President Trump still insists the phone call to Ukraine’s president that sparked impeachment proceedings against him was about corruption.
That’s true, but not the way he meant it. Not only did Trump’s call corrupt the White House — by trying to strong-arm Ukraine into providing dirt on a political rival — but the call actually encouraged corruption in Kiev.
Anticorruption activists in Kiev tell me that Trump, and emissary Rudy Giuliani, sided with corrupt prosecutors in an effort to defame Joe Biden and to pursue debunked conspiracy theories. Moreover, they say, Trump’s claims that Biden shut down a “very good” prosecutor in order to protect his son Hunter are totally false.
“Giuliani and Trump paid tribute to very corrupt prosecutors who were undermining reforms,” says Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the nonprofit Anticorruption Action Centre, based in Kiev. “These were very, very bad guys whom we were fighting hard.”
Kaleniuk is a young lawyer who spent a year in Chicago on a Fulbright scholarship “learning how to use my legal background to help my country.” She started her NGO before Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014, which helped oust a corrupt president backed by Russia. Since then, her center has focused on recovering assets stolen by corrupt politicians, with aid from the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the United States.
So she laughs when asked about Trump’s charge that Biden forced out prosecutor general Viktor Shokin because he was investigating Burisma, a gas company on whose board Hunter Biden sat. On the contrary, she says, Shokin showed “no interest” in prosecuting Burisma, and refused even to send evidence to a British court investigating the company.
As early as 2015, U.S. officials had wanted Shokin removed and investigated, partly because of obstruction in the Burisma case.
“Everyone knew he was corrupt and protecting a corrupt system,” she says. “It was the consensus of international agencies and anticorruption groups. He was intimidating reformers in his office.” As for Biden’s threat to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Shokin wasn’t fired: “We were applauding Biden for doing that.”
Although Hunter Biden’s position on Burisma’s board looks swampy (as do the efforts of Ivanka Trump and her brothers to cash in on their father’s position), he broke no laws. And Hunter’s dad did nothing to help Burisma. On the contrary, Biden tried to oust the corrupt prosecutor who was preventing any investigation into the firm.
Kaleniuk says Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, proved equally dirty, feeding Giuliani’s conspiracy theories about Biden and about U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
However, Lutsenko now says Biden did nothing dishonest. So Giuliani has turned on the man he met frequently and praised as “honest.” He now calls Lutsenko corrupt, but still praises Shokin.
What disturbs Kaleniuk terribly is the efforts of Trump and Giuliani to manipulate Ukraine’s legal system, and to press the country’s president to do the same.
“When they urged Zelensky to interfere in the Prosecutor General’s office, that is the opposite of what we have been calling for,” says this pro-democracy activist. “Law enforcement has to be independent of political interference. That is the only way to guarantee rule of law, which is essential to get the foreign investment we need.“
She felt relief when Zelensky rejected such interference. “But he could not say no completely. He fears losing military aid.” In the glare of bad publicity, the administration has promised more such aid, but who knows at what price to Ukraine’s democracy.
Indeed, Trump and Giuliani are still arm twisting Zelensky to investigate Trump’s wild, crazy, conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, intervened in the 2016 election on behalf of the Democrats. Trump’s first homeland security adviser, Thomas Bossert, says he warned the president repeatedly that there was no basis to this theory, but says Trump wouldn’t listen.
“Absolutely, this harms Ukraine,” Kaleniuk says. “Already it has posed serious damage. We are forced by Giuliani to pick sides. If you say yes, you are an enemy to the Democrats. If you say no, you are an enemy to Trump.
“For us, military aid from the United States is existential [to defend against Russian aggression]. Political support is existential. Bipartisan support is existential. Now all three are under danger.”
Kaleniuk, an idealist who looked to America’s democracy as an example, says she “feels very disappointed that U.S. democracy and its institutions are being tested.” She hopes the American people “will protect their institutions.”
“You have to fight to protect democracy,” she warns. “Many in the West take it for granted, but we learned in Ukraine that you have to fight for institutions and values. When you stop, it regresses.”