In each case, Trump’s clear intention was to have Ukraine provide some personal benefit to himself. Were Ukraine to uncover evidence suggesting that the DNC network might not have been hacked by Russia, Trump’s concerns about the legitimacy of his election would be assuaged. Should Zelensky find improprieties by the Bidens, even better. Trump has since couched each request to suggest that his intent was more high-minded, but the language of the rough transcript released by the White House makes his actual goal clear.
Since that transcript was released last week, we’ve learned about a broad push by Trump and his team to dig into each of these separate issues. It’s a push that’s covered at least four countries and over a dozen people, in some way.
It looks, in summary, like this.
That’s a complicated diagram, perhaps necessarily. It’s broken out into two, overlapping universes, one focused on implicating the Bidens (the green lines) and one focused on the Russia investigation (blue lines). We’ve also indicated some past-but-still-important relationships by making those lines dashed.
Let’s look at each universe separately.
Trump and his attorney Rudolph Giuliani insist that Joe Biden’s December 2015 demand that Ukraine’s then-president fire general prosecutor Viktor Shokin was a function of Shokin’s investigation into Burisma Holdings, a company for which Hunter Biden was working.
While Shokin insists that such a probe was underway and that Biden’s demand was linked to it, the available evidence suggests that no such investigation was underway and, further, that there was nothing about Hunter Biden’s work that was related to questions about Burisma’s business practices. When Shokin eventually left his position, he was replaced by Yuri Lutsenko, who continued in the position even after Zelensky took office in May.
Giuliani’s efforts to uncover dirt on the Bidens included multiple conversations with Lutsenko and at least one meeting with Shokin (according to the complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower).
When Trump and Zelensky spoke in July, Trump repeatedly pressed Zelensky to work with both Giuliani and Attorney General William P. Barr. Listening in on the call was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Russia probe
The whistleblower complaint made obvious the extent to which Trump was leaning on at least one other country to get information that’s politically useful to him. Since then, we’ve learned about a number of other conversations in which Trump and his team pressed foreign leaders to aid in a broader effort to undermine the investigation into Russian interference and possible collusion with Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Some background is important at the outset. During the campaign, Trump had a foreign policy team that included advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. Page had come under FBI scrutiny a few years earlier after he was identified as a possible target by a Russian intelligence officer looking for U.S. recruits.
During the campaign, Papadopoulos became acquainted with a London-based professor named Joseph Mifsud, who also has ties to Italy. Mifsud, who’s believed to have links to the Russian government, told Papadopoulos that Russia had dirt on Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos later revealed that claim by Mifsud to Alexander Downer, an Australian diplomat. When WikiLeaks started dumping material stolen from the DNC in July 2016, the Australian government informed the United States about the Papadopoulos-Mifsud conversation, launching the Russia probe.
At the same time, former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, working indirectly for a law firm employed by Clinton’s campaign and the DNC, was compiling reports of alleged links between Trump’s campaign and Russia. He identified Page as one such link, spurring an FBI investigation into Page specifically, after Page left the campaign. At different points, an informant working for the FBI, Stefan Halper, met with both Papadopoulos and Page.
As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake detailed Tuesday, these events have become a focal point of theories about how the FBI and the administration of President Barack Obama targeted Trump’s campaign. The surveillance of Page, Trump defenders allege, was predicated unfairly on the Steele reports. While Papadopoulos eventually admitted lying to federal prosecutors about his conversations with Mifsud, he has propagated a theory that his interactions with the professor were, in fact, a fishing expedition by U.S. or allied intelligence services. In other words: that he was set up.
The evidence for these claims is thin, and the extrapolated arguments, flimsy. But for Trump, they’re something of a lifeline. Earlier this year, Barr launched an investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation, tapping U.S. attorney John Durham to lead the effort.
So in addition to talking to Zelensky about the hacking of the DNC, Trump also spoke with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — Downer’s boss — about helping the Barr-Durham probe. He reportedly also contacted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about helping Barr, presumably to dig into the Steele and Halper angles of this theory. Barr traveled to Italy with Durham reportedly to hear a deposition of Mifsud and has been working with intelligence agencies in other countries to bolster his investigation.
That, in short, is the web of international interactions which Trump and his allies hope will exonerate the president and impugn a possible 2020 Democratic opponent.