GOP fantasies about Ukrainian election ‘interference’ blow up Trump’s impeachment defense


Republicans continue to deflect from President Trump’s impeachable conduct by claiming that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Like a litany of right-wing conspiracy theories – from absurd allegations of Obama administration “spying” on Trump to blatant falsehoods regarding the origins of the FBI’s counterintelligence probe of his campaign – a closer look at the GOP’s Ukrainian “interference” claims shows them to be little more than fact-starved feats of mental and verbal gymnastics. 

For starters, an exhaustive 2017 investigation by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee found no evidence of a nefarious Ukrainian government plot to interfere in the election. Despite their own findings, the GOP’s diversionary, conspiracy-mongering smoke screen continues apace. 

In continually pointing to Ukrainian “interference” in the 2016 election, Republicans are parroting Russian propaganda intended to divert attention from Moscow’s sweeping psychological influence operation to skew the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. More importantly, they also blow up the notion that Trump halted security assistance to Ukraine because of “genuine” concerns about corruption in Ukraine, Trump’s primary impeachment defense.

Corruption has long plagued Ukraine. In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, fed up with rampant state graft and bribery, rose up and overthrew the hopelessly crooked, Russian-aligned government in Kyiv. One of the key figures in that government was Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman (and current felon serving a seven-and-a-half year federal prison sentence).

Manafort, in essence, encapsulates Ukraine’s long history of corruption. Before taking the top job on the Trump campaign, Manafort served as a highly paid consultant to the crooked, Moscow-allied Ukrainian president brought down by anti-corruption, pro-democracy protestors. Manafort’s unsavory role in that government was laid bare by his own daughter, who accused him of direct involvement in a series of deadly government crackdowns on the civilian protestors. According to her, Manafort received “blood money” from the former Ukrainian government. Trump, apparently, had no qualms hiring him to run his 2016 campaign.

Despite the long legacy of corruption in Ukraine, there is reason for optimism. A generation of Ukrainians is keeping the spirit of the 2014 revolution alive by going on the offensive against rampant state graft. Serhiy Leshchenko, a journalist and former member of the Ukrainian parliament, is perhaps the best-known figure in this growing Ukrainian anti-corruption movement. 

Facing death threats and deadly attacks, Ukrainian patriots like Leshchenko work tirelessly – and fearlessly – to root out and expose bribery and graft in their country. And we can thank Leshchenko’s dedication to exposing government malfeasance for bringing Manafort’s corrupt activities in Ukraine to light. 

Leshchenko was instrumental in exposing a series of illegal, under-the-table payments by the former, pro-Russian Ukrainian government to a long list of Ukrainian politicians and political operatives, including Manafort. Contrary to right-wing conspiracy theories, Leshchenko’s documents were seen as credible by the FBI and the Department of Justice, which used them as evidence in a search warrant for Manafort’s property. Moreover, Leshchenko’s disclosures were considered credible by the State Department, which, along with America’s NATO allies and the International Monetary Fund, has long sought to assist Ukraine root out endemic corruption. 

But instead of praising Leshchenko’s exposure of government malfeasance and encouraging more Ukrainians to follow suit, Republicans continue to question the documents’ credibility. Worse, they disingenuously argue that exposure of a litany of corrupt payments (the remittances to Manafort represented a small fraction of the larger, corruption-soaked list) amounted to Ukrainian “interference” in the 2016 election.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, even went so far as to label Leshchenko – a fearless Ukrainian patriot seeking to rid his country of corruption – an “enemy of the United States,” while simultaneously engineering the ouster of a widely-respected American ambassador with a laser-like focus on assisting Ukraine root out systematic graft and bribery. Such shameful, purely politically-motivated actions by Trump’s lieutenants and GOP defenders only serve to weaken vitally important Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts. As such, Republican claims that Trump was concerned about corruption in Ukraine – a key defense in ongoing impeachment proceedings – are absurd.

Beyond Leshchenko’s anti-corruption work, a Democratic National Committee contract employee was alarmed by rampant corruption in her ancestral homeland. Beginning in 2014, Alexandra Chalupa began digging into Manafort’s corrupt Ukrainian dealings, occasionally meeting with staffers from the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, D.C., who – as the Republican investigation found – were careful to avoid direct involvement in U.S. domestic politics. Of note, the DNC did not direct Chalupa’s personal inquiries into Manafort’s illegal dealings in Ukraine. More importantly, despite hysterical right-wing conspiracy mongering, Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee investigators interviewed Chalupa in 2017 and, finding no evidence of a Ukrainian plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, declined to follow up.

Ultimately, if Trump’s “anti-corruption” impeachment defense were based on fact, he would have stopped his top lieutenants and cheerleaders from undercutting and sidelining the most effective voices against corruption in Ukraine. But he didn’t. Instead, he sent his personal lawyer to discredit a top anti-corruption journalist and elevate some of the most corrupt voices in Ukraine for domestic political gain. Perhaps worse, Trump removed a respected career diplomat and dedicated corruption crusader from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. In short, Trump’s own actions cause his primary impeachment defense to collapse entirely. 

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.

Tags Corruption in Ukraine Donald Trump Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign impeachment international monetary fund Paul Manafort Paul Manafort Rudy Giuliani Serhiy Leshchenko Trump–Ukraine controversy Ukraine UKRAINE RUSSIA

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