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The Other Quid Pro Quo Scandal in Ukraine

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Since the Ukraine scandal broke open in September, a narrative has set in: President Donald Trump was using Ukraine’s president to influence American politics. Last week, a new narrative came into focus: A Ukrainian prosecutor was trying to use Trump to influence Ukrainian politics.

In the first story, Trump is the instigator of a corrupt bargain, attempting to enlist Ukraine’s new president in a plot to influence the 2020 election. A cascade of witnesses from Trump’s own government has supported this version of events, saying Trump wanted to withhold military aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.

The other story has received less attention but is just as scandalous. A corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor was trying to enlist a close adviser to Trump to fire an ambassador who threatened his position and standing. This story revolves around Trump’s decision to prematurely end the term of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was sent to Kiev in 2016 and left her post in May. Testimony released last week suggests that Yovanovitch was smeared and fired because Ukrainian general prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who left his own post in August, had a vendetta against her.

In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, George Kent, the State Department’s Ukraine expert, said Lutsenko enlisted former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his campaign against Yovanovitch. According to Kent, Lutsenko provided Giuliani with information on Yovanovitch “in hopes that he would spread it and lead to her removal.”

Giuliani told the New York Times that when he met with Lutsenko last spring in New York, “He didn’t say to me, ‘I came here to get Yovanovitch fired.’” But he nevertheless surmised that’s what Lutsenko wanted.

The question is why. According to Giuliani, Lutsenko had been blocked from getting his information — such as his claim that Yovanovitch had given him a “do not prosecute” list of individuals — to proper U.S. officials. Yovanovitch and other witnesses have denied this claim, and she has also said she encouraged Lutsenko to seek meetings with the FBI and Justice Department through the bureau’s legal attaché in Kiev.

The ambassador has an alternative theory for why Lutsenko wanted her fired. “I think that he felt that I and the embassy were effective at helping Ukrainians who wanted to reform,” she testified. Yovanovitch said Lutsenko initially promised to clean up the powerful office of the general prosecutor, saying he would prosecute the people who fired on protesters who forced former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych out of office in 2014. Lutsenko also promised to try and recover more than $40 billion stolen by Yanukovych and his cronies.

Yet over time, Yovanovitch said, Lutsenko proved unwilling or unable to pursue those goals even as she pressed him to do so. “We continued to encourage him,” she said. “And I don’t think he really appreciated it.”

All of this gets more intriguing in light of last month’s indictment of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Ukrainian Americans, for illegal campaign contributions to Republican candidates through front companies. Parnas enlisted Giuliani in a consulting firm with the unfortunate name of “Fraud Guarantee.” This week it was reported that Giuliani was paid $500,000 for his role in the venture by a Republican donor based in Long Island.

The indictment of Parnas and Fruman says they sought to use their political influence to further the interests of a foreign official, reported to be Lutsenko. One of the beneficiaries of their political donations, former Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, was an early advocate for firing Yovanovitch.

So there appear to be at least two quid pro quos in the Ukraine scandal. The first is Trump’s effort to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. The second is Lutsenko’s effort to get Trump to fire Yovanovitch. Giuliani is in the middle of both. Says Alina Polyakova, a Ukraine expert at the Brookings Institution: “He was using his influence with the president to try to get his clients what they wanted, while at the same time getting the president what he wanted.”

Some of this is attributable to weaknesses in American law and politics. The law Congress created to force Americans to register as foreign agents when they represent a foreign country or business went largely unenforced for 50 years before Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. And Trump distrusts the experts in his own government, instead relying on the counsel of foreign policy amateurs like Giuliani.

Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine scandal, it has already laid bare a bitter irony: Official U.S. efforts to make Ukrainian politics less corrupt were stymied by a campaign to make American politics more like Ukraine’s.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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