Following the money around Trump and Ukraine

Two weeks ago, Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica, reminded listeners to “follow the money” in the Ukraine scandal. “The impeachment inquiry is focused on whether or not there was a quid pro quo: military aid in exchange for an investigation” into the Bidens and the 2016 election, host Andrea Bernstein said. Her cohost, Ilya Marritz, chimed in: “We are going to look at a lot of the same events from a different vantage point: the business interests at play in the United States and in Ukraine.” Over forty minutes, the podcast laid out a convoluted web of intrigue surrounding Trump; his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman; Trump-allied lawyers (and regular Fox guests) Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova; and Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin and, according to the US Justice Department, Russian organized crime. The characters, Marritz said, are linked by fragments of a story that “don’t seem to fit together—until they do.”

In recent days, the financial angle has returned to the headlines. The New York Times reported yesterday that Giuliani identified Firtash—who is fighting extradition to the US on bribery charges—as a potential pressure point in his campaign to gather dirt on Joe Biden, whose past anticorruption push in Ukraine angered Firtash. In a rare interview, Firtash told the Times that he did retain Toensing and diGenova to help with his US legal woes, but denied having incriminating information about Biden or funding any campaign to get some. Elsewhere, an official with Ukraine’s state oil-and-gas company told the Wall Street Journal that Parnas and Fruman tried to enlist his help in a proposed takeover. Also according to the Journal, US prosecutors investigating Parnas and Fruman (who have already been indicted on campaign-finance-related charges) have subpoenaed people linked to Giuliani and his consulting firm—part of a broad probe that, the Journal reports, is investigating potential “obstruction of justice, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the United States, making false statements to the federal government, serving as an agent of a foreign government without registering with the Justice Department, donating funds from foreign nationals, making contributions in the name of another person or allowing someone else to use one’s name to make a contribution, along with mail fraud and wire fraud.” (Giuliani is not currently under indictment, and has denied wrongdoing.)

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Last night, with public impeachment proceedings at a lull (House investigators are busy compiling their report), these and related stories drove discussion on cable news. On Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show, Michael Isikoff, a veteran reporter with Yahoo News, raised the prospect that money funneled through Parnas and Fruman may have funded Giuliani’s legal work for Trump; if true, “that raises a whole host of other questions about the financial benefits going to the president himself,” Isikoff said. Another guest, CNBC’s Christina Wilkie, noted that Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani are “people with a lot of avenues for revenue. And we really don’t know what was coming from where, and I think that is one of the biggest questions still outstanding.”

There is a lot we still don’t know about the money flows involving Trumpworld and Ukraine, and what we do know is complicated. Still, the financial angle has felt somewhat underplayed in the impeachment story relative to its interest—more a subplot to the central political drama than a potentially integral part of the story.

Journalists tend to be attracted to stories that involve vast hidden intrigue; as a result, we can sometimes underplay obvious wrongdoing—in this case, Trump’s public admission that he asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. (As I wrote last month, “as journalists, we’ve been taught to believe that the biggest scandals are those that require intense, meticulous digging; as human beings, we’ve been taught to believe that no right-minded person would own up to wrongdoing in such a haphazard way.”) The murky Parnas/Fruman/Giuliani story offers an avenue for reporters to usefully drive intrigue forward. Yet too much impeachment coverage seems to channel this impulse by demanding ever higher standards of support for already established facts. (At the beginning of this story, Trump asking Ukraine for dirt on Democrats was treated as a central outrage; now it seems, in some quarters, to be secondary to hand-wringing about explicit proof that Trump ordered a quid pro quo on military aid specifically, and other wrinkles.) On Sunday’s Meet the Press, for example, Chuck Todd offered this exquisite example of false equivalence: “It feels like the two sides are talking past each other: Republicans are making a political argument, Democrats are making a legal argument, and they’re going, ‘How do you, the other side, not see what we see?’ ”

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Yes, impeachment is a political process. But there is a risk of losing perspective on the facts here—of overcomplicating things we already know in order to contrive a sense of mystery that keeps news consumers hooked. That isn’t just bad journalism; it’s also unnecessary. The real, broader story here is plenty mysterious on its merits.

Below, more on the Ukraine scandal:

  • Russia or Ukraine? On Fox News Sunday, John Neely Kennedy, the Republican senator for Louisiana, told Chris Wallace that Ukraine may have been responsible for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee. (US authorities have concluded that Russia was responsible.) Kennedy caught a lot of flak for the remark; yesterday, he walked it back, telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo that he “was wrong,” and that Russia did hack the DNC. In other Russia-Ukraine-confusion news, Fox host Tucker Carlson asked last night, “Why do I care what is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which by the way I am.” He later said he was joking.
  • Two court rulings: Yesterday, a federal judge ruled that Don McGahn, the former White House counsel who had a central role in the Mueller report, must testify to Congress. The Trump administration previously blocked McGahn from appearing, citing his immunity as a senior White House aide; the judge called that argument “fiction,” noting that “presidents are not kings.” The administration plans to appeal. Also yesterday, the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the disclosure of Trump’s financial records, which a lower court had ruled must be handed to a congressional committee.
  • This man is a cybersecurity adviser: New York’s Olivia Nuzzi has “a reporter’s guide to texting” with Giuliani. “Digital communication with President Trump’s 75-year-old personal attorney is a delicate exercise in optimism and patience,” Nuzzi writes. “Or, as one longtime Giuliani associate phrased it, ‘This is a little bit like a baby with a hammer, or a monkey with a typewriter.’ ”
  • Follow the kibble: Yesterday, Trump held an unexpected press conference with Melania Trump, Mike Pence, and Conan, the dog that was wounded in the US raid on isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s compound last month. Amid rambling remarks, Trump told Reuters reporter Jeff Mason, of Conan, “You’re very lucky he’s not in a bad mood today.” It’s not totally clear if Conan is a “he”—White House officials gave conflicting accounts.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.