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Latest Trump-Ukraine scandal reveals there is plenty of blame to go around

Trump’s new scandal is damaging for both Democrats and Republicans, writes Taras Kuzio in an op-ed for NEE.

September 26, 2019 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and CommentaryHot Topics

Photo by White House (CC) https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/48795660898/

The overwhelming majority of media reports on the new scandal surrounding US President Donald Trump have focused on only one part of the issue; namely, that of him tying the supply of military aid in exchange for Ukraine supplying “dirt” on the Biden family (former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden). In fact, there are at least four aspects to this scandal. In addition to Trump, these include Washington consultants monetising politics, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office as a market place to buy your way out of criminal charges and an energy minister under kleptocrat former President Viktor Yanukovych cleaning up his international image.

Trump and his sidekick, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have never given straight answers as for what they were asking. Appearing on CNN on September 20, Giuliani first denied he had been seeking dirt on the Bidens and then admitted it – all in the same programme and within the frame of a few minutes. Trump has done the same, first denying he had raised the Bidens in his conversations with newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and then admitting he had raised them eight times.

A pattern has obviously emerged of procrastination and subterfuge followed by humbling admittance which is commonly found with populists in the post-modern world we live in. Just take a look at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson being told by the Supreme Court he had lied.

In the de-classified memo of  Trump’s conversation with Zelenskyy the US president said “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 so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great … “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.” There is no evidence that Vice President Joe Biden bragged about closing a criminal investigation and Trump also gets it wrong saying “I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor.”

Prosecutor Viktor Shokhin was not a “good guy” – he was terrible. The US, European Union and the IMF had been demanding his replacement for a long time. Zelenskyy may have been trying to be diplomatic when he replied: “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned.”

Trump (as is usual) takes this scandal further by familiar claims of moral superiority and being ignorant about international relations. Trump, like many, is quick to point the finger at corruption in Ukraine. While corruption is certainly an issue in Ukraine, the country does not need to be lectured about this by America’s most corrupt president in history who has always sought to sidestep the law. The US has long sent military assistance to many corrupt countries, such as Pakistan, Egypt and others and even fought a long and bloody war as South Vietnam’s ally.

Trump like all narcissists believes he knows it all and does not need to read anything and therefore claimed he was withholding military assistance because it was time Europeans also helped out. This is one of Trump’s favourite themes that America is getting “screwed”. In fact, he is wrong as Canada, the United Kingdom, Poland, Lithuania, NATO and others have long provided military assistance to Ukraine. The EU alongside international financial institutions is a major provider of financial and technical assistance to Ukraine.

Trump has often called where he lives the Washington swamp, but both Republicans and Democrats see it in partisan ways which prevents it from being drained. Political consultant and now jailbird Paul Manafort hired both Republicans (former National Endowment for Democracy President Vin Weber) and Democrats (Anthony Podesta, former US President Barack Obama’s legal counsel Gregory Craig), for PR work to improve Yanukovych’s image and denigrate his most feared opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko.  

In becoming a consultant to a corrupt Ukrainian gas company Hunter Biden became part of the Washington swamp and therefore this inevitably rubbed off on the Bidens. Hunter Biden, who was never an expert on energy, received 50,000 US dollars per month for consultancy work with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, probably due to the fact that his father was Vice President of the US. That is why the consultancy ended when Obama left office.

Alex Frishberg of the Frishberg & Partners firm in Kyiv told the Wall Street Journal “the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act could prove problematic for a US firm to hire the son of a high ranking Ukrainian official if there is evidence that such employment amounts to giving a bribe to the parent related to a particular transaction. On the other hand, Ukraine has no restrictions whatsoever (legal or ethical) on a Ukrainian company hiring a son of a high-ranking US official. This is perfectly legal due to the absence of any applicable Ukrainian laws.” Frishberg continued: “The environment seems particularly welcoming if the father of such an American happens to be the sitting Vice President of the United States and has been specifically tasked with leading US policy in the foreign locale.”

Was this immoral? Was there was a conflict of interest? Probably yes, on both counts.

As reported in the Washington Post, a newspaper that is not on Trump’s small pile of daily reading materials, Hunter Biden’s appointment “looks nepotistic at best, nefarious at worst”. Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer said that the lack of due diligence in the Vice President’s office was surprising as Hunter Biden’s employment by Burisma “undercut that message of anti-corruption”. And one might add the influence of US soft power. Investigative journalist Oliver Bullough, author of Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take It Back asked in the Guardian: “Hunter Biden is an undistinguished corporate lawyer, with no previous Ukraine experience. Why would a Ukrainian tycoon hire him?”

A third point is that there is no evidence to show that Vice President Joe Biden pressured Ukraine’s prosecutor to drop a criminal investigation into Burisma. Why? Because there was never any investigation! Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office has never completed a single criminal investigation into the nearly three decades of Ukrainian independence as it exists to protect elites, not to prosecute them.

Founded in 2006 and registered in Cyprus – a haven for tainted Russian and Ukrainian money – Burisma is the third largest gas producer in Ukraine, controlling a quarter of private gas production. It was not viewed by the Ukrainian government as a legitimate gas company because its president Mykola Zlochevskyy was a minister in a Yanukovych government and it had close ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskiy. Burisma’s British lawyers denied the company was corrupt and claimed Zlochevskyy made his money before entering government. Bullough though wrote, “It is true that Zlochevsky was a wealthy man before 2010. Burisma’s website makes clear that the periods when it has performed best have consistently coincided with the high points in its owner’s political career.”

Burisma was placed under criminal investigation and 23.5 million dollars of the company’s assets were frozen in the UK following an investigation into money laundering of 35 million dollars through Latvian banks and the Virgin Islands tax haven. Investigations by Bullough and the Anti-Corruption Action Center showed how Zlochevskyy and Burisma got away scot free. Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office failed to supply a London court with the necessary documents. Indeed, “no matter how much we pushed the investigators, it was not effective,” then deputy prosecutor Vitaly Kasko (recently appointed first deputy prosecutor in Zelenskyy’s new government) said.

Ukrainian prosecutors failed to send the UK SFO (Serious Fraud Office) the evidence it needed to maintain the freezing order. Kasko recalled: “First the British wrote to me, then the Americans, with questions about what was happening with the investigation.” The SFO told Bullough, “We are disappointed we were not provided with the evidence by authorities in Ukraine necessary to keep this restraint order in place.” Even more damaging was Justice Blake’s 21-page judgment making reference to half a dozen times to a December 2nd 2014 letter signed by someone in the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office that Zlochevsky was not suspected of any crime.

Zlochevskyy was home free and Burisma now needed to clean up its international image. It hired former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski as the director of the Burisma board who has, like many a European statesman, hired himself out to anybody and everybody irrespective of if they are unscrupulous. Kwasniewski had been earlier hired by Manafort for the “Hapsburg Group’” to promote Yanukovych’s international image while at the same time he was an EU emissary seeking the release of Ukrainian political prisoners. Now that is creative consultancy!

Burisma also began making donations to US think tanks. Such donations are a major loophole which do not require registration under the Department of Justice’s Foreign Agent Registration Act. One of these donations went to the Atlantic Council’s very active Ukraine programme where fierce anti-Trump critic Anders Aslund is a well-known expert.

John Herbst, a former Ambassador to Ukraine and head of the Atlantic Council’s Ukraine programme, was quoted in a press release issued by Burisma “that they have been ‘good partners’ and is not concerned about corruption allegations.”

This scandal tells us nothing new about Trump being immoral as he had encouraged Russia to hack the 2016 US elections to find dirt on his opponent Hillary Clinton which is why commentators are saying the current scandal is worse than the Mueller Russia probe. Seeking dirt on his new opponent Joe Biden is therefore a product of his “ends justifies the means” approach to politics and life. We also knew Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office is a bordello, but we hope that Zelenskyy will clean it up. FARA rules need to be tightened to include foreign donations to US think tanks. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats should stop their navel gazing and take a good hard look at themselves because until they do so, they will not escape from the Washington swamp and Americans will continue to lose trust in their democratic institutions. And that would be bad for America and bad for the democratic world.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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