President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, pressed the Trump administration to grant a visa to a former Ukrainian official who had been removed from his job because of concerns he was not aggressively pursuing corruption cases.
But senior State Department officials denied the visa for Viktor Shokin, who had been booted as Ukraine’s top prosecutor in 2016 following pressure from the West, including from then-Vice President Joe Biden, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
His visa was denied on corruption grounds, officials said.
Giuliani requested the visa around January this year, according to the testimony of George Kent, a career diplomat interviewed behind closed doors this week by three House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump over his dealings with Ukraine, said one of the officials.
"One of the significant aspects of this was there was no debate about this anywhere in the Trump administration," said the official, spaeaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a closed session. "Because it came from Giuliani you can imagine it wasn't just the desk officer making the decision."
Indeed, a second official said, the decision to reject the visa was made by "the political leadership" of the State Department. Giuliani appealed to the White House but the denial was not reversed, Kent said, according to officials.
An attorney for Kent declined to comment.
The visa rejection was first reported by CNN on Friday evening.
Giuliani told The Washington Post on Friday he was really upset that Shokin couldn't get a visa but declined to say whether he had anything to do with the effort. "He had people helping him," he said. "I'm not going to tell you more than that."
The revelation is but the latest reflection of how Giuliani has sought to operate a shadow foreign policy from outside the government, attempting to sideline traditional policy-makers — including political appointees — to achieve political goals favorable to the president.
Giuliani has figured prominently in a campaign to pressure Ukraine's new president, Volodomyr Zelensky, to take actions that would undermine Biden, a potential political rival of Trump in 2020. Those include an effort, revealed by a whistleblower in a complaint made public last month, by Trump in a July phone call to cajole Zelensky to reopen a dormant investigation into a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, on whose board Biden's son, Hunter Biden, once sat.
Shokin has aided Giuliani’s effort, alleging in an affidavit last month that the reason he was removed as prosecutor general — and why Biden wanted him gone — was that he was investigating Burisma for corruption.
In fact, U.S. and European officials have said that the investigation into Burisma was dormant at the time of his firing and that Shokin was generally not pursuing corruption aggressively and needed to be removed.
Giuliani also has sought the removal of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled in May before her tour was over. Her ouster outraged many at the State Department, and Yovanovicth, who is on leave at Georgetown, testified last week that her departure came as a direct result of pressure Trump placed on the State Department.
According to a partial transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky, Trump also pressed the Ukrainian president to look into whether Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election — apparently picking up on a widely discredited theory pushed by Giuliani that a computer server belonging to the Democratic Party was in Ukraine.
Trump dangled the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in military and foreign assistance and of a White House meeting as leverage in his conversation with Zelensky, according to the whistleblower and documents that have since corroborated the whistleblower's account.
This week, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged in a press conference that Trump had in fact withheld nearly $400 million in aid because he wanted Ukraine to investigate Democrats.
"Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server?" Mulvaney said. "Absolutely, no question about that. But that's it, and that's why we held up the money."
Mulvaney later backtracked on Thursday saying there was no "quid pro quo."
In an interview in late September, a Giuliani associate, Lev Parnas, said he had helped connect Giuliani to Shokin late last year, after learning that Giuliani was interested in Ukraine. Parnas was arrested last week along with a business partner, Igor Fruman, and charged with campaign finance violations.
Parnas said in the interview with The Post, which took place prior to his arrest, that Giuliani had first invited Shokin to come to the United States for a meeting — a plan that was thwarted when Shokin learned that the United States would not extend him a visa. Instead, Giuliani and Shokin spoke via Skype in January.
But Parnas said Giuliani had been upset when Shokin could not accept his invitation due to the visa issue.
"He's been here before. Never had a problem traveling. All of a sudden he goes buys a ticket, and our State Department denies the visa," Parnas said. "That's when the problems began. I'm not going to get into what transpired afterwards. But basically it was looked into. State took a very serious approach and until this day, his visa has not been approved."
Parnas went on to say that he believed that then-ambassador Yovanovitch had played a role in denying Shokin his visa — and that distress over that decision may have contributed to Giuliani’s support for efforts to remove her from her post. In his indictment last week, prosecutors alleged that Parnas had advocated for her ouster at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.
"I think very much so," he said, when asked if the ambassador had played a role in the visa denial. "That's why I think the ambassador's not there."
Officials stressed that the denial was made on the merits by State Department leadership. "It was particularly galling that this guy was trying to come here," said one official. "The department said no."