The Ukraine scandal engulfing Donald Trump’s presidency goes well beyond the core cast of characters at the heart of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
It’s now drawing in a duo familiar to anyone who has followed past Washington imbroglios: conservative lawyers and GOP operatives Joe diGenova and his wife, Victoria Toensing. And the scandal is beginning to reveal the opaque agendas of a pair of Ukrainian oligarchs whose legal troubles have led them to seek favors in Washington.
DiGenova and Toensing, who played major roles in the Bill Clinton dramas of the 1990s and resurfaced amid Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, have signed up to represent Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian gas magnate who currently resides in Vienna pending extradition to the U.S. to face bribery charges.
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Last year, the married lawyers were briefly expected to formally join Trump’s legal team to defend him in the special counsel’s investigation, but those plans were quickly scrapped due to conflicts of interest with their existing clients. The couple resurfaced, however, working in conjunction with efforts by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to dig up dirt on former vice president Joe Biden.
For Firtash — who is fighting extradition from Austria to the U.S. to face bribery charges — his involvement began at least as early as July, when he parted ways with Lanny Davis, the lawyer who guided Bill Clinton through a variety of investigations and now represents Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer who confessed to tax evasion, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress, among other crimes.
Firtash replaced Davis with Toensing and diGenova, a colorful and aggressive couple with a nose for scandal and skill at pushing a narrative through allies like John Solomon, the conservative columnist at the Hill who has been writing frequently about Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine and about Marie Yovanovitch, the veteran ambassador who was abruptly recalled in May amid attacks on her from Trump allies. DiGenova has gone on Fox News to attack Yovanovitch by name, claiming she had been privately telling others that the president was likely going to be impeached.
The couple also appeared in a packet of materials the State Department inspector general delivered to Congress on Wednesday, which Democrats described as unsubstantiated smears against Yovanovitch. The packet included a printout of an email Solomon sent to diGenova and Toensing, with a link to a column he wrote about Yovanovitch. The documents had been "distributed at the highest levels of the State Department," according to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Despite their hard partisan leanings, the couple are fixtures of a sort in Washington’s unique social scene. Last year, diGenova was invited to participate as a “ringer” in the exclusive Gridiron Club’s annual dinner, where he sang and played in various skits poking fun at the Trump administration, including one routine in which he played a lovelorn Kim Jong Un exchanging tender letters with the president.
Toensing, meanwhile, has been promoting Trump’s preferred narrative on television and social media. The New York Times reported in May that she had met with Yuriy Lutsenko, Viktor Shokin’s replacement as prosecutor general, and was planning to travel to Ukraine with Giuliani, though the trip was reportedly scrapped.
Like his predecessor, Lutsenko, who left his post in August, has been accused of corruption by Ukrainian reformers and Western officials. While still in his post, Lutsenko closed investigations into Burisma and its founder but then told Solomon in April that he possessed information related to the energy company that would be of interest to the Department of Justice. In an interview published on Sunday, he told the BBC that there was no reason to investigate the Bidens “according to Ukrainian law,” and that any investigation would be “the jurisdiction of the U.S.” He also told the L.A. Times he'd seen no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
It became clear that Toensing and diGenova’s PR efforts had intersected with their work for Firtash last week when an affidavit emerged that was signed by Shokin, the Ukrainian prosecutor general fired in 2016 at Joe Biden’s urging, and submitted on Firtash’s behalf to an Austrian court. At the time, it was the position of Western governments and institutions like the International Monetary Fund that Shokin should be removed, and by all accounts Biden was just representing the official U.S. position.
Recently, Shokin has been claiming that Biden pressured Ukraine’s government to fire him because the then-vice president’s son Hunter sat on the board of a natural gas company that Shokin’s office had been investigating — the same narrative that Toensing and diGenova have been pushing, but which the Biden camp adamantly denies.
In 2013, the Justice Department accused Firtash of bribing Indian officials as part of a racketeering scheme aimed at gaining approval for a titanium mining project in that country. Firtash is an “upper-echelon” associate of Russian organized crime, according to a 2017 Justice Department court filing. He told a U.S. ambassador of his consultations with the notorious Russian mob boss Semion Mogilevich, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, though Firtash has denied it.
Shokin’s new affidavit claims that Biden improperly pressured the government of Ukraine to prevent Firtash from entering Ukraine — from which he could not be legally extradited — and links those claims to his previous allegations about the motivations behind Biden’s role in his firing. Biden’s representatives have said his son’s board position played no role in his official actions and pointed out that Western leaders had long wanted Shokin fired over his reluctance to pursue corruption investigations, including those targeting Burisma and its owner.
But Shokin’s move to speak up on behalf of Firtash has further undermined his credibility in the eyes of observers in the U.S. and Ukraine, who already viewed his campaign against Biden as the vendetta of a corrupt bureaucrat.
As the founder of RosUkrEnergo, Firtash acted as a middleman between the Russian and Ukrainian national natural gas companies, and allegedly played a central role in a corrupt scheme to use the profits from reselling cheap Russian gas to fund pro-Russia political forces in Ukraine.
Firtash worked with Paul Manafort on an abortive effort in 2008 to redevelop a New York hotel for $895 million. Firtash also reportedly played a role in Manafort’s 2005 hiring as a consultant to the Party of Regions, the pro-Russian political party of which Firtash was a major backer.
John Herbst, who served as ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush, said the association with Firtash undermines the entire effort by Trump allies to push for investigations of the Bidens and alleged Ukrainian election interference. "The Giuliani team does not understand Ukraine. If it did, members of his team would not be representing Dmytro Firtash, perhaps the most odious oligarch in Ukraine,” said Herbst, now director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. “Shokin’s defense of Firtash underscores that he was never and is not today a fighter against corruption.”
“It’s preposterous,” said Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukraine expert and former president of the pro-democracy NGO Freedom House, of the story laid out in the affidavit. Pointing to Firtash’s Kremlin ties, he said, "There is now a distinct possibility of a Russian hand in all this.”
DiGenova said he was in meetings in Vienna — where his client Firtash is awaiting extradition — and did not respond to questions.
And Firtash isn’t the only Ukrainian oligarch with big legal problems who now faces questions from investigators: On Monday, the House Oversight Committee demanded documents and communications related to influential billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky as part of its subpoena of Giuliani.
The involvement of Kolomoisky and Firtash complicates the already mind-boggling array of factions and agendas that form the backdrop of the Ukraine scandal. Because both face potential criminal liability in the U.S., both have reason to align themselves with Trump and try to ingratiate themselves to the president’s allies, according to Ukraine experts.
But the exact nature of Kolomoisky’s role in this saga isn’t yet clear. The billionaire owns the television network, 1+1, on which actor Volodymr Zelensky starred in a television show that catapulted him to political prominence. Kolomoisky — embroiled in a bitter feud with Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko — also became Zelensky’s biggest backer in his successful bid to unseat Poroshenko and claim the presidency this spring.
Kolomoisky allegedly stole billions of dollars from his bank, PrivatBank, before it was nationalized by Ukraine in 2016, according to a lawsuit filed in Delaware by the bank’s new leadership. How much influence he will yield in Zelensky’s government is one of the biggest questions hanging over the new president’s administration.
Another important question is what Kolomoisky might be seeking from Trump.
This spring, two Florida-based, Soviet-born businessmen who are aiding Giuliani’s effort traveled to Israel, where Kolomoisky has been holed up while he faces legal jeopardy in the U.S. and Ukraine.
Kolomoisky told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a consortium of investigative journalists, that the businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, approached him about a natural gas venture, but they instead used the meeting to seek an audience for Giuliani with Zelensky. Kolomoisky said he refused the request, while Giuliani has claimed that Kolomoisky defamed Parnas and Fruman.
But there is more to Kolomoisky’s role in this saga beyond an apparently unpleasant meeting. Kolomoisky, who is known for his bravado, has been claiming to have damaging information on the Bidens, according to people familiar with the situation.
"He's been floating that out for quite a while, to keep himself relevant to the whole discussion, and he would also like to ingratiate himself to Trump," said Ken McCallion, an attorney who brought a federal suit that was later dismissed against Firtash over the alleged natural gas scheme on behalf of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. "He's been kind of cryptic and cute about it,” said McCallion, who remains in close touch with contacts in Ukraine. McCallion indicated Kolomoisky was claiming to have information about both Bidens, “the father and the son."
Another person familiar with Kolomoisky’s claims said the oligarch was claiming to possess valuable information in order to gain leverage in an FBI investigation of him underway in Ohio that is reportedly focused on possible financial crimes.
A lawyer for Kolomoisky, Mike Sullivan at Ashcroft Law Firm, did not respond to requests for comment. In May, Kolomoisky told the Kyiv Post that he has committed no crime and that any federal probe will “result in nothing, as usual.”
While Kolomoisky’s connection to the saga counts as a twist, for close Ukraine watchers, it hardly comes as a surprise. "Kolomoisky is a person who gets involved in every issue,” said Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “He loves fighting, and he has an extraordinary capability to get into the details and be effective in the worst fashion."