.
NB: The Ukrainian readout of the presidential phone call says explicitly Trump tied investigations & improving relations between the two countries, specifying completing “investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) September 20, 2019
Here is where the loudness of the allegations is useful to Trump. If the whistleblower complaint does allege that Trump demanded Ukraine in essence bolster his political efforts in exchange for aid, Giuliani’s very public and very energetic discussion of that push in the context of “fighting corruption” has preset a narrative among Trump’s supporters. It would then have been a dually useful effort on Giuliani: smearing Biden and inoculating Trump’s base.
On Thursday, Trump insisted that he would not have said anything untoward to a foreign leader on a call that he knew was being monitored. Perhaps that’s true in the abstract, but he and his allies have been very open and very public in hinting about how events in Ukraine can aid the president politically. That he might have crossed a line in private seems less unlikely in that context.
The White House press corps asked Trump about the whistleblower allegation in the Oval Office on Friday morning.
“Asked whether he discussed Biden in this conversation, [Trump said,] ‘It doesn’t matter what I discussed,’ ” The Post’s Seung Min Kim reports, “and says ‘someone ought to look into Joe Biden.’ ”
Safe to say that Trump is no longer indifferent to Ukrainian politics.