The impeachment inquiry Democrats launched last month may ultimately hinge on a simple question: Did President Trump try to force a foreign power (or powers) to help him take down a political opponent, Joe Biden?
But the backdrop of their effort is far more complex and convoluted, connected not just to Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine and related evidence but the three-year war of attrition the Democrats have waged against the president. Their main instrument was the Trump-Russia collusion story that roiled the capital until Special Counsel Robert Mueller pronounced it unfounded. Now they have moved on to one or more "whistleblower" complaints from within the intelligence community.
Given all the focus on nefarious Russia, you could be forgiven for missing the fact that Ukraine was always at the center of the Trump-Russia affair.
Viewed in this light, the Trump-Ukraine quid pro quo bribery narrative must compete with another explanation: Trump's determination to get to the bottom of an underhanded years-long campaign arrayed against him. One of the first things he did after the Mueller report debunked the collusion narrative was to call the Ukranian president and ask him to help do just that.
The impeachment battle is not just about congressional probes and alleged presidential strong-arming, but about the Russiagate narrative. Anti-Trump forces in the government and media are working to vindicate their previous efforts and discredit a forthcoming Justice Department inquiry into the origins of Russiagate by again connecting Trump and a foreign power to a U.S. election.
I’ve covered the Trump-Russia story for three years. Even before these operations emerged publicly after Trump’s 2016 victory, I doubted the pre-election whisper campaign circulating throughout the Washington press corps that held Trump was clandestinely cooperating with Moscow.
First, the idea that Trump had for many years been a Russian ally, even an agent, was hard to believe given that there had been no mention of this during a long career lived entirely in the spotlight. I was especially skeptical of this claim because Trump’s business concerns were based largely in the most media-saturated city in the world, and because they involved industries – especially real estate and casinos – that attract the attention of legal authorities.
Second, candidate Trump’s proposed policies toward Russia were similar to those of the Obama administration – and would prove tougher after he was elected – making it hard to see how he was secretly beholden to Moscow.
I was not surprised when the special counsel concluded the story was false. Neither was it surprising, given the amount of money, time, and prestige spent on pushing collusion, to see Russiagate rebooted two weeks ago in the form of a whistleblower’s complaint.
So far the basic facts are these: An active, and unnamed, CIA officer alleged that Trump had sought information from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky regarding Biden’s involvement in a Ukrainian prosecution possibly involving his son Hunter. In exchange for information that, according to the CIA officer, would assist Trump’s 2020 re-election, the president would release military aid to Ukraine.
Although the details are different – no mention this time of hookers and golden showers – the whistleblower’s central claim closely resembles the thesis laid out in the anti-Trump dossier compiled by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, which the FBI used as its roadmap to collusion: That Trump took or solicited dirt on his Democratic opponent from a foreign power in exchange for favors to that country’s government.
Once again, much of the media seem to be treating every allegation against Trump as probable fact, while dismissing any questions and concerns as conspiracy theories.
Although the whistleblower complaint seems to have emerged quickly, it must be viewed in context of the long war against Trump and its numerous elements tied to Ukraine.
Recent interviews with senior sources on Capitol Hill and newly acquired documents show that Ukraine was and continues to be central to the effort to take down Trump.
That’s why Trump’s most urgent request of the Ukrainian president was to assist Attorney General William Barr in his investigation of the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe.
“Our country has been through a lot,” Trump told President Zelensky. “They say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”
This assertion was not wrong. And yet for all of the foreigners, including Ukrainians, who played roles in Russiagate, this is a story about Americans with the sort of scruples, ambitions, and labyrinthine connections found in a Dostoevsky novel.
Origins of Clinton-Tied Ukraine Dirt-Digging
It is significant, in this time of separate left and right media echo chambers, that an early account of Hillary Clinton campaign efforts to dig up dirt on Team Trump using Ukraine didn’t originate on the right: It was a Politico report by Kenneth P. Vogel and David Stern. (A repeat seems unlikely now: Vogel’s current employer, the New York Times, has dismissed Trump’s claims about Ukraine’s role in Russiagate as part of a right-wing conspiracy theory.)
The Ukraine story starts no later than March 2016, when Democratic Party operative and Ukrainian-American activist Alexandra Chalupa approached the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington for information on the Trump campaign.
As John Solomon of The Hill newspaper wrote in May, Chalupa asked Ukrainian diplomats for “evidence that Trump, his organization and [campaign manager Paul] Manafort were Russian assets, working to hurt the U.S. and working with Putin against the U.S. interests.”
Chalupa emailed Democratic National Committee officials that she was briefing U.S. media on Manafort’s work in Ukraine. One of the journalists was Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News, who would later publish one of the key stories advancing the collusion narrative.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington told Solomon that Chalupa wanted to approach a member of Congress to initiate hearings on Manafort or arrange for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to comment on Manafort’s alleged Kremlin ties during a visit to Washington.
Keep that in mind when Democrats and their media allies routinely suggest it is treasonous to seek foreign aid during an election.
As Chalupa was pursuing these channels, the Clinton campaign stepped up its efforts to find foreign dirt on Trump by hiring the Washington, D.C., firm Fusion GPS that March to compile and distribute opposition research on Trump. One of the company’s co-founders, Glenn Simpson, was a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had written several articles about Manafort’s work for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
In a 2007 article, Simpson wrote that Yanukovych “favors closer ties with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s administration.”
That view would inform much of the operation to come. It would use Manafort’s close ties to Yanukovych as the kernel of truth from which grew the vast Russiagate conspiracy.
Fusion GPS’s most infamous work product was the Steele dossier. But, as I report in my forthcoming book, “The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History,” Simpson’s organization compiled at least two separate opposition research documents on Manafort and his Ukraine business, which it shared with journalists starting in spring 2016.
One is an eight-page document titled “Paul Manafort – Ukraine and Lichtenstein,” the other is nine pages, titled “UPDATE – Paul Manafort.” Links to Ukrainian- and Russian-language Internet portals show that the research was compiled by someone who knew the languages. In October 2015, Fusion GPS had brought on former Russian history professor Nellie Ohr for Trump-Russia research. Ohr’s husband, top Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr, would later help spread Clinton-financed opposition research to the federal government, helping prompt the Trump/Russia collusion probe.
The documents reference flight records, travel documents, and business agreements while noting Manafort’s relationships with several Ukrainian officials, including Yanukovych’s chief of staff, and oligarchs such as Clinton Foundation donor Victor Pinchuk, described as a “Yanukovych booster.”
Without evidence, one of the dossiers alleges that “the Russian government played a leading role in promoting the Yanukovych presidency and Manafort worked closely with several Russians during his time in Ukraine.”
The other makes the speculative, if ominious-sounding, claim that “Manafort’s newfound role as campaign manager to Trump could offer Russian oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin a new way to exert influence on Trump.”
Driving the Manafort-Yanukovych Narrative
Even as Clinton operatives sought the help of Ukrainian officials, they and their allies in the press routinely mischaracterized Yanukovych as pro-Putin, advancing the Russia collusion narrative.
Ukraine is a buffer state, caught between European neighbors to the west and Russia to the east. Its challenge is to balance the two against each other. Failure to do so is apt to lead to conflict, such as the present war between the Kyiv government and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
After Yanukovych became president in 2010, Manafort recommended that he draw closer to the European Union with a trade deal. Putin saw that as a threat, and gave Yanukovych a choice between crippling economic measures and a $15 billion aid package.
Ultimately, Yanukovych rejected Manafort’s advice, bowing to Putin in late 2013, touching off protests in the Ukrainian capital that led to deadly violence.
That turmoil started a new chapter in U.S.-Ukraine relations as the Obama White House made then Vice President Joe Biden the point man on the issue.
Biden had known Yanukovych since 2009 and spoke with him frequently during the crisis.
The Obama administration, however, had little confidence in Yanukovych. State Department officials on the ground the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, including Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland scrambled to piece together a coalition government. Yanukovych fled his country for sanctuary in Russia in February 2014, just days after his final phone call with Biden, when government snipers killed at least 88 protesters in the capital.
In April 2014, Biden traveled to Kyiv with a small economic aid package, and warned the Ukrainians to rein in corruption. A month later, his son Hunter was named to the board of Burisma, one of Ukraine’s largest independent energy companies. Although he had no experience in the energy sector, Hunter was paid as much as $50,000 a month for his services.
Here’s where the politics get even more interesting. Burisma’s owner was not a reformer, but an ally of the just-exiled Yanukovych, having served as his minister of natural resources. Despite the Biden family’s financial relationship with the Yanukovych circle, Clinton operatives painted Manafort’s association with Yanukovych as evidence of the Trump campaign’s pro-Putin sentiments.
In a three-day period at the end of April 2016, for instance, Slate, the Washington Post and Guardian all published articles alleging that Manafort’s work for Yanukovych showed the Trump team was close to Russia.
This is another reminder of the double-standard that has driven so much media coverage: the eagerness to buy Clinton’s spin on Manafort and then connect Trump to it all while dismissing Biden’s clear conflicts.
Clinton Operative Alleges a Ukrainian-Related Quid Pro Quo
Indeed, Manafort’s relationship with Yanukovych became a keystone of the Trump-Russia narrative. A July 18, 2016 Washington Post article, for example, cited it before reporting new “evidence” that the campaign was cozying up to Putin.
Trump staffers, according to the article, “stripped out” the Republican National Convention platform’s call for giving Ukraine “lethal defensive weapons.”
That was inaccurate. One GOP delegate proposed an amendment calling for giving lethal aid to Ukraine. The amendment was toned down by a Trump adviser, changing it to “appropriate assistance.” The result was that the amendment was softened but the platform’s position on Ukraine was strengthened. In office, the Trump administration, unlike Obama’s, sent weapons to Kyiv.
That Post story illustrates the success of the Clinton operation in convincing many media outlets and government agencies to interpret – and misinterpret – the Trump campaign through the lens of Russian collusion. This, in turn, erased skepticism they should have had in assessing the charges leveled for Clinton through Christopher Steele and Fusion GPS.
In a July memo written after the DNC emails had been leaked during the Democrats’ convention, Steele alleged that the operation – the hack and the release of the emails – had been orchestrated by the Russians. Then he claimed Moscow had done it with the full knowledge of the Trump campaign. Manafort, Steele falsely claimed, was managing the “well-developed conspiracy” for the Trump side.
Further, Steele claimed, in exchange for the DNC hack and subsequent publication of the emails by WikiLeaks, the Trump team had agreed to sideline Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a campaign issue. This was the Clinton campaign’s first allegation of a Ukraine-related quid pro quo. This was also false.
As Clinton operatives used Ukraine to falsely smear Trump, Manafort’s ties to that country threw the Trump campaign into disarray. On Aug. 19, 2016, Manafort resigned as campaign manager following what the New York Times and others described as a wave of stories about his “dealings with Russia-aligned leaders.” The Times pushed the larger collusion narrative being spun by Clinton, reporting that the Manafort dismissal “threw a spotlight on a glaring vulnerability for Mr. Trump: his admiration for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.”
The Times story also referenced its earlier article reporting that Manafort received illegal cash payments for his Ukraine work. Manafort denied it.
One source for the Times story was former Ukrainian parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko, also referred to in the whistleblower complaint. According to former Fusion GPS contractor Nellie Ohr, Leshchenko was a source for Fusion GPS as well.
Two years later, in August 2018, Manafort pleaded guilty to tax and bank fraud connected to his work in the Ukraine undertaken years before he joined the Trump campaign.
The Steele-Isikoff Nexus
With Manafort driven from the campaign just two months before the election, Clinton operatives and the FBI zeroed in on another Trump adviser, Carter Page. Once again an alleged Ukraine quid pro quo was at the center of it.
In July, Steele had alleged that Page was one of Manafort’s “intermediaries” in the “well-developed conspiracy” between Trump and Russia. The former British spy’s second-hand sources claimed that Page had met secretly with a Russian energy executive.
The executive, according to Steele, raised with Page the prospect of U.S.-Russia energy cooperation in exchange for dropping sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 for invading Ukraine.
This second Ukraine-related quid pro quo was the subject of Michael Isikoff’s Sept. 23 Yahoo News article, based on information from Steele, whom Isikoff describes as an anonymous “Western intelligence source.”
A few weeks later, Steele revised his reporting on Page’s meeting for a memo dated Oct. 18. The British spy’s unnamed sources changed their story, contending that the Trump adviser had been offered a bribe if he convinced Trump to drop Ukraine-related sanctions. In a sign of how deeply the media and FBI had accepted the Russiagate hoax, no one seemed to question that laughably large amount of this alleged bribe – a brokerage fee on a sale of 19% of the Russian oil giant Rosneft, which would have been worth at least tens of millions of dollars.
On Oct. 21, the FBI obtained a warrant to spy on Page. The still heavily redacted warrant shows that Steele’s account of Page’s meeting with the Russian energy executive to discuss Ukraine sanctions was a key piece of evidence.
As supporting evidence, the bureau used Isikoff’s article and two other Ukraine-related news reports. One was the July Washington Post story alleging that the Trump campaign had weakened the party’s convention platform. The second article claimed that Trump had softened his support for Ukraine after Page and Manafort joined the campaign.
This is one reason many consider the Steele dossier to be one of the least credible and most successful pieces of opposition research in U.S. history.
Allegations Tie Up Incoming Trump Team
Even as Clinton tied Trump to Russia and blamed both for hacks of the DNC servers, the Obama administration downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 election so as not to taint Clinton’s widely expected victory. After Trump won, Obama retaliated. In late December, he expelled Russian diplomats, closed their diplomatic facilities, and sanctioned Russia’s military intelligence service (GRU) and four of its senior officers.
A document released the following week showed why the administration had targeted the GRU. According to the January 2017 intelligence community assessment of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, the GRU was behind the DNC hack.
Further, then-CIA director John Brennan’s handpicked teams of analysts assessed with “high confidence” that Putin had developed a preference for Trump because of his “Russia-friendly positions” on Ukraine.
Days later, Steele’s reports were made public. According to his sources, the DNC hack was part of a quid pro quo regarding Ukraine.
Now the connections between Trump and the Russians were lit up like a string of holiday lights — Obama had sanctioned the GRU because of the DNC hack, which the Russians engineered on behalf of the Trump campaign in exchange for sidelining Ukraine as a campaign issue.
The operation continued to unfold as the FBI and DoJ pursued their counterintelligence probe of Trump and associates, eventually leading to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
Mueller’s probe focused almost entirely on Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election and its possible connections to Trump. He and his team displayed no interest in exploring how Clinton operatives had worked with foreign interests to sway the same election.
Still, Mueller’s report found no evidence of collusion between the Trump circle and Russian officials. The report makes no mention of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, or Alexandra Chalupa. Leshschenko appears only in a footnote. The report discusses Ukraine only in relation to Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates.
Now, the Ukraine Chapter
But Ukraine’s new starring role was still to come. The Intelligence Community’s Inspector General relayed the newly disclosed “whistleblower” complaint from the CIA analyst to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during a transitional period. Both DNI Dan Coats and Deputy Director Sue Gordon had just resigned when the whistleblower’s complaint reached Acting DNI Joseph Maguire on Aug. 16, his first day on the job.
Previously, the ICIG’s whistleblower’s form required first-hand knowledge of the reported concern to file a complaint. The updated form, which was “revised after press inquiries” regarding the whistleblower’s complaint, eliminated the requirement of first-hand knowledge. The CIA officer’s complaint appears to provide only hearsay.
In September, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff issued a subpoena to Maguire to produce the complaint. Yet Schiff apparently already knew its contents. More than two weeks earlier, he’d written on Twitter, “Trump is withholding vital military aid to Ukraine, while his personal lawyer seeks help from the Ukraine government to investigate his political opponent.” A New York Times story last week reported that Schiff was briefed by an aide on the substance of the whistleblower’s complaint before it was filed with the ICIG.
In driving the whistleblower chapter of the Russiagate operation, Schiff reprised the part he played in its earlier chapters. For nearly two years the California congressman filled the media with claims there was more than circumstantial evidence of collusion that would bring down the president.
On Sept. 13, ODNI’s general counsel wrote Schiff and other leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees that since the whistleblower’s complaint did not deal with intelligence activities or the conduct a member of the intelligence community (i.e., the president is not a member of the IC), it did not find it a matter of urgent concern.
Regardless, the subject matter, Trump’s “promise” to a foreign official, was leaked for a Sept. 18 Washington Post story including the bylines of Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima, two of the reporters who in February 2017 received a seminal leak in the Trump-Russia case, regarding a conversation between Trump’s erstwhile national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The same political operatives and journalists appear throughout the anti-Trump operation, as do the same themes and even the same language.
The main charge in the whistleblower’s complaint – that Trump solicited “interference from a foreign country in the 2020 election” – echoes the title of the Mueller report, “Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election.” The whistleblower’s thesis is identical to the dossier’s: Trump sought dirt on a political rival regarding Ukraine-related issues on a quid pro quo basis.
The nature of the call to Zelensky so alarmed Trump officials seeking to protect the president, according to the unnamed CIA officer, that they stored the transcript in a secure system usually reserved for programs like covert action. It was a detail contrived to further smear Trump as deceptive, but Trump deputies had begun using the system after his conversations with world leaders were leaked to the press early during the administration.
In February 2017, the Washington Post’s Miller had the lead byline on a story based on leaks of Trump’s conversations with Australia’s prime minister and Mexico’s president. Six months later, the Post published the entire transcripts of both conversations in another Miller story.
It was through such national security correspondents that anti-Trump sources -- intelligence officials -- pushed leaks of classified information and other tidbits intended to damage Trump into the media. There it merged with other anti-Trump currents in nearly every corner of the press, where it blossomed into Russiagate.
After a nearly two-year investigation, the special counsel found no evidence of collusion. But given the scale of the damage done to the public sphere, clearly something had happened. Among other things, the FBI had put a presidential campaign under surveillance.
It was logical that Trump, and millions of other Americans, wanted to know the origins of the Russia probe and that the investigative work would be taken up by the Department of Justice. Since DoJ and FBI officials at the highest levels were implicated, it was natural that the attorney general himself would have a hand in the investigation.
Thus the panicked clamor coursing through the press at present is not about Joe Biden or his son or Trump’s alleged commerce with foreign powers. Rather, it is the fear that the Russiagate bubble is likely to burst. And the fear that none of the reporters, intelligence officials, and political operatives responsible for pushing the largest and most destructive conspiracy theory in American history will escape the ruin.
This article originally appeared at RealClearInvestigations.