Impeachment surprise: How Adam Schiff validated my reporting on Ukraine

I have to thank Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman and impeachment maestro. Really, I am grateful.

While the jury is still out on high crimes and misdemeanors, Schiff has managed to produce during the first few weeks of his impeachment hearings a robust body of evidence and testimony that supports all three of the main tenets of my Ukraine columns.

In fact, his witnesses have done more than anyone to affirm the accuracy of my columns and to debunk the false narrative by a dishonest media and their friends inside the federal bureaucracy that my reporting was somehow false conspiracy theories.

The half dozen seminal columns I published for The Hill on Ukraine were already supported by overwhelming documentation (all embedded in the story) and on-the-record interviews captured on video. They made three salient and simple points:

  1. Hunter Biden’s hiring by the Ukrainian gas firm Burisma Holdings, while it was under a corruption investigation, posed the appearance of a conflict of interest for his father. That’s because Vice President Joe Biden oversaw US-Ukraine policy and forced the firing of the Ukrainian prosecutor overseeing the case.
  2. Ukraine officials had an uneasy relationship with our embassy in Kiev because State Department officials exerted pressure on Ukraine prosecutors to drop certain cases against activists, including one group partly funded by George Soros. 
  3. There were efforts around Ukraine in 2016 to influence the US election, that included a request from a DNC contractor for dirt on Manafort, an OpEd from Ukraine’s US ambassador slamming Trump and the release of law enforcement evidence by Ukrainian officials that a Ukraine court concluded was an improper interference in the US election.

All three of these points have since been validated by the sworn testimony of Schiff’s witnesses this month, starting with the Bidens.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified he believed the Burisma-Bidens dynamic created the appearance of a conflict of interest, and that State officials viewed Burisma as having a corrupt relationship.

Kent testified State’s sentiments were so strong that he personally intervened in 2016 to stop a joint project between one of his department’s agencies and Burisma. When asked why, he answered: “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.”

State officials also testified they tried to raise the issue of an apparent conflict of interest with Biden’s office back in 2015, but were rebuffed.

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was asked last week if she shared Kent’s assessment about Joe Biden and Burisma. She answered clearly: “I think that it could raise the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Federal officials are required to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, something State officials saw with Joe Biden. This obligation doesn’t rely on whether Biden forced the firing of the Ukraine prosecutor for good or bad reasons. The appearance issue existed even before Biden forced the firing,

For weeks, media have claimed my Biden column was a debunked “conspiracy theory” and no one saw anything wrong. Now we know the very people working on Ukraine policy below Joe Biden in the State Department saw the appearance of a conflict, long before I reported it. And they were so concerned about Burisma’s corruption reputation that they took official actions to distance the U.S. from the firm that hired Hunter Biden.

The second point I made in my columns was there was significant evidence that some officials tied to Ukraine tried or did influence the 2016 election. That evidence included:

  • an OpEd written by the Ukrainian ambassador to Washington in August 2016 slamming Donald Trump
  • the release of sensitive law enforcement information by two Ukrainian government officials against Paul Manafort that forced the Trump campaign chairman to resign in 2016. A Ukrainian court later ruled the two officials’ actions were an improper effort by Ukraine to interference in the 2016 election. That ruling was set aside recently, not on the merits of the interference but on a jurisdictional technicality.
  • A solicitation by a Democratic National Committee contractor seeking dirt from the Ukraine embassy on Trump and Manafort in spring 2016. The Ukrainian embassy confirms the solicitation, and says it was rebuffed,.

Schiff’s witnesses confirmed they knew about those issues in 2016 and 2017 but took no formal action. Yovanovitch was among those who said she didn’t raise any alarms, drawing this rebuke from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

“In 2016, when we know that the majority of Ukrainian politicians want Clinton to win because it was said by a member of parliament when the ambassador to the United States from Ukraine writes an op-ed criticizing then-Candidate Trump, when Mr. Avakov calls Candidate Trump all kinds of names, nobody goes and talks to them and tells them to knock it off.”

Such inaction on perceived election interference is a fair issue for the American public to consider, which is why I raised it in the first place.

The third point of my columns was that there was long-standing friction between the U.S. embassy in Kiev and Ukraine prosecutors, friction that threatened to set back the fight against corruption in the old Soviet bloc country.

Former Ukraine prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko highlighted this issue in a video-recorded interview with me in March when he claimed Yovanovitch gave him in 2016 a list of names of Ukrainian nationals she did not want to see prosecuted.

Yovanovitch adamantly denied this and I quoted both sides in my original story. Then a Ukrainian news outlet claimed Lutsenko recanted his claims about the list.

That is not true. Both the New York Times and I have interviewed him since, and Lutsenko reaffirms he believes Yovanovitch pressured him not to pursue certain Ukrainian individuals she named during the meeting.

So at best, the issue is a classic he-said, she-said. And I gave both sides their due say in my original stories, like good journalists should do,

But then Schiff’s witnesses, particularly Kent, added to the narrative. They directly acknowledged at least four of the names Lutsenko gave me in the March interview were the subject of a pressure campaign by the U.S. embassy in Kiev. They included:

  • a nonprofit Ukrainian group partly funded by George Soros and the US embassy called the AntiCorruption Action Centre.
  • a Ukraine parliamentary member named Sergey Leschenko who helped release the Manafort documents
  • a senior law enforcement official named Artem Sytnyk, who also helped release the Manafort documents
  • a journalist named Vitali Shabunin, who helped found the above-mentioned nonprofit.

Kent acknowledged he signed an April 2016 letter asking Ukrainian prosecutors to stand down an investigation against the anti-corruption group, and his explanations about the pressure the embassy applied on the Shabunin and Sytnyk probes are worth reading.

“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.”

Yovanovitch for her part stood by her denial of the do-not-prosecute list. But even she admitted she was, in her own words, “pushing” the Ukraine prosecutors. “I advocated the U.S. position that the rule of law should prevail and Ukrainian law enforcement, prosecutors and judges should stop wielding their power selectively as a political weapon against their adversaries, and start dealing with all consistently and according to the law.”

In another words, she pushed back on certain investigations, just like Kent had testified.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether what transpired was a formal list like Lutsenko claimed or a pressure campaign on specific cases like Kent testified. The issue of public interest is that the situation was dysfunctional: Ukraine prosecutors felt bullied by the embassy, and US officials were unhappy with cases against certain figures.

So the next time you hear my stories were debunked, faulty or wrong (without anyone citing specific facts that were wrong), keep this in mind: Adam Schiff’s witnesses corroborated what I reported.

And that makes the attacks on my columns misleading, unethical and undemocratic. Reporters should be allowed to raise issues of public importance like conflict appearances, election interference and dysfunctional foreign relations without being taken to the woodshed of censorship and false shame.

And public officials like Biden, and Yovanovitch, shouldn’t cry victimization just because a journalist raised a legitimate debate over policy issues.