Ukraine scandal shows that foreign influence is a bipartisan affair

Ukraine scandal shows that foreign influence is a bipartisan affair
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As the media show renewed interest in the involvement of both President Trump and former Vice President Biden — and Biden’s son Hunter — in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, it’s worth asking: Was the U.S. 2016 election a surrogate battle between Russia and Ukraine?

The question isn’t new, just overlooked. Much emphasis has been given to Russia’s involvement – one cannot accurately say it has been underreported – but we have largely ignored the Ukrainian question. That’s despite hard facts linking Ukraine to multiple attempts to interfere in or influence the campaign for the benefit of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE.

The suggestion was explicitly put into the public forum as early as January 2017 by David Merkel, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Merkel told Politico that Russia and Ukraine, now mortal enemies, took opposite sides in the U.S. presidential race — each presumably banking on the idea that they would be better off with their chosen candidate, in terms of influence and U.S. aid.

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“Now, it seems that a U.S. election may have been seen as a surrogate battle by those in Kiev [Ukraine] and Moscow [Russia],” Merkel said.

Politico’s investigation nearly three years ago found that: 

These findings would doubtlessly be considered alarming and scandalous if only the name “Trump” were substituted for “Clinton,” and “Ukraine” for “Russia.” Yet the information garnered little more than a ho-hum from the media.

There’s more.

As I reported in an investigation for my television program, "Full Measure," both Russia and Ukraine have dumped big money into influencing our conversation, politics and debate here in the U.S.

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Foreigners are barred from directly giving money to American politicians and political parties. But a legal way around that uses well-connected middlemen in the U.S. — public relations firms and lobbyists, acting as foreign agents. More than 15,000 foreign entities, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, are on record as having hired high-priced U.S. lobbyists and consultants.

I analyzed Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records going back to 2012 and found at least a half-dozen interests from Russia and 19 from Ukraine turning to high-priced U.S. PR consultants and lobbyists. Here are a few examples that I uncovered in those FARA records.

  • Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and energy mogul Oleg Deripaska all hired the U.S.-based Endeavor Law Firm for business and policy advice. Deripaska paid Endeavor $3.5 million. 
  • Russia’s nationalist political party, Rodina, hired Global Strategic Communications Group, which says it arranges interviews, news stories and op-eds in national newspapers.
  • After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Russian banks sought to fend off U.S. sanctions. One paid $45,000 a month, split between a U.S. lobbyist and a reputation-management firm.
  • Another Russian bank split more than $760,000 between U.S. corporate law giant Sidley Austin and Clinton-connected lobbyists Andy and Mike Manatos.
  • In 2016, after a doping scandal, Russia was allowed to participate in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics after the Russian group Top Sport shelled out $7,000 for positive PR from the U.S. firm Burson-Marsteller.
  • Ketchum Communications got $17.2 million from Russia over less than three years to arrange good press for Russian oil and gas company Gazprom, and $7.1 million to publicize President Putin’s speeches, arrange helpful media interviews and operate social media accounts and the website ThinkRussia.com. (Ketchum even got the New York Times to publish an op-ed signed by President Putin.)

But as much as the Russians have spent pulling strings in the U.S., I found its adversary Ukraine has been equally, if not more, aggressive — especially after Russia’s invasion.

The one foreign tie you might have heard about — after Ukraine sought to make it a headline in the U.S. — is that of former Trump campaign officials Manafort and Rick GatesRick GatesJury set to begin deliberating in Stone trial Roger Stone won't testify as defense prepares to rest case The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems, GOP dig in for public impeachment hearings MORE. In 2012 their clients were Ukraine’s pro-Russia president at the time, Viktor Yanukovich, and his political group. Manafort connected them to lobbyists Tony Podesta, a Democratic heavy-hitter, and ex-Congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.). After special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSpeier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' Comey: Mueller 'didn't succeed in his mission because there was inadequate transparency' MORE began investigating, the four lobbyists all denied wrongdoing but disclosed their work under the Foreign Agents Registration Act retroactively.

Manafort reportedly collected more than $17 million in 2012 and 2013. He was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison. Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements. Neither Podesta nor Weber were charged by the special counsel. 

Back to the current question that has piqued national interest. It can be summed up by saying: Some people want an investigation into an alleged whistleblower's (or leaker’s) claims that President Trump asked (or demanded) that Ukraine’s current president investigate Vice President Biden’s self-described demand that Ukraine's president at the time fire an allegedly corrupt prosecutor who happened to be digging into a company connected to Biden’s son — or lose $1 billion in U.S. aid. (The prosecutor was fired.)

Those are pretty narrow questions. Maybe we should step back and look at the bigger picture. Maybe the real issue is that significant foreign influence in our politics, unlimited money, is considered perfectly legal as long as the work is registered under an arcane Department of Justice website. The problem could be that this influence can actually blur into the sort of interference that is supposed to be illegal and prohibited. 

And it may explain a lot about why our news is saturated with certain themes, while others are ignored: When we examine these matters through a partisan lens, it may benefit politicians and the politically connected – just as the foreign influencers wish – but it could well be damaging the rest of us. 

Sharyl Attkisson is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times best-sellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.” Follow her on Twitter @SharylAttkisson.