Ukraine Accusations Against Trump Put Renewed Focus on Events During Obama Administration

October 18, 2019 Updated: October 23, 2019

News Analysis

Accusations against President Donald Trump that he used his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival have renewed scrutiny of actions taken by the Obama administration in Ukraine between 2014 and 2016.

The accusations against Trump by an anonymous whistleblower, first reported by The Washington Post on Sept. 23, center around the allegation that the president “pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.”

The whistleblower’s complaint—which has since been made public alongside the transcript of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to announce the launch of an impeachment inquiry.

In his phone call with Zelensky, Trump told him: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.”

In the phone call, Trump also asked Zelensky to look into what appears to be 2016 election-related events, making an apparent reference to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) server analyzed by CrowdStrike. Trump said, “They say Ukraine has it.”

The transcript of the phone call shows no evidence of a quid pro quo, nor was there any mention of the United States withholding aid to Ukraine. Ken Vogel of The New York Times reported that the “Ukrainians weren’t made aware that the assistance was being delayed/reviewed until more than one month after the call.”

Following the release of the transcript, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who currently leads the closed-door impeachment hearings, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “there doesn’t need to be a quid pro quo.”

The congressman instead suggested that a conditional meeting with Trump as a means to lend legitimacy to the new Ukrainian president was being dangled as part of the call.

“The effort to condition something the Ukrainian president deeply sought—and that was a meeting with the president to establish that this new president of Ukraine had a powerful patron—the president of the United States. It was of vital importance to Ukraine [and] was being conditioned on digging up dirt on the Bidens,” Schiff said.

Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, who was elected in April, comes against the backdrop of years of Obama administration policy regarding Ukraine.

During President Barack Obama’s tenure, Ukraine saw a power transition in which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as a result of a popular uprising and replaced with an interim government favored by the United States. There was also increased cooperation between American and Ukrainian law enforcement, as well as Ukraine’s involvement in research linked to the DNC during the 2016 U.S. elections.

Ouster of Yanukovych

Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs in the Obama State Department, had a conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt on or shortly before Feb. 4, 2014, which was intercepted and leaked to the BBC.

In the call, Nuland and Pyatt appeared to be discussing the ouster of Yanukovych and the installation of opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister.

“I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the … what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside,” Nuland was recorded telling Pyatt about Yatsenyuk, implying she favored him over his main rivals, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok.

Then-Vice President Biden was also discussed in the conversation as being willing to help cement the changeover in Ukraine:

Geoffrey Pyatt: “We want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. The other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych, but we probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.”

Victoria Nuland: “So on that piece Geoff, when I wrote the note [Biden’s national security adviser Jake] Sullivan’s come back to me VFR [direct to me], saying you need Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta-boy and to get the deets [details] to stick. So Biden’s willing.”

Nuland and Pyatt met with Ukrainian opposition leaders Klitschko and Yatsenyuk along with then-president Yanukovych just days later on Feb. 7, 2014.

Events from that point moved swiftly. On Feb. 22, 2014, Yanukovych was removed as president of Ukraine and fled to Russia. On Feb. 27, 2014, Yatsenyuk, the candidate favored by Nuland, was installed as prime minister of Ukraine, while Klitschko was left out. Notably, Yatsenyuk would later resign in April 2016 amid corruption allegations.

In April, Biden would get personally involved, as would his son, Hunter. On April 18, 2014, Hunter Biden was appointed to the board of directors for Burisma—one of the largest natural gas companies in Ukraine.

Just four days later, on April 22, 2014, Vice President Biden traveled to Ukraine, offering his political support and $50 million in aid for Yatsenyuk’s shaky new government. Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire politician, was elected as president of Ukraine on May 25, 2014.

Biden became close with both men and later helped Ukraine to obtain a four-year $17.5 billion IMF package in March 2015.

Hunter Biden stepped down from Burisma’s board earlier this year and recently announced that he was stepping down from the board of Chinese-backed private equity firm BHR (Shanghai) Equity Investment Fund Management Co., which was established in 2013 as a means to allow for Chinese investments outside of China.

The younger Biden also pledged to avoid any further foreign work—including board seats on foreign-owned companies—under a Biden administration. In an interview with ABC News, he said, “I don’t think that there’s a lot of things that would have happened in my life if my last name wasn’t Biden.”

Biden Pressed Ukraine President to Fire Prosecutor

Joe Biden, during a call in late 2015 with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, pushed for the removal of Ukraine’s general prosecutor, Victor Shokin.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Biden recalled telling Poroshenko: “Petro, you’re not getting your billion dollars. It’s OK, you can keep the [prosecutor] general. Just understand—we’re not paying if you do.” Shokin was removed by Poroshenko shortly after, in early 2016.

According to reporting by The Hill, Shokin had been investigating Burisma, the company at which Biden’s son Hunter was a board member, at the time of Shokin’s firing. His investigation into Burisma had previously been disclosed back in June 2017, by Europe-based Front News International.

Biden has denied wrongdoing, saying that that he carried out his work as part of anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine by the United States.

US–Ukraine ‘Anti-Corruption’ Agenda

On Jan. 21, 2016, Joe Biden met personally with Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Washington. According to a readout of the meeting, the two men discussed “the need to continue to move forward on Ukraine’s anti-corruption agenda.”

At the same time, there was another series of related meetings, as top Ukrainian corruption prosecutors and officials from Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), FBI, State Department, and Department of Justice (DOJ), met in Washington, according to an April 26 article by The Hill.

Present at these meetings was Andrii Telizhenko, then an employee at the Ukrainian embassy. According to Telizhenko, a recurring theme at these meetings was “how important it was that all of our anti-corruption efforts be united.”

Additionally, Telizhenko was told that U.S. officials “had an interest in reviving a closed investigation into payments to U.S. figures from Ukraine’s Russia-backed Party of Regions.”

Notably, Telizhenko told The Hill that “he and other attendees recalled DOJ officials asking investigators from Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) if they could help locate new evidence about the Party of Regions’ payments and its dealings with Americans.”

The Hill’s reporting noted that the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington “confirmed the Obama administration requested the meetings in January 2016.” The article also noted that “U.S. officials told the Ukrainians they would prefer that Kiev drop the Burisma probe and allow the FBI to take it over.”

Although the Ukrainians reportedly refused the request to transfer the investigation to the FBI, the matter quickly became moot after Shokin submitted his resignation on Feb. 16, 2016, following Poroshenko’s request for him to step down.

The investigation into Burisma was transferred to NABU, which then reportedly closed the investigation sometime in 2016.

FBI Memorandum, Working Relationship With NABU

A press release from NABU confirmed that its director, Artem Sytnyk, was in Washington for a “working visit” from Jan. 19 to Jan. 21, 2016, making it highly likely that he also attended the meetings in Washington with Obama officials. The press release also noted that NABU and the FBI were expected to sign a memorandum of cooperation in the very near future.

This announcement was confirmed in a Feb. 9, 2016, press release, which noted that, beginning immediately, an FBI representative would be physically present at NABU headquarters and would work with NABU’s detectives on international assignments and “control how they are dealt with by the competent U.S. authorities.”

On June 30, 2016, it was announced that NABU and the FBI had formally entered into a memorandum of understanding that allowed for an FBI office onsite at NABU headquarters. Notably, NABU has repeatedly refused to make the memorandum of understanding with the FBI public and went to court in 2018 to prevent its release.

As NABU was formalizing its relationship with the FBI, Biden met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman on June 15, 2016, and announced plans to commit an additional $220 million to Ukraine that year.

DNC Operative Linked to Probe of Manafort

At the same time that Biden was applying the financial pressure to Ukrainian President Poroshenko in late 2015, a Ukrainian-American DNC operative named Alexandra Chalupa began to expand an investigation she had previously begun into Paul Manafort to include the Trump campaign.

“Chalupa told Politico she had developed a network of sources in Kiev and Washington, including investigative journalists, government officials, and private intelligence operatives. When Trump’s unlikely presidential campaign began surging in late 2015, she began focusing more on the research, and expanded it to include Trump’s ties to Russia, as well,” Politico reported on Nov. 1, 2017.

According to the article, in January 2016, Chalupa told a senior DNC official that she felt there was a Russia connection with the Trump campaign. She also reportedly told the official to expect that Manafort would become part of the Trump campaign:

“Chalupa told a senior DNC official that, when it came to Trump’s campaign, “I felt there was a Russia connection,” Chalupa recalled. “And that, if there was, that we can expect Paul Manafort to be involved in this election.”

Manafort would join the Trump campaign several months later in late March. Exactly how Chalupa came to this foresight regarding Manafort remains unclear.

According to Politico’s reporting, just days prior to Manafort’s hiring, on March 24, 2016, Chalupa spoke with Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Valeriy Chaly, and told him of concerns she had regarding Manafort. Reportedly, her concerns were initially rebuffed as Chaly didn’t think Trump had a real chance of winning the presidency.

According to the article, the day after Manafort’s hiring, Chalupa provided a briefing on “Manafort, Trump, and their ties to Russia” to the DNC’s communications staff. Notably, “with the DNC’s encouragement,” Chalupa asked Ukrainian Embassy staff to attempt to arrange an interview with Poroshenko and have him discuss Manafort’s ties to Yanukovych. The Ukrainian Embassy reportedly declined the request but, according to Chalupa, did begin working with reporters who were researching Trump.

On April 26, 2016, Yahoo News investigative reporter Michael Isikoff published a story about Manafort’s business dealings with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The Isikoff article referenced an investment fund, Pericles Emerging Markets, which was started by Manafort and several partners in 2007.

On April 28, 2016, Chalupa appeared on a panel to discuss her research on Manafort with a group of 68 Ukrainian investigative journalists gathered at the Library of Congress, for a program sponsored by a U.S. congressional agency called the Open World Leadership Center.

Appearing with her was Isikoff, with whom she was apparently working and whom she had invited, according to a May 3, 2016, email that Chalupa sent to Luis Miranda, communications director of the DNC, and was published by Wikileaks.

“I spoke to a delegation of 68 investigative journalists from Ukraine last Wednesday at the Library of Congress—the Open World Society’s forum—they put me on the program to speak specifically about Paul Manafort and I invited Michael Isikoff, whom I’ve been working with for the past few weeks and connected him to the Ukrainians,” Chalupa wrote.

Chalupa’s email closed with a reference to something larger that would become public in the coming weeks:

“More offline tomorrow since there is a big Trump component you and Lauren need to be aware of that will hit in next few weeks and something I’m working on you should be aware of.”

Although it isn’t known with certainty what the “big Trump component” was referencing, there was a significant event that would start shortly, leading to Manafort’s eventual ouster from the Trump campaign.

Black Box Ledger and Nellie Ohr’s Email

On May 30, 2016, Nellie Ohr, who at the time was working for Fusion GPS, the firm hired by the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign and the DNC to investigate Donald Trump and his family, sent an email to her husband, DOJ official Bruce Ohr, along with three other DOJ employees: Lisa Holtyn, Ivana Nizich, and Joe Wheatley. The email held a subject line that read “Reported Trove of Documents on Ukrainian Party of Regions’ ‘Black Cashbox.’”

Within the email was the text from an article penned the day before by Nikolai Holmov, a blogger at Odessatalk, with the title bolded and enlarged. It also contained a link to the underlying article.

“Documentation regarding that Party of Regions’ ‘chyornaya kasse’ has now seemingly found its way to NABU, the Ukrainian National Anti-Corruption Bureau,” the article stated.

Nellie Ohr’s email alerted officials within the Justice Department to a discovery that would have far-reaching implications for Manafort—and the Trump campaign—months before the news reached a national level.

Manafort would ultimately be famously implicated in the Black Box ledger scandal two months later, and that would lead to his resignation from the Trump campaign.

The documents implicating Manafort had been published by NABU on Aug. 18, 2016, and were then publicized during a press conference held by Member of the Ukrainian Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko the following day.

Leshchenko was cited as a source for several individuals, including journalist Isikoff and DNC operative Chalupa. In addition, Nellie Ohr testified before Congress on Oct. 19, 2018, that Leshchenko served as a source of information for Fusion GPS.

For his part, Leshchenko has said he doesn’t remember ever meeting with either Nellie Ohr or members of Fusion GPS. He also stated that he had only met Chalupa one time and his contact with Isikoff likely occurred immediately following his Aug. 19, 2016, press conference.

Ukrainian Oligarch’s Links to Clinton Foundation

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate during the 2016 elections, had previously accepted millions in donations from Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk through her family’s foundation.

Pinchuk is the founder of Interpipe, a steel pipe manufacturer. He owns Credit Dnipro Bank, several ferroalloy plants, and a media empire. He is also married to Elena Pinchuk, the daughter of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.

Pinchuk made headlines in 2018 because special counsel Robert Mueller, as part of his investigation into alleged Trump-Russia collusion, reportedly looked into a $150,000 donation he had made to the Trump Organization for a 2015 appearance by Donald Trump via video link at a conference in Kyiv. Pinchuk and the donation weren’t part of Mueller’s final report, indicating there was no wrongdoing.

Although exact numbers aren’t clear, reports filed by the Clinton Foundation indicate that as much as $25 million of Pinchuk’s “charitable donations” went to the foundation, making him one of its top donors.

Victor Pinchuk, a steel magnate whose father-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, was president of Ukraine from 1994 to 2005, has directed between $10 million and $25 million to the foundation. He has lent his private plane to the Clintons and traveled to Los Angeles in 2011 to attend Mr. Clinton’s star-studded 65th birthday celebration,” The New York Times reported on Aug. 20, 2016.

The Clinton Foundation, which has raised more than $2 billion since its launch in 1997, has long been plagued by pay-to-play accusations.

The Clintons would later try to distance themselves from Pinchuk. A Washington Examiner article detailed the sequence of events:

“Emails made public Tuesday show a Ukrainian businessman and major Clinton Foundation donor was invited to Hillary Clinton’s home during the final year of her diplomatic tenure, despite her spokesman’s insistence in 2014 that the donor never crossed paths with Clinton while she served as secretary of state.”

Pinchuk’s dinner invitation was exposed in a series of emails obtained by Citizens United.

In addition to being a Clinton Foundation donor, Pinchuk is also on the International Advisory Board of the Atlantic Council—a NATO-aligned American think tank specializing in the field of international affairs.

The Atlantic Council has been historically active in Ukraine through their Ukraine in Europe Initiative, and on Jan. 19, 2017, the Atlantic Council announced a partnership with Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma Group during a period when Hunter Biden sat on Burisma’s board.

According to a March 19, 2015, Wall Street Journal article, Pinchuk began donating to the Clinton Foundation “after being introduced to Mr. Clinton by Doug Schoen, a pollster who has worked for both Clintons” in 2006.

On May 17, 2016, Schoen filed Foreign Agents Registration Act documents that showed he was paid $40,000 per month by Pinchuk for ongoing lobbying activities. Among these activities were his efforts at arranging meetings between Ukrainian Parliamentarian Olga Bielkova and various Obama administration officials.

Bielkova penned an op-ed in August 2015, in which she voiced support for the potential candidacy of Biden, noting that a decision by Biden to run for president would be “great news for Ukraine.”

Between April 6 and April 12, 2016, Bielkova had four meetings with administration officials.

Besides meeting with government officials, including two members of the national security council, Bielkova would also meet with David Kramer of the McCain Institute. Kramer would later famously obtain a copy of the Steele dossier from former MI6 agent Christopher Steele and pass it along to the late Sen. John McCain, multiple journalists, and several members of the Obama administration, including National Security Council official Celeste Wallander and State Department official Victoria Nuland, in late 2016.

Starting in June 2016, Steele would write a series of memos that would become known as the Steele dossier, alleging that Donald Trump had conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections. The allegations would later be proven false by the Mueller report.

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