President Donald Trump acknowledged this weekend that he discussed former Vice President Joe Biden and his son during a July phone call with Ukraine’s president, leading critics to question whether Trump is courting foreign interference ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Trump reportedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his potential 2020 opponent over an unsubstantiated claim that Biden blocked a Ukrainian investigation into his son’s business dealings in the former Soviet country. A whistleblower in the intelligence community reportedly said Trump urged Zelensky to work with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Biden’s son in exchange for “promises.”
The exact contents of Trump’s call with Zelensky remain hidden from the public since the White House has not released a transcript of the call, citing concerns that it could set a “bad precedent,” though Trump himself told reporters that he hopes “they release” the transcript.
Giuliani joined Trump’s personal legal team in April 2018 as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election heated up. Last week, Giuliani admitted he had asked Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden, simply stating, “Of course I did” after initially denying the allegation.
Today Giuliani couldn’t confirm whether or not Trump threatened to withhold $250 million in military aid for Ukraine during the call with Zelensky. But Trump himself alluded to the claim Monday, asking “why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters Sunday.
Although the incident has some critics alleging a quid-pro-quo between Trump and Zelensky, campaign finance experts say there may already be evidence of a campaign finance violation.
Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, wrote in Slate Monday that Trump may have violated campaign finance law with the call, given the value that an investigation into Biden and his son could bring the Trump campaign in the event of a 2020 clash.
Under federal law, campaigns are barred from accepting or soliciting a “thing of value” from foreign nationals or governments in connection with an election.
“Certainly, the Ukrainian government spending money to investigate the family of Trump’s potential challenger would be of immense value to Trump’s reelection campaign, and requesting such a probe would bring the foreign national solicitation ban into play,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center, told OpenSecrets in an email.
“But ultimately, whether the president might face liability for campaign finance violations is separate from whether the underlying conduct is an appropriate use of power,” he added.
This is not the first time the Trump campaign has come under investigation for soliciting help from a foreign government.
Mueller probed the Trump campaign’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya over promised “dirt” about Hillary Clinton. Mueller declined to prosecute members of the Trump campaign, arguing in his report that he couldn’t prove the information shared at the meeting had any value, and that he couldn’t prove the Trump team acted with “general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct.”
Campaign finance experts are concerned that Mueller’s reasoning could embolden Trump to solicit help from foreign powers. Trump created a media firestorm in June when he said he would accept damaging information about his 2020 opponent from a foreign government.
“It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” FEC chair Ellen Weintraub cautioned in a June statement. “This is not a novel concept. Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation.”
Unlawful in-kind contributions have landed Trump associates in hot water before. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is serving a three-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to an array of charges, including one that he violated campaign finance law by paying two women to keep their stories of alleged affairs with Trump from going public.
Giuliani’s foreign influence operations
Just before Zelensky’s win in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, a delegation of Zelensky campaign representatives orchestrated a secretive influence campaign during which they reportedly paid Trump International Hotel’s BLT restaurant $1,912 to dine with “around a dozen unknown others.”
Giuliani was one of the political players introduced to Zelensky’s rival in Ukraine’s presidential election, Yulia Tymoshenko, as part of another secretive lobbying operation funded by opaque shell companies and offshore accounts.
Some question Giuliani’s work for foreign clients while simultaneously serving as Trump’s personal attorney, saying it raises potential ethics issues and conflicts of interests.
In 2018, Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Giuliani’s work conducting “a number of political and public relations activities on behalf of foreign” interests may have triggered disclosure requirements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
In August 2018, a leaked letter from Giuliani’s global consulting firm to the president of Romania revealed that he was paid to “lobby” a foreign government for policies contradicting U.S. State Department policy. Giuliani confirmed the payment’s existence to Politico but has not disclosed the amount.
At the helm of Giuliani’s efforts to set up meetings with top Ukrainian officials were two Soviet-born businessmen, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas.
After years of maintaining lower profiles, Fruman and Parnas quickly ramped up their political activities and rose to prominence in Republican circles around Trump’s election, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns and groups. Like other operatives seeking to influence the administration, the Soviet-born businessmen became known for staying at the Trump International Hotel just blocks from the White House, and at one point even had a “power breakfast” with Donald Trump Jr.
Fruman and Parnas boasted of their close relationship with Trump’s personal attorney, according to court records. The Soviet-born businessmen introduced Giuliani to multiple Ukrainian officials and politicians in meetings revealed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Spanning across at least five countries, the meetings led them from Washington, D.C., to the Israeli office of a Ukrainian oligarch accused of multi-billion dollar fraud.
Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch recently returned to Ukraine following Zelensky’s election and is known for his reportedly close ties to Zelensky, told OCCRP that Fruman and Parnas asked him to help set up a meeting with Zelensky for Giuliani. Kolomoisky reportedly rejected the implication that he would act as a backdoor to Zelensky, however.
During an interview at Trump’s D.C. hotel, Parnas told Buzzfeed News the backchannel was initiated so Ukrainian officials could meet with U.S. authorities — and eventually led to Giuliani. “All we were doing was passing along information,” Parnas said, insisting the duo was not paid for facilitating the backchannel.
Fruman and Parnas’ significant political contributions thrust them into the spotlight due to the substantial cash flow suddenly materializing from relative obscurity and ongoing legal disputes over their business deals.
The two served as executives of a mysterious limited-liability company called Global Energy Producers LLC that was disclosed as the source of a $325,000 contribution to pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. The Soviet-born businessmen personally met with Trump in a closed-door meeting just weeks before the date of the six-figure wire transfer was made to the pro-Trump super PAC.
In June, court records revealed that America First Action may have attributed the $325,000 wire transfer to Global Energy Producers when, in actuality, the money was received from another limited-liability company run by Parnas and his wife. The apparent shell company, Aaron Investments I LLC, received a $1.2 million cash infusion just days earlier from a real estate lawyer specializing in money laundering law.
As Giuliani famously speculated about suspected hush-money payments to a former Playboy bunny in another Trump campaign scandal, “You just don’t do any form of an illegal tax or campaign-finance violation by check.”