The Iceberg’s Tip: Ukraine Phone Call and the Months-Long Conspiracy to Violate Federal Campaign Finance Laws

The absurdity of the Justice Department’s refusal to investigate

Earlier this week the White House released a rough transcript of President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Understandably, there’s been much scrutiny of the transcript. Is the transcript complete? What exactly did Trump ask Zelensky for? Was there a “quid pro quo” exchange? To be clear, the transcript is incriminating on its face. But this narrow and granular analysis on one conversation risks missing the big picture.

The most important takeaway from the call transcript and the now-public whistleblower complaint is that President Trump seemingly orchestrated a months-long conspiracy to obtain Ukrainian government assistance in his 2020 reelection campaign—in violation of federal campaign finance laws and, perhaps, other statutes. The Department of Justice (DOJ) decision not to investigate these violations has no basis in law. And it turns out Attorney General William Barr had no business being involved in the matter, as he is implicated both in the whistleblower complaint and by the transcript of President Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president.

July 25 Phone Call Only the Tip of the Iceberg

To be certain, President Trump solicited a political contribution from President Zelensky during the July 25 call—asking President Zelensky to “look into” Joe Biden—but that was neither the first nor the last time President Trump, either directly or through his agents, solicited a political contribution from the Ukraine government. Trump’s illegal efforts to gain Ukraine’s assistance in his 2020 reelection campaign date back at least to January and continued after his July 25 call with Zelensky.

On September 23, Common Cause filed a complaint with DOJ and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging reason to believe that President Trump, Rudy Giuliani and at least three other Trump allies (Victoria Toensing, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman) violated the federal law ban on soliciting, or substantially assisting the solicitation of, a political “contribution” from a foreign national through numerous meetings and phone calls with Ukrainian officials.

Back in May, the New York Times reported that Giuliani was planning a trip to Ukraine to meet with recently-elected President Zelensky “to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump”: the “origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election” and the “involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.”

Giuliani’s planned trip was reportedly “part of a monthslong effort” by Giuliani and “a small group of Trump allies working to build interest in the Ukrainian inquiries. Their motivation is to try to discredit the special counsel’s investigation; undermine the case against Paul Manafort …; and potentially to damage Mr. Biden.” Over the course of several months, Giuliani and his allies had numerous telephonic and in-person meetings with Ukrainian officials to advance President Trump’s personal political agenda.

The New York Times’ report was followed by a late July BuzzFeed News deep dive into the months-long effort by Giuliani and “[t]wo unofficial envoys reporting directly” to him to obtain Ukraine’s assistance in Trump’s 2020 reelection efforts. BuzzFeed News wrote:

In a whirlwind of private meetings, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman—who pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Republican campaigns and dined with the president—gathered repeatedly with top officials in Ukraine and set up meetings for Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani as they turned up information that could be weaponized in the 2020 presidential race.

Parnas and Fruman reportedly “helped arrange meetings in New York between the [Ukraine’s top prosecutor Lutsenko] and Giuliani in January” and in “February, Giuliani and Parnas met privately again with Lutsenko” on the sidelines of a meeting “that included US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Then in May, Parnas and Fruman “flew to Paris, where they joined Giuliani in talks with” another Ukrainian prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky.

In April, within hours of President Zelensky’s election, President Trump called him and, according to several sources, urged him to coordinate with Giuliani and “pursue investigations of ‘corruption,’” as revealed this week by the New York Times.

Days after President Trump’s July 25 call with President Zelensky, on or about August 2  according to the whistleblower complaint, Giuliani “met with an aide to the Ukrainian president in Madrid and spelled out two specific cases he believed Ukraine should pursue,” an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, and an investigation of whether Democrats colluded with Ukraine to release information on Paul Manafort during the 2016 election. The complaint notes that Giuliani had “privately reached out to a variety of other Zelenskyy advisers” and that some of these advisors “intended to travel to Washington in mid-August.” The whistleblower complaint goes on to note many of these meetings.

Rudy Giuliani is referenced five times in the rough transcript of the July 25 call, with President Zelensky first bringing up Giuliani and mentioning that one of his assistants “spoke with Mr. Giuliani recently” and that he hoped “very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.” President Trump then noted three times that he would have Giuliani call President Zelensky, saying: “If you could speak to him, that would be great.”

Giuliani is Trump’s personal attorney, not a diplomat. Giuliani has stated: “My only client is the president of the United States[.] He’s the one I have an obligation to report to, tell him what happened.” He has also said that his Ukraine efforts have the full support of Trump, and that Trump “knows what I’m doing, sure, as his lawyer.” Giuliani also made clear that his work with Ukrainian officials “isn’t foreign policy” and that he’s urging investigations of Biden “because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”

Giuliani was representing the interests of candidate Trump, not the interests of the American people. Giuliani was taking direction from his client, President Trump, and keeping Trump fully informed of his actions. Together, they conspired for months to violate federal campaign finance laws by soliciting Ukrainian support for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.

DOJ Decision Not to Investigate Campaign Finance Violations Has No Basis in Law

In the complaint Common Cause filed Monday with the DOJ and FEC, and in a piece I wrote earlier this week for Just Security, I explained in detail how Trump and Giuliani seemingly violated the campaign finance law prohibition on soliciting, or substantially assisting solicitation of, a “contribution” from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.

We now know that the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community reached the same conclusion in August, when considering the whistleblower complaint. And we know that some White House lawyers recognized the implications of the July 25 call because they soon thereafter took steps to severely restrict access to the transcript of the call by moving it from the computer system where it would typically be stored to a separate system reserved for certain types of classified materials of “an especially sensitive nature.”

Remarkably, the DOJ said this week that the Department “explored whether the July call merited opening a criminal investigation into potential campaign finance violations by the president” and “concluded it did not—that the information discussed on the call didn’t amount to a ‘thing of value’ that could be quantified, which is what the campaign finance laws require.” This determination by the DOJ flies in the face of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s interpretation of the same provision of law.

As I explained in a summary of a section of the Mueller Report that I wrote for Just Security, Special Counsel Mueller considered charging Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with violating ban on soliciting a contribution from a foreign national for their June 2016 meeting with Russians at Trump Tower to receive opposition research on Hillary Clinton.

Mueller began an overview of the ban on soliciting a contribution from foreign nationals by quoting now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s lower court decision in Bluman v. FEC, upholding the foreign contribution ban against First Amendment challenge: “[T]he United States has a compelling interest … in limiting the participation of foreign citizens in activities of democratic self-government, and in thereby preventing foreign influence over the U.S. political process.”

In explaining the “threshold legal question” of whether providing “documents and information” to a campaign would constitute a “contribution,” Mueller noted the “foreign contribution ban is not limited to contributions of money.” It includes a contribution of “money or other thing of value.’” According to Mueller, “[t]he phrases ‘thing of value’ and ‘anything of value’ are broad and inclusive enough to encompass at least some forms of valuable information.”

Mueller concluded:

[C]andidate-related opposition research given to a campaign for the purpose of influencing an election could constitute a contribution to which the foreign-source ban could apply. A campaign can be assisted not only by the provision of funds, but also by the provision of derogatory information about an opponent. Political campaigns frequently conduct and pay for opposition research. A foreign entity that engaged in such research and provided resulting information to a campaign could exert a greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate, than a gift of money or tangible things of value.

Mueller’s conclusion that opposition research “could constitute a contribution” under campaign finance law was consistent with my analysis in July 2017, when the Trump Tower story broke and Common Cause filed a complaint with Mueller and the DOJ.

In the end, however, Mueller decided not to prosecute Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner because of the difficulty he believed he would have proving beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) they knew that solicitation of a contribution from a foreign national was illegal; and (2) the information they solicited was worth at least $2,000 (for a federal misdemeanor) or $25,000 for a felony.

Mueller concluded that opposition research could constitute a “thing of value” for the purposes of campaign finance law, but the DOJ concluded in Ukrainegate it could not. What might explain these conflicting interpretations of the law?

We don’t yet know. But one very troubling aspect of the DOJ’s handling of the whistleblower complaint is Attorney General Barr’s involvement. Barr is named on the first page of the complaint as “involved,” yet reportedly was briefed on the matter as soon as the DOJ learned of the complaint. In President Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Zelensky, Trump asked Zelensky to work with both Barr and Giuliani to investigate Joe Biden. Trump referred to Barr being the point person, alongside Giuliani, four times in the thirty-minute conversation. Barr is implicated in Trump’s campaign finance violations—at a minimum, Barr is a witness. Barr should have recused himself entirely from the DOJ’s handling of the whistleblower complaint and the ensuing conflict between the White House, DOJ and Congress over this matter. Instead, Barr is at the center of it all.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has called on Barr to recuse himself from the matter going forward. Ultimately, the investigation may lead to Barr’s impeachment and potentially the impeachment of others complicit in these campaign finance violations, their coverup, and other abuses of the office of the President.

For now, DOJ should reverse its decision not to investigate Trump, Giuliani and others implicated in the whistleblower complaint. If Barr and the DOJ will not do so, Congressional impeachment proceedings are the last hope for the rule of law. The whistleblower complaint provides a roadmap for the congressional impeachment investigation as it seeks to uncover the full extent of the criminal violations that have occurred. The phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky is only one action in a systematic plan to manufacture opposition information from Ukraine to influence the outcome of the 2020 election. 

About the Author(s)

Paul Seamus Ryan

Vice President of Policy & Litigation at Common Cause. Follow him on Twitter (@ThePaulSRyan).