World / Politics

Against the evidence, Trump and Giuliani press for Ukrainian dirt on Biden

Bloomberg, AP, Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, keep repeating allegations that former Vice President Joe Biden did something dirty in Ukraine — without any proof. Ukrainian officials haven’t helped clear up the confusion, giving sometimes conflicting statements on what they might be looking into.

Prosecutors in Ukraine aren’t investigating Biden and have no evidence of wrongdoing.

Yet Trump and Giuliani have been intent on pressing for an inquiry. They have talked about it publicly.

And Trump talked about it with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July phone call that is now the subject of intense scrutiny. Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Biden’s son Hunter, according to people with knowledge of the call.

Giuliani has at times, though not consistently, admitted pressing the Ukrainians to investigate Biden — the leading Democratic rival to Trump for the 2020 presidential election — and his son.

The matter is bubbling up again because of a whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence community. The contents of the whistleblower’s complaint remain secret, but reports have surfaced linking it to Trump’s communications with a foreign leader.

And Democratic lawmakers, who were already asking whether Trump’s team had improperly leaned on Ukraine for political gain, are now tussling with the administration to find out just what raised an alarm.

Giuliani has claimed for months that as vice president, Biden acted to help his son. It is not disputed that Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor in 2016 and threatened to withhold aid as part of a U.S.-European anti-corruption effort.

Giuliani contends — without offering evidence — that Biden’s motivation was to stop an investigation into the owner of a natural gas company, Burisma, where Hunter Biden sat on the board.

On Thursday night, Giuliani told CNN that his goal was to get the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption, “and I’m proud of it.”

On Friday, Giuliani was seen by reporters at the Trump International Hotel, a few blocks away from the White House, sitting next to Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian businessman with whom he has recently been working. Giuliani declined to comment.

Biden said Friday in Iowa that “not one single” media outlet has given Trump’s allegations of impropriety any credibility. “So I have no comment other than that the president should start to be the president.”

He spoke more strongly later in the day, saying that if the reports on the phone call are true, “then there is truly no bottom to President Trump’s willingness to abuse his power and abase our country.” He said Trump should release the transcript of the conversation with Zelenskiy “so that the American people can judge for themselves.”

Another leading Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, pressed Congress to “step up” and begin impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“What the president has now demonstrated is that he thinks it’s pretty clear he doesn’t have to follow the law and in fact can continue to commit high crimes and misdemeanors — and that is invite and profit from foreign interference in our election,” Warren told reporters on Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “It’s time for Congress to step up and begin serious impeachment proceedings against this.”

Ukraine is in a delicate position. It has a new president with no prior political experience. It is highly dependent on the U.S. for political support and military aid. Kyiv also wants U.S. support in the run-up to peace talks this month over the eastern area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, who took over parts of the country in 2014. It can hardly afford to offend leaders in the U.S.

Zelenskiy will meet with Trump at the United Nations in the coming week, a senior U.S. administration official said on Friday.

It was reported in May that prosecutors in Ukraine had already shelved the investigation into Burisma’s owner by 2015. That suggests Biden and his son didn’t stand to benefit from the prosecutor’s ouster.

In addition, Vitaliy Kasko, a former deputy prosecutor who had once pursued the case against Burisma’s owner, said there had been no U.S. pressure to close the case.

Biden was indeed active in Ukraine. His threat to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees was contingent on the removal of Rosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who was widely viewed as failing to tackle rampant corruption. Many world leaders and the European Union were demanding Shokin’s dismissal. Shokin denied accusations of wrongdoing.

Yet Giuliani has continued to press Ukraine to probe Biden. He planned to visit Ukraine in May to meet with Zelenskiy and discuss reopening the case against Burisma. He canceled the trip at the last minute following public criticism that he was meddling in foreign affairs for possible political gain.

Giuliani did, however, meet with a key Zelenskiy aide, Andriy Yermak, in Madrid in August to press for an investigation into possible Biden conflicts, according to The New York Times.

That didn’t ensure smooth relations. In August, the U.S. temporarily blocked $250 million in promised military aid to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy announced a week ago that the U.S. had finally released the funds — and added $140 million. He did not specify why Ukraine had received more or how the money would be used. He didn’t say whether the U.S. had made any demands and had only words of praise for Trump.

“We had several talks,” Zelenskiy said at a conference in Kyiv. “We have very good relations with our strategic partner, the U.S. And I am thankful to them for their support.”

Three congressional committees announced on Sept. 9 that they were jointly investigating whether Trump and Giuliani improperly exerted pressure on the Ukrainian government. In letters to the White House and State Department, they added that they were focusing, among other things, on Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy.

The letter to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, requesting documents, said the Ukrainian government’s readout of Trump’s call appeared to show that he had encouraged Zelenskiy to pursue the Biden investigation.

The committee chairmen noted the State Department had acknowledged that Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative to Ukraine, subsequently had arranged for Giuliani to meet the aide to Zelenskiy in Spain.

The letter also cited news reports that Trump had threatened to withhold the $250 million in security assistance approved by Congress for Kiev to aid its fight against Russian-backed separatists in the east.

Schiff, speaking to reporters on Friday, said the committees’ investigation predated the whistleblower complaint. A statement by Schiff on Sept. 13 about his efforts to get access to the whistleblower complaint noted that his committee was first informed it existed on Sept. 9.

Giuliani has extensive ties to Ukraine stretching back more than a decade.

In 2008, he advised Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion, on his campaign for mayor, a post he has held since 2014. In 2017, Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk paid Giuliani to give a speech at a conference in Kyiv; on the same trip he met then-President Petro Poroshenko, along with the country’s prime minister, foreign minister and prosecutor general.

Later that year Giuliani traveled to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv to advise the mayor on security issues in a contract paid for by a local businessman, Pavel Fuks, who once tried to do a deal with Trump for Moscow Tower.

In May, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said in an interview that he had no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden and his son.

Since then, Zelenskiy appointed a new prosecutor general, Ruslan Riaboshapka, who had been a top official at the National Agency for Preventing Corruption.