Opinion | Judiciary

Could Robert Mueller actually be investigating Ukrainian collusion?

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The news that special counsel Robert Mueller may complete his work as early as next week has sent Washington into what Victorian women called "vapors." For Republicans, the fear is that the report will build a case for criminal conduct that could be the basis for an indictment later but an impeachment now. For Democrats, the fear is that the report will fall short of delivering on proof of Russian collusion. The anticipation of the report was heightened by the shocking statement by former FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe that President Donald Trump could be a "Russian asset."

In this twilight moment, the mind races in anticipation. However, the most fascinating element may not be the role of Russia but the role of Ukraine. To be sure, Russia occupies part of Ukraine, wants sanctions lifted over its occupation of Crimea, and works through connections there. Russia was open about its desire to address those sanctions imposed by Congress, reaching out to Republicans and Democrats. There is nothing wrong in such an effort. Likewise, there was nothing wrong with former national security adviser Michael Flynn talking sanctions with Russian diplomats as part of the transition. The crime was his lying about those conversations.

Russia may have preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton. Indeed, it may have viewed his election as wickedly destabilizing for the United States and its allies. Yet, that could well be the extent of the purpose of the operation. But what is remarkable is how all investigative roads seem to lead to Kiev, not Moscow, in terms of key figures. It raises the question of whether Russian hacking efforts in the American election in 2016 were little more than what they seem as a clumsy leak and trolling operation.

So far we have seen no direct connection between the Russians and the Trump campaign as part of a conspiracy to hack the computer systems of the Democrats. We do have is a lot of connections to Ukrainians, along with a lot of money. When the FBI pulled back the curtain from the sordid dealings of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, they found Ukrainians aplenty. Manafort was connected to Ukrainian politician Serhiy Lyovochkin and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, among others, and received at least $60 million for his work. While some of these individuals favored Russia, their main interest was to maintain power and profits in Ukraine. Manafort struggled to satisfy them even as his connections drew attention and, ultimately, resulted in his being dismissed from the Trump campaign.

The special counsel recently persuaded a federal judge to toss out the cooperating witness agreement with Manafort because he allegedly lied about meeting and sharing polling data with Ukrainian oligarch Konstantin Kilimnik, who has reported ties to Russian intelligence. A second incident allegedly involved meeting Kilimnik in 2016 to discuss a possible Ukrainian peace plan. Mueller told a federal court that Manafort continued working for such Ukrainian interests even after he was indicted, and documented wire transfers of millions of dollars from both Lyovochkin and Akhmetov.

Manafort worked primarily for the interests of notorious former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was responsible for corruption, alleged murders of protesters, and arrests of opponents. Before Yanukovych fled to Russia, he accumulated a reported estimated net worth of $12 billion. His flight was why Manafort became desperate for money and reached out to Trump for the campaign job. Manafort associate Rick Gates, now a cooperating federal witness, told friends that in every Ukrainian ministry, Manafort "has a guy" and referred to his work as a "shadow government."

One of the most interesting disclosures from the Flynn investigation was a meeting in New York with Ukrainian politician Andrey Artemenko, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and Trump business associate Felix Sater. Shortly before Flynn resigned, these figures were working on a deal in which sanctions against Russia would be lifted in exchange for Russia leasing Crimea for 100 years while recognizing Ukrainian sovereignty over that region. Cohen is tied to Ukraine in other ways. He was introduced to Trump by his father in law, Fima Shusterman, a naturalized American citizen from Ukraine. Cohen also ran a taxi medallion business with his business partner, the "taxi king" Simon Garber, who was born in Ukraine.

United States attorneys for the Southern District of New York opposed leniency for Cohen because they believe he withheld evidence of criminal conduct. Notably, the Southern District of New York was not investigating the Russian conspiracy. It was investigating the myriad criminal dealings of Cohen, including the taxi medallion business set up by Shusterman.

Trump and his counsel, Rudy Giuliani, have now suggested that Cohen is protecting his father in law. Giuliani alleged that Shusterman may have ties to "something called organized crime" in the Ukraine. Shusterman was charged over moving at least $20 million into Chicago to help finance his taxi operation and pled guilty to a criminal count in that investigation, which raised issues of possible money laundering and tax evasion. The recipients of the money were two business people born in Ukraine who were both identified in the FBI search warrant leading to the Cohen raid.

Bryan Cohen, brother of Michael Cohen, also has Ukrainian connections. Remember that meeting with Ukrainians to get a deal on Crimea? The motivating force behind it was said to be Alex Oronov, a naturalized American who ran a huge business in his native Ukraine. Bryan Cohen worked for Oronov and married his daughter. In 2016, Bryan Cohen still eviently worked for the Ukrainian company Grain Alliance, which paid at least $7 million into an limited liability company registered at his home. Oronov died not long after the backroom dealings were made public.

Other collateral figures with Ukrainian connections have come up in the documents of the special counsel investigation. At least two major public affairs firms had been allegedly paid by the European Center for a Modern Ukraine to help the government that supported Russia. They were listed as "Company A" and "Company B" in the Manafort and Gates indictments.

These Ukrainian connections continued into the inauguration of Trump. Mueller investigated roughly a dozen Ukrainians who came to Washington to promote a peace deal with Russia, as well as multiple Ukrainians who attended the inaugural festivities. This had also included an investigation into whether "illegal foreign lobbying related to Ukraine" occurred and whether Ukrainian government agents "used straw donors to disguise donations to the inaugural committee." With all of these figures weaving their ways through the investigation, we could find Mueller discovering more evidence of Ukrainian collusion rather than of Russian collusion.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

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