The real Ukraine controversy: an activist U.S. embassy and its adherence to the Geneva Convention

The first time I ever heard the name of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was in early March of this year. It did not come from a Ukrainian or an ally of President Trump. It came from a career diplomat I was interviewing on background on a different story.

The diplomat, as I recall, suggested that Yovanovitch had just caused a commotion in Ukraine a few weeks before that country’s presidential election by calling for the firing of one of the prosecutors aligned with the incumbent president.

The diplomat related that a more senior State official, David Hale, was about  to travel to Ukraine and was prepping to be confronted about Yovanovitch’s comments. I remember the diplomat joking something to the effect of, “we always say that the Geneva Convention is optional for our Kiev staff.”

The Geneva Convention is the UN-backed pact enacted during the Cold War that governs the conduct of foreign diplomats in host countries and protects them against retribution. But it strictly mandates that foreign diplomats “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State” that hosts them. You can read the convention’s rules here

I dutifully checked out my source’s story. And sure as day, Yovanovitch did give a speech on March 5, 2019 calling for Ukraine’s special anticorruption prosecutor to be removed. You can read that here.

And the Ukraine media was abuzz that she had done so. And yes, Under Secretary of State Hale, got peppered with questions upon arriving in Kiev, specifically about whether Yovanovitch’s comments violated the international rule that foreign diplomats avoid becoming involved in the internal affairs and elections of their host country.

Hale dutifully defended Yovanovitch with these careful words. “Well, Ambassador Yovanovitch represents the President of the United States here in Ukraine, and America stands behind her statements.  And I don’t see any value in my own elaboration on what they may or may not have meant. They meant what she said.” You can read his comments here.

Up to that point, I had focused months of reporting on Ukraine on the U.S. government’s relationship with a Ukraine nonprofit called the AntiCorruption Action Centre, which was jointly funded by liberal megadonor George Soros’ charity and the State Department. I even sent a list of questions to that nonprofit all the way back in October 2018. It never answered.

Given that Soros spent millions trying to elect Hillary Clinton and defeat Donald Trump in 2016, I thought it was a legitimate public policy question to ask whether a State Department that is supposed to be politically neutral should be in joint business with a partisan figure’s nonprofit entity.

State officials confirmed that Soros’ foundation and the U.S. embassy jointly funded the AntiCorruption Action Centre, and that Soros’ vocal role in Ukraine as an anticorruption voice afforded him unique access to the State Department, including in 2016 to the top official on Ukraine policy, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. (That access was confirmed in documents later released under FOIA to Citizens United.)

Soros’ representatives separately confirmed to me that the Anti-Corruption Action Centre was the leading tip of the spear for a strategy Team Soros devised in 2014 to fight corruption in Ukraine and that might open the door for his possible business investment of $1 billion. You can read the Ukraine strategy document here and Soros’ plan to invest $1 billion in Ukraine here.

After being tipped to the current Yovanovitch furor in Ukraine, I was alerted to an earlier controversy involving the same U.S. ambassador.  It turns out a senior member of Congress had in spring 2018 wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleging the ambassador had made anti-Trump comments and suggesting she be recalled. I confirmed the incident with House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions and got a copy of his letter, which you can read here. Yovanovitch denies any such disloyalty to Trump.

Nonetheless, I had a career diplomat and a Republican lawmaker raising similar concerns. So I turned back to the sources I had developed starting in 2018 on Ukraine and began to dig further.

I learned that Ukrainian officials, particularly the country’s prosecutors, viewed Yovanovitch as the embodiment of an activist U.S. embassy in Kiev that ruffled feathers by meddling in internal law enforcement cases inside the country.

My sources told me specifically that the U.S. embassy had pressured the Ukraine prosecutors in 2016 to drop or avoid pursuing several cases, including one involving the Soros-backed AntiCorruption Action Centre and two cases involving Ukraine officials who criticized Donald Trump and his campaign manager Paul Manafort.

To back up their story, my sources provided me a letter then-embassy official George Kent wrote proving it happened. State officials authenticated the letter. And Kent recently acknowledged in this testimony he signed that letter. You can read the letter here.

With the help of a Ukrainian American intermediary and the Ukraine general prosecutor’s press office, I then secured an interview in mid-March 2016 with Ukraine’s then top prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko. In the interview that was videotaped and released for the whole world to see, Lutsenko alleged that in his first meeting in 2016 with Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador conveyed the names of several Ukrainians she did not want to see investigated and prosecuted. He called it, colloquially, a “do not prosecute list.”

The State Department denied such as list, calling it a fantasy, and I quoted that fair comment in my original stories. But before I published, I held the Lutsenko interview for a few days to do more reporting. State arranged for me to talk to a senior official about the Lutsenko-embassy relationship.

I provided the names that Lutsenko claimed had been cited by the embassy. That senior official said he couldn’t speak to what transpired in the specific meeting between Yovanovitch and Lutsenko. But that official then provided me this surprising confirmation: “I can confirm to you that at least some of those names are names that U.S. embassy Kiev raised with the General Prosecutor because we were concerned about retribution and unfair treatment of Ukrainians viewed as favorable to the United States.”

In other words, State was confirming its own embassy had engaged in pressure on Ukrainian prosecutors to drop certain law enforcement cases, just as Lutsenko and other Ukrainian officials had alleged.

When I asked that State official whether this was kosher with the Geneva Convention’s prohibition on internal interference, he answered: “Kiev in recent years has been a bit more activist and autonomous than other embassies.”

More recently, George Kent, the embassy’s charge d’affaires in 2016 and now a deputy assistant secretary of state, confirmed in impeachment testimony that he personally signed the April 2016 letter demanding Ukraine drop the case against the Anti-Corruption Action Centre.

He also testified he was aware of pressure the U.S. embassy also applied on Ukraine prosecutors to drop investigations against a journalist named Vitali Shabunin, a parliamentary member named Sergey Leschenko and a senior law enforcement official named Artem Sytnyk.

Shabunin helped for the AntiCorruption Action Centre that Soros funded, and Leschenko and Sytnyk were criticized by a Ukrainian court for interfering in the 2016 US election by improperly releasing or publicizing secret evidence in an ongoing case against Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

It’s worth letting Kent’s testimony speak for itself. “As a matter of conversation that U.S officials had with Ukrainian officials in sharing our concern about the direction of governance and the approach, harassment of civil society activists, including Mr. Shabunin, was one of the issues we raised,” Kent testified.

As for Sytnyk, the head of the NABU anticorruption police, Kent addded: “We warned both Lutsenko and others that efforts to destroy NABU as an organization, including opening up investigations of Sytnyk, threatened to unravel a key component of our anti-corruption cooperation.”

As the story of the U.S. embassy’s pressure spread, a new controversy erupted. A Ukrainian news outlet claimed Lutsenko recanted his claim about the “do-not-prosecute” list. I called Lutsenko and he denied recanting or even changing his story. He gave me this very detailed response standing by his statements.

But American officials and news media eager to discredit my reporting piled on, many quoting the Ukrainian outlet without ever contacting Lutsenko to see if it was true. One of the American outlets that did contact Lutsenko, the New York Times, belatedly disclosed today that Lutsenko told it, like he told me, that he stood by his allegation that the ambassador had provided him names of people and groups she did not want to be targeted by prosecutors. You can read that here.

It is neither a conspiracy theory nor a debunked or retracted story. U.S. embassy officials DID apply pressure to try to stop Ukrainian prosecutors from pursuing certain cases.

The U.S. diplomats saw no problem in their actions, believing that it served the American interest in combating Ukrainian corruption. The Ukrainians viewed it far differently as an improper intervention in the internal affairs of their country that was forbidden by the Geneva Convention.

That controversy is neither contrived, nor trivial, and it predated any reporting that I conducted. And it remains an issue that will need to be resolved if the Ukraine and U.S. are to have a more fruitful alliance moving forward.

Testimony bombshell: Obama administration tried to partner with Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian gas firm but was blocked over corruption concerns

A State Department official who served in the U.S. embassy in Kiev told Congress that the Obama administration tried in 2016 to partner with the Ukrainian gas firm that employed Hunter Biden but the project was blocked over corruption concerns.

George Kent, the former charge d’affair at the Kiev embassy, said in testimony released Thursday that the State Department’s main foreign aid agency, known as USAID, planned to co-sponsor a clean energy project with Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas firm that employed Hunter Biden as a board member.

At the time of the proposed project, Burisma was under investigation in Ukraine for alleged corruption. Those cases were settled in late 2016 and early 2017. Burisma contested allegations of corruption but paid a penalty for tax issues.

Kent testified he personally intervened in mid-2016 to stop USAID’s joint project with Burisma because American officials believed the corruption allegations against the gas firm raised concern.

“There apparently was an effort for Burisma to help cosponsor, I guess, a contest that USAID was sponsoring related to clean energy. And when I heard about it I asked USAID to stop that sponsorship,” Kent told lawmakers.

When asked why he intervened, he answered: “”Because Burisma had a poor reputation in the business, and I didn’t think it was appropriate for the U.S. Government to be co-sponsoring something with a company that had a bad reputation.”

Kent’s testimony confirms earlier text messages I reported on in September. Those text messages show that Devon Archer — Hunter Biden’s business associate and fellow board member on Burisma — boasted to an American lawyer in December 2015 that the pair was seeking to do a project with USAID.

At the time of the text, the New York Times had just reported that Burisma was under investigation in Ukraine and that the probe and Hunter Biden’s role in the company was undercutting Vice President Joe Biden’s efforts to root out corruption in Ukraine.

Archer’s text to the lawyer suggested he was working on a strategy to counter the “new wave of scrutiny” about Burisma caused by the Times’ story. He stated that he had just met at the State to discuss a new “USAID project the embassy is announcing with us” and that it was “perfect for us to move forward now with momentum.”

Kent’s stoppage of the USAID project adds to a growing body of evidence that Burisma and its corruption issues were causing heartburn inside the State Department during the end of Joe Biden’s tenure as Vice President.

Another State official has reportedly testified he tried to warn Biden’s office that the Burisma matter posed a conflict of interest but was turned away by the vice president’s aides.

And internal State memos I obtained this week under FOIA show Hunter Biden and Archer had multiple contacts with Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy Secretary Tony Blinken in 2015-16, and that Burisma’s own American legal team was lobbying State to help eliminate the corruption allegations against it in Ukraine.

Hunter Biden’s name was specifically invoked as a reason why State officials should assist, the memos show. A month after Burisma’s contact with State, Joe Biden leveraged the threat of withholding U.S. foreign aid to force Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who at the time was overseeing the Burisma probe.

Joe Biden says he forced the firing because he believed Shokin was ineffective, but Shokin says he was told he was fired because the American ice president was unhappy the prosecutor would not drop the Burisma probe.

Also on Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked the State Department to provide them all documents about Hunter Biden’s and Burisma’s contacts by end of this month.

It follows calls earlier in the week by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C,, that there is enough concern about the Burisma case to now warrant an official Senate investigation.

Kent’s newly released testimony also confirmed several other elements of my earlier reporting about Ukraine, including that the U.S. embassy exerted pressure on Ukrainian prosecutors not to pursue certain investigations.

Kent, now a deputy assistant secretary, disputed allegations that former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko made in a Hill.TV interview I conducted last March that former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch gave a formal list of names she did not want to see prosecuted by Ukrainian authorities.

Kent’s denial was identical to the one I published from State when I first aired the Lutsenko interview.

But he confirmed that the U.S. embassy did, in fact, on several occasions exert pressure on Lutsenko’s office about people and groups that the American government did not want to see pursued for investigation or prosecution or harassment.

For instance, Kent acknowledged signing an April 2016 letter that asked the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office to stand down an investigation of several nonprofits that had received U.S. aid, including the AntiCorruption Action Centre of Ukraine, or AnTac.

Kent also confirmed my reporting that AnTac was jointly funded by the State Department and one of liberal megadonor George Soros’ foundations.

Kent also acknowledged the embassy pressured Ukrainian prosecutors about backing off investigations into a top law enforcement official named Artem Sytnyk and a former journalist named Vitali Shabunin.

“As a matter of conversation that U.S officials had with Ukrainian officials in sharing our concern about the direction of governance and the approach, harassment of civil society activists, including Mr. Shabunin, was one of the issues we raised,” Kent testified.

As for Sytnyk, the head of the NABU anticorruption police, Kent stated: “We warned both Lutsenko and others that efforts to destroy NABU as an organization, including opening up investigations of Sytnyk, threatened to unravel a key component of our anti-corruption cooperation.”

AnTac, Shabunin and Sytnyk were all names that Lutsenko told me had been the subject of U.S. pressure on his office.

So after weeks of Democrats and their media allies suggesting it was a “conspiracy theory” that the U.S. embassy had pressured Ukrainian authorities not to pursue certain investigations, Kent confirmed it.

Of course I knew it was true all along because before I ever aired Lutsenko’s interview, I interviewed a senior State official who confirmed the embassy had engaged in such pressure. Now it’s time for the rest of the media to catch up.

Donald Trump’s Berlin Wall moment? A Reagan-sized opportunity for Middle East stability

Last month Donald Trump reset the strategic landscape in the Middle East, withdrawing U.S. troops from a lengthy war in Syria while managing to eliminate ISIS’s top leader.

The killing of the most wanted terrorist in the world, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, came within a few weeks of Trump’s brokering a deal with Turkey that ended months of dead end negotiations on a so-called “safe zone.”

Those events have significantly advanced U.S. interests in the Middle East, a chess play ripped from the pages of Ronald Reagan’s peace-through-strength manual. They also could open the door to several regional deals that return refugees home and enhance stability in the region — including a new, more comprehensive, and tougher nuclear deal with Iran.

But you would have a hard time getting the whole picture from news coverage, which has been preoccupied with the U.S. “sellout” of the Kurds and how Trump’s statement on Baghdadi compared with Obama’s on Osama Bin Laden. Or the differences in the White House photos.

To appreciate the opportunity that has opened up for America in the Middle East, one must first examine the facts and correct the misleading narrative.

Trump did not “sell out” the Syrian Kurds, who have been fantastic partners in the fight against ISIS, and will continue to be. The U.S. never had a formal treaty with the Kurds. Neither President Obama nor Trump ever committed to protect the Kurds against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad. And Congress never approved a formal alliance. 

That’s a fact that gets omitted by the neo-conservative policymakers and military industrial complex cheerleaders who have dominated the airwaves the last few weeks.

Second, our partnership with the Syrian Kurds has not been a one-way street: U.S. troops helped the Kurds beat back ISIS from their towns and villages. Even with the US troop withdrawal, cooperation between America and the Kurds continues, as the successful Al Baghdadi raid demonstrated.  And the Syrian Kurds, no fools at all, always kept a line to Damascus, which left them able to cut their own deal after Trump withdrew troops. 

Third, Turkey is a formal ally of the United States, bound to us by the essential military alliance known as NATO. In fairness, Turkey is a troublesome ally for sure, and one with whom we disagree about the Syrian Kurds. And there is compelling evidence Turkey has not complied with recent ceasefires.

It might be for both sides to ask how U.S. interests are served by sanctioning Turkey, and keeping troops in Syria, because we disagree with Erdogan about the Kurds. But where ever that debate ends, the United States chose to be bound to Turkey in ways it was never to the Kurds.    

With those facts in mind, let’s examine the opportunities on the horizon.

Trump currently appears to be testing Russia’s and Turkey’s commitment to degrade and defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups remaining in Syria, while maintaining the new but fragile peace deal with the Kurds. 

There are still more than 10,000 jihadists in northwest Syria, where Al Baghdadi was hiding.  If Vladimir Putin and Erdogan want to risk their blood and treasure to take them out, that could save America lives and money. Why not put Turkey, Russia and Iraq to the test in battling the rest of the terrorists?

With the territorial defeat of the ‘caliphate’ and the killing of Baghdadi, ISIS and other terrorists in Syria are now orphans.  Former backers of various jihadi factions in the Gulf and elsewhere aren’t getting behind these armed thugs any longer.  The money is drying up, and the terrorist dead enders are increasingly isolated in the northwest city of Idlib, which is facing an imminent day of reckoning with Syrian and Russian forces.

If Putin and Erdogan fail to defeat these ISIS and Al Qaeda leftovers, Trump still holds the option to re-deploy U.S. troops, positioned nearby in Iraq and elsewhere to finish the job.

The U.S. can also stop Erdogan if he is tempted to usurp some of those battle-tested jihadists for his own sectarian agenda, as some fear.

Second, Trump is watching closely whether Putin delivers a peace deal between Syria and Turkey.  This is happening, and barely covered in the press.  If Turkey and Syria bury the hatchet, the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey could eventually return to their original homes —  while letting Russia foot the bill for needed security.  This step, while not a done deal, would be monumental toward ending the war, and should be welcomed by the international community.  

Third, many in the U.S. government and outside may see this dynamic as an unacceptable concession to Assad, Iran, and Putin.  But the Trump administration quietly has grabbed some powerful leverage by having U.S. troops secure the lucrative but tattered Syrian oil fields. 

Syrian oil will only increase in value for future negotiations with Putin.  It assures that Assad, and Iran, will continue to be boxed in by U.S. power until there is a Syrian political process that resolves Assad’s future and Iran’s use of Syrian space to threaten Israel.

Fourth, with all these moves Trump has sparked Syria’s neighbors and other regional states to work out their own issues rather than wait for U.S. intervention.  Not all of these countries are ones we like, such as Iran and Syria. But the regional shuttles are flying, and Trump set them in motion.

One such deal occurred this week when the Saudi’s brokered a peace deal between Yemen’s official government and rebels fighting in the civil war in that country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the deal on Twitter.

Fifth, Trump can continue to count on support from Israel, whose regular bombing of Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria also provides a needed stick.  The U.S. doesn’t just have the armed Kurdish groups as an asset in Syria, we have Israel, America’s closest regional ally, as our partner too.

Sixth, an even bigger prize looms on the horizon: a better nuclear deal with Iran. This goal is important to Israel, as well as our partners in the region and around the world, and it has gained new urgency with Tehran’s announcement this week it has new advanced centrifuges to accelerate uranium enrichment.

There are other reasons why now is the time to move on Iran.  The economic sanctions that Trump imposed on Tehran are having a devastating impact; the IMF projects Iran’s economic growth will contract by a stunning 9.5% this year.  

Likewise, events in the region, especially in Lebanon, where a secular, anti-Iran trend is taking hold, opens the door to more comprehensive peace, which could address Israel’s concerns about the missile and terrorist threat from Hezbollah. 

A carrot and stick approach that gets at the core issue, disarming Hezbollah and supporting reform minded technocratic leaders, would be best to settle Israel’s security needs long-term.  Trump has the rare window to seize the moment with a big deal rather than interim steps like conditioning aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces

Nearby, a new government in Jerusalem,  perhaps absent the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, may be more willing to engage in a fresh approach to Iran.  No one doubts Trump’s commitment to Israel.  This was not the case with the previous administration, and a key reason why the Iran nuclear deal and its peace plans ultimately failed.

Trump and Israel also have allies willing to help bring Iran to the negotiating table.  A weakened Iran is still a proud country, but Putin, who also keeps in contact with Israel, can help. If Russia shows good faith on the Turkey-Syrian front, it could earn that seat at the table with Americans, Europeans, Israelis and Iranians.  

French President Emmanuel Macron is already working the back channels, fashioning a credit lifeline of $15 billion for Iran — if it will engage in a better nuclear deal, help end Yemen’s civil war, and support regional and maritime security in the Persian Gulf. 

Those are a lot of “ifs” … but none much different than when Reagan boldly dared Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Few could imagine in June 1987 the Soviet collapse would so soon follow. But it did.  

Time will tell if the Trump chess game can yield similar historic dividends in the Middle East and open the door to shrinking America’s war swollen budget deficits.  

So far, Trump has maneuvered the complicated pieces —  Russia, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran – into a place where peace and security may be closer than ever.  

Now he needs a team that embraces his bold approach to end endless conflict in the Middle East, rather than undercut it with leaks and tired thinking.   

Such a journey begins by eliminating the false narratives that are obscuring the potential breakthroughs in the region.

After Russia collusion controversy, FBI faces ‘red flag’ concerns over vetting informants

Back in the summer of 2007, a well-respected FBI executive marched up to Capitol Hill to assure members of Congress that the bureau had reformed and modernized its management of human sources, more commonly known as informants.

“Both the Attorney General and the Director have made clear their expectations that the FBI’s Confidential Human Source Program must rise to the challenge of our current mission, integrate fully with the broader intelligence community, and set a standard for integrity and quality,” Assistant Director for Intelligence Wayne M. Murphy testified.

Appearing then before subcommittee led by now-House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, Murphy laid out an impressive set of new rules governing how the FBI would vet, share and utilize human sources, including a new manual for managing informants and new training.

“The validation process will ensure every FBI source is subjected to a level of validation and provides the capability to evaluate sources in a broader national context and make decisions accordingly,” Murphy told the lawmakers.

A dozen years later, those reforms and the FBI’s adherence to them are coming under renewed scrutiny after one of the bureau’s most infamous cases, the Russia collusion investigation, relied on an overtly partisan informant with only “minimally” valuable intelligence to secure a warrant to spy on the Trump presidential campaign at the end of the 2016 election.

Multiple sources confirm the Justice Department inspector general is putting the finishing touches on an investigative report raising concerns about the FBI’s maintenance of human source validation reports, its vetting of sources and its handling of red flags about informants.

The review, expected to be released as early as this month, does not focus specifically on the work of British intelligence operative Christopher Steele, whose Hillary Clinton-funded dossier formed the cornerstone evidence the FBI used to justify securing an October 2016 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant targeting ex-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The warrant, renewed three times, allowed the bureau to gather intelligence for nearly a year on the Trump campaign, transition and early administration in search of evidence they might be colluding with Russia to hijack the 2016 election or American foreign policy.

No such evidence was found, and only months after the probe began did the public learn that Steele had been terminated as a source early in the investigation for leaking and his dossier funded by Trump’s rivals at the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee. Despite those warnings, Steele’s evidence continued to be represented as credible to the courts.

While Steele’s not the focus, the IG report is expected to lay out missteps, failures and a lack of adherence to the very reforms Murphy laid out for the bureau’s modern day informant network.

A source familiar with the preliminary findings says the IG appears to have identified a pattern of FBI agents ignoring red flags raised about sources during the course of investigations or from other intelligence agencies.

In addition, there is some concern that human source validation reports were incomplete or outdated, the source said.

Preliminary IG findings often go through revisions before the publication of a final report, as the FBI and DOJ react to conclusions. But if the final report does confirm the failure to adhere to red flags and vetting procedures, it is certain to lead to new oversight in Congress, possibly by Nadler’s committee or the Senate Judiciary Committee led by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

And the missed warning signs about Steele may ultimately be viewed and understood in a broader context of FBI’s systemic failures to react to red flags about informants.

Reporting I did earlier this year exposed how the FBI was alerted on Oct. 13, 2016  — eight days before Steele’s dossier was used to support the first FISA warrant — that the FBI informant had traveled to the State Department to brief a senior official named Kathleen Kavalec about his investigative work on Trump.

During the course of his meeting, Steele divulged he had an Election Day deadline to get his information out, was working with the FBI and also was talking to major news media. He also provided evidence of a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Trump and Putin were communicating via a secret server inside Russia’s Alfa Bank.

The State Department alerted the FBI to the contact. And separately, a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr warned that Steele appeared to be “desperate” to defeat Trump in the election and likely was working in some capacity with Clinton’s campaigns.

Despite those red flags, the FBI proceeded to use Steele and his work to support the FISA warrant on Oct. 21, 2016, even telling the judges the bureau had no derogatory information about his reliability or credibility as an informant.

More recently, congressional sources were briefed in a non-classified setting and told the United States possesses information that British intelligence offered a caution about Steele and his reliance on so-called sub-sources as early as 2015, according to an eyewitness to that briefing.

Such information, if corroborated and made public, could further change the narrative about the Russia case and the FBI’s larger use of human sources.

Earlier this year, the DOJ released a highly redacted version of Steele’s own source validation report from his time working as an informant in the Russia probe. The report appears to have been completed well after Steele was deactivated on Nov. 1, 2016 for leaking to the news media because it lists database checks made in February 2017.

But the report makes clear the FBI only had “medium” confidence that Steele had furthered their investigation and that his intelligence was only “minimally corroborated.”

That’s not a foundation, many experts see in retrospect, upon which the FBI should have built one of its most sensitive counterintelligence cases in the last decade.

In midst of 2016 election, State Department saw Burisma as Joe Biden’s issue, memos show

In recent interviews, Joe Biden has distanced himself from his son’s work at a Ukrainian gas company that was under investigation during the Obama years, with the former vice president  suggesting he didn’t even know Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma Holdings.

There is plenty of evidence that conflicts with the former vice president’s account, including Hunter Biden’s own story that he discussed the company once with his famous father.

There also was a December 2015 New York Times story that raised the question of whether Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma posed a conflict of interest for the vice president, especially when Joe Biden was leading the fight against Ukrainian corruption while Hunter Biden’s firm was under investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors.

But whatever the Biden family recollections, the Obama State Department clearly saw the Burisma Holdings investigation in the midst of the 2016 presidential election as a Joe Biden issue.

Memos newly released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Southeastern Legal Foundation on my behalf detail how State officials in June 2016 worked to prepare the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, to handle a question about “Burisma and Hunter Biden.”

In multiple drafts of a question-and-answer memo prepared for Yovanovitch’s Senate confirmation hearing, the department’s Ukraine experts urged the incoming ambassador to stick to a simple answer.

“Do you have any comment on Hunter Biden, the Vice President’s son, serving on the board of Burisma, a major Ukrainian Gas Company?,” the draft Q&A asked.

The recommended answer for Yovanovitch: “For questions on Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma, I would refer you to Vice President Biden’s office.”

The Q&A is consistent with other information flowing out of State. As I reported yesterday, when a Burisma representative contacted State in February 2016 to ask for the department’s help in quashing the corruption allegations, Hunter Biden’s role on the company’s board was prominently cited.

And a senior State Department official who testified recently in the impeachment proceedings reportedly told lawmakers he tried to warn the vice president’s office that Burisma posed a conflict for Joe Biden but was turned aside.

There are no laws that would have prevented Hunter Biden from joining Burisma, even as his father oversaw Ukraine policy for the President Obama.

And the corruption investigations launched in 2014 by British and Ukraine authorities involving Burisma and its owner Mykola Zlocvhevsky involved activities that pre-dated Hunter Biden’s arrival on the board. They were settled in late 2016 and early 2017.

Some of Biden’s media defenders have falsely suggested the investigations were dormant. They were not.

The real public interest question involves Joe Biden. Federal ethics rules require government officials to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and ethics experts I talked with say the vice president should have recused himself from issues affecting Burisma.

That became poignantly public when Biden leveraged the threat of canceling $1 billion in U.S. aid in March 2016 to get Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who just happened to oversee the Burisma probe. A month before the firing, Shokin escalated the corruption probe against Burisma by seizing the company owner’s property and assets.

Shokin says he was making plans to interview Hunter Biden and insists he was fired because he refused to stand down on the Burisma probe. Joe Biden insists he prompted Shokin’s firing because he believed the prosecutor was ineffective.

There are more memos and documents to be released in the coming months under the FOIA lawsuit I filed with the Southeastern Legal Foundation that may shine light on what actually happened.

But one thing is already clear: long before President Trump or his attorney Rudy Giuliani began investigating Ukrainian issues, career State officials already saw Burisma as an issue for Joe Biden.

Hunter Biden’s Ukraine gas firm pressed Obama administration to end corruption allegations, memos show

Hunter Biden and his Ukrainian gas firm colleagues had multiple contacts with the Obama State Department during the 2016 election cycle, including one just a month before Vice President Joe Biden forced Ukraine to fire the prosecutor investigating his son’s company for corruption, newly released memos show.

During that February 2016 contact, a U.S. representative for Burisma Holdings sought a meeting with Undersecretary of State Catherine A. Novelli to discuss ending the corruption allegations against the Ukrainian firm where Hunter Biden worked as a board member, according to memos obtained under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. (I filed that suit this summer with the help of the public interest law firm the Southeastern Legal Foundation.)

Just three weeks before Burisma’s overture to State, Ukrainian authorities raided the home of the oligarch who owned the gas firm and employed Hunter Biden, a signal the long-running corruption probe was escalating in the middle of the U.S. presidential election.

Hunter Biden’s name, in fact, was specifically invoked by the Burisma representative as a reason the State Department should help, according to a series of email exchanges among U.S. officials trying to arrange the meeting. The subject line for the email exchanges read simply “Burisma.”

“Per our conversation, Karen Tramontano of Blue Star Strategies requested a meeting to discuss with U/S Novelli USG remarks alleging Burisma (Ukrainian energy company) of corruption,” a Feb. 24, 2016, email between State officials read. “She noted that two high profile U.S. citizens are affiliated with the company (including Hunter Biden as a board member).

“Tramontano would like to talk with U/S Novelli about getting a better understanding of how the U.S. came to the determination that the company is corrupt,” the email added. “According to Tramontano there is no evidence of corruption, has been no hearing or process, and evidence to the contrary has not been considered.”

At the time, Novelli was the most senior official overseeing international energy issues for State. The undersecretary position, of which there are several, is the third-highest-ranking job at State, behind the secretary and deputy secretary. And Tramontano was a lawyer working for Blue Star Strategies, a Washington firm that was hired by Burisma to help end a long-running corruption investigation against the gas firm in Ukraine.

Tramontano and another Blue Star official, Sally Painter, both alumni of Bill Clinton’s administration, worked with New York-based criminal defense attorney John Buretta to settle the Ukraine cases in late 2016 and 2017. I wrote about their efforts previously here

Burisma Holdings records obtained by Ukrainian prosecutors state the gas firm made a $60,000 payment to Blue Star in November 2015.

The emails show Tramontano was scheduled to meet Novelli on March 1, 2016, and that State Department officials were scrambling to get answers ahead of time from the U.S. embassy in Kiev.

The records don’t show whether the meeting actually took place. The FOIA lawsuit is ongoing and State officials are slated to produce additional records in the months ahead.

But the records do indicate that Hunter Biden’s fellow American board member at Burisma,  Devon Archer, secured a meeting on March 2, 2016 with Secretary of State John Kerry. In addition to serving on the Burisma board, Archer and Hunter Biden were partners at an American firm known as Rosemont Seneca.

“Devon Archer coming to see S today at 3pm – need someone to meet/greet him at C Street,” an email from Kerry’s office manager reads. “S” is a shorthand frequently used in State emails to describe the Secretary of State. The memos don’t state the reason for the meeting.

Tramontano, a lawyer for Hunter Biden, Archer and Joe Biden’s campaign did not return messages seeking comment on Monday.

In an interview with ABC News last month, Hunter Biden said he believed he had done “nothing wrong at all” while working with Burisma but “was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is…a swamp in — in — in many ways? Yeah.”

Whatever the subject of the Archer-Kerry meeting, its existence is certain to spark interest. That’s because Secretary Kerry’s stepson, Christopher Heinz, had been a business partner with both Archer and Hunter Biden at the Rosemont Seneca investment firm in the United States.

Heinz, however, chose not to participate in the Burisma dealings. In fact, he wrote an email to his stepfather’s top aides in May 2014, pointedly distancing himself from the decision by Hunter Biden and Devon Archer to join Burisma’s board.

Heinz’s spokesman recently told The Washington Post that Heinz ended his relationship with Archer and Hunter Biden partly over the Burisma matter. “The lack of judgment in this matter was a major catalyst for Mr. Heinz ending his business relationships with Mr. Archer and Mr. Biden,” Heinz spokesman Chris Bastardi told the newspaper

A person who assisted Blue Star and Buretta in settling the Burisma matters in Ukraine told me in an interview that the late February 2016 overture to State was prompted by a dramatic series of events in Ukraine that included when that country’s top prosecutor escalated a two-year probe into Burisma and its founder, the oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky.

Zlochevsky’s gas firm hired Hunter Biden and Archer as board members for Burisma Holdings in spring 2014, around the time that British officials opened corruption investigations into Zlochevsky’s gas firm for actions dating to 2010 before Hunter Biden and Archer joined the firm. Ukraine officials opened their own corruption probe in August 2014.

A firm called Rosemont Seneca Bohai began receiving monthly payments totaling more than $166,000 from Burisma Holdings in May 2014, bank records show. The records show Devon Archer was listed as a custodian for the Rosemont Seneca Bohai firm and that Hunter Biden received payments from it. You can read those bank records here.

In September 2015, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt gave a speech imploring Ukrainian prosecutors to do more to bring Zlochevsky to justice, according to published reports at the time.

By early 2016 the Ukrainian investigation had advanced enough that then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin authorized a court-ordered seizure of Zlochevsky’s home and other valuables, including a luxury car. That seizure occurred on Feb. 2, 2016, according to published reports in Ukraine.

The same day that the Zlochevsky seizure was announced in Ukraine, Hunter Biden used his Twitter account to start following Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, a longtime national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who was promoted to the No. 2 job at State under Secretary John Kerry.

The Feb. 4, 2016 Twitter notification from Hunter Biden to Blinken was captured by State email servers and turned over to me as part of the FOIA release.

Within a few weeks of Tramontano’s overture to Novelli and of Archer’s overture to Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden took a stunning action, one that has enveloped his 2020 campaign for president in controversy.

By his own admission in a 2018 speech, Joe Biden used the threat of withholding $1 billion in U.S. aid to strong-arm Ukraine into firing Shokin, a prosecutor that he and his office knew was investigating Burisma.

Biden has said he forced Shokin’s firing because he and Western allies believed the prosecutor wasn’t aggressive enough in fighting corruption.

Shokin disputes that account, telling both me and ABC News that he was fired specifically because he would not stand down from investigating Burisma. In fact, Shokin alleges, he was making plans to interview Hunter Biden about his Burisma work and payments when he got the axe.

Ukraine prosecutors have said they do not believe the Bidens did anything wrong under Ukraine law. But some of the country’s prosecutors made an effort in 2018 to get information about Burisma to the U.S. Justice Department because they believed American prosecutors might be interested in some activities under U.S. law. You can read about that effort here.

Some experts and officials have been quoted in reports saying Joe Biden’s actions created the appearance of a conflict of interest, something all U.S. government officials are supposed to avoid. The questions about conflicts were previously raised in a 2015 article by the New York Times and the 2018 book Secret Empires by author Peter Schweizer.

The new evidence of contacts between Burisma, Hunter Biden and Archer at State are certain to add a new layer of intrigue to the debate. Those contacts span back to at least spring 2015, the new memos show.

On May 22, 2015, Hunter Biden emailed his father’s longtime trusted aide, Blinken, with the following message: “Have a few minutes next week to grab a cup of coffee? I know you are impossibly busy, but would like to get your advice on a couple of things, Best, Hunter.”

Blinken responded the same day with an “absolutely” and added, “Look forward to seeing you.”

The records indicate the two men were scheduled to meet the afternoon of May 27, 2015.

The State Department records also indicate Hunter Biden met Blinken in person for lunch on July 22, 2015, when State officials gave the name of a person to meet to help him enter the building. “He has the VIP pin and can escort you upstairs for your lunch with Tony,” the email said.

The emails don’t indicate whether the meeting had to do with Burisma or one of Hunter Biden’s other interests.

But they clearly show that Hunter Biden, his business partner and Burisma’s legal team were able to secure contacts inside the State Department, including to one of his father’s most trusted aides, to Secretary Kerry and to the agency’s top energy official.

The question now is: Did any of those contacts prompt further action or have anything to do with Joe Biden’s conduct in Ukraine in March 2016 when he forced Shokin’s firing?

Debunking some of the Ukraine scandal myths about Biden and election interference

There is a long way to go in the impeachment process, and there are some very important issues still to be resolved. But as the process marches on, a growing number of myths and falsehoods are being spread by partisans and their allies in the news media.

The early pattern of misinformation about Ukraine, Joe Biden and election interference mirrors closely the tactics used in late 2016 and early 2017 to build the false and now-debunked narrative that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin colluded to hijack the 2016 election.

Facts do matter. And they prove to be stubborn evidence, even in the midst of a political firestorm. So here are the facts (complete with links to the original materials) debunking some of the bigger fables in the Ukraine scandal.

Myth: There is no evidence the Democratic National Committee sought Ukraine’s assistance during the 2016 election.

The Facts: The Ukrainian embassy in Washington confirmed to me this past April that a Democratic National Committee contractor named Alexandra Chalupa did, in fact, solicit dirt on Donald Trump and Paul Manafort during the spring of 2016 in hopes of spurring a pre-election congressional hearing into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. The embassy also stated Chalupa tried to get Ukraine’s president at the time, Petro Poroshenko, to do an interview on Manafort with an American investigative reporter working on the issue. The embassy said it turned down both requests.

You can read the Ukraine embassy’s statement here. The statement essentially confirmed a January 2017 investigative article in Politico that first raised concerns about Chalupa’s contacts with the embassy.

Chalupa’s activities involving Ukraine were further detailed in a May 2016 email published by WikiLeaks in which she reported to DNC officials on her efforts to dig up dirt on Manafort and Trump. You can read that email here.  Myth: There is no evidence that Ukrainian government officials tried to influence the American presidential election in 2016.

The Facts: There are two documented episodes involving Ukrainian government officials’ efforts to influence the 2016 American presidential election. The first occurred in Ukraine, where a court last December ruled that a Parliamentary member and a senior Ukrainian law enforcement official improperly tried to influence the U.S. election by releasing financial records in spring and summer 2016 from an investigation into Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s lobbying activities. The publicity from the release of the so-called Black Ledger documents forced Manafort to resign. You can read that ruling here.  While that court ruling since has been set aside on a jurisdiction technicality, the facts of the released information are not in dispute.

The second episode occurred on U.S. soil back in August 2016 when Ukraine’s then-ambassador to Washington, Valeriy Chaly, took the extraordinary step of writing an OpEd in The Hill criticizing GOP nominee Donald Trump and his views on Russia just three months before Election Day. You can read that OpEd here.

Chaly later told me through his spokeswoman that he wasn’t writing the OpEd for political purposes but rather to address his country’s geopolitical interests. But his article, nonetheless, was viewed by many in career diplomatic circles as running contrary to the Geneva Convention’s rules barring diplomats from becoming embroiled in the host country’s political affairs. And it clearly adds to the public perception that Ukraine’s government at the time preferred Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election.

Myth: The allegation that Joe Biden tried to fire the Ukrainian prosecutor investigating his son Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian gas firm employer has been debunked, and there is no evidence the ex-vice president did anything improper.

The Facts: Joe Biden is captured on  videotape bragging about his effort to strong-arm Ukraine’s president into firing Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Biden told a foreign policy group in early 2018 that he used the threat of withholding $1 billion in U.S. aid to Kiev to successfully force Shokin’s firing. You can watch Biden’s statement here.

It also is not in dispute that at the time he forced the firing, the vice president’s office knew Shokin was investigating Burisma Holdings, the company where Hunter Biden worked as a board member and consultant. Team Biden was alerted to the investigation in a December 2015 New York Times article. You can read that article here.

The unresolved question is what motivated Joe Biden to seek Shokin’s ouster. Biden says he took the action solely because the U.S. and Western allies believed Shokin was ineffective in fighting corruption. Shokin told me, ABC News and others that he was fired because Joe Biden was unhappy that the Burisma investigation was not shut down. He made similar statements in an affidavit prepared to be filed in an European court. You can read that affidavit here.

In the end, though, whether Joe Biden had good or bad intentions in getting Shokin fired is somewhat irrelevant to the question of the vice president’s ethical obligation.

U.S. ethics rules require all government officials to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in taking official actions. Ethics experts I talked with say Biden should have recused himself from the Shokin matter once he learned about the Burisma investigation to avoid the appearance issue.

And a senior U.S. diplomat was quoted in testimony reported by The Washington Post earlier this month that he tried to raise warnings with Biden’s VP office in 2015 that Hunter Biden’s role at the Ukrainian firm raised the potential issue of conflicts of interest.

Myth: Ukraine’s investigation into Burisma Holdings was no longer active when Joe Biden forced Shokin’s firing in March 2016.

The Facts: This is one of the most egregiously false statements spread by the media. Ukraine’s official case file for Burisma Holdings, provided to me by prosecutors, shows there were two active investigations into the gas firm and its founder Mykola Zlochevsky in early 2016, one involving corruption allegations and the other involving unpaid taxes.

In fact, Shokin told me in an interview he was making plans to interview Burisma board members, including Hunter Biden, at the time he was fired. And it was publicly reported that in February 2016, a month before Shokin was fired, that Ukrainian prosecutors raided one of Zlochevsky’s homes and seized expensive items like a luxury car as part of the corruption probe. You can read a contemporaneous news report about the seizure here.

Burisma’s own legal activities also clearly show the investigations were active at the time Shokin was fired. Internal emails I obtained from the American legal team representing Burisma show that on March 29, 2016 – the very day Shokin was fired – Burisma lawyer John Buretta was seeking a meeting with Shokin’s temporary replacement in hopes of settling the open cases.

In May 2016 when new Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko was appointed, Buretta then sent a letter to the new prosecutor seeking to resolve the investigations of Burisma  and Zlochevsky. You can read that letter here.

Buretta eventually gave a February 2017 interview to the Kiev Post in which he divulged that the corruption probe was resolved in fall 2016 and the tax case by early January 2017.  You can read Buretta’s interview here.

In another words, the Burisma investigations were active at the time Vice President Biden forced Shokin’s firing, and any suggestion to the contrary is pure misinformation.

Myth: There is no evidence Vice President Joe Biden did anything to encourage Burisma’s hiring of his son Hunter.

The Facts: This is another area where the public facts cry out for more investigation and raise a question in some minds about another appearance of a conflict of interest.

Hunter Biden’s business partner, Devon Archer, was appointed to Burisma’s board in mid-April 2014 and the firm Rosemont Seneca Bohai — jointly owned by Hunter Biden and Devon Archer — received its first payments from the Ukrainian gas company on April 15, 2014, according to the company’s ledgers. That very same day as the first Burisma payment, Devon Archer met with Joe Biden at the White House, according to White House visitor logs. It is not known what the two discussed.

A week later, Joe Biden traveled to Ukraine and met with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. During that meeting, the American vice president urged Ukraine to ramp up energy production to free itself from its Russian natural gas dependence. Biden even boasted that “an American team is currently in the region working with Ukraine and its neighbors to increase Ukraine’s short-term energy supply.” Yatsenyuk welcomed the help from American “investors” in modernizing natural gas supply lines in Ukraine. You can read the Biden-Yatsenyuk transcript here.

Less than three weeks later, Burisma added Hunter Biden to its board to join Archer. To some, the sequence of events creates the appearance that Joe Biden’s pressure to increase Ukrainian gas supply and to urge Kiev to rely on Americans might have led Burisma to hire his son. More investigation needs to be done to determine exactly what happened. And until that occurs, the appearance issue will likely linger over this episode.

Myth: Hunter Biden’s firm only received $50,000 a month for his work as a board member and consultant for Burisma Holdings.

The Facts: This figure frequently cited by Biden defenders and the media significantly understates what Burisma was paying Hunter Biden’s Rosemont Seneca Bohai firm for his and Devon Archer’s services. Bank records obtained by the FBI in an unrelated case show that between May 2014 and the end of 2015, Hunter Biden’s and Archer’s firm received monthly consulting payments totaling $166,666, or three times the amount cited by the media. In some months, there was even more money than that paid. You can review those bank records here.

The monthly payments figures are confirmed by the accounting ledger that Burisma turned over to Ukrainian prosecutors. That ledger, which you can read here, also shows that in spring and summer of 2014 Burisma paid more than $283,000 to the American law firm of Boies Schiller, where Hunter Biden also worked as an attorney.

Myth: President Trump was trying to force Ukraine to reopen a probe into Burisma Holdings and its founder Mykola Zlochevsky when he talked to Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in July of this year.

The Facts: Trump could not have forced the Ukrainians into opening a new Burisma investigation in July because the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office had already done so on March 28, 2019, or three months before the call.

The prosecutors filed this notice of suspicion in Ukraine announcing the re-opening of the investigation. The revival of the case was even widely reported in the Ukrainian press, something U.S. intelligence and diplomats who are now testifying to Congress behind closed doors should have known. Here’s an example of one such Ukrainian media report at the time.

Myth: Former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko retracted or recanted his claim that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in 2016 identified people and entities she did not what to see prosecuted in Ukraine.

The Facts: In a March interview with me at Hill.TV captured on videotape, Lutsenko stated that during his first meeting with Yovanovitch in summer 2016, the American diplomat rattled off a list of names of Ukrainian individuals and entities she did not want to see investigated or prosecuted. Lutsenko called it a “do not prosecute” list. You can watch that video here. The State Department disputed his characterization as a fabrication, which Hill.TV reported in its original report.

A few weeks later, a Ukrainian news outlet claimed it interviewed Lutsenko and he backed off his assertion about the list. Several American outlets have since picked up that same language.

There is just one problem. I re-interviewed Lutsenko after the Ukrainian report suggesting he recanted. He adamantly denied recanting, retracting or changing his story, and said the Ukrainian newspaper simply misunderstood that the list of names were conveyed orally during the meeting and not in writing, just like he said in the original Hill.TV interview.

Here is Lutsenko’s full explanation to me back last spring: “At no time since our interview have I ever retracted the statement I made about the U.S. ambassador providing me a list of names of people and organizations she did not want my office to prosecute. Shortly after my televised interview with your news organization I was asked by a Ukraine reporter if I had a copy of the letter that Ambassador Yovanovitch provided me with the names of those she did not want prosecuted. The reporter misunderstood how the names were transmitted to me. I explained to the reporter that the Ambassador did not hand me a written list but rather provided the list of names orally over the course of a meeting.” Lutsenko reaffirmed he stood by his statements again in September.

It is important to note Lutsenko’s story was also backed up by State Department officials and contemporaneous memos before his interview was ever aired. For instance, a senior U.S. official I interviewed for the Lutsenko story reviewed the list of names that Lutsenko recalled being on the so-called do-not-prosecute list.

That official stated during the interview: ““I can confirm to you that at least some of those names are names that U.S. embassy Kiev raised with the Prosecutor General’s office because we were concerned about retribution and unfair treatment of Ukrainians viewed as favorable to the United States.”

Separately, both U.S. and Ukrainian official confirmed to me a letter written by then-U.S. embassy official George Kent in April 2016 in which U.S. officials pointedly (and in writing) demanded that Ukrainian prosecutors stand down an investigation into several Ukrainian nonprofit groups suspected of misspending U.S. foreign aid. The letter even named one of the groups, the AntiCorruption Action Centre, a nonprofit funded jointly by the State Department and liberal megadonor George Soros.

“We are gravely concerned about this investigation, for which we see no basis,” Kent wrote the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in April 2016. You can read the letter here

So even without Lutsenko’s claim, there is substantial evidence that the U.S. embassy in Kiev applied pressure on Ukrainian prosecutors not to pursue certain investigations in 2016.   

Myth: The narratives about Biden, the U.S. embassy and Ukrainian election interference are conspiracy theories invented by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to impact the 2020 election.

The Facts: Giuliani began investigating matters in Ukraine in late fall 2018 as a personal lawyer to the president. But months before his quest began, Ukrainian prosecutors believed they possessed evidence about Burisma, the Bidens and 2016 election interference that might interest the U.S. Justice Department. It is the same evidence that came to light this spring and summer and that is now a focus of the impeachment proceedings.

Originally, one of Ukraine’s senior prosecutors tried to secure a visa to come to the United States to deliver that evidence. But when the U.S. embassy in Kiev did not fulfill his travel request, the group of Ukrainian prosecutors used an intermediary to hire a former U.S. attorney in America to reach out to the U.S. attorney office in New York and try to arrange a transfer of the evidence. The Ukrainian prosecutors’ story about making the overture to the DOJ was independently verified by the American lawyer they hired.

So the activities and allegation now at the heart of impeachment actually pre-date Giuliani starting work on Ukraine. You can read the prosecutors’ account of their 2018 effort to get this information to Americans here.

Clinton campaign given defensive briefing about foreign threat, something Trump never got on Russia

As the Justice Department’s review into the now-debunked Russia collusion probe becomes more public, one issue likely to dominate debate is whether the FBI treated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump differently during the 2015-16 presidential election.

Exhibit One in that debate may involve a December 2015 event that has been kept from public view for most of the last three years.

A half dozen sources with direct knowledge tell me that Clinton’s presidential campaign was given a defensive briefing from U.S. intelligence that month about a possible foreign threat.

Government officials have known for months about the briefing but were forbidden from talking about it because it was classified.

But in recent weeks congressional investigators and others were allowed to see a document where a reference to the briefing was left in an unclassified section of the memo.

My sources say the FBI was a participant in the briefing but they cannot tell me which foreign power was raised with Clinton’s team because it remains classified. Several said the threat did not involve Russia, Ukraine or China though.

FBI and Justice Department officials declined comment, and former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Whatever country was raised with Clinton’s campaign, the existence of the briefing itself is likely to revive concerns, at least among Republicans, that political bias caused the FBI to treat Trump and Clinton differently during the last presidential election.

While the FBI provided a generic briefing to candidate Trump about foreign threats, the bureau never gave Trump a defensive briefing during the election about its concerns that Russia was trying to compromise some of his campaign aides. Instead, the bureau opened a counterintelligence investigation and secured a secret FISA warrant to spy on some of the campaign’s activities, including former adviser Carter Page.

The fact that the Clinton campaign was given the sort of defensive briefing Trump never received is certain to set off new alarm bells.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have been pressing recently to force more transparency into the question of defensive briefings for public officials being targeted by foreign powers.

“The Department of Homeland Security has made clear that ‘[a] secure and resilient electoral process is a vital national interest.’ An essential part of that process is ensuring that all candidates for office are treated fairly and are fully and equally prepared to address any potential security and counterintelligence concerns,” the senators wrote in a letter to the FBI. “The apparent absence of any policy, procedure, or practice for conducting defensive briefings undermines that process by risking the appearance of bias or, at worst, causing actual prejudice to a candidate for office.”

Expect defensive briefings to remain an issue well into the 2020 election.

Steele, State and the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory exposed.

State Department building
Official government photo of US State Department headquarters in Washington.

When Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller finally testified this summer, one of the few substantive revelations he made about something not specifically addressed in his final report involved a long-pedaled allegation that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had a secret communications network through a computer server at Russia’s Alfa Bank.

“I believe it’s not true,” Mueller testified when questioned by Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, confirming in public what FBI officials had privately told me and other reporters going back to late 2016.

We now have strong evidence that one of the events that gave life to that conspiracy theory was an Oct. 11, 2016 visit by the British intelligence operative Christopher Steele to the State Department, where the author of the now infamous anti-Trump dossier met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec.

Just a few days after the visit, Kavalec forwarded a document to FBI official Stephen Laycock on Oct. 13, 2016 as a followup to her contact with Steele that offered significant detail about the Alfa Bank theory based on unexplained pings between a server at the bank and one used by the Trump organization on the East Coast.

You can read the document here.

“Network logs show a distinctively human pattern of communications between a hidden server dedicated for use by the Trump Organization and the Russian financial company Alfa Bank, which has close ties to the Kremlin,” the document Kavalec forwarded to the FBI stated.

The memo also stated that after a New York Times reporter contacted Alfa Bank about the pings, the “hidden server belonging to Trump then disappears.” It added “no one but Alfa Bank was asked.” The document said people seeking more information on the allegations could contact a well known online computer expert who goes by the name Tea Leaves.

I obtained a copy of the original document Kavalec was provided. A second version of the memo — which was marked up with comments casting doubt on the veracity of the allegations — remains under tight hold at the Justice Department as prosecutors examine possible misconduct in the now-closed Russia probe.

Congressional investigators who have investigated the Kavalec-Steele meeting believe the Alfa Bank memo was downloaded from an Internet file server known as Mediafire and provided to Kavalec either by Steele or his longtime contact inside the State Department, Jonathan Winer. 

State Department emails show Kavalec asked Winer to help retrieve a document starting on Oct. 12 based on what had been discussed in the meeting with Steele a day earlier.

“Thanks for bringing your friend by yesterday,” Kavalec wrote Winer, referring to Steele. “It was very helpful. I’ll be interested to see the article you mentioned.”

Investigators who have seen the redacted version of Kavalec’s transmission of the memo to the FBI say it clearly indicates Steele was involved in discussing the Alfa Bank allegations.

Steele’s own dossier shows he began investigating Alfa Bank connections to the Kremlin about a month before the meeting with Kavalec, penning a memo dated Sept. 14, 2016 entitled “Russia/US Presidential Election: Kremlin-Alpha Group Co-Operation.” Steele misspelled the bank’s name but suggested in the dossier it could be an avenue for Putin to influence the election. Alfa Bank long has denied any collusion and even sued Steele unsuccessfully for defamation

Whether Steele or Winer first provided the computer pings document, the theory soon became political fodder for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that was hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee to find dirt on Trump and Russia and which employed both Steele and and another Russian researcher named Nellie Ohr, the wife of a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr.
 

In a December 2016 meeting with Bruce Ohr, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson pedaled the Alfa Bank rumor again, information that Ohr subsequently provided to the FBI. Simpson told Ohr that a New York Times article dismissing the Alfa Bank theory was wrong, according to Ohr’s own notes.

“The New York Times story on Oct. 31 downplaying the connection between Alfa servers and the Trump campaign was incorrect,” Simpson was quoted as saying. “There was communication and it wasn’t spam.”

Separately, former FBI general counsel James Baker told Congress last year he received similar allegations about Alfa from a DNC lawyer named Michael Sussman and provided it to agents in the Russia case in late summer or early fall 2016.

As early as next week, the Justice Department inspector general will release his report on the FBI reliance on the Steele dossier to secure a FISA warrant authorizing the Russia probe’s surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page at the end of the 2016 election.

It is widely expected that Steele’s meeting with Kavalec will be cited in that report, possibly as a red flag missed by the FBI or DOJ before approving the FISA.

One thing is for certain. The now debunked conspiracy theory about Alfa Bank and Russia collusion was given life through Steele’s contact at State, fanned by career bureaucrats and the Fusion GPS firm.

It’s the sort of tale that makes some believe there is — or at least was — a “deep state” trying to influence the 2016 election.

The most important stories on the Ukraine scandal.

Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland Sit With Ukrainian President Poroshenko. Source: State Department.

Lots of readers have asked me recently about what are the most important stories that I have reported on Ukraine, Joe Biden, the U.S. embassy in Kiev and George Soros.

Here is a quick cheat sheet of my columns on Ukraine that have garnered the most attention from my days writing at The Hill, starting with the April 1, 2019 column that started it all.

1.) Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian Nightmare – A Closed Probe Is Revived

Two years after leaving office, Joe Biden couldn’t resist the temptation last year to brag to an audience of foreign policy specialists about the time as vice president that he strong-armed Ukraine into firing its top prosecutor.

Continue reading here.

2.) These once-secret memos cast doubt on Joe Biden’s Ukraine story

Former Vice President Joe Biden, now a 2020 Democratic presidential contender, has locked into a specific story about the controversy in Ukraine.

He insists that, in spring 2016, he strong-armed Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor solely because Biden believed that official was corrupt and inept, not because the Ukrainian was investigating a natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, that hired Biden’s son, Hunter, into a lucrative job.

There’s just one problem.

Continue reading here.

3.) Document reveals Ukraine had already re-opened probe into gas firm tied to Joe Biden’s family before Trump phone call

Continue reading here.

4.) Ukrainian Embassy confirms DNC operative solicited Trump dirt in 2016

The boomerang from the Democratic Party’s failed attempt to connect Donald Trump to Russia’s 2016 election meddling is picking up speed, and its flight path crosses right through Moscow’s pesky neighbor, Ukraine. That is where there is growing evidence a foreign power was asked, and in some cases tried, to help Hillary Clinton.

In its most detailed account yet, the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington says a Democratic National Committee (DNC) insider during the 2016 election solicited dirt on Donald Trump’s campaign chairman and even tried to enlist the country’s president to help.

Read more here.

5.) My interview with former Ukrainian General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko

Watch here.

6.) My interview with Ukrainian Parliamentary member Serhiy Leshchenko about the Manafort black ledger

Watch here and here.

7.) George Soros’ secret 2016 access to State Department exposes Democrats’ big money hypocrisy

Liberal mega-donor George Soros made some big bets during the last U.S. presidential election. One was that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Another was that he could reshape Ukraine’s government to his liking, and that his business empire might find fertile ground in that former Soviet state.

So when Donald Trump’s improbable march to the White House picked up steam in the spring of 2016, Team Soros marched to the top of the State Department to protect some of those investments, according to newly released department memos providing a rare glimpse into the Democratic donor’s extraordinary access to the Obama administration.

Read more here.