As the public phase of Trump’s impeachment process finally begins, it seems clear that Democrats are focused like a laser on Trump’s bribery and extortion of Ukraine and are seemingly determined not to let that focus stray from that core impeachable crime, whether the distractions come from the President, House Republicans, or even fellow Democrats. That is certainly an understandable approach to making the public case for Trump’s impeachment, although many, myself included, believe that not providing a full airing of Trump’s impeachable crimes is a disservice to the country and our future. The larger story, however, is that Trump’s bribery and extortion of Ukraine for his personal benefit is simply a continuation and a reprise of how Trump and his campaign corrupted the 2016 election.
Roger Stone’s ongoing trial has made clear a couple of important points that the Mueller report and Attorney General’s Barr’s misrepresentation largely obscured. First, Rick Gates has now publicly testified under oath that the Trump campaign certainly believed that Roger Stone was in contact with Wikileaks, which itself was just a front for the Russian intelligence operation that had hacked the DNC emails, and that the campaign based its strategy around those document releases. Steve Bannon’s testimony also confirmed Gates’ assertions, stating that the campaign viewed Stone as their “access point” to Wikileaks. Gates also testified that Stone called Trump personally to inform him that a new Wikileaks’ dump would be forthcoming, a call that Trump apparently lied to Mueller about in his written answers. Testimony also shows that Stone was in continual contact with members of Trump’s campaign throughout 2016.
So, the Trump campaign certainly thought they were colluding with Wikileaks and, by extension, the Russians. But we will never know whether, using Stone as their intermediary, they actually were. That is simply because there has been no full investigation into whether Stone actually was in contact with Assange. Stone’s current trial is about whether he lied to Congress and, as the judge noted, none of the counts Stone is charged with require a determination of whether he was actually in touch with Assange or who he might have potentially used to communicate with Assange. Similarly, as emptywheel notes, Mueller limited his investigation to contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, writing that he only considered whether there was any “agreement-tacit or express-between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference”. Since Stone was not an official member of the campaign and Wikileaks was still technically not treated as a strictly Russian entity by the US government, it appears the Mueller never followed the path of Stone’s potential contacts with Wikileaks to a full conclusion. The same could be said about Mueller’s seeming lack of interest in why Paul Manafort believed that passing internal polling data to Konstantin Kilimnick would relieve his millions of dollars of debt with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
The fact that these remarkable and damaging details regarding Stone’s constant interaction with the Trump campaign regarding Wikileaks was largely left out of the Mueller report in order not to damage the case against Stone raises the question of why Mueller shut down his investigation while important cases were still ongoing. As the Politico article notes, “All of the details coming out of the Stone trial has also added to a long-standing mystery around the wider Mueller probe. Why did it close shop back in April when a trial loomed later in the year? ‘If he [Mueller] had waited until these facts became public,’ [former US Attorney] McQuade said, ‘the reaction to the report would have been very different’”.
Yet, in the weeks before the 2016 election, it appeared that even the collusion with Wikileaks and the Russians would not be enough for Trump to win the election. The final push, as multiple subsequent analyses have indicated, was the decision by James Comey to announce the “reopening” of the Clinton email investigation because of the discovery of the Abedin emails. The decision to make such an announcement before even analyzing whether any of the data was new, which turned out not to be the case, was a critical blow to the Clinton campaign. And Comey has admitted that he felt pressure to make that statement because he was sure the New York FBI office, which he previously described as having a visceral hatred of Clinton, would leak the story anyway. In fact, Rudy Giuliani had been hinting that a bombshell was coming, telling Fox News “We got a couple of surprises left…And I think it’ll be enormously effective.” Giuliani has a long history and strong relationships with the NY FBI office due to his tenure as a US Attorney and Mayor of New York. In addition, Giuliani was working closely with former senior agent James Kallstrom who was previously the head of the NY FBI office, was rabidly anti-Clinton, and was also hinting that damaging information about Clinton would come out shortly. In addition, the FBI agents investigating Anthony Wiener’s sexting sat on the fact that they had uncovered those Abedin emails for weeks before informing Comey and FBI senior management. That delay not only forced Comey to make his decision a week before the election but also prevented the analysis of those emails, which turned out to be duplicates, from being completed until just hours before voting began.
As with the questions left unresolved by the Mueller report, similarly the questions of what was really going on in the NY FBI office and the potential leaks to Giuliani have not been answered. The DOJ Inspector General has reportedly opened an investigation into those leaks but that investigation has seemingly gone dark. It is doubtful that Attorney General Barr would allow the report to see the light of day at this point.
All this, as they say, is water under bridge. But the extortion of Ukraine is just Trump’s and Giuliani’s attempt to replay in 2020 their successful corruption of the election in 2016. Giuliani was going to be providing the damaging investigation against Biden just as he did with the Abedin emails that sank Clinton. Trump and Giuliani initially wanted the Ukrainians to not even actually begin the investigation of the Bidens but to simply make a public announcement stating such. If that announcement was not enough to derail the Biden campaign, then you can be sure there would be another subsequent demand from Trump and Giuliani to force the Ukrainians to make some cryptic announcement about “findings” of that investigation.
For Trump, in addition to damaging his domestic political opponent for 2020, the Ukrainian extortion also provided an opportunity for him to relitigate the 2016 election. Demanding that Ukraine also investigate Clinton and the 2016 election was designed to allow Trump to deny the collusion his campaign at least thought they were engaging in with the Russians in 2016. It relies on the confluence of some insane and disproven conspiracy theories about Ukraine, Democrats, and the 2016 election. One strand is that the Ukrainians conspired with the Clinton campaign to damage Trump by inventing the payments to Manafort that forced him out as Trump’s campaign manager and provided opposition research against Trump. The second strand is that there was never really a hack of the DNC servers. Rather the Podesta emails were released purposely as part of a plot between the Democrats and the Ukrainians, abetted by the FBI, in order to blame the Russians and damage Trump. Part of this theory also claims that one of the DNC servers is now physically located in Ukraine as part of the coverup of the attack on Trump and Russia.
Divining Trump’s rationale for extorting Ukraine to pursue this batshit theory is difficult. It could be he actually believes it. It could just be another attempt to assuage his well known insecurity about his victory in 2016, providing another talking point that there was no collusion and that the Democrats were the ones conspiring against him. More likely, the theory provides a rationale for pardoning Manafort, the man who still sits in jail and knows more about the Trump campaign’s actual collusion during 2016 than anyone else. More importantly, by pretending the DNC hacking never occurred and was only a story floated by Ukraine, it absolves Russia from interfering in the 2016 election and therefore provides the basis for lifting the sanctions on Russia, paying Putin back for all his help in 2016. Of course, it could be combination of all of the above.
Lastly, it seems very likely that the extortion of Ukraine actually began as another attempt to obstruct the Mueller investigation. In November, 2017, over Trump’s objections, Congress approved the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine. But the delivery of those missiles was not finalized until May, 2018, just a few weeks after the then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko effectively shut down cooperation with the Mueller investigation. In addition, according to piece over at TPM, it appears that Trump and Giuliani already had a deal in place with Poroshenko to trade a White House visit for a Biden investigation. That deal went out the window when Poroshenko lost re-election in April, forcing Giuliani and Trump to scramble to extort the new President Zelensky.
Democrats want to keep the story simple. Trump withheld congressionally authorized taxpayer funds from a foreign government under attack from Trump’s favorite despot and our supposed enemy, Vladimir Putin, in order extort that country to investigate Trump’s most threatening political opponent in an attempt to once again tilt the upcoming 2020 election in his favor. Impeachment is necessary because we can not rely on the upcoming election which the President has already tried to tamper with.
The larger story is that Ukraine is merely a continuation of what the Trump campaign did in 2016 and includes a similar cast of characters — Giuliani and Manafort-connected Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs. They were relying on foreign help in 2016 and were attempting to line up similar foreign interference in 2020, using the same tactic they had used to get Ukraine to stop cooperating with Mueller and thereby obstruct justice. Rudy Giuliani orchestrated the critical attack against Clinton in 2016 and was attempting to do the same to Biden for 2020. The Trump administration has been a continuous reel of criminality and probable impeachable conduct and the Ukraine extortion is actually just a small, but incredibly important, part of that. For the sake of simplicity and politics, Democrats have chosen to focus on just a snapshot from that movie, the extortion of Ukraine, in the current impeachment hearings.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on November 14, 2019.