A lesson from Watergate on the importance of seeking the truth
Missing piece to the Ukraine puzzle: State Department's overture to Rudy Giuliani
When I was a young journalist decades ago, training to cover Washington, one of my mentors offered sage advice: When it comes to U.S. intelligence and diplomacy, things often aren't what they first seem.
Those words echo in my brain today, as much as they did that first day. And following the news recently, I realize they are just as relevant today with hysteria regarding presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani's contacts with Ukraine's government.
The coverage suggests Giuliani reached out to new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's team this summer solely because he wanted to get dirt on possible Trump 2020 challenger Joe Biden and his son Hunter's business dealings in that country.
Politics or law could have been part of Giuliani's motive, and neither would be illegal.
But there is a missing part of the story that the American public needs in order to assess what really happened: Giuliani's contact with Zelensky adviser and attorney Andrei Yermak this summer was encouraged and facilitated by the U.S. State Department.
Giuliani didn't initiate it. A senior U.S. diplomat contacted him in July and asked for permission to connect Yermak with him.
Then, Giuliani met in early August with Yermak on neutral ground - in Spain - before reporting back to State everything that occurred at the meeting.
That debriefing occurred Aug. 11 by phone with two senior U.S. diplomats, one with responsibility for Ukraine and the other with responsibility for the European Union, according to electronic communications records I reviewed and interviews I conducted.
When asked on Friday, Giuliani confirmed to me that the State Department asked him to take the Yermak meeting and that he did, in fact, apprise U.S. officials every step of the way.
"I didn't even know who he [Yermak] really was, but they vouched for him. They actually urged me to talk to him because they said he seemed like an honest broker," Giuliani told me. "I reported back to them [the two State officials] what my conversations with Yermak were about. All of this was done at the request of the State Department."
So, rather than just a political opposition research operation, Giuliani's contacts were part of a diplomatic effort by the State Department to grow trust with the new Ukrainian president, Zelensky, a former television comic making his first foray into politics and diplomacy.
Why would Ukraine want to talk to Giuliani, and why would the State Department be involved in facilitating it?
According to interviews with more than a dozen Ukrainian and U.S. officials, Ukraine's government under recently departed President Petro Poroshenko and, now, Zelensky has been trying since summer 2018 to hand over evidence about the conduct of Americans they believe might be involved in violations of U.S. law during the Obama years.
The Ukrainians say their efforts to get their allegations to U.S. authorities were thwarted first by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, which failed to issue timely visas allowing them to visit America.
Then the Ukrainians hired a former U.S. attorney - not Giuliani - to hand-deliver the evidence of wrongdoing to the U.S. attorney's office in New York, but the federal prosecutors never responded.
The U.S. attorney, a respected American, confirmed the Ukrainians' story to me. The allegations that Ukrainian officials wanted to pass on involved both efforts by the Democratic National Committee to pressure Ukraine to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election as well as Joe Biden's son's effort to make money in Ukraine while the former vice president managed U.S.-Ukraine relations, the retired U.S. attorney told me.
Eventually, Giuliani in November 2018 got wind of the Ukrainian allegations and started to investigate.
As President Trump's highest-profile defense attorney, the former New York City mayor, often known simply as Rudy, believed the Ukrainian's evidence could assist in his defense against the Russia collusion investigation and former special counsel Robert Mueller's final report.
So Giuliani began to check things out in late 2018 and early 2019, but he never set foot in Ukraine. And when Ukrainian officials leaked word that he was considering visiting Ukraine to meet with senior officials to discuss the allegations - and it got politicized in America - Giuliani abruptly called off his trip. He stopped talking to the Ukrainian officials.
Since that time, my American and foreign sources tell me, Ukrainian officials worried that the slight of Giuliani might hurt their relations with his most famous client, Trump.
And Trump himself added to the dynamic by encouraging Ukraine's leaders to work with Giuliani to surface the evidence of alleged wrongdoing that has been floating around for more than two years, my sources said.
It is likely that the State Department's overture to Giuliani in July was designed to allay fears of a diplomatic slight and to assure the nascent Ukrainian administration that everything would be OK between the two allies.
The belief was that if Zelensky's top lawyer could talk to Trump's top lawyer, everything could be patched up, officials explained to me.
Ukrainian officials also are discussing privately the possibility of creating a parliamentary committee to assemble the evidence and formally send it to the U.S. Congress, after failed attempts to get the Department of Justice's attention, my sources say.
Such machinations are common when two countries are navigating diplomatic challenges, and, often, extracurricular activities with private citizens are part of the strategy, even if they are not apparent to the American public.
So the media stories of Giuliani's alleged political opposition research in Ukraine, it turns out, are a bit different than first reported. It's exactly the sort of nuanced, complex news development that my mentor nearly 30 years ago warned about.
And it's too bad a shallow media effort has failed to capture the whole story and tell it to the American public in its entirety.
It's almost as though the lessons of the now debunked Russia-Trump collusion narrative didn't really sink in for some reporters. And that is a loss for the American public. The continuing folly was evidenced when much attention was given Friday to Hillary Clinton's tweet suggesting Trump's contact with Zelensky amounted to an effort to solicit a foreign power to interfere in the next election.
That tweet may be provocative, but it's unfair. The contacts were about resolving what happened in the last election - and the last administration.
And if anyone is to have high moral ground on foreign interference in elections, Clinton can't be first in line. Her campaign lawyers caused Christopher Steele, a British foreign national desperate to defeat to Trump, to be hired to solicit unverified allegations from Russians about Trump as part of an opposition research project and then went to the FBI to trump up an investigation on Trump. And her party leaders, the Democratic National Committee, asked the Ukrainian Embassy to also try to dig up dirt on Trump. That's not a record worthy of throwing the first punch on this story.
The truth is, getting to the bottom of the Ukraine allegations will benefit everyone. If the Bidens and Ukraine did nothing wrong, they should be absolved. If wrongdoing happened, then it should be dealt with.
The folly of the current coverage is preventing us from getting the answer we deserve.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He serves as an investigative columnist and executive vice president for video at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @jsolomonReports.