Dec 17, 2019

The Trump-Giuliani scheme, simplified.

The Trump-Giuliani scheme, simplified.

Recent reporting makes it easy to follow.

Recent reporting has made Rudy Giuliani’s scheme — on behalf of President Trump — clearer and easier to follow than ever before.

In a series of stunning interviews with The New Yorker, The New York Times and Fox News over the last few days, the president’s personal lawyer has made it clear that he “needed” Marie Yovanovitch out of the way to get what he wanted: investigations into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

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Why is this relevant? Why does it matter? Because the nature of Yovanovitch’s removal is crucial to understanding Giuliani and Trump’s motives and crucial to understanding why and how Trump was pressuring Ukraine. Several career diplomats have testified that Yovanovitch was taken from her post so Giuliani could orchestrate the effort to get Ukraine’s new president to investigate Joe Biden, Trump’s top political rival. But in these new interviews with The New Yorker, Fox News and The New York Times, Giuliani revealed more detail than ever about his role — and the president’s role — in removing Yovanovitch. In his interview with The Times, Giuliani told reporters that he “provided Trump with detailed information” about Yovanovitch “a couple of times” on how she was impeding the potential investigations into Biden. That’s significant, too, because it implicates Trump in having a clear understanding of Giuliani’s motivations.

Rudy Giuliani speaking at a forum on Iran’s nuclear threat. Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

So, what do we know now?

The waters have been successfully muddied. I’m not sure how the average American could follow this stuff, all the foreign names, all the competing talking points, given that I do it for a living and sometimes have trouble. But I’ll try to make it as simple as possible for you, and tell you best I can what we know has happened from reliable reporting. First, the key players you need to know in this story since few news organizations make it this easy:

Rudy Giuliani: Former New York City mayor who serves as Donald Trump’s personal attorney.

Mike Pompeo: The current Secretary of State, i.e. the top U.S. official handling foreign policy. The head of the State Department.

Marie Yovanovitch: A career U.S. diplomat at the State Department who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations. When Trump became president, she was the ambassador to Ukraine.

Viktor Shokin: Formerly, the top prosecutor in Ukraine. He was forced out in 2016 by Vice President Joe Biden after revelations that he was involved in several corruption scandals. His ouster was supported by dozens of countries across the globe.

Yuriy Lutsenko: Another former top Ukrainian prosecutor who resigned in August. Once seen as a promising candidate to help root out corruption in Ukraine, Lutsenko is currently under investigation for abuse of power after he allegedly provided cover for illegal gambling businesses in Ukraine.

Lev Parnas: Ukrainian born, Florida-based businessmen and Trump supporter who was a “fixer” in Ukraine. Also an associate of Rudy Giuliani. Recently arrested on charges of illegally funneling money to U.S. politicians, falsifying records, and conspiring to make contributions in the name of others.

Got it? Okay. Let’s give this thing a shot: It’s the fall of 2018. Rudy Giuliani is working on behalf of Trump to find evidence of spurious claims that Ukraine had played a role in 2016 election interference. This would help Trump because, at the time, he was taking heat from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference, and claims Russia worked to help him win the 2016 election.

While Giuliani is digging around in Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko was also trying to repair his reputation. Previously, U.S. diplomats had seen him as a fighter against corruption. But their opinion had changed. To repair that reputation, he was attempting to meet with former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to tell his side of the story. He also wanted to help recoup billions of dollars Ukraine had lost in a corruption scandal, and hoped the top U.S. lawyer could help him. Rumors swirled that Marie Yovanovitch, the career diplomat and ambassador to Ukraine, was preventing Lutsenko from coming to America by coordinating visa denials.

Around that time, as Lutsenko is struggling to get his footing with the U.S., he hears that Lev Parnas (the Giuliani associate) wanted to set up a meeting between Lutsenko and Giuliani. Giuliani thinks Lutsenko could provide evidence for claims Ukraine was thumbing the scale for Hillary Clinton. Lutsenko sees an opportunity to get an inside track to the attorney general and president.

Not long after, Giuliani speaks by phone to Viktor Shokin. Shokin, who has an obvious ax to grind with Joe Biden (who forced him out of his post), tells Giuliani that the Bidens committed corruption. This sets Giuliani on a new path forward: uncovering the corruption of Trump’s top political rival. Sensing an opportunity, Lutsenko flies to New York and brings evidence that purports to show Joe Biden’s son was working for a gas company that was funneling money to Biden to lobby him (there is no public record of this evidence, including bank records, that outside reporting has described as “insubstantial”).

Giuliani believes in Lutsenko’s story. Giuliani decides he wants to get Ukrainian officials to open investigations into Biden. Lutsenko says he can make this happen, but he needs high-level meetings in Washington where he can restore his reputation and get help finding the billions of dollars Ukraine needs back from its previous corruption scandal. Lutsenko does a series of interviews with an American journalist named John Solomon, making many of the claims he made to Giuliani about the Bidens. Giuliani and Lutsenko agree that in order to investigate Biden, they need to get Marie Yovanovitch out. So Giuliani goes to Trump with rumors that Yovanovitch bad mouths the president behind his back, that she helped cover up corruption in Ukraine, and that she’s preventing investigations into Biden. Trump tells Giuliani to talk to Mike Pompeo about it. Pompeo fires Yovanovitch.

Not long after, the Giuliani-Lutsenko relationship falls apart. Lutsenko doesn’t announce the investigations into Biden like he promised, and he eventually walks back his claims about the Bidens. Giuliani fails to get Lutsenko the high-level Washington meetings as he promised. But in the meantime, Giuliani has been feeding Trump all this information about the alleged Biden corruption and the alleged Ukrainian interference.

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Then, on July 25th, Trump has a phone call with Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump presses Zelensky to investigate the 2016 election interference and the Bidens. We’d find out later that, at the same time, crucial military aid was being withheld from Ukraine and U.S. diplomats were telling Ukrainian diplomats that, if Zelensky wanted to meet with Trump in the White House, he needed to publicly announce investigations into Biden (this, too, was a scheme Giuliani was helping orchestrate). Zelensky had scheduled a spot on CNN to make that announcement when Congress got wind of the withheld money, forced Trump to release the cash, and Zelensky promptly backed out of the interview.

And now we’re here. Lev Parnas and another associate, Igor Fruman, have both been arrested. They were charged with conspiracy, making false statements and falsification of records, and were caught at a D.C. airport with one-way tickets out of the country. The FBI is reportedly looking into Giuliani. A whistleblower shared details of the July 25th call, which set off an impeachment inquiry that set off testimony and reporting about this entire bizarre Ukrainian-U.S. diplomatic spider web. Republicans have continued to defend Trump claiming he wasn’t involved in the scheme and did nothing wrong, that he was merely concerned about corruption in Ukraine. And now, as a vote on impeachment approaches, Giuliani is telling newspapers that he had, in fact, worked to get Yovanovitch fired so he could open investigations into Biden and that he had actually kept the president apprised of this work. Democrats have maintained Trump leveraged military aid and a White House visit to force investigations into his top political foe. Republicans continue to claim that Trump did nothing wrong, never made explicit bribes, and was instead working to ensure he didn’t waste money by giving it to a corrupt Ukrainian administration.

Your questions, answered.

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Q: If you had a vote, would you vote to impeach Trump?

- Seth, Albany, NY

Tangle: The best argument I’ve seen against impeaching Trump came from Reason Magazine’s Jacob Sullum. He essentially makes the case that, while he believes Trump abused his power and did in fact pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival, he also thinks Democrats have moved too hastily in impeaching Trump. He runs the gambit of several very compelling legal arguments that Democrats have shot themselves in the foot (legally and politically) by trying to wrap up impeachment before the New Year, and — as a result — have left too many holes in the ground they stand on to impeach Trump.

I found the story convincing, and it briefly made me consider a “no” vote. It’s true that Democrats could have done a lot more to compel witnesses to testify, as I’ve written here, and that by doing so they would have created a much more convincing case of obstruction of justice when Trump inevitably stopped those witnesses from testifying.

But ultimately, the abuse of power by Trump seems plain as day to me. As I just detailed above, we have an overwhelming pile of evidence that Trump and his lawyer were working to push Ukraine’s top prosecutor and its president into opening an investigation into the Bidens. We also have witness testimony that contradicts one common Trump defense (“he was worried about corruption in Ukraine”) and instead points to the political nature of the request: Gordon Sondland said under oath that Ukraine didn’t need to follow through on the investigations, they just needed to announce them.

While Sullum makes a strong case that Democrats have rushed their most powerful tool of checks and balances on the president, I think there is an even stronger case that Trump’s abuse of power is a threat to Democracy as a whole. I’ve had this argument with friends who have essentially taken the same stance that Trump’s administration has: “this kind of thing happens all the time! Countries leverage things on other countries to receive things in return.” Which, yeah — that’s true. But this kind of thing — a U.S. president asking another foreign leader to investigate the presumed No. 1 threat to his election prospects — does not happen all the time. I’ve made this argument to friends who have said: “I’m sure it does and we just don’t know about it.” And, again, I’m calling B.S. Years after the fact we’ve learned of CIA operations to take down foreign leaders, how generals lied to the public about the success of wars and basically all the details of every impeachment scandal in U.S. history. If a president had ever solicited help from a foreign country in taking down his opponent in an upcoming election, we’d know about it. It would have made its way into the annals of American corruption. But it hasn’t, because that’s almost certainly never happened before.

In that sense, what Trump has done is unprecedented. And with a looming election in 2020, there’s no reason to think he won’t pull out similar dirty tricks to protect his spot in the White House. In fact, there is every reason to think he will. So while I certainly have concerns about Democrats rushing this process, I think I’d ultimately have a hard time casting a vote that would exonerate the president of wrongdoing worthy of impeachment. I’d have to vote in favor.

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