MOSCOW—Democracy-minded Ukrainians, of whom there are many, learned with grim bemusement this week that Donald Trump’s eccentric lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was on his way to Kiev. When they heard he canceled the trip as suddenly as he had announced it there was a collective sigh of relief.
But what the hell was he thinking?
Giuliani’s expressed intent was to politicize an investigation in a country where, for years, the Americans have encouraged Ukrainians to travel a difficult road toward the rule of law. Time and again U.S. officials have pleaded with Ukrainians to cleanse their justice system of politically tainted investigations. It was as if a doctor had suddenly recommended taking up smoking.
“Sounds like a shameful play—the arguments and motivations that U.S. Republicans are making seem all distorted,” Natalia Gumenyuk, head of Ukraine's independent Hromadske television, told The Daily Beast.
Giuliani and other Trump allies have been openly cooperating with Ukrainian law enforcement to pursue two politically important cases in Ukraine. Their first concern is to discredit information about the alleged corruption of Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, by demonstrating its release by the Ukrainians was illegal. Manafort is serving his 47-month prison term in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for failure to pay U.S. taxes and fraud, and the Ukrainian investigation of Manafort helped touch off the wider Russia investigation, the origins of which Giuliani says he is trying to ferret out.
The former mayor of New York, who now acts as a kind of media magnet and enforcer for Trump, also wants to show that former Vice President Joe Biden, a possible opponent in 2020, had a conflict of interest in Ukraine. Biden has faced allegations that he pressured prosecutors in Kiev to close a case against a company, Burisma, where his son, Hunter, served on the board. Biden has denied the charges.
Giuliani had said he hoped to meet with the country's president elect, Volodymyr Zelensky, to ask him to continue these two investigations: into the origins of the Manafort case and Hunter Biden's business dealings.
Gumenyuk, whose television channel has for years been carrying interviews with U.S. diplomats pressing for independent courts and prosecutors in Ukraine, said this effort was met in Kiev with an avalanche of criticism. “Everybody here saw evidence, and knows the truth about how Manafort was stealing millions from Ukraine," she said.
Days before Zelensky’s inauguration, Ukraine is more interested in whether the new president will dissolve the parliament and call new parliamentary elections. Trump’s desire to win a U.S. election was not at the top of the agenda.
Would Zelensky help Giuliani to discredit Biden?
“This is laughable to expect President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky to commit political suicide now, and play a dangerous political game,” television journalist Yevgeniy Kisilyev told The Daily Beast.
“Trump fired the American ambassador to Ukraine for taking the side of our democratic optimists,” he said. Career foreign-service officer Marie Yovanovitch had been asked to stay on by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo but fell prey to a convoluted conspiracy theory promoted on Fox News.
"I don’t expect Zelenski is going to make deals,” said Kisilyev.
During these final days before Zelensky’s May 19th inauguration, every official, including Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who has been cooperating with Giuliani, is seen as part of the old departing team. It's not clear who, if anybody, among the senior officials will remain in power in Kiev.
Earlier this year, Giuliani met with Lutsenko to discuss the Biden case. Lutsenko opened a criminal investigation into Burisma that cited Biden’s own words. Back in 2017 the former vice president talked about having pressed for the firing of Victor Shokin, a former prosecutor. In an interview with The Hill, prosecutor Lutsenko suggested that Biden did that to protect the company where his son worked. But that investigation had in any case been shelved, and there were certainly other reasons to seek the firing of a reputedly corrupt prosecutor.
“Shokin has always been seen as widely corrupt,” said Gumenyuk, noting that in one recent interview “he gave fake information about our tiny anti-corruption agency stealing money.”
It was unclear whether President Trump directed Giuliani to go to Ukraine, or if that was the lawyer’s personal initiative. But dealing with prosecutor Lutsenko seemed a dubious move, Serhei Leschenko, a member of parliament, told The Daily Beast on Friday. The reason why Lutsenko was trying to help Giuliani was simple, he said: “The prosecutor wants to keep his job, he has no place to go," with the change of president. "He is using Americans to try to cling to his post.”
Ukraine, plagued by political scandal, needs a politicized investigation like a hole in the head. Strangely, even Manafort’s longtime partner in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom U.S. authorities have said has links to Russian intelligence, re-emerged to comment on Giuliani's planned trip. He didn't think it would be a success: “It is unlikely that anybody in the current chaos would meet with Giuliani,” Kilimnik told The Daily Beast. “This is a pure fantasy.”
On Friday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) called for an investigation of Giuliani’s proposed trip to Ukraine. Later in the day, President Trump’s lawyer called off his trip to Ukraine, claiming “enemies of the president, in some cases enemies of United States and in one case an already convicted person who has been found to be involved in assisting the Democrats with the 2016 election” were behind the alleged trickery.
In the interview for Fox News, Giuliani said he was talking about Ukraine MP Serhiy Leschenko, whom Giuliani said had “supplied a black book [related to Manafort] that was found to be fraudulent.” This is incorrect. While Leschenko published portions of the book, he did not publish documents involving the investigation of Manafort.