The South Bend mayor had just entered the stage when the protests began. The chants included, “we are dying” and “trans lives matter.” The protesters appeared to walk in front of the camera, holding a trans-rights flag, as an audience member attempted to ask the 2020 hopeful a question.
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper tried to calm the crowd, saying, “Be cool; it’s OK; it’s OK; hey, hey, hey, hey, guys, guys, yo, guys. Chill out, guys, relax. Relax.”
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Cooper followed by applauding the protesters, claiming “there is a long and proud tradition in history — in the gay and lesbian and transgender community — of protest, and we applaud them for their protest.”
The event occurred on the same day that Buttigieg laid out a series of policies, pledging to “share solutions big enough to meet the challenges the LGBTQ+ community faces.”
“I know how it feels to peer, and then look, and then climb over these walls. As president, I will use my story, our energy, and the power of the presidency to tear down the walls that have excluded far too many LGBTQ+ people for far too long,” Buttigieg said.
VODIANE, Ukraine – In a muddy field 5,000 miles from Washington, D.C., are a set of gas wells that extend several thousand feet underground.
The wells are owned by Burisma, a Ukrainian company registered in Cyprus – a company no one outside the energy industry would have known a month ago.
Now this place isground zero for a central claim – one with no credible evidence – in a scandal that has engulfed the Trump administration in an impeachment inquiry: that former Vice President Joe Biden forced the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor in order to protect his son Hunter Biden, who served on Burisma’s board.
Burisma’s gas fields are ringed by light woodlands and an assortment of post-Soviet tropes: crumbling factories and farm buildings, babushkas clutching bags of food as they ride bicycles, bored security officials in military fatigues who always seem to require permission to do anything – from a boss who can never be found.
Fields owned by Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private natural-gas company, in Vodiane, Ukraine, on Oct. 2, 2019. Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
“There’s no one here who will talk to you. Now go away,” a sullen-faced guard shouted at the entrance to Burisma’s small office in Vodiane, 300 miles southeast of Kyiv, last week.
“Hunter Biden? Never heard of him,” said Ludmila Rynovaya, 72, a resident of Vodiane’s nearby village – population 600 – who was chatting with a friend in a small grocery store. “We’re pretty good at corruption,” she said. “We don’t need Americans to help us.”
Over the course of about a week in Ukraine, the message from two dozen government officials and anti-corruption investigators quickly became clear: The allegations against the Bidens are entirely lacking in evidence.
But they persist, and not only because Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, keep repeating them.
What is true and what is false is exceptionally hard to pin down in this fledgling democracy, one riddled with regulatory loopholes, poor governance and never-ending budget shortages.
Ukraine is a place of great economic promise, with extensive natural resources and a highly educated, tech-savvy workforce.
Vladimir Grigorishin, a Kyiv resident and customs “broker”
It’s not really corruption, but more a way of saying, ‘Thank you.’
But abuses of power and cronyism are rampant, reaching from the highest levels of government to everyday tasks like acquiring a driver’s license or paying a doctor’s bill, according to more than two dozen Ukrainians interviewed for this story.
“It’s not really corruption, but more a way of saying, ‘Thank you,’ ” said Vladimir Grigorishin, 49, a Kyiv resident and customs “broker” who stopped in the city’s picturesque Kontraktova Square on his way to work to describe what he does for a living.
He mediates fees between tax officials and private business owners who rely on foreign-made products. The process involves informally negotiating payments to officials.
Outside Ukraine, this is known as bribery. For Grigorishin, it’s business.
Perhaps one of the most incongruous aspects of Trump’s allegations is that he seems to believe that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, which has been fighting a costly war with Russian-backed separatists for the past five years 1, is conspiring with Democratic rivals in order to force him from office.
There is a problem with this theory: There are few, if any, trustworthy voices in Ukraine to back it up. Nor is there any credible evidence. Even Trump’s staff have repeatedly warned him that the claims are baseless.
How Trump’s Ukraine allegations spurred an impeachment inquiry
Democratic lawmakers launched an impeachment inquiry against Trump in September after a whistleblower claimed Trump had appeared to try to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Trump’s Democratic rivals in return for military aid.
In an account of the call released by the White House, Trump asked Zelensky for a “favor” and urged him to “look into” Biden and his son.
Trump has accused the Bidens of acting improperly in Ukraine, either through political interference aimed at assisting Hunter Biden’s commercial activities or an even darker web of deceit related in some unexplained way to U.S. election meddling.
And he has publicly repeated, on Twitter and in remarks to the press, the message he delivered in private to Zelensky: Ukraine should investigate the Bidens.
That hasn’t prevented Trump from spreading false information, just as he once promoted the so-called “birther” conspiracy theory – the debunked claim that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
“Rudy Giuliani’s only interest in Ukraine was to push the idea of an investigation into Biden and then push that idea with the American media, to hype it, and to attack Biden’s son ahead of the U.S. election” next year, said Sergii Leshchenko, a former lawmaker who worked under former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Sergii Leshchenko, a former lawmaker who worked under former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Rudy Giuliani’s only interest in Ukraine was to push the idea of an investigation into Biden and then push that idea with the American media, to hype it, and to attack Biden’s son ahead of the U.S. election.
Leshchenko has met Giuliani. He also helped spearhead anti-corruption efforts under Poroshenko, who lost reelection this spring to Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV actor turned politician.
“The whole thing is manufactured for Trump’s political advantage,” said Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist.
Allegations like this are not uncommon in Ukraine. Since gaining independence 2 from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has struggled to confront corruption and misinformation, said Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
Pro-Russian supporters carry a huge Russian flag during a rally in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, some 40 km from the Russian frontier, on March 16, 2014….Pro-Russian supporters carry a huge Russian flag during a rally in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, some 40 km from the Russian frontier, on March 16, 2014. 6,000 protesters held a “meeting-referendum” to ask for more independence and reclaim the “sovereignty” of the Russian language, on the day Crimea voted to join Russian rule and break away from Ukraine.Sergei Bobok, AFP/Getty Images
“After Communism, we’ve had to build a completely new system – all new laws, judges, a constitution. This has created many legal loopholes,” he said.
Many hide in plain sight.
“Speeding tickets are easy to make go away,” said Orest Grigorishin, 23, a Kyiv musician. He views such activity, officially illicit, as essential to surviving in the faction-ridden country.
There are more egregious examples. Some involve people an arm’s length from Trump.
Yuriy Lutsenko is one of the former Ukrainian prosecutors who, according to a whistleblower’s complaint 3, peddled a series of baseless claims against the Bidens and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A Ukraine primer
• Ukraine, home to about 45 million people, declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
• Ukrainian is the official language; many residents also speak Russian, which is similar.
• Use of the term “the Ukraine” is considered insulting because it suggests Ukraine is a region, not a country, hearkening back to when it was part of the Soviet Union.
• It was once known as the breadbasket of Europe because of its large agriculture industry. The collectivism ordered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin exploited this and caused a famine between 1932-1933, known as the Holodomor. It’s estimated to have killed about 7.5 million people.
• Despite Ukraine’s independence, Russian President Vladimir Putin believes its cultural and linguistic ties to Russia mean it should be part of Russia’s sphere of influence. “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country,” Putin told President George W. Bush during a NATO summit in 2008.
• In 2014, Russian special forces occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, a strategic territory that provides access to the Black Sea. Russia later held a vote in Crimea in which residents opted to become part of Russia. Ukraine maintains the vote was neither free nor fair. The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia in response.
• Ukraine has been fighting a war, also since 2014, with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has claimed at least 13,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million people.
Lutsenko is a “lawyer” who has no legal training. He was appointed by Poroshenko, a close political ally.
To appoint Lutsenko, Poroshenko had to force a law through Ukraine’s Parliament so someone without legal qualifications could fill the post.
Lutsenko has served jail time for embezzlement and abuse of office. His supporters claimed the charges were politically motivated. You hear that a lot here.
“Lutsenko is a crook,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based organization that has led Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. “He basically used the general prosecutor’s office that he headed as a kind of public relations office for himself.”
Heavy machinery owned by Burisma, a Ukrainian natural-gas company linked to an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Anatoly Sokolov for USA TODAY
Lutsenko did not return multiple requests for comment.
A Lutsenko representative told USA TODAY he traveled to London in late September for a month.
“It has nothing to do with what’s happening right now,” his assistant said. “It was planned a long time ago. He went to take some English lessons.”
“Ukraine is an extremely good place to be if you’re into making money illegally,” said Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.
The news outlet published some of the first investigations into Paul Manafort 4, Trump’s former campaign manager. Manafort is now imprisoned in the U.S. on convictions related to concealing millions of dollars he made in Ukraine.
His client: former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-friendly president who was ousted from office in 2014 and now lives in exile in Russia. Ukraine convicted him of treason in January.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s estate outside Kyiv is now a museum of corruption. Anatoly Sokolov for USA TODAY
Yanukovych abused his office in other ways. Today, his sumptuous estate outside Kyiv, called Mezhyhirya Residence, has been preserved as a kind of museum of corruption.
The estate is a national park, but its ownership is murky. An attendant accepted admission fees only in cash and wouldn’t issue a receipt.
Visitors can marvel at its former zoo, a pier for luxury yachts, a helicopter pad, a tennis court, horse stables, a rare-breed dog kennel, a boxing ring, a fleet of vintage cars, a spa and a shooting range.
Evidence, Ukrainians say, that Yanukovych ran Ukraine like a mafia boss.
The main house is decorated with paintings of his favorite ballerinas and elaborate mosaics of historical and religious scenes. Yanukovych built a private church at Mezhyhirya.
“Here, you can stand and look over your empire like a real czar,” a visitor remarked last week as he surveyed the view of the Dnieper River from the balcony of one of the master bedrooms. The entire estate is furnished in a manner that calls to mind the decadent court of France’s King Louis XIV. Even the planters are encased in expensive snakeskin.
“I supported the ostriches. What’s wrong with that?” Yanukovych said about his petting zoo in an interview with the BBC in 2015, a year after he fled to Russia.
In the interview, Yanukovych seemed incredulous that someone would question whether it was appropriate to spend $100,000 on chandeliers in a country where in 2018, the average monthly salary was about $350.
A view inside the church former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych built at his former residence outside Kyiv, on Oct. 4, 2019. Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
That’s partly where Hunter Biden comes in, according to Kaleniuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center – not as an example of American corruption, but of Ukrainian reputation management.
Hunter Biden joined the board in the aftermath of Yanukovych’s ouster, when some Ukrainian companies tried to distance themselves from pro-Moscow authorities. They invited Westerners and other high-profile figures to sit on their boards.
A former president of Poland joined Burisma’s board at the same time as Hunter Biden in 2014, according to the company. In 2017, a former CIA official under President George W. Bush joined, too.
Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center
Ukraine is full of (people) who acquire wealth illegally through their connections to politics. Then they try to whitewash this wealth and their reputations with the help of an army of Western lawyers and public relations types.
“Ukraine is full of (people) who acquire wealth illegally through their connections to politics,” Kaleniuk said. “Then they try to whitewash this wealth and their reputations with the help of an army of Western lawyers and public relations types.”
Burisma is Ukraine’s largest private natural-gas company. It’s owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, a former energy minister in Yanukovych’s government who has been at the center of multiple corruption cases in Ukraine.
“I’m not sure that (Hunter) Biden understood the environment he was getting into” when he agreed to serve on Burisma’s board, said Musaieva, the Ukrayinska Pravda editor.
USA TODAY spoke with Musaieva in the publication’s tightly secured office in Kyiv. During the interview, a small dog named Justas roamed the hallways. His name, which sounds like “justice,” seems like a nod to the dangers journalists in Ukraine face when they expose corruption.
Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who founded Ukrayinska Pravda, was abducted and murdered in 2000. Ukrainian prosecutors blamed his killing on the country’s then-interior minister. Gongadze had exposed political corruption and was an outspoken government critic.
Pavel Sheremet, another journalist who covered political figures for the online publication, was assassinated with a car bomb in Kyiv in 2016. His death remains a mystery. No one has been arrested.
Ukrayinska Pravda’s office dog, “Justas,” at the online publication’s Kyiv offices on Oct. 1, 2019. Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
Kateryna Handzyiuk, a prominent anti-corruption activist, died in November last year after she was injured in an acid attack. She exposed corruption in her hometown.
“I definitely know that I look much better than justice in Ukraine. Because nobody is treating it.”
Trump has more than one conspiracy theory about Ukraine. They have two things in common: Their origins are murky and they lack evidence.
Trump and Giuliani, who was known as “America’s mayor” for his leadership after 9/11, have pushed unsubstantiated allegations that Joe Biden sought to help his son by persuading the Ukrainian government to dismiss a general prosecutor named Viktor Shokin.
In 2014, Shokin began investigating Burisma for money laundering and tax irregularities.
The core allegation from Trump and Giuliani is that Joe Biden intervened to have Shokin fired in order to halt a criminal investigation into Burisma. To help his son’s business interests, essentially.
But no one who spoke with USA TODAY said those allegations have any merit, and no credible evidence has emerged to support them – though several experts in the region said it seems clear Hunter Biden got the job because of his last name. Joe Biden has said his son did nothing wrong. “He’s a fine man. He’s been through hell,” he said last week.
Trump has also suggested that a hacked 5 Democratic National Committee server and 33,000 emails from Hillary Clinton’s tenure running the U.S. State Department “could be” in Ukraine. That’s a debunked conspiracy theory, one piece of an overarching conspiracy theory in which Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” Trump said in a July phone call with Zelensky. “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.”
Crowdstrike, a digital security firm, is not a Ukrainian company. It’s headquartered in California; one of its founders was born in Russia.
A view of a building in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 3, 2019. Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
Ukraine has long insisted it stayed neutral in the 2016 election. A 2017 Politico investigation did conclude that several Ukrainian government officials may have tried to help Clinton’s presidential campaign by publicly questioning Trump’s fitness for office, but ultimately it found “little evidence of … a top-down effort by Ukraine.”
In fact, much of what these Ukrainians discussed related to Manafort.
So did many European countries and international organizations. Not only did they believe Shokin undermined attempts to end Ukraine’s culture of graft, but his own staff accused him of being corrupt.
“The pressure to remove Shokin did not just come from Biden,” said Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs in Poroshenko’s administration. “The pressure also came from the European Union and others. I know. I was in the meetings about this.”
Hunter Biden had just joined the board around the time Ukrainian prosecutors opened their probe into Burisma in 2014. He wasn’t the subject of the investigation, according to Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an independent government agency that has worked closely with the FBI.
Investigators suspected Zlochevsky, Burisma’s owner, of various financial crimes, including not paying taxes. The case was settled out of court in 2017.
Ukraine’s new general prosecutor, Ruslan Ryaboshapka, during a press conference in Kyiv on Oct. 4, 2019. Anatoly Sokolov for USA TODAY
But the allegations against Biden seemed to gain traction last week when Ruslan Ryaboshapka, Ukraine’s newly appointed general prosecutor, announced his office would review the Burisma probe as part of an audit of cases that had been closed, settled or dismissed by his predecessors.
Ryaboshapka told USA TODAY the decision to review the Burisma case was not connected to the period Hunter Biden spent on the firm’s board.
Trump’s information, he said, is “not coming from me.”
So who is it coming from?
One source is Shokin, the prosecutor whom Biden has boasted of forcing out.
Giuliani has appeared on cable TV news shows in the U.S. waving an affidavit in which Shokin claims he was fired in 2016 because he was leading a “wide-ranging corruption investigation” into Burisma.
Vitali Kasko, the deputy to Ryaboshapka, has a simple response: “Shokin is not a reliable figure.”
Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Donald Trump, speaks in Washington on May 5, 2018. Andrew Harnik, AP
Kasko once worked for Shokin but resigned, citing the total “lawlessness” of his boss. It’s yet another thread that ties these officials together like the Ukrainian embroidery for sale near tourist attractions in Kyiv.
His characterization is supported by the whistleblower’s complaint, Ukraine’s anti-corruption investigators, international diplomats and even several Republican U.S. senators, who in 2016 urged Poroshenko to “press ahead with urgent” reforms and remove Shokin.
Poroshenko, who made millions running a chocolate and candy empire before getting into politics, told reporters in Kyiv last week that Joe Biden never applied any inappropriate pressure or asked him to close or open any cases when he was Ukraine’s leader.
Shokin did not to respond to multiple requests for comment.
Besides Shokin, Giuliani enlisted the help of Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, two Florida-based associates with family and business connections to Ukraine. They worked to dig up dirt on the Bidens and Clinton, according to their own admission.
Fruman and Parnas were arrested Wednesday on campaign-finance charges, accused of funneling “foreign money” for political candidates and campaigns. The charges don’t appear to relate to the work they were doing on behalf of Giuliani. The two men have also been subpoenaed by House Democrats investigating the president.
The two set up meetings for Giuliani with Ukrainian officials. Meanwhile, they promoted a plan to sell U.S. liquefied natural gas to Ukraine to replace Russian imports disrupted by the war, according to a detailed profile of Fruman and Parnas by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and BuzzFeed News.
“It doesn’t matter who in Ukraine tells you what – a lawyer, a politician, media, someone in business. They are either lying to you or at the very least trying to confuse you,” said Oleksandr Techynskyi, a Ukrainian filmmaker whose 2014 documentary “All Things Ablaze” chronicles the violent revolution that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.
Techynskyi said Trump’s allegations resemble what Ukrainians have been dealing with for years, and what Americans may have to get used to: official misinformation.
Lutsenko, who succeeded Shokin as Ukraine’s general prosecutor, has turned out to be another unreliable narrator, according to several Ukrainian officials.
He’s another one of Giuliani’s sources.
In March, Lutsenko started making false claims in opinion articles written by John Solomon, a conservative commentator for The Hill, a U.S. political news website, according to the whistleblower’s complaint and anti-corruption investigators.
Lutsenko’s claims should sound familiar.
Among them: that Joe Biden pressured Poroshenko to fire Shokin in order to quash a criminal probe into Burisma. That Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador, obstructed Ukrainian authorities’ pursuit of corruption cases and even gave him a “do not prosecute” list.
No credible evidence has emerged to back up either allegation.
The Ukraine office of Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption monitoring group, said it valued Yovanovitch’s help fighting corruption.
But Trump unceremoniously pulled her out of Ukraine in May; House Democrats are currently investigating why. Giuliani has since acknowledged that he told Trump that Yovanovitch should be fired.
Aubrey Belford, editor for the OCCRP in Ukraine
The best way to think about this is that these prosecutors are politicians. They are not necessarily like people working for the Justice Department in the U.S. – except for maybe William Barr.
“The best way to think about this is that these prosecutors are politicians,” said Aubrey Belford, an editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Ukraine. “They are not necessarily like people working for the Justice Department in the U.S. – except for maybe William Barr.”
He was referring to Barr’s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation, which he initiated at Trump’s request.
The Justice Department did not return a request for comment.
Lutsenko was fired in August. Before he left his position, according to the whistleblower’s complaint, he implied his office was receptive to the idea of reopening the investigation into Burisma. It would have been in keeping with Trump’s wishes.
Since then, Lutsenko has said in interviews he knows of no evidence linking the Bidens to wrongdoing. Now he, too, is under investigation, for protecting illegal casinos in Ukraine. He denies it.
It’s easy to see why some Ukrainians have become numb to the allegations and counter-allegations that follow every changeover in power.
The latest came Wednesday, when Ukrainian lawmaker Andriy Derkach announced he has evidence that Burisma paid Joe Biden himself for lobbying. Derkach claimed his source for this information was a journalist; he didn’t name him. The Kyiv Post, an English-language newspaper, called Derkach “dubious.”
Like Trump, Ukraine’s President Zelensky has spent time in the world of entertainment – and like his American counterpart, he has parlayed this into a political career.
Zelensky was an actor before he assumed Ukraine’s highest office. He starred in a hit TV sitcom about an idealistic teacher who is accidentally propelled to the presidency after his students film him railing against corruption. In the show, called “Servant of the People,” the video goes viral and a political star is born.
The real-life version is not that different.
Zelensky ran on an anti-corruption platform and named his political party “Servant of the People.”
President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in New York on Sept. 25, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Like Trump, he arrived in office with no political experience.
And like Trump, Zelensky is not without controversy.
He has close ties to Igor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch accused of siphoning about $5 billion from a bank that Ukraine’s government nationalized in 2016. Kolomoisky is the owner of the TV network that aired “Servant of the People.”
Anastasiya Kozlovtseva, of Transparency International’s Ukraine office, said Zelensky’s decision to appoint Ryaboshapka as general prosecutor is an encouraging sign because he is an experienced and credible anti-corruption campaigner.
“But we’re waiting to see how Zelensky deals with his ties to Kolomoisky,” she said.
Trump’s scandal is not Zelensky’s biggest problem.
The country is fighting a war with Russia that has claimed 13,000 lives, displaced 1.5 million people and led to Ukraine ceding parts of its territory to the region’s superpower.
Ukraine relies on U.S. money and moral goodwill to keep Russia at bay. One of the potential threats of the impeachment inquiry is that Trump will harbor a grudge against Ukraine, with regional consequences.
“There’s a danger we could sign a weak peace deal with Russia that would bring us closer to Putin’s orbit,” said Haran, the political scientist. At the time of Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, many Ukrainians were hoping for closer ties with the European Union, with all the legal and economic benefits – and oversight – that would bring.
And then there is the matter of Zelensky delivering on his campaign promise to end Ukraine’s culture of corruption.
Many politicians have been elected on similar promises, only to be replaced by others who promise it, too. Meanwhile, activists and reformers are themselves regularly threatened and accused of wrongdoing.
“We wanted to drain the swamp here in our country,” Zelensky told Trump in their July call. “We brought in many new people. Not the typical politicians, because we want to have a new type. A new type of government. You are a great teacher for us in that regard.”
WASHINGTON — When Rudolph W. Giuliani set out to dredge up damaging information on President Trump’s rivals in Ukraine, he turned to a native of the former Soviet republic with whom he already had a lucrative business relationship.
Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-American businessman with a trail of debts and lawsuits, had known Mr. Giuliani casually for years through Republican political circles. Last year, their relationship deepened when a company he helped found retained Mr. Giuliani — associates of Mr. Parnas said he told them he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars — for what Mr. Giuliani said on Thursday was business and legal advice.
Even as he worked with Mr. Parnas’s company, Fraud Guarantee, Mr. Giuliani increasingly relied on Mr. Parnas to carry out Mr. Trump’s quest for evidence in Ukraine that would undercut the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference on his behalf in the 2016 election and help him heading into his 2020 re-election campaign.
Mr. Giuliani dispatched Mr. Parnas and an associate, Igor Fruman, a Belarusian-American businessman, to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where, despite fending off creditors at home, BuzzFeed reported, they ran up big charges at a strip club and the Hilton International hotel. Their mission was to find people and information that could be used to undermine the special counsel’s investigation, and also to damage former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a prospective Democratic challenger to Mr. Trump.
Over the past year, the two men connected Mr. Giuliani with Ukrainians who were willing to participate in efforts to push a largely unsubstantiated narrative about the Bidens. They played a key role in a campaign by pro-Trump forces to press for the removal of the United States ambassador to Ukraine on the grounds that she had not shown sufficient loyalty to the president as he pursued his agenda there.
They met regularly with Mr. Giuliani, often at the Trump International hotel in Washington. And all the while, they were pursuing their own business schemes and, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday, illegally funneling campaign contributions in the United States in the service of both their political and business activities.
The indictment, along with interviews and other documents, show Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and their associates as somewhat hapless operators, scrambling recklessly to use their new connections to the highest levels of American politics to seek financial gain while guiding Mr. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, into a Ukrainian political culture rife with self-dealing and ever-shifting alliances.
The indictment provided new details about the dealings of Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, as well as a pair of associates, including David Correia, who with Mr. Parnas helped found Fraud Guarantee, the fraud prevention and mitigation company that retained Mr. Giuliani. The four men were charged with campaign finance violations related to their efforts to enlist public officials in their moneymaking efforts and their political efforts in Ukraine.
The indictment does not name or identify Mr. Giuliani or Mr. Trump. But it helps show how Mr. Giuliani, who was retained by Mr. Trump as a personal lawyer to fend off one challenge to his presidency — the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III — helped steer his client into another: dealings with Ukraine that are now at the heart of the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats.
The congressional committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry have subpoenaed Mr. Giuliani for records related to his efforts in Ukraine, including records related to Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and Semyon Kislin, another Ukrainian-born businessman.
Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman had been asked to appear before House investigators this week, but declined to appear. And on Thursday, the congressional committees issued subpoenas demanding they produce documents by Wednesday, while signaling that the committees still expected the pair to testify to Congress.
The two men did get something useful for their Ukrainian efforts from Pete Sessions, then a Republican member of Congress from Texas, who is not identified in the indictment. It says that after making substantial campaign donations to him, Mr. Parnas asked Mr. Sessions for help last year in pressing the Trump administration to remove the United States ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch. Mr. Sessions subsequently wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticizing Ms. Yovanovitch and seeking to have her dismissed.
Mr. Parnas had told associates that she was not open to his proposals related to the lucrative gas business in Ukraine, where Mr. Parnas pitched a natural gas deal to the chief executive of Naftogaz, as The New York Times reported last month.
Ms. Yovanovitch had also come under fire from a Ukrainian prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who was connected to Mr. Giuliani by Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman and played a key role in Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to promote investigations into Mr. Trump’s rivals.
While the indictment did not identify any officials by name, it said that Mr. Parnas, in his effort to oust Ms. Yovanovitch, acted, “at least in part, at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.”
Mr. Giuliani also said he provided legal advice to Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman after their efforts in Ukraine brought them into conflict with a powerful oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky.
Mr. Kolomoisky said in interviews in the Ukrainian news media that Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman traveled to see him in Israel in April, ostensibly to talk about their plans to sell gas to Ukraine. But, he said, the two men then pushed him to arrange a meeting between Mr. Giuliani and Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr. Giuliani had been seeking to press Mr. Zelensky to agree to investigate the Bidens and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, and had been working with Mr. Parnas to lay the groundwork for the effort, as The Times first reported in May.
Upon returning to Ukraine, Mr. Kolomoisky threatened in May to expose Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman. Mr. Giuliani, in turn, posted on Twitter that the oligarch had “defamed” Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, “and I have advised them to press charges.” He also warned Mr. Zelensky not to surround himself with allies of Mr. Kolomoisky.
Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and Mr. Giuliani were frequently spotted together over the past year at the Trump International hotel in Washington, and were overheard discussing politics and energy projects, including a methane initiative in Uzbekistan. Mr. Giuliani and his associates were to be paid at least $100,000 for the project, on which Mr. Parnas offered advice.
The project did not pan out, Mr. Giuliani said.
Mr. Parnas said in an interview last month that he and Mr. Fruman were self-financing their efforts on behalf of Mr. Giuliani’s political work in Ukraine and that those “have nothing to do with our business.”
He added, “My only business with Giuliani was a long time ago,” and involved an insurance company that Mr. Parnas suggested he owned that Mr. Giuliani “offered some advice on.”
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Giuliani at first seemed to acknowledge having advised Fraud Guarantee in 2018, then backtracked.
“I can’t acknowledge it’s Fraud Guarantee, I don’t think,” he said.
“I can acknowledge I gave them substantial business advice,” he said, adding that one of his companies trains institutional customers in security work, including “how to investigate crimes, from murder to terrorism to fraud.” He said that “most of it is subdivisions of government, but every once in a while it is a private enterprise.”
Late last month, he seemed to minimize the campaign finance issues facing Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman, saying in an interview, “I referred them to a campaign finance expert, who pretty much resolved it.”
On Thursday, Mr. Giuliani said he did not regret working with Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman in Ukraine. “I have to presume they’re innocent,” he said, adding: “There are a lot of motives going on trying to smear people, so I wouldn’t say that I regret it, no. Who else would I have turned to?”
In April 2018, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman incorporated a company called Global Energy Producers ostensibly as a vehicle to engage in the trade of liquefied natural gas — a commodity American officials have long urged Ukraine to buy from the United States.
In weeks, the company attracted notice in Republican finance circles with major donations to committees supporting Mr. Trump and his allies. It gave $325,000 to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC; $50,000 to a political action committee affiliated with the Trump-endorsed candidate for Florida governor in 2018, Ron DeSantis, and $15,000 to a super PAC supporting the 2018 Senate campaign of the West Virginia attorney general, Patrick Morrisey.
The donation spree prompted legal filings by a former business partner of Mr. Parnas who was trying to collect more than $510,000 from Mr. Parnas from a 2016 federal judgment.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. envoy to Kiev and someone President Trump has privately called “bad news,” is scheduled to sit for a potentially explosive transcribed interview with lawmakers and staff on Capitol Hill on Friday as Democrats intensify their impeachment inquiry.
However, multiple sources told Fox News late Thursday that Sondland will indeed appear for a transcribed interview before House investigators next Wednesday.
As of now, Fox News is told that the plan is for only House Intelligence Committee staff and members to pose questions to Yovanovitch, should the ex-diplomat show up as scheduled at 10 a.m. ET. No staffers from the Foreign Affairs or Oversight Committees, majority or minority party, are expected to be able to ask questions.
But Republicans will be allowed to have a second aide in the room after complaining last time, Fox News is told. It’s unclear how long the session is likely to run.
Trump and his surrogates have painted Yovanovitch as a rogue State Department employee with an anti-Trump political bias. Her ouster in May came amid alleged attempts by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani to press Ukraine into investigating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. Those efforts triggered the impeachment inquiry.
The former New York mayor labeled Yovanovitch a political hack bent on undermining Trump’s efforts, charges that apparently resonated with the president.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, center, is set to testify on Friday on Capitol Hill. (Mikhail Palinchak, Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP)
On Thursday, federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging in part that two donors to a pro-Trump fundraising committee were engaged in lobbying efforts in the U.S. on behalf of a Ukrainian politician to seek Yovanovitch’s ouster.
The Soviet-born defendants, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are U.S. citizens who helped Giuliani’s efforts to pursue an investigation of Joe Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s president insisted Thursday that he faced “no blackmail” from Trump in the July 25 phone call between the two men that led to an impeachment inquiry.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy said for the first time that his country will “happily” investigate the conspiracy theory pushed by Trump that it was Ukrainians, not Russians, who interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he encouraged U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss investigating the Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings.
Biden has acknowledged that in spring 2016, when he was vice president and spearheading the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy, he successfully pressured Ukraine to fire top prosecutor Viktor Shokin. At the time, Shokin was investigating Burisma Holdings — where Hunter had a lucrative role on the board despite limited relevant expertise. The vice president threatened to withhold $1 billion in critical U.S. aid if Shokin was not fired.
The impact of any news from the interview with Yovanovitch may be blunted temporarily because both the House and Senate formally remain on recess until next Tuesday. The House Democratic Caucus and Republican Conferences will hold their formal meetings and press conferences on Wednesday morning.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news.”
— President Trump, on Marie Yovanovitch
Yovanovitch, a State Department employee for 33 years who also led U.S. embassies in Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, has drawn praise from colleagues for her past work on international affairs.
She is “a top-notch diplomat, careful, meticulous, whip-smart,” and unlikely to have badmouthed Trump, either to Ukrainian officials or her colleagues, said John Herbst, a predecessor as ambassador in Ukraine who worked alongside Yovanovitch there in the early 2000s.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” Trump told Ukraine President Zelenskiy during their July 25 call, according to a partial transcript released by the White House. “She’s going to go through some things.”
Currently a State Department fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Yovanovitch was declining all requests to speak with reporters in advance of her planned testimony.
Yovanovitch, 60, was raised in a household that helped prepare her for a career in international relations.
Born in Canada to immigrant parents — her father from the former Soviet Union, her mother from Germany — she grew up speaking Russian at home. The family moved to Connecticut when she was a young child, and she later became a U.S. citizen.
“Like so many, including those in the Ukrainian-American community, my parents’ lives were changed forever by Communist and Nazi regimes,” Yovanovitch said during a Senate confirmation hearing in 2016, attended by her 88-year-old mother. “They survived poverty, war and displacement, and finally arrived in the United States, with me in tow, in search of freedom, opportunity, dignity and accountability.”
Yovanovitch attended Princeton, where she majored in history and Russian studies. She joined the Foreign Service six years later, working as deputy director of the Russian desk before being posted to Canada, Russia, Great Britain and Somalia.
From 2001 to 2004, she worked as the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Ukraine, as second in charge to Herbst, before being named ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, then to Armenia. She returned to Ukraine after President Barack Obama nominated her to be ambassador in 2016.
She arrived in Kiev two years after Russia’s forced annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its continuing military intervention. As an envoy, Yovanovitch sought to reassure Ukrainian officials of U.S. support, while pushing them to root out widespread corruption.
“The old oligarch system is still clinging to life, and corruption is its life support,” she said in a speech in January to new graduates of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy. “Ukraine must continue to pursue economic reforms in line with European standards and fully empower all of its anti-corruption institutions.”
Some Ukrainian officials, including the country’s top prosecutor, bridled at the pressure from the U.S. ambassador.
In March, the prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, claimed that Yovanovitch had given him a list of people he should not prosecute. The State Department dismissed the statement as baseless and Lutsenko later recanted his claim.
But critics, led by Giuliani, accused her of working to undermine Trump’s interests. “The embassy in Ukraine was a ‘Hillary Clinton for president’ office. And they were looking to dig up dirt on President Trump,” Giuliani said. “There was a lot more collusion with Ukraine than in Russia, where there doesn’t appear to be any. They were trying to bring Trump down.”
As part of Senate confirmation hearings to ambassadorial posts, Yovanovitch reported that she made several small contributions to Democratic candidates in the early 2000s, but none more recently.
She returned to Washington in 2012 and 2013, serving as the State Department’s day-to-day contact with U.S. officials in Europe. Lee Feinstein, the U.S. ambassador to Poland at the time, recalled extended conversations with Yovanovitch about how to calibrate negotiations over missile development and a continuing U.S. military presence there.
“She was always the kind of person who was very, very supportive of her ambassadors and looking to help them do their jobs better,” said Feinstein, now dean of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Relations at Indiana University. “Never somebody who was trying to pursue her own agenda.”
Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The head of the Minneapolis police union delivered impassioned remarks prior to President Trump’s reelection rally Thursday night, praising him for championing the rights of law enforcement officials across the country, before being called up on stage later on in the night to be recognized by the president.
“We’re seeing a lot of red cop shirts out here tonight because of the hypocrisy,” Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, said at the “Keep America Great rally” at the Target Center in Minnesota. “They don’t want the police here when it’s a Republican who stands up for the police, but if it’s a Democrat we get a different story. Our cops are here as much as they could be in full force across the state.”
Kroll and other officers appeared at the rally in bright red “Cops for Trump” T-shirts, which Trump pointed to during the rally.
“I love you guys,” Trump said, giving Kroll a shoutout along with the rest of the police force before inviting him to join him and other union officers on the stage. “You are so great, so respected, you don’t even know how much our public loves you.”
“How can you thank this guy for everything he’s done for law enforcement? Wonderful president,” Kroll said in return.
Kroll also condemned Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who released a statement denouncing Trump’s visit to the city last week.
“Our entire city will not stand behind the president, but behind the communities and people who continue to make our city — and this country — great,” said Frey, a Democrat. “While there is no legal mechanism to prevent the president from visiting, his message of hatred will never be welcome in Minneapolis.”
“The mayor said the president wasn’t welcome but the Police Federation of Minneapolis begs to differ,” Kroll said as the crowd cheered.
Jon Schweppe told “Tucker Carlson Tonight” the NBA regularly allows its players to take politcal stances, but would not allow any free expression against the Chinese government in this particular case.
“I think it was done by someone up top,” he said of the decision to take the signs. “They don’t want to talk about it,” he said of Beijing’s alleged human rights abuses. “They’re afraid to upset their bottom line with China.”
During the interview, host Tucker Carlson wondered aloud how free expression could be restricted in Washington of all places.
“It’s Capital One Arena, we understand — we respect your freedom of speech,” the guard said. “We are just personally not having — we don’t have any stance on it, so we’re just asking any signed related to that not be in here tonight.”
At the game, after the Chinese national anthem was played, one person shouted: “Freedom of expression! Freedom of speech! Free Hong Kong!” A second person also shouted for a free Hong Kong from the second level during the second quarter of the contest.
Security guards at the Capital One Arena then confronted a fan holding up a “Free Tibet” sign and another holding up the Tibet flag. Security tried to take the sign, but the fan resisted and they walked away from their seats and were followed by security.
If the deal goes through, Porter will play Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Sony had no comment.
Cabello came on to the project in April with “Blockers” director Kay Cannon attached to helm and pen the script. Cabello will be involved in the music for the project, which grew out of an original idea from James Corden. The film will be produced by Corden and Leo Pearlman through their Fulwell73 banner.
The new “Cinderella” will be a music-oriented version of the traditional tale of the orphaned girl with an evil stepmother. Disney’s 1950 animated drama has received two live-action remakes: 1997’s iteration starring Brandy and Whitney Houston and Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 version with Lily James. The latter grossed $543 million worldwide.
Porter won his first Emmy in the lead actor in a drama series last month for his performance as Pray Tell on Ryan Murphy’s “Pose.” His stage credits include “Angels in America” and his Tony Award-winning portrayal of Lola in “Kinky Boots.”
Porter will return for the third season of FX’s “Pose” and will also appear next year in Paramount’s comedy “Like a Boss” opposite Tiffany Haddish, Salma Hayek and Rose Byrne. He is repped by CAA and Industry Entertainment.
Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang condemned the Chinese government’s decision not to broadcast two NBA preseason games Thursday, claiming that the Communist nation was mainly hurting its own people.
“The Chinese government banning NBA games because of a deleted tweet by a franchise employee is ridiculous,” Yang, the son of immigrants from Taiwan, told The Hill. “The main losers would be the Chinese fans who would find another way to watch the games. The NBA should feel confident in its position and stand up for the free speech rights of its employees.”
That support, expressed in a now-deleted tweet, caused a massive backlash in China, where state-run China Central Television (CCTV) said it would not air two exhibition games between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets. The outlet also took aim at NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who defended Morey’s right to free speech.
“We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said, according to The New York Times. “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.”
Others in the NBA have faced American criticism for their responses. ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann had scathing criticism for Rockets player James Harden after he apologized to China.
“The @NBA’s obsequiousness on this, from [Nets owner] @joetsai1999 to the smarmy league Statement on @dmorey to this Harden remark, is embarrassing beyond words. To stand up for the democratic freedoms we have here is to risk alienating those who would suppress them,” Olbermann tweeted on Monday.
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Kaepernick, 31, has been working out five days a week for three years in preparation to play again, according to the two-page document. So what has compelled him and his representatives to go this route?
As usual, Kaepernick is unavailable to field questions and clarify his position. Granted, his representatives suggest the document is necessary only because the news media has failed to do its job.
“There have been so many false narratives in the media regarding Colin,’’ the document reads. “We believe it is important to set the record straight, again. Nothing below is open for interpretation or debate, it’s the truth and nothing else.’’
“There have been so many false narratives in the media regarding Colin, we believe it’s important to set the record straight, again.” Please read this!! Don’t believe the lies being told about my brother .@Kaepernick7pic.twitter.com/n7J384bT96
The truth is, the news media has largely showered Kaepernick with praise since August 2016, when he first knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against African Americans and social injustice. But now, five games into the 2019 NFL season, Kaepernick is taking his case to the public because apparently he feels has no other choice.
His agent has reached out to all 32 teams “with little of no response from teams about an opportunity for Colin,’’ according to the document.
Fans might assume Kaepernick can’t play in the league because he filed a grievance against the NFL for alleged collusion. But, as the document points out, Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate, filed the same grievance — which was settled between the parties — and he now plays for the Carolina Panthers.
“Colin has the same skill set that many of the young mobile quarterbacks flourishing in the NFL right now,’’ reads the document.
True, indeed. Although Kaepernick is no longer young.
Many of the “false narratives’’ have been corrected or clarified long ago.
For example, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers after the 2016 season when the team told Kaepernick it planned to cut him. Not because the 49ers refused to meet any contractual demands.
The document also presents compelling statistical data showing just how effective Kaepernick was in 2016, when he was recovering from surgery on his right thumb, left knee and on his left shoulder. Of course that was nearly three years ago.
But here’s one bullet point not addressed in the statement: Kaepernick remains unemployed because he risked alienating the league and its fans with his protests. It was a noble thing to do, and the most obvious reason why he has yet to get an offer to return.
Surely there is no better unemployed quarterback on the planet. Kaepernick, after all, has 12,271 passing yards, a 4-2 record in the playoffs and, of course, a Super Bowl appearance.
But of his 72 passing touchdowns, there was not a game-winning Hail Mary among them.