The Incredible Danger of a Foreign Policy Based on Quid Pro Quos

Part 3 of “Everything I Learned from the Impeachment of Donald Trump”

As I followed the impeachment proceedings, I began to realize that Trump and his inner-circle were involved in a myriad of quid pro quos in Ukraine that show exactly the kind of transactional approach to foreign policy that Gordon Sondland characterized as Trump’s modus operandi, that Trump “is a businessman — when a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.” The quid pro quos that have been uncovered show how such a transactional approach is not only corrupt, but a risk to our national security.

As I described in Part 2, the Eastern European-American duo of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman plotted to remove U.S. Ambassador Yovanovich as part of a plan to export natural gas to Ukraine through sketchy backroom deals. Besides presenting a potential national security risk for Ukraine by forfeiting control of large parts of its natural gas sector, Parnas and Fruman’s plan also would have been hugely beneficial for Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who made his fortune as a middle man in the natural gas industry and who is very close to Putin. Parnas and Fruman’s plan included paying Firtash $200 million, and ultimately could have resulted in a windfall of more than $1 billion for the oligarch.

Considering it was Parnas and Fruman who connected Giuliani with the Ukrainian prosecutor who offered Giuliani the quid pro quo of dirt on Biden for the removal of Ambassador Yovanovich, it was also likely Parnas and Fruman who connected Giuliani to the oligarch Firtash, as Parnas and Fruman had both previously worked for Firtash, according to Reuters. The result was yet ANOTHER quid pro quo, where Giuliani appeared to promise to help Firtash with his ongoing extradition case by the U.S. Department of Justice in exchange for dirt on Biden. Lev Parnas, who was arrested in October and is facing federal campaign finance charges, claims that Firtash struck a deal with Giuliani in the summer of 2019 whereby Giuliani would help pressure the Department of Justice to drop its extradition request of Firtash on corruption charges in exchange for the oligarch providing evidence of wrongdoing by Biden.

In July, Firtash retained Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, a conservative husband-wife lawyer duo who are regulars on Fox News and personal friends of Giuliani. In August, the lawyers set up a meeting with Attorney General Barr to discuss Firtash’s extradition case. Around the same time, Firtash’s attorneys produced a sworn affidavit by the former Ukrainian prosecutor Victor Shokin stating that Firtash’s 2014 arrest on corruption charges had been politically motivated. The affidavit also curiously stated that Biden had removed Shokin because he was investigating Burisma and Hunter Biden. Shokin’s removal has nothing to do with Firtash’s case, and the inclusion of the meritless (as detailed in Part 1) Biden allegations in the affidavit would appear to represent the “quid” in the arrangement. However, Firtash ultimately did not receive his “quo;” in late September Democrats initiated their impeachment inquiry, Parnas and Fruman were arrested, and in October the DOJ stated that the extradition case against Firtash had “the support of department leadership.”

When the FBI discovered in December that a lawyer for Firtash paid Lev Parnas’ wife $1 million before Parnas’ arrest, the judge presiding over Parnas’ case noted that only $94,000 remained in the account 3 months after the transfer. That works out to over $10,000 per calendar day, which is far, far more than any legal fees Parnas could have incurred after his arrest. Was the money used in pursuit of Firtash’ extradition deal, or perhaps Parnas and Fruman’s natural gas deal that was also set to benefit Firtash?

If your head is spinning from all these different plots and schemes, hold on, because a federal grand jury has also indicted Parnas and Fruman in a scheme where an unnamed Russian funneled the pair money to donate to Republican politicians in an effort to obtain retail marijuana licenses, a charge supported by the audio recording from the April 2018 fundraiser where in addition to bad-mouthing Ambassador Yovanovich, Parnas encourages Trump to set up a non-partisan commission on federal marijuana policy so that Trump may improve his support among younger voters. There’s even a potential Putin angle to the pot plot: experts told Politico that the scheme’s secret Russian funding raises the prospect of an intelligence operation, with a former national security official saying that the growing legal cannabis industry is a “great angle to get intel hooks into people.”

What you’re left with is an incredibly confusing, tangled web of players, interests, and potential motives. Maybe the plot to oust Ambassador Yovanovich and exert control over large swathes of the Ukrainian natural gas industry while helping Firtash with his U.S. extradition was cooked up entirely by Firtash with no involvement from the Russian state. Maybe the marijuana deal is really just a story of some wealthy Russian marijuana investors risking everything to try and buy political influence. But if Russian state interests are behind much of this like I suspect, they would surely work to make everything as confusing as possible, obscuring any clear links or motives. They would want anybody trying to untangle this web to sound like Charlie from the famous It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia meme:

Whoever is behind the plots, it is extremely likely they were alerted to such opportunities by Trump planting a giant “For Sale” sign on official U.S. foreign policy with quid pro quos involving Giuliani in Ukraine dating back to 2017.

In August 2016 the emergence of a handwritten “Black Ledger” that showed illegal payments to Paul Manafort from Ukraine’s previous pro-Russian President forced Manafort to resign as the head of Trump’s campaign. Soon afterwards, the independent anti-corruption bureau in Ukraine (which Ambassador Yovanovich had strongly supported) began investigating the illegal payments, including those made to Manafort. Then, on June 7, 2017 Rudy Giuliani travelled to Ukraine and met with President Poroshenko and head prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko (the same prosecutor who in 2019 made the quid pro quo of Biden allegations in exchange for the removal of Yovanovich). There is no record of what was discussed at that meeting, but two days after Giuliani met with Lutsenko and Poroshenko, Poroshenko ordered the independent anti-corruption bureau to turn over the “Black Ledger” investigation to Prosecutor Lutsenko’s office, which promptly shelved it. Around the same time, Lutsenko helped a suspected Russian intelligence operative named Konstantin Kilimnik who had worked with Paul Manafort for years escape to Russia and out of the Robert Mueller investigation’s reach. Manafort had shared detailed polling data with Kilimnik during the 2016 campaign, and questioning Kilimnik was seen as crucial for understanding whether members of Trump’s campaign conspired with Russian operatives during the election.

What may have the Ukrainians received in return for these investigation-squashing favors? On June 20, 2017, Poroshenko finally got the official White House visit he had been trying to secure since January of that year (just a reminder: two years later Trump tried to condition newly elected President Zelensky’s White House visit on him announcing investigations into Biden). In addition, the Trump administration began negotiations over the Javelin anti-tank missiles that Trump loves to point to as proof that he’s a staunch supporter of Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Just weeks after the sale of the Javelins was finalized in March of 2018, Prosecutor Lutsenko announced that he was definitively ending the “Black Ledger” investigation that had been frozen by his office the previous summer following his meeting with Giuliani.

Before Trump’s impeachment, nobody seriously questioned whether Trump was using White House visits and foreign aid as quid pro quos to influence another country’s investigations for personal political gain. Now it appears that has been Trump’s modus operandi all along. If that’s the case, it’s fair to assume that Putin, Firtash, and other well-connected actors knew all about this tendency long before we in the general public did and knew that they could exploit it to advance their own interests. The reality that the President of the United States was clearly manipulated into removing a U.S. Ambassador for interests other than those of the United States should underscore the ridiculousness of the Republicans’ argument that Trump’s actions just represent “policy differences.” Opening yourself to manipulation at the expense of U.S. interests is not a “policy difference,” it’s a national security risk.

Check back tomorrow for part 4: Putin Is Messing With Everyone, Including Democrats And The FBI of my 5-part series “Everything I Learned from the Impeachment of Donald Trump.”

Riley Schenck is a politics junkie who has worked extensively on international development projects in Mexico

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