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Franklin Foer on Giuliani, ‘Harebrained Schemes’ and Trump's Impeachment
21 October, 2019
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Franklin Foer, a journalist at The Atlantic and the first to break the Manafort black ledger story, joined Hromadske in Kyiv on the Sunday Show to chat about Trump, Ukraine, and the unfolding impeachment scandal in the White House. How the impeachment inquiry will progress, the consequences of Giuliani on U.S. foreign policy, and the corrupt nature of the Trump administration – all covered in our interview.

What’s the major story now? Recently, just before the weekend, there was testimony from the U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland. 

What’s so interesting is that Donald Trump seemed like he was going to be able to – his strategy was going to be to block his aides from having to testify before Congress. He didn’t want there to be any leaks in the dam. Unfortunately for him, there are all these foreign service officers, diplomats who were subpoenaed by Congress. And once they received a document from Congress saying ‘you have to come testify’, they argued that they had no choice but to do it. They didn’t even wait to get permission from the Trump administration before coming along. So Gordon Sondland is an interesting character because it's very unclear why the U.S. Ambassador to Brussels should have become the central figure in America’s Ukraine policy. We knew from the texts that he had with Kurt Volker that he was definitely in the thick of trying to broker whatever agreement there was between President Zelenskyy and Trump about reopening an investigation into Hunter Biden. When he testified, he really seemed like he was trying to draw distance between himself and President Trump. I think he’s a businessman, he has hotels in Seattle, Portland, and across the Pacific Northwest. I think he’s actually worried that people will blame him for Trump or try to take out their anger on his hotel chains. He also probably doesn’t want to be implicated in any wrongdoing, so he’s creating distance between him and President Trump. And we don’t know exactly what the told the committee, because they’re submitting their opening testimony. But the hearings are private, so we’re getting bits and pieces that are leaked about what’s happened.

Could it be even more? When we read those testimonies, it’s quite interesting for us, it’s obvious – you don’t need to be an investigator – to see that this is the political game in order to bring some dirt on a political rival. It’s not the usual foreign policy. How is this being treated in D.C.?

You’re correct in saying that the Hunter Biden part of the scandal – we didn’t need much more than to see the transcript of – or the partial transcript – because it was pretty clear what was happening, and then we got the text messages and the text messages from Volker and that added another layer, and the opening testimonies merely confirmed what we already have seen with our own eyes and the primary evidence. I think there’s this other layer though, because it seems like there one scheme, which is the scheme to get dirt on Hunter Biden and to try to get the Prosecutor General’s Office here to reopen an investigation into Burisma and Hunter Biden, and then there’s these other schemes that are happening, the Naftogaz scheme – this idea that Giuliani’s associates were going to try to export  liquid natural gas from the United States to Ukraine. And on top of all of this, I think in the last week, the figure of Dmytro Firtash becomes a more significant presence because Giuliani’s friends are representing Firtash and trying to prevent his extradition into the United States, and so the question is ‘How do all these things intersect? What’s the bigger narrative?’

So let's get into these details. particularly about Firtash and Giuliani. Can you also elaborate more because there were previously a week ago the Giuliani associates - Parnas and Fruman arrested then there were some news that also Giuliani himself, the president's lawyer, was involved in some corrupt schemes and now then this name of the oligarch – notorious Ukrainian oligarch – which should be extradited from Vienna to the U.S. have popped up and you know he's also what I understand hiring the best lawyers also close to Trump to protect him.

Whether the best lawyers are not, they’re certainly lawyers who are there with connections they use. They’re on Fox News television network which is what Donald Trump watches all the time, and so they're able to build a certain type of campaign to try to prevent extradition. On top of which, we know that there's a potential investigation into you know a meeting that Giuliani had in the Department of Justice where he asked for – he was trying to prevent bribery charges under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to be brought against some – I guess it's described in the New York Times as a Russian connected figure – we don't know who that is but it seems like he went to the Justice Department to try to argue on Firtash’s behalf. 

Let’s come back to [Ukraine's national oil and gas company] Naftogaz because it was less discussed than for instance the other schemes. So how would you describe the whole thing, so what were they really trying, that's what we found out.

We don't know. I mean to me when I look at what they were trying to do, it's what we were described as a harebrained scheme. It was not, it didn't seem like a serious effort, which raises questions about why were they doing it because I think it would be very hard. From what I understand it would be very hard for Ukraine, with existing infrastructure, to import liquid natural gas from the United States. So were they sincere in trying to make this happen? Why were they so focused on changing the leadership at Naftogaz? Because that doesn't seem like it's totally necessary to making their scheme, their export scheme happens. And so when I read the situation, I see lots of interesting questions that I'm sure journalists and congressional investigators, maybe even prosecutors will be pursuing further.

But what's also happening, for instance in places like State Department? Because there is a lot of confusion, that you see those people giving testimony as former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. There would be still like the current charge d’affaires giving testimony, but we know from what I understand that Michael McKinley, who is advisor to the Secretary of State Pompeo, has resigned. We also hear that Rick Perry, the energy secretary, might leave – it's not confirmed yet. 

Trump said the other day that he's going to be leaving by the end of the year. 

So how we see this sign that so many officials just connected to this, to this story just trying to stay away?

The thing to remember is that Trump has tried to remake the American government, but they're still a professionalized bureaucracy that views itself as having a mission to serve a country in the national interest, and they're not serving the interest of any administration in particular. I mean one interesting figure was the deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy was a guy called George Kent. He testified about the pressure to make a deal, about the pressure to get Ambassador Yovanovitch fired, but he also testified about Hunter Biden and Burisma, and said that he wanted to get the Biden people, when Biden was vice president, to take seriously the charge of corruption and to do something about Hunter Biden presence in Burisma, and the Biden people didn't really want to take that on, and so somebody like that is not a political actor. He's just trying to do what's best for the United States and maybe even what's best for Ukraine. So he's coming forward and he's saying ‘I don't care, Donald Trump, if you don't want me to testify. I'm going to testify if Congress gives me a subpoena.’

I should probably just confirm that George Kent was working here in Ukraine, and many Ukrainian journalists were able to talk to him. He knows so many details of Ukrainian politics. That's the person who knows who exactly prosecutor who investigated the things is, who is a good prosecutor and who is not and so he won't be really like confused as we see Mr. Giuliani, which I would like to also understand how now he is seen in D.C. And this kind of connection between Trump and Giuliani because everything which we look now looks a bit toxic – not just Ukraine, but Giuliani himself.

Well right, and it should be said that he had a business in Washington that was about more than just Ukraine. He was operating in Romania and in other former Soviet republics and he was so close to Donald Trump and perceived as being so close to Donald Trump that when he would sign a letter for some for one of his clients, people would interpret it as being a reflection of U.S. policy. So he was inventing, I think, a new form of corruption in Washington where the fact that he was the president's lawyer meant that he'd go off and do deals and get clients all over the world, and if they were criminals, he could go to the Justice Department and try to make their case and people would you know listen to him in a way that they wouldn't listen to any other lawyer because he was the president's lawyer. And Giuliani is in a lot of trouble right now. There's the congressional investigation, but I think also the people in the Justice Department who are looking into his work. And his relationship with Trump is a real is ultimately a problem for Trump, because I don't think that Trump will ever want to get rid of him. The way that Rudy Giuliani behaves when he goes on television and when he's on Twitter – he has an audience which is Trump. And so he's constantly broadcasting opinions that Trump wants broadcasted. Trump's watching him. He loves watching him.

But everybody in this part of the world are confused when at this stage there is any like communication of the other I know foreign leader so anybody with Giuliani. Because in the end what we had – we had this talk with this phone call and then we had a scandal and then many many officials who are officials from the State Department, for instance, in our case Kurt Volker who left, some others – they are gone. Everybody that, for instance, the Ukrainian side was communicating with. And then there is a question of who to contact now because there are things. Because there are things – you can't just freeze the relations because there are many many other things. How do you understand how the State Department operates?

Well, I mean, I guess fortunately the State Department is a massive bureaucracy, and you know in an embassy you have several different layers. I think that when you're dealing with the Trump administration you're dealing with chaos. And even if we kind of looked back over everything that we've seen exposed in the Volker communication in the Sondland communication – it was chaos even then. I mean that people kept saying we have to get in touch with Rudy Giuliani, you have the European Union ambassador handling Ukraine, you have the energy secretary taking this outsized role in the bilateral relationship. It must be incredibly confusing, if you're if you're Ukraine, if you're the Zelenskyy administration, trying to figure out how you navigate any of this, which is that I guess probably why they've just chosen to have radio silence for as much as possible and to try to steer clear of this scandal and wipe their hands of it.

I understand that there is still the investigation, but the whole story on the impeachment inquiry. How far it is in this stage? How serious is it seen? Because we know that you can announce the impeachment inquiry, but in the end, like in previous cases there was no impeachment.

So the process happens where you have an impeachment inquiry and then the House of Representatives has a vote on impeachment. And it seems almost certain that the House of Representatives is going to vote to impeach Donald Trump, and that should happen sometime in November or December, probably. And then from there it goes from the House of Representatives to the Senate, and the Senate has a trial, where they meet 6 days a week, and I think it's six hours at a time and every senator needs to be there and sit quietly as they hear the evidence against the president. And it seems extremely unlikely that the Senate would vote to actually remove him from office. So I know this is a little bit confusing because of the terminology – he's going to he's likely gonna be impeached, but he's not going to be removed.

So that would be the first part and then the Senate takes the decision on the removal from the office?

Exactly. 

That makes it of course, for us, especially for a lot of foreign leaders to deal with this president if we're speaking from this side. But really then how you see in this period any kind of foreign relations with a country like Ukraine can be maintained by the State Department, by Congress? Ukraine was always grateful for the bilateral support. How do you think this story influences this bilateral support?

I think it would be a problem for Ukraine if Ukraine didn't – you know, Ukraine is of the rare issues in Washington where Democrats and Republicans largely are in agreement. Both parties want Ukrainian democracy to succeed, they want Ukraine to be well armed in the face of Russian aggression, and so I don't see that actually changing. I think there'll be some Republicans, who will, you know some extreme Republicans, who may try to shift that dynamic. But in the meantime you know Ukraine suffers from what every other country in the world is going to suffer from, which is that the President of the United States is in what the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, calls a meltdown. And it does seem like he's always been hard to predict. He takes eccentric policy positions. He goes around the normal processes for making foreign policy decisions. We saw this with Turkey and the Kurds, where he makes a very dramatic change in policy without telling anyone in advance, and it has huge implications for the rest of the world and Ukraine is certainly vulnerable to the same sort of thing. We don't know what the president's mental state is, and we don't know how that will affect something like the relationship with Ukraine. 

But do we also understand in the Republican Party what the mood is? Because you know for a while there was this – in the very beginning of the Trump administration, that there would be people that sometimes the Republican, experienced members, influential members, would rebel against the president, but we saw that many tried to cooperate and maybe you know, be those who are keeping the president in some like keeping that he doesn't do too much wrong things. But in this regard, there is the feeling that you know many of them are trying to distance themselves because the scandal is just too big?

I've always had some hope that there'll be a rebellion against Trump within the Republican Party. And you do see a few Republicans use expressing greater openness to the possibility of impeachment right now. But you know, one or two here or there, for me – I go back and I look at Watergate. And there's a wonderful podcast about Watergate called Slow Burn that reconstructs the event, it's very well produced. And what you realize when you listen to that is that nobody could imagine removing Richard Nixon from office until the very end, and so Republicans were defending Nixon until there was a point where they all kind of collectively decided that they couldn't do it anymore. So it doesn't seem likely to me that that would happen, but I hold out that that is a possibility.

And about all these people around Giuliani – you know like Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman, and others – we shortly mentioned them – do we understand how close they were to the White House? Because before we didn't take them seriously, honestly. Also here are some other oligarch, notorious oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, when the first scandal happened had said that they are just some tricksters, they are some odd people, you can't trust them. So they are openly said that a very dubious people. People didn't treat them. Now we understand that they are quite close. So do you see how close these strange people were around the administration, what does it tell us?

I think both things could be true, and that's the story, is that you have people who were dubious characters and tricksters, who were then, you know, getting very-very close to power. I mean there's no question that they were close to Rudy Giuliani, which meant that if you're sitting right next to Rudy Giuliani, and you're making videos with him, you're going off on personal missions on his behalf, then you're one click away from the president then. 

And so are there any investigation are we expecting? Or like any other arrests? Because we hear quite often, quite many of them, they are not sued about the call about Ukraine, but usually something else.

There's last week, there was another associate of Fruman and Parnas, who was arrested. You know I think that one of the virtues of the American justice system is that this phase of an investigation is usually quite quiet. And it's usually done in a professional manner, so we don't know when an arrest is going to come. It just happens.

There were the debates among the Democratic candidates to the nomination, and even Joe Biden himself finally, was also mentioning a bit, like elaborated on the topic of how exactly the former Ukrainian prosecutor [Viktor] Shokin, who was really corrupt, had been fired. But what it tells us about how now Joe Biden reacts to the whole story? Because we don't have the opportunity to ask him, though we as Ukrainians also are very interested in this. 

What's hard about the Joe Biden story is that we have to hold several different narratives in our head at the same time, and we have to draw several different conclusions. On the one hand, I think if you go back and you read the 2015 speech to the [Verkhovna] Rada that he made, it's an excellent speech. I mean it was really I think one of the best speeches that Joe Biden gave, and I think he really does feel, personally, a deep commitment to Ukrainian democracy. On the other hand, this is like how corruption happens, is that you have somebody who might be well-intentioned and a good person, who when a family member, or somebody close to them does something bad, they don't say anything. And so on the one hand I don't think Joe Biden did anything personally wrong, on the other hand – well, I don't think that he intervened in Ukrainian politics in a way that was corrupt – on the other hand, you know I think that he never had an honest conversation with his son about the work that he was doing for Burisma, and I don't think that reflects very well on his character that he didn't feel compelled to say ‘You know what you really shouldn't be involved with these people, this is a corrupt organization, and as your father I don't want you to do this, and as the vice-president you're doing something that will ultimately look bad for me because I actually care about fighting corruption in Ukraine.’

It's very hard to get rid of mentioning Giuliani so many times, but in some of the articles, I read Giuliani as a lawyer, worked a bit on the case of Paul Manafort. You've been investigating Paul Manafort, as a journalist, for some time. You were the first to write a big piece about him. What do we know about that? I don’t want to speculate that Manafort is in some way connected to the story but still it's somebody to remember.

If we go back to the very beginning, and you know what was it that got Giuliani interested in Ukraine. Before he was interested in Hunter Biden, I think he was interested in the black ledger, and that there was a sense that the investigations to Paul Manafort were driven by the Ukrainian government in order to help Hillary Clinton. That's what he was originally obsessed with, so the trail of events actually kind of does begin with Manafort. And I wouldn't say that that's the end of the story, there may be other points where, as we start to learn more and details fill, that Manafort pops up again.

Franklin, as an American reporter reporting on U.S. politics, inner politics coming here to Kyiv, what is currently the most interesting thing for the American reporters here in Ukraine?

Well like I said I feel like, we know – you know when I look at this, there's so many different layers to the scheme, and I do think that kind of the nature of corruption in Donald Trump's Washington is that you're not just you're never just trying to hurt an opponent, you're always trying to make money. And so for me, the question is ‘How were these guys ultimately trying to make money? Who was trying to make money?’ That's ultimately the most interesting question I think that has yet to be answered.