After nearly three years and millions of tax dollars, the Trump-Russia collusion probe is about to be resolved. Emerging in its place is newly unearthed evidence suggesting another foreign effort to influence the 2016 election — this time, in favor of the Democrats.
Ukraine’s top prosecutor divulged in an interview aired Wednesday on Hill.TV that he has opened an investigation into whether his country’s law enforcement apparatus intentionally leaked financial records during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign about then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in an effort to sway the election in favor of Hillary Clinton.
The leak of the so-called “black ledger” files to U.S. media prompted Manafort’s resignation from the Trump campaign and gave rise to one of the key allegations in the Russia collusion probe that has dogged Trump for the last two and a half years.
Ukraine Prosecutor General Yurii Lutsenko’s probe was prompted by a Ukrainian parliamentarian's release of a tape recording purporting to quote a top law enforcement official as saying his agency leaked the Manafort financial records to help Clinton's campaign.
The parliamentarian also secured a court ruling that the leak amounted to “an illegal intrusion into the American election campaign,” Lutsenko told me. Lutsenko said the tape recording is a serious enough allegation to warrant opening a probe, and one of his concerns is that the Ukrainian law enforcement agency involved had frequent contact with the Obama administration’s U.S. embassy in Kiev at the time.
“Today we will launch a criminal investigation about this and we will give legal assessment of this information,” Lutsenko told me.
Lutsenko, before becoming prosecutor general, was a major activist against Russia’s influence in his country during the tenure of Moscow-allied former president Viktor Yanukovych. He became chief prosecutor in 2016 as part of anti-corruption reforms instituted by current President Petro Poroshenko, an ally of the U.S. and Western countries.
Unlike the breathless start to the Russia collusion allegations — in which politicians and news media alike declared a Watergate-sized crisis before the evidence was fully investigated — the Ukraine revelations deserve to be investigated before being accepted.
After all, Ukraine is dogged by rampant corruption. It is a frequent target of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dirty tricks. And it is a country that, just last year, faked a journalist's death for one day, reportedly to thwart an assassination plot.
But the chief prosecutor, a member of parliament and a court seemingly have enough weight to warrant serious scrutiny of their allegations and an analysis of the audio tape.
Furthermore, the mystery of how the Manafort "black ledger" files got leaked to American media has never been solved. They surfaced two years after the FBI investigated Manafort over his Ukraine business activities but declined to move forward in 2014 for lack of evidence.
We now have strong evidence that retired British spy Christopher Steele began his quest in what ultimately became the infamous Russia collusion dossier with a series of conversations with top Department of Justice (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr between December 2015 and February 2016, about securing evidence against Manafort.
We know the FBI set up shop in the U.S. embassy in Kiev to assist its Ukraine/Manafort inquiry — a common practice on foreign-based probes — while using Steele as an informant at the start of its Russia probe. And we know Clinton’s campaign was using a law firm to pay an opposition research firm for Steele’s work in an effort to stop Trump from winning the presidency, at the same time Steele was aiding the FBI.
Those intersections, coupled with the new allegations by Ukraine’s top prosecutor, are reason enough to warrant a serious, thorough investigation.
If Ukraine law enforcement figures who worked frequently with the U.S. embassy did leak the Manafort documents in an effort to influence the American election for Clinton, the public deserves to know who knew what, and when.
Lutsenko’s interview with Hill.TV raises another troubling dynamic: The U.S. embassy and the chief Ukrainian prosecutor, who America entrusts with fighting corruption inside an allied country, currently have a dysfunctional relationship.
In our interview, Lutsenko accused the Obama-era U.S. embassy in 2016 of interfering in his ability to prosecute corruption cases, saying the U.S. ambassador gave him a list of defendants that he would not be allowed to pursue and then refused to cooperate in an early investigation into the alleged misappropriation of U.S. aid in Ukraine.
Lutsenko provided me with a letter from the embassy, supporting part of his story by showing that a U.S. official did in fact ask him to stand down on the misappropriation-of-funds case. “We are gravely concerned about this investigation for which we see no basis,” an embassy official named George Kent wrote to the prosecutor’s office.
The State Department on Wednesday issued a statement declaring that it no longer financially supports Lutsenko’s office in its corruption-fighting mission and considers his allegation about the do-not-prosecute list “an outright fabrication.”
My reporting, however, indicates Lutsenko isn’t the only person complaining about the U.S. embassy in Kiev.
Last year, when he served as House Rules Committee chairman, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) wrote a private letter asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to recall the current U.S. ambassador, alleging that she made disparaging statements about President Trump.
The ambassador “has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current administration in a way that might call for the expulsion” of America’s top diplomat in Ukraine, Sessions wrote.
Such dysfunction does not benefit either country, especially when Russia is lurking around the corner, hoping to regain its influence in the former Soviet republic.
Investigating what's going on in the U.S. embassy in Kiev, and whether elements in Ukraine tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election to help Clinton, are essential steps to rebooting a key relationship.
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