KYIV, Ukraine—One of this country’s leading independent anti-corruption fighters says she was shocked at the partial transcript of Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call to the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“It was mind-blowing to read Trump’s requests to do him ‘a favor’ and say he’d have the U.S. attorney general call Zelensky to push the investigation that Trump would benefit from politically,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, the major watchdog monitoring officials who abuse their authority and steal from the state.
Trump spoke like a mafia don, and Zelenskly probably knew what was coming. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani already had been in touch with Zelensky’s people.
The memo of the conversation released Wednesday by the White House, makes it apparent Zelensky was doing all he could to humor the president of the United States. The former star of a TV comedy show in which he played a common man who became an uncommon president, which he then proceeded to become in real life, Zelensky said he’d learned a lot from Trump’s political techniques. He tried out a couple of ironic jokes. And paraphrasing Trump’s campaign pledge he volunteered, “We wanted to drain the swamp here in our country.”
That wasn’t enough to get a clear commitment from Trump to supply the kinds of arms Ukraine needs to fight Russian backed insurgents and covert Russian military units. Trump’s idea of the swamp in Ukraine was very different from the way Zelensky sees it. Indeed, Trump’s only interest was in digging dirt he believed might be found about his future opponent Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, or even about his past opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Zelensky said he was ready to buy more Javelin anti-tank missiles for Ukraine’s defense. Trump immediately pivoted: “I would like you to do us a favor.” Speaking distractedly, as if someone was pushing notes under his nose, Trump said, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people... The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”
As The Daily Beast reported, “Trump is referencing a conspiracy theory pushed by Russian trolls and far-right pundits that imagines the Democratic National Committee fabricating all the evidence in Russia’s 2016 breach of the DNC network.” No doubt Zelensky was confused.
Daria Kaleniuk, one of Ukraine’s most respected independent corruption fighters, says she was “deeply upset” when she saw the partial transcript. She studied financial law in the United States and has looked up to the country as a paradigm of democratic rule. She said she had not thought the situation there was so degraded.
A spokesperson for Attorney General William Barr’s Department of Justice said Wednesday that in fact Barr never followed up. But Trump also plugged for his personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who appears to be acting as a consigliere at the center of the effort to shift attention to Ukraine and the Democrats, and away from Russia’s well-established efforts to help Trump get elected in 2016. Zelensky said he’d welcome Giuliani in Ukraine, and Giuliani has said publicly many times in recent days that his aim was to uncover incriminating information about the Bidens.
“This scandal is harmful for Ukraine,” said Kaleniuk. “Don’t forget, we are at war with Russia,” she said, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be enjoying the current storm of news over Ukraine.
Among the many cases Kaleniuk has watched over the last five years is that of Burisma, a natural-gas company that named then-Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, well known as something of a black sheep, to its board in 2014.
But the transcript made it clear to Kyiv’s anti-corruption experts that Trump really had very little idea what he was talking about.
Zelensky tried in general terms to assure Trump the new administration in Kyiv would be serious about fighting corruption. “Good,” said Trump, “because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. … 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 …”
Prosecutors in Ukraine have been infamous for using the state’s power to investigate crimes, then demanding a payoff from the target, and closing the case.
Kaleniuk notes that three Ukraine prosecutor generals—Vitaly Yerema, Viktor Shokin, and Yuriy Lutsenko—“have dumped the Burisma case, each in his turn, one after another. I don’t think Mr. Trump knows the name of the ‘very good’ prosecutor he was talking about.”
When Kyiv’s corruption fighters see that the Burisma case and what Trump called Ukraine’s “horrible” law-enforcement system have become an obsession of the president of the United States, they feel lost, said Kaleniuk: “This is like a movie, I would never predict anything like it!”
One of Ukraine’s recent prosecutor generals, Yuriy Lutsenko, closed the Burisma investigation himself “when there was still a chance to define the truth” and then gave an interview to the Washington website The Hill complaining it was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who gave him a “do not prosecute” list.
That is the exact opposite of what happened in the case, which Kaleniuk has followed closely.
She is convinced that Trump and his helpers had been preparing the Biden “scandal” for a long time. “They started plotting it in October last year, possibly even earlier,” she said. One of the messages Lutsenko conveyed, Kaleniuk told The Daily Beast, was that Giuliani had consulted with Lutsenko, Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general, for months.
“Trump and Giuliani needed him to convey a message that Ukraine had intervened in American elections,” she said. “Lutsenko and prosecutor Konstantin Kulik have been giving Giuliani information on this case purely with an agenda to save their careers, inventing the story about the Biden investigation.”
In 2016, Vice President Biden demanded that Ukraine fire Prosecutor General Victor Shokin, who Trump might have called a “very good prosecutor,” but he was seen by reformers in Kyiv as a disaster. A year earlier, Kalemniuk’s watchdog organization had pushed to dismiss Shokin for neglecting multiple corruption cases.
“Here is why I do not say anything about Hunter Biden,” Kaleniuk explained. “Vice President Biden called for Ukraine to fire Shokin not because of the Burisma investigation, absolutely not, but because Ukraine’s prosecutor general did not investigate Burisma. U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt insisted [in early 2016] that Shokin should be investigating Burisma. The U.S. government had a clear position: The Burisma probe was killed by Shokin.” And the U.S. thought it and other cases should not have been closed.
Under the circumstances, and hopeful that Zelensky is as serious about reforms as he has said, Kaleniuk said she understood his reaction to Trump: “The leader of the most powerful state, our biggest partner, called with a request, so Zelensky tried not to contradict any of Trump’s words, agreed with everything.”
Many in Ukraine were upset by revelations of Zelensky’s “painful” answers to Trump, especially when Zelensky said: “The next prosecutor will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved by parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September.” Prosecutors are supposed to be independent.
Journalists at the Hramadske television network were arguing emotionally in the newsroom Wednesday night.
Andrey Saychuk, one Hramadske correspondent, told The Daily Beast he wondered how the newly appointed prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, must feel about the way Zelensky talked about the question of his independence.
During the Trump-Zelensky press opportunity at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday, Zelensky said he was not “pushed” by Trump in the July phone call, but the pressure on him was obvious. “I am sorry, but I don’t want to be involved in the elections in USA,” he said.
“We should keep our distance from this highly political Burisma case used in the political massacre in United States, any move on it can be used for political purposes,” Kaleniuk said. “Let American citizens and institutions judge whether their president was pushing Zelensky or not.”
As for Hunter Biden, his affiliation with Burisma seems at a minimum to have been ill-considered. The oligarch behind the company, Mykola Zlochevsky, was the minister of ecology and natural resources from July 2010 until April 2012 under the hugely corrupt pro-Putin President Viktor Yanukovych, overthrown by the Maidan revolution in 2014. (One of his close advisors was Trump campaign chairman and international political operative Paul Manafort, now serving a seven and a half year prison term in the United States.)
“Zlochevsky used his authority to give his own company licenses— basically the minister gave himself a permit for producing natural resources, and the licenses are at Burisma Holding,” said Kaleniuk.
When Hunter Biden started working with the company in May 2014, it had just had its assets frozen in the United Kingdom, where it was investigated for money laundering.
“I realize that it is very strange that Hunter Biden was working for Burisma,” says Kaleniuk. “I might be the first one to say bad things about Joe Biden’s movements in regard to this case, but I don’t.”
Why? Because far from trying to protect his son from the broader investigation that might establish Hunter received money gained illegally by Burisma’s founder, “Joe Biden wanted to prove it,” that Burisma was crooked. “He tried to make Shokin investigate that,” Kaleniuk said.
“One thing should be clear for everybody today: Joe Biden wanted to fire the prosecutor who did not want to investigate Burisma, where his son was working. That is very important.” Kaleniuk added that “everybody wanted Shokin fired.”
In May 2014, when Kaleniuk’s watchdog group of progressive lawyers discovered Hunter Biden on the board of Burisma Holding, they also found he was in interesting company. Poland’s former President Aleksander Kwasniewsky was on that board, along with “a few retired CIA agents,” Kaleniuk said. So many names. But, still, “It was strange for us to discover that Biden’s son appeared to be working at Burisma, most probably as a façade to defend Zlochevsky’s reputation.”
At a meeting with then-Vice President Joe Biden in the spring of 2014, Ukrainian corruption fighters told him about their many issues. “We did not talk about Zlochevsky’s corruption specifically, he was just one of the bastards who had robbed our country,” said Kaleniuk. “It is unclear if the father Biden knew about [the investigation of] Burisma,” she said.
At that time all foreign partners who tried to help Ukraine investigate corruption knew that both Shokin and his predecessor Vitaly Yarema had dumped the Burisma case. “The British embassy, the American embassy knew exactly what was going on. I think that Zlochevsky had to pay a lot for closing the case against him,” Kaleniuk said.
But, here’s the thing about the vast breadth and depth of corruption in Ukraine—President Zelensky himself is hardly immune. His great patron has been the oligarch who owned the television station where he became a star.
“If somebody asked us about the priority for the investigation today, I would say billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, and not Biden, should be the priority,” said Kilaniuk. The FBI has looked into Kolomoisky’s investments in the United States. Formerly exiled in Israel, Kolomoisky now feels perfectly comfortable in Zelensky’s Ukraine.
Kilaniuk insisted that none of Trump’s agents, including Rudolph Giuliani really understood how Ukraine functions. “I don’t think that Giuliani was the one who plotted the scandal, I think he just was just promoting this story; obviously, Donald Trump has no idea how things really work in Ukraine. I believe that Zelensky understands what has happened, I hope the President can distance himself from billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky.”
The risk is always that before the swamp can be drained, Zelensky will drown in it.
—Christopher Dickey also contributed to this story.