Trump’s interest in stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev

Trump’s interest in stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev


Rudolph W. Giuliani, an attorney for President Trump, speaks in Washington in 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

As President Trump and his inner circle appear increasingly focused on Ukraine as a potential tripwire for Joe Biden and Democrats, officials about to take power in Kiev are pushing their own message: Leave us out of it.

Supporters of Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky — who is expected to take office in the coming weeks — said in interviews Saturday that they feared they were being pulled into a domestic political conflict in the United States, potentially at Ukraine’s expense.

Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said Friday that he was canceling a trip to Ukraine in which he was planning to push for investigations that include Biden’s son, Hunter, and his time on the board of a Ukraine gas company.

Giuliani said he was calling off the trip because there were “enemies” of Trump on the team of Zelensky, a comedian with no previous political experience who toppled President Petro Poroshenko in a runoff election last month.

Zelensky — who played Ukraine’s president on a popular TV show — has pledged to fight corruption and to push to end the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. But maintaining a close relationship with Washington is also critical.

Many Ukrainian officials also see U.S. support as a key deterrent preventing Russian President Vladi­mir Putin from encroaching further on their territory. Western diplomats in Kiev have voiced concerns that Zelensky, given his lack of political experience, could be outmatched in negotiations with Putin. 

Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament and prominent Zelensky backer, said Ukraine was being drawn into a “dangerous game.”

A person close to Zelensky said the president-elect’s team viewed Trump’s interest in the investigations as a domestic U.S. matter and was determined not to let it distract from his agenda. 

“This is definitely not our war,” the person close to Zelensky said. “We have to stay away from this as much as possible.” 

The person said Zelensky would rule out using political pressure to lean on Ukrainian law enforcement to achieve any White House aims. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. 

One investigation that has attracted Trump and Giuliani’s interest involves a Ukrainian gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served while his father was vice president. Trump said Friday that it would be “appropriate” for him to talk to Attorney General William P. Barr about opening an investigation over the matter into Joe Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Certainly it is a very big issue and we’ll see what happens,” Trump told Politico. 

There is no evidence that Biden’s conduct as vice president was improper while his son served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Giuliani has also pushed for Ukrainian officials to investigate unproven allegations that the Democratic National Committee worked with the Ukrainian government in 2016 to dig up incriminating information about Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. The DNC has denied those allegations. 

Giuliani said in recent days that he was planning to fly to Ukraine on Sunday and would encourage Ukrainian officials to push those investigations forward.

Giuliani told The Washington Post on Friday that he was planning going to give a paid speech in Ukraine and heard from a connection there that he could have a meeting with Zelensky. 

“What I’m pushing for — don’t let the crooks bury the case for the second time — it’s all part of a corrupt arrangement between United States political officials of the Democratic Party and Ukrainian officials to dig up dirt on Republicans,” Giuliani said. “I’m going to make sure that nothing scuttles the investigation that I want.”

But Giuliani told Fox News later on Friday that he was canceling his trip to Ukraine because he had learned that Zelensky was surrounded by foes of Trump. 

“I’m convinced from what I’ve heard from two very reliable people tonight that the president [Zelensky] is surrounded by people who were enemies of the president [Trump], and people who are — at least [in] one case — clearly corrupt and involved in this scheme,” Giuliani said.

Giuliani declined to say whether he was acting at Trump’s request or even whether he had briefed the president. He said “most of it” was on his own volition, but that the president wanted to get to the “truth.”

Zelensky hasn’t responded publicly to Giuliani’s statements about a possible visit, and it wasn’t clear whether Giuliani actually had a meeting scheduled with the new president. The person close to Zelensky said there had been no meeting request from Giuliani via official channels.

“Neither Volodymyr nor those around him are enemies of America or its president. Definitely, not a single one of them is,” the person said close to Zelensky said. “We don’t want everything to be boiled down to such accusations.” 

Zelensky has referred to Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko — who spoke to The Hill newspaper this year about alleged wrongdoing by the Bidens — as a member of the “old team” whom he plans to replace. Lutsenko didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some of Zelensky’s supporters say that Ukrainian officials allied with Poroshenko are now trying to secure their jobs by currying favor with the Trump Administration.

“He is pulling Ukraine into this dangerous game in order to save his post,” Leshchenko, the Ukrainian member of parliament and Zelensky supporter, said of Lutsenko. “He is pulling Ukraine into a front of a domestic political war in America.”

Dawsey reported from Washington. David L. Stern in Prairie Village, Kan., contributed to this report.

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