Michelle Goldberg: In the Ukraine scandal, Trump is both the con man and the mark

(Alexandria Sheriff's Office | AP) This combination of Oct. 9, 2019, photos provided by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office shows booking photos of Lev Parnas, left, and Igor Fruman.

Kenneth McCallion is a New York lawyer who once represented former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of Ukraine. A few years ago, he brought a civil racketeering lawsuit on her behalf against some now familiar figures like Paul Manafort and the Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash. He knows a lot about corruption in Ukraine, and he said that earlier this year FBI counterintelligence investigators approached him for information about Rudy Giuliani’s Ukrainian activities.

By then, McCallion had already been hearing strange things about what Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, whom we now know as Giuliani’s close associates, were doing in Ukraine.

Parnas and Fruman, both American citizens born in the former Soviet Union, aren’t ordinary political operatives. Parnas has long been a low-level grifter. Fruman owns an Odessa beach club called Mafia Rave, and a joint investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and BuzzFeed News found ties between him and an Odessa organized crime figure named Volodymyr Galanternik, known as “Light Bulb.”

The duo first appeared on the American political scene in 2015 as enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump. They became big-dollar donors to a number of Republicans; their Instagram accounts would soon fill up with photos of party elites. Then, this year, McCallion learned they were poking around Ukrainian politics, where they were spreading conspiracy theories that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in America’s election in 2016.

“All of a sudden they started going around Ukraine telling anybody who would listen, particularly with the government, that they have been advised by a high-level, mysterious unnamed source, that in fact the DNC servers had been hidden in Ukraine, that Russia was not the origin,” he told me.

This claim, which echoed Russian propaganda, contradicts the findings of the FBI, the CIA and the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee. Nevertheless, it soon came to shape American foreign policy.

The heart of the Ukraine scandal, for which Trump will almost certainly be impeached, is simple. Trump used congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, as well as the promise of a White House visit, to try to extort Ukraine’s president to announce investigations that would benefit Trump politically.

But there’s a broader story that’s still murky, because in this scandal Trump is both the perpetrator and the mark. Trump used the power of his office to try to force Ukraine to substantiate conspiracy theories. But the president was fed those conspiracy theories by people with their own agendas, who surely understood that he is insecure about Russia’s role in his election, and he will believe whatever serves his ego in the moment.

The main reason Trump should be removed from office is that he has subverted American foreign policy for corrupt personal ends. But this scandal is the latest reminder of how easy sinister forces find it to pull his strings.

On Saturday, BuzzFeed News obtained previously secret documents from Robert Mueller’s investigation via Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The documents showed that Manafort, convicted felon and Trump’s former campaign chairman, was pushing the story that Ukraine was to blame for hacking the DNC as far back as 2016. Manafort seems to have picked up that narrative from his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian intelligence officer who, according to federal prosecutors, “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.”

At first glance it might seem as if Parnas and Fruman were just doing Giuliani’s bidding when, in 2019, they started pushing the same disinformation. But Giuliani wasn’t paying them — they were paying Giuliani. Parnas, in turn, was being paid by Firtash, who is, according to the Justice Department, an “upper echelon” associate of Russian organized crime. Firtash is also close to the Kremlin; a Ukrainian official once described him as “representing Russia’s interests in Ukraine.”

Firtash, who made his fortune as a middleman in Ukraine’s natural gas industry, is stuck in Vienna, fighting extradition to the United States for trial on bribery and racketeering charges. Last month, when Parnas and Fruman were arrested while attempting to leave the United States on one-way tickets, Vienna was their destination.

On Friday, CNN reported that Parnas boasted of the “luxurious lifestyle” Firtash bankrolled. “Beginning in mid-August, this included around-the-clock bodyguards, two luxury SUVs for his entourage, and at least six private charter flights in the past several months,” CNN said. It’s hard to imagine what Firtash would have been paying for besides access to Trump.

It was reportedly Firtash’s lawyers who first obtained an affidavit from fired Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin claiming, falsely, that Joe Biden had targeted Shokin for investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company that had Hunter Biden on its board. Giuliani would later wave this affidavit around on cable television as proof of his claims against Joe Biden.

Firtash’s motives aren’t hard to grasp. As he fights extradition, he has obvious reasons to want to ingratiate himself with Trump. It was in his interest to see the former Ukrainian ambassador Marie Yovanovitch fired, because her work against corruption — particularly her support for the reform-minded chief executive of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s national gas company — threatened his business interests. And by helping to spread damaging conspiracy theories about Ukraine, he aided his allies in the Kremlin.

“It serves the interest of Russian intelligence to cause further consternation and confusion by pointing the finger at Ukraine rather than Russia for the 2016 successful disinformation campaign,” said McCallion.

In court last month, a lawyer for Parnas said that some evidence against him could be subject to executive privilege, apparently because his work with Giuliani overlapped with Giuliani’s work for Trump. If that’s true, then Firtash is directly linked to America’s president.

The two men may have used each other, but there’s no reason to believe that Trump was the one in control. There was a time when Republicans would be mortified by an American president being manipulated by a figure like Firtash. Lucky for them, they’ve lost the ability to feel shame.

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.