After three years of insisting that unvetted information should never form the basis for an investigation into an active presidential candidate, Republican members of the Senate would never attempt to do such a thing themselves, right?
Wrong. That is exactly what some are attempting to do in the home stretch of the 2020 election. Specifically, Senator Ron Johnson has been laying the groundwork to undertake Ukrainegate 2.0: An attempt to accomplish through a congressional hearing what President Donald Trump was unable to achieve through his quid pro quo to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, namely, to put Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, under a cloud of suspicion before the country votes this November. And rather than wait for any report voted out by his committee, Johnson has taken to penning an open letter and tweeting out insinuations.
But Ukrainegate 2.0, like the original, has a dual purpose. The goal isn’t just to smear Biden, but also to shift blame for 2016 election interference to Ukraine. An architect of that false narrative about Ukraine is Paul Manafort, and the probe has accordingly served the former Trump campaign chairman’s interests along numerous fronts in Ukraine politics and at home. With regard to his personal interests, Manafort is currently serving a 7 1/2-year federal sentence for bank fraud, tax fraud, money laundering, acting as an unregistered foreign agent, false statements, and witness tampering. Manafort has attempted to use the Ukraine’s “election interference” conspiracy to discredit the evidence that led to his own prosecution.
What’s not received sufficient attention is how Johnson’s efforts have worked in tandem with Manafort’s – as Johnson’s probe looks to discredit the same Ukrainian officials responsible for working with American investigators in bringing charges against Manafort. Undermining Manafort’s prosecution offers a basis for President Trump to tie up the last loose end from the charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign and finally give the pardon he had dangled to Manafort over a year and a half ago.
To understand how these two parallel efforts are linked, we need to rewind the tape a few years to when the Ukraine conspiracy began and also look at the common denominator in this combined effort, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
The Origins of the Ukraine Conspiracy
Manafort began floating the false theory during the 2016 campaign that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for the hack of the DNC server, according to interviews conducted by Mueller’s team with Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman. (The US intelligence community unanimously attributed the hack to Russia, and Special Counsel Mueller later indicted 12 GRU Russian military officers for the hack.) In the ensuing months, Manafort and his close collaborator Konstantin Kilimnik – a Russian intelligence officer – actively engaged in secretive efforts to promote the idea that Ukraine interfered in the election not only with respect to the server; their narrative also included the idea that Ukraine officials targeted Manafort in the final stretch of the campaign using false documents. “Manafort embraced and promoted the narrative of Ukraine’s alleged involvement in the 2016 elections,” the recently released bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report explains. “Kilimnik almost certainly helped arrange some of the first public messaging that Ukraine had interfered in the U.S. election,” which included fostering stories in the media.
Key to understanding the “interference” aspect of the conspiracy theory as it relates to Manafort is the release of a document in August 2016, known as the “black ledger,” by an independent Ukrainian anti-corruption agency, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and publicized by a Ukrainian parliamentarian, Serhiy Leshchenko. The ledger appeared to detail $12.7 million in undisclosed payments from Yanukovych’s Russia-aligned political party, the Party of Regions, to Manafort. The Anti-Corruption Bureau had, a month and a half prior, signed an evidence-sharing agreement with the FBI. For his part, Manafort denied receiving the payments and questioned the authenticity of the ledger, though he stepped down from the Trump campaign following public reporting of these payments. This was part of the disinformation campaign described, at length, in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report. “Manafort and Kilimnik both sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and that the ‘ledger’ naming payments to Manafort was fake,” the report states.
A Media Report: What Was and Wasn’t In It
The Ukraine interference theory gained traction in right-wing circles especially after reporter Ken Vogel published a piece in 2017 fleshing out some aspects of the narrative in an article titled, “Ukrainian Efforts to Sabotage Trump Backfire.” Central to this circuitous article — which has become key to Senator Johnson’s current probe — was a consultant to the DNC, Alexandra Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American lawyer, who since 2014 had been investigating Manafort’s ties to former Ukrainian president Yanukovych and pro-Russian oligarchs. One of the article’s most explosive allegations came from Andrii Telizhenko, who worked as a diplomatic aide at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, DC. He told Vogel, among other things, that Ukrainian embassy officials “were coordinating an investigation with the Hillary team on Paul Manafort with Alexandra Chalupa.” This was also an aspect of the story that Vogel highlighted on social media:
We have detailed the central role that Telizhenko plays as a conduit for Russian disinformation and in Johnson’s probe in our previous article for Just Security. Since the publication of our piece, the Senate Intelligence report has also identified Telizhenko as part of the effort to spread disinformation through the media that Ukrainian officials framed Manafort. (At the time of Vogel’s story, there was no public record of Telizhenko’s connections to Russian disinformation.)
Specifically on the black ledger, Vogel’s article includes interviews with Manafort and Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who served as Poroshenko’s head of security but had since become affiliated with a leading opponent of Poroshenko. In their comments, Manafort and Nalyvaichenko cast doubt on the authenticity of the ledger. (For additional information on Nalyvaichenko’s more recent activities, see the Kyiv Post’s “3 Ukrainian lawmakers doing Trump’s dirty work in scandal.”)
The Vogel article was careful to disclaim proof of a centralized effort involving President Poroshenko and never touched on the issue of the hack of the DNC server, but that did not stop right-wing circles and some Republican Senators from invoking the article to support wider claims not actually found in Vogel’s piece. It was widely cited as the GOP’s “evidence” of Ukrainian election interference during Trump’s impeachment hearings two years later. (Some of those same commentators have also disregarded or downplayed Vogel’s other reporting. He was, for example, the first reporter to identify Kilimnik and the operative’s connections to Manafort and Russian intelligence, and he has reported on other elements such as Telizhenko’s months-long work with Johnson’s staff.)
The Causal Logic of the Ukraine Conspiracy
The causal logic that Ukraine “interfered” in the 2016 election, as spun up by Manafort, Kilimnik and Telizhenko, appears to be that Chalupa, with ties to the “Hillary team”/DNC, worked with Ukrainian officials to smear Manafort. The Ukrainian side, the logic goes, engineered the production of the black ledger, which effectively framed Manafort, forced him to resign from the Trump campaign, and ultimately led to the FBI investigation into his activities and ultimate prosecution and conviction. Or, as the-White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders summed it up in 2017, “If you’re looking for an example of a campaign coordinating with a foreign country or a foreign source, look no further than the DNC, who actually coordinated opposition research with the Ukrainian Embassy.”
Except that’s not what happened. For starters, U.S. law enforcement agents have been conducting an investigation into the financial dealings of Manafort since 2014, and, in January 2016, the FBI initiated a money laundering and tax evasion investigation of Manafort based on his work with Ukraine political groups. That was well before Manafort joined the Trump campaign or the known existence of the black ledger. Second, FBI Director Christopher Wray’s said in December, “We have no information that would indicate that Ukraine tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.” Likewise, in discussing Manafort and Kilimnik’s disinformation campaign, the Senate intelligence committee’s report states that “during the course of the investigation, the Committee identified no reliable evidence that the Ukrainian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.”
What’s more, the essential veracity of the black ledger has held up over time. As Robert Mackey explained:
Bank records described in an FBI search warrant, and reviewed by the Associated Press, confirmed that at least $1.2 million in payments listed in the records next to Manafort’s name were actually deposited in one of his firm’s bank accounts in Virginia….
Andrew Kramer, the New York Times foreign correspondent who first revealed the secret payments to Manafort, also reported at the time that others in Ukraine who were named in the ledger had confirmed that the records were genuine.
As a BBC fact check on the ledger explained, “More than three years since it emerged, no one has managed to cast serious doubt on its contents.” The Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler noted, “While some Republicans have suggested that the ledger was fake, Manafort’s defense lawyers did not make that argument.”
Simply put, Manafort was not framed. He was convicted of 8 felonies by a jury and pleaded guilty to money laundering and acting as a foreign agent for Ukraine to avoid a second trial (and likely to avoid detailed evidence of his Ukraine activities from being aired publicly in court).
Enter Rudy Giuliani
Not one to let facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, picked up the torch on the Ukraine election interference idea after he came on board in 2018. Over months Giuliani “consulted several times with Manafort through the federal prisoner’s lawyer” in an effort to find any information that he could use to say the black ledger was a forgery cooked up by officials in Ukraine. Giuliani has hoped that by discrediting the authenticity of the black ledger, he could show that the investigation against Manafort was a pretext and discredit the Russia investigation more generally.
Giuliani, for example, declared on CNN that the ledger is “a completely fraudulent document that was produced, in order to begin the investigation of Manafort.” He added that people in the Ukraine who knew about this plot “were trying to get to us but they were being blocked by the Ambassador [Marie Yovanovitch] who was Obama-appointee, in Ukraine, who was holding back this information.”
To understand why Giuliani may care specifically about Manafort, or has ongoing communication with his lawyer, it helps to remember the findings of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, Manafort originally agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team in their investigation. Part way through that agreement, Mueller’s team discovered that Manafort was not being truthful, and was continuing to share information about the Mueller investigation with Trump’s personal lawyers. Giuliani defended the arrangement between Trump’s and Manafort’s attorneys when it surfaced publicly. Mueller also uncovered evidence that Trump had floated the possibility of a pardon to Manafort, as an incentive for him not to cooperate with Mueller’s team. The Mueller report also describes several instances in which Giuliani personally used media interviews apparently to dangle the pardon for Manafort. Mueller terminated the cooperation agreement with Manafort, and along with it, any possibility of a plea deal or reduced sentence.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s counterintelligence report also underscores how much information Manafort may have with regard to Russia’s activities in 2016, and which we still do not know. As stated in the report:
Prior to joining the Trump Campaign in March 2016 and continuing throughout his time on the Campaign, Manafort directly and indirectly communicated with Kilimnik, Deripaska, and the pro-Russian oligarchs in Ukraine. On numerous occasions, Manafort sought to secretly share internal Campaign information with Kilimnik. The Committee was unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or Campaign strategy with Kilimnik or with whom Kilimnik further shared that information. The Committee had limited insight into Kilimnik’s communications with Manafort and into Kilimnik’s communications with other individuals connected to Russian influence operations, all of whom used communications security practices. The Committee obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the GRU’s hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election.
A member of the committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), noted that the unredacted version of the report includes “indications of Manafort’s own connections to [the hack and leak] operations.”
In sum, Manafort may hold the keys to the kingdom, not only in terms of shedding light on Russia’s activities in 2016, but also how much coordination or assistance they received from members of the Trump campaign.
The upshot here is that Manafort could have spilled the beans to Mueller, but didn’t — presumably gambling that he could get off scot-free, via a presidential pardon, if he kept his mouth shut. NBC’s Howard Fineman reported in 2018, that Trump “decided that a key witness in the Russia probe, Paul Manafort, isn’t going to ‘flip’ and sell him out, friends and aides say” – a further indication that Manafort has derogatory information about Trump and the president knows it. Manafort’s leverage, of course, likely includes whatever information he never revealed to Mueller’s team: He could still say what he knows. Simply put, it has been in Trump’s interest to keep Manafort happy, which involved laying the groundwork for a pardon. But until now, at least, Trump seems to have assessed that an outright pardon could be too costly. He’s needed a politically expedient reason, and a “cooked up investigation” of Manafort would provide the right grounds.
Which brings us to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky. A review of the summary of the call shows that the quid pro quo offered by Trump has as much to do with asking Zelensky to help substantiate the idea that Ukraine was responsible for interfering in the 2016 election as with investigating the Bidens. Trump references Ambassador Yovanovitch, and “the people she was dealing with in Ukraine” as “bad news;” he adds, “she’s going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call.” Trump also mentions “[t]he other thing,” in which he elaborates on the Bidens. Zelensky notes that one of his assistants has already spoken with Giuliani and that he looks forward to meeting with Giuliani when he comes to Ukraine.
In short, Giuliani’s mission to discredit Ukrainian officials involved with Manafort’s investigation preceded the July 25 phone call, and the Biden “ask” was added to that effort. As we have previously written, Giuliani also appears to be one of the main channels funneling disinformation about Ukraine into Sen. Johnson’s committee.
But there’s an important element in the timeline that should not be missed. While some have said that Johnson’s investigation “began last year as counterprogramming to the House impeachment process,” that can’t explain the senator’s original motivation. Johnson’s efforts actually began before impeachment and even before Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president. The timing indicates that Johnson’s probe, like Guiliani’s efforts, were also undertaken initially to advance the Ukraine conspiracy theory, and thereby discredit Manafort’s prosecution and the Special Counsel investigation more generally.
In fact, around early July 2019, the senator was already exercising poor judgment meeting personally with Telizhenko; and Johnson’s staff spent over 5 hours with the Ukrainian operative to discuss the “‘the DNC issue’ — a reference to his unsubstantiated claim that the Democratic National Committee worked with the Ukrainian government in 2016 to gather incriminating information about Paul Manafort,” the Washington Post reported. Johnson’s meeting followed Giuliani’s interviewing Telizhenko for several hours in May. according to Telizhenko, “Giuliani said that he was representing Trump, that he was the president’s personal lawyer, and that he was working on proving that the DNC had colluded with Ukraine in 2016.”
On May 23, 2019, Sen. Johnson attended a meeting in the Oval Office as part of a small delegation of senior officials who returned from a trip to Ukraine. President Trump directed the group going forward to work with Giuliani on Ukraine, Ambassador Gordon Sondland told Congress. In an interview in Oct. 2019, Johnson responded that he had “no recollection of the president mentioning Rudy Giuliani” at the May meeting. In November, the House Intelligence Committee released the depositions from Ambassador Bill Taylor, who corroborated Sondland’s testimony, and from Ambassador Kurt Volker who said he interpreted the President “not as an instruction but just as a comment, talk to Rudy.” Tim Morrison would later testify along the same lines as Volker. Somehow Johnson was the only one who failed to recall the president’s making any statement about their working or speaking with Giuliani.
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The promotion of the Ukraine-interference conspiracy theory has served multiple objectives over time, including the personal interests of Manafort. It’s unclear if Manafort still seeks a pardon as desperately. In May, Bill Barr’s Justice Department released Manafort to serve the rest of his sentence in home confinement, notably despite Manafort’s failure to qualify for the categories prioritized for release under DOJ coronavirus guidelines. Manafort has about five years left in his sentence. “We don’t have any experience with anyone serving this much time in home confinement,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Bloomberg News. “Compared to prison it’s so much better, but you are being monitored and you can’t screw up.”