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With the bombshells over President Trump's effort to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue false corruption allegations against leading Democratic challenger Joe Biden flying fast and furious, the biggest kaboom of all is getting lost -- that the roots of the Ukraine scandal, the underlying reason for Trump's forthcoming impeachment, began with a search for dirt that might provide the pretext and political cover for him to pardon his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, a twice convicted and now imprisoned casualty of the Russia scandal.
Investigative reporting veteran Murray Waas, using previously unexamined documents, concludes in a riveting New York Review of Books takeout that attorneys representing Trump and Manafort had at least nine conversations relating to the dirt-gathering effort beginning in the early days of the Trump administration and lasting until as recently as May of this year. Trump personal lawyer and fixer Rudy Giuliani, who is deeply implicated in the Ukraine scandal, was a key player in those conversations.
Manafort exhorted the White House through his lawyers to press Ukrainian officials to investigate and discredit individuals, both in the U.S. and in Ukraine, who he believed had published damning information about his political consulting work over a 10-year period for Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Vladimir Putin Ukrainian president who fled the former Soviet satellite republic to Moscow in 2014.
That consulting work, while not directly related to Russia's interference in the 2016 election with the Trump campaign's involvement, resulted in Manafort's conviction on eight felony counts, including money laundering and tax and mortgage fraud. He is serving a 47-month prison setence.
New information . . . suggests that these two, seemingly unrelated scandals, in which the House will judge whether the president’s conduct in each case constituted extra-legal and extra-constitutional abuses of presidential power, are in fact inextricably linked: the Ukrainian initiative appears to have begun in service of formulating a rationale by which the president could pardon Manafort, as part of an effort to undermine the special counsel's investigation.The records reviewed by Waas also indicate that Giuliani, in communications with Manafort's legal team, originally intended to push a narrative that the Democratic National Committee, Democratic donors, and Ukrainian government officials had "colluded" to defeat Trump in 2016.
The narrative has been repeatedly debunked, although that has not prevented Trump, Giuliani and conservative media surrogates from repeatedly pushing it.
Giuliani himself has acknowledged that while pursuing that failed narrative he stumbled upon the business dealings of Biden's son, Hunter, in Ukraine and consequent creation of the also debunked allegation that Biden, while Barack Obama's vice president, pushed for the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating the energy firm with whom Hunter Biden did business. Waas writes that what Giuliani has not said is that this was part of an overall effort to pursue Manafort's enemies in Ukraine in the service of a possible presidential pardon.
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The Biden narrative became the underpinning of Trump's now exposed abuse of presidential power.
Trump repeatedly tried to extort Zelensky, who is a Putin foe, to investigate the leading Democratic challenger for the presidency by holding back nearly $400 million in aid from this U.S. ally to fight Russian aggression, and to share whatever he found with Attorney General William Barr. All that is laid out in detail in the devastating report of an intelligence community whistleblower that also implicates Giuliani, Vice President Pence and Barr, who did nothing about a criminal referral to his Justice Department by the intelligence community inspector general based on the report and attempted to cover up both the referral and complaint.
On May 10, Trump recalled to Washington Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, an unnoticed early warning sign of the mischief Trump and Giuliani were working.
Yovanovitch's dismissal was attributed at the time to the belief of Republican conservatives that she was not doing enough to help Trump, but the records reviewed by Waas show that Giuliani believed that the ambassador had attempted to undercut his covert Ukraine activities.
Trump's dangling of pardons for Manafort and Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney and fixer, and others who might provide damaging testimony against the president have been widely reported and were noted in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's final report on his Russia scandal investigation.
The communication pipeline between Manafort's lawyers and the White House, nominally protected by a so-called joint defense agreement, also has been widely reported and stemmed from Manafort's hopes that Trump would pardon him. As part of a plea bargain in which Manafort admitted to additional crimes, including witness tampering, he was guaranteed leniency by federal prosecutors working for Mueller if he became a fully cooperating witness for them.
But Manafort's cooperation was a ruse.
Prosecutors said he had told them and FBI agents "multiple discernible lies" while constantly briefing Trump's attorneys on what he was being asked and what he was telling Mueller.
In the end, Mueller did not follow up [on Manafort's perfidy]. Nor have Democrats in the House, who had a similar legitimate right to independently investigate the matter. . . . In the absence of any branch of government holding them accountable, Trump and Giuliani faced no sanction for doing so. They had good reason, after all, to believe they were invincible.There never was formal understanding of a presidential pardon, writes Waas, because such a pardon would raise the specter of whether it might constitute obstruction of justice. But Trump's former campaign manager has believed that Giuliani's efforts to investigate some of Manafort's accusers in Ukraine, including a journalist who made public a secret ledger revealing that Yanukoyvch had made $12.7 million in secret "black ledger" cash payments to Manafort for his consulting work, was a favorable sign that Trump might pardon him after the 2020 presidential election.
That, of course, has become an abstraction with Trump's reelection chances foundering and now the explosive Ukraine allegations, impending impeachment and possibility --- albeit a long shot at this point -- of becoming the first president to be removed from office.