By David L. Stern
Jan. 30, 2021
The Washington Post
KYIV — There was a consistent message from Ukraine’s leadership over everything from the Trump campaign’s dirt digging to the country’s central role in the first impeachment proceedings: No comment.
But now, as the Biden administration settles in, some close allies of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are opening up about one of the longest-running dramas from the Trump era — the blitz of meetings, messages and public statements in Ukraine by former president Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Among the accounts emerging from Ukrainian officials is a July 2019 phone call between Giuliani and Andriy Yermak, formerly one of Zelensky’s top aides and now his chief of staff. Yermak said the conversation was the first direct contact between Giuliani and the Zelensky administration and, until now, was only discussed in general terms.
The new disclosures from Kyiv do not offer any bombshell revelations about Giuliani’s dealings. But they help fill in some blanks on his frantic — and unsuccessful — quest to press Ukraine to make statements seen as potentially helpful to the Trump reelection bid.
Giuliani’s overall goal, according to the accounts, was to have Zelensky’s government validate the Trump campaign’s unsupported claims — including that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, engaged in corrupt dealings in Ukraine and that Biden, when he was vice president, attempted to cover it up.
Giuliani, saying he was acting on the president’s behalf, also was promoting a false narrative that the Ukrainian government colluded to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election against Trump — an unproven claim that sought to deflect attention from Russia’s interference in the campaign.
Ukraine’s willingness to discuss Giuliani’s forays comes at a difficult time for the former New York mayor, as he faces mounting personal battles, including a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems over alleged false claims about ballot rigging in the 2020 election.
Giuliani did not respond to a list of questions sent to him and also conveyed through his lawyer. Kurt Volker, who, in his role as special envoy to Ukraine, was also on the call with Yermak, but declined to comment.
The Zelensky team’s decision to talk about Giuliani’s tactics coincides with efforts for a reset in U.S. relations under President Biden, who dealt closely with Ukraine during his eight years as vice president. “We’ve gotten through all these trials, despite criticism at home and abroad,” Yermak said. “And today, this feeling that Ukraine — the mention of Ukraine — is associated with various scandals should disappear.”
Giuliani’s tone and actions during his dealings with the Ukrainians were “aggressive and threatening,” said one Zelensky insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. But the Ukrainians, he said, steadfastly refused to “play ball.”
The accusations against Biden centered on his son, Hunter, and his previous position on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which is under investigation for alleged corrupt dealings. Trump and his allies claimed, without evidence, that Joe Biden, then vice president, used his clout to end the investigations.
Ukrainian investigations into Burisma and its founder, Mykola Zlochevsky, are ongoing. But authorities say that none of the cases involves Hunter Biden. A Senate report in September described the younger Biden’s position at the company as “problematic” but found no wrongdoing by Joe Biden.
Giuliani’s pressure began almost from the moment of Zelensky’s election in April 2019. The former New York mayor planned to travel to Ukraine the following month. But Giuliani canceled at the last moment, claiming that Zelensky was surrounded by “enemies” of Trump. That set off concerns in Zelensky’s inner circle that Giuliani would poison Zelensky’s relations with the White House. In July 2019, Yermak asked Volker to introduce him to Giuliani in an effort to clear the air.
The Ukrainians needed U.S. diplomatic and financial muscle to bolster them in their ongoing battles with Kremlin-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
“Until we were 100 percent certain that Rudy was the go-to guy, and nothing would happen without him, we were trying to avoid him as much as possible,” said Igor Novikov, who served as an adviser to Zelensky until August and was a member of the team tasked with responding to U.S. overtures during the Trump administration. “But then toward the end of June, we realized that we couldn’t achieve anything with Trump without talking to Rudy first,” Novikov said.
To that end, Volker set up an introductory phone call on July 22, 2019, between himself, Yermak and Giuliani, according to Volker’s testimony during the 2019 impeachment proceedings. Novikov, unknown to Giuliani and Volker, sat next to Yermak and took notes.
Volker mentioned the phone call briefly in his testimony, saying that it was short and that he did not remember any discussion of Ukraine. Novikov, however, said the call lasted more than 40 minutes, during which Giuliani spelled out what he wanted.
The Giuliani wish list, according to Novikov: Zelensky would publicly announce the launch of investigations into Burisma and allegations that Ukrainian officials conspired to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections. “Just let these investigations go forward, get someone to investigate them,” Novikov recalled Giuliani saying. Furthermore, Giuliani wanted a public statement from Zelensky “at the right time” saying that he supported the investigations. It would “clear the air really well,” Giuliani said, according to Novikov’s notes. According to Novikov, Giuliani told the Ukrainians that Zelensky should “be careful” of the people surrounding him or he could find himself “in trouble.”
Ukrainian officials believe Giuliani later played a key role in setting up the July 25, 2019 call in which Trump asked Zelensky to “do us a favor.” The call became the centerpiece of the House impeachment later that year. Trump later was acquitted by the Senate.
“Trump took the phone call because Rudy said Zelensky would say the right things,” said the official involved in the Ukrainian discussions. “But the Americans’ tone changed after the call. Trump apparently didn’t hear what he wanted to hear.” After the phone call, Giuliani ratcheted up his efforts to get the Ukrainians to open investigations.
In early August 2019, Giuliani and Yermak met in Madrid, according to testimony at the impeachment hearing later that year. Also present was Lev Parnas, an associate of Giuliani’s who is now under federal indictment for campaign finance violations and wire fraud. He has pleaded not guilty. “In Madrid, Rudy was like a confident mobster, with a smirk and a smile,” Parnas said in an interview. “He was like, ‘We don’t care, you need this more than we do.’ ”
Yermak, however, said that Giuliani did not pressure him in Madrid and that Burisma was mentioned only briefly. In the meantime, the Ukrainians found out from American news reports that $250 million in U.S. military aid had been put on hold.
Members of Zelensky’s team contemplated giving Giuliani and Trump what they desired, and considered having Zelensky announce the investigation during a planned interview with CNN. Some advisers objected strongly, however, and the announcement was canceled. “Can you imagine what would have been the reaction one second after that interview?” said Oleksandr Danyliuk, the former head of Zelensky’s security council. “Zelensky would be looked upon as a toy, as a soft toy — not as a president. Nobody would have respected him.”
Some Zelensky aides now say it was a mistake to open channels with Giuliani. But Ukraine’s rebuff of the demands, said Novikov, was a victory in keeping the country out of U.S. affairs. “Without our actions to push back,” he asserted, “the U.S. presidential race would have been very different.”