by Katie Zavadski, ProPublica
The Ukraine scandal is mostly viewed through the prism of politics — an attempt by President Donald Trump to gain an advantage over a political opponent. But, as most things are, it’s also about money — and we found lots of it flowing between key players in the scandal.
On this week’s episode of “Trump, Inc.” podcast, we follow the money.
First, Let’s Meet Our Cast of Ukraine Players
Richest among them is Dmitry Firtash, an oligarch who has been battling to avoid an extradition flight to Chicago, where he faces federal charges of bribery. The Department of Justice has described Firtash as an “upper-echelon” associate “of Russian organized crime.” (He denies the charges and says the prosecution is politically motivated.)
Firtash made his fortune as a behind-the-scenes middleman selling heavily marked-up Russian gas to Europe. So he wasn’t happy when Vice President Joe Biden pushed Ukraine to roll back corruption. After Biden gave a speech in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2015 saying the energy sector “needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles — not sweetheart deals,” Firtash called it “repulsive.”
Firtash hired attorneys Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, who frequently appear on TV defending Trump over Ukraine. The two also represent journalist John Solomon, whose stories ended up spreading Ukraine disinformation.
And then there’s Lev Parnas, who translated for Firtash’s legal team and is an associate of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “I’m the best-paid interpreter in the world,” Parnas reportedly said.
Parnas and his partner Igor Fruman were indicted in October over allegedly funneling foreign money into U.S. elections. (They deny the charges.)
Firtash and the rest of the Ukraine players have all been busy with a flurry of intertwined business ventures. Let’s take a look:
Business Venture No. 1: Natural Gas and the Firing of an Ambassador
At the same time Parnas and Fruman were suddenly becoming big Republican donors, they were trying to leverage those new political connections to advance their needs in the natural gas industry in Ukraine. Their goals would have been very profitable for Firtash.
It didn’t work. But they did get something else they were pushing for, specifically, the firing of U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. “They were interested in having a different ambassador at post, I guess for — because they wanted to have business dealings in Ukraine, or additional business dealings,” Yovanovitch testified. “I didn’t understand that, because nobody at the embassy had ever met those two individuals.”
Business Venture No. 2: Submarines, Yachts, Real Estate and Other Things Rich People Like
Fruman, we’ve learned, has an interesting company, Otrada Luxury Group, that appears to be catering to those with lots of disposable income. A partial list of goods, according to the company’s brochure: jewelry and expensive watches, yachts, speedboats, private planes, high-end real estate and, of course, submarines and amphibious vehicles.
We went to the U.S. address listed on a brochure. It’s a rent-by-the-hour office. No one there seemed to know of Fruman or Otrada.
Business Venture No. 3: Cybersecurity Consulting Starring Giuliani
An intriguingly named company owned by Parnas, Fraud Guarantee, paid Giuliani $500,000 for consulting. The Wall Street Journal dug into the company and could find no actual business or customers. Giuliani said the money came from a domestic source, but he declined to say from whom.
Business Ventures No. 4 and No. 5: Giuliani’s Podcasts
As ProPublica has reported, Giuliani was also working on a podcast with The Hill, the publication that ended up passing along Ukraine disinformation. Giuliani said he was “never paid” for the work and said it was a “perfectly legitimate situation.” The Hill said it had been planning a “podcast network with a multitude of political voices from all sides.”
Although nothing came of that effort, Giuliani is still apparently looking to get into the podcast game. He was overheard during a recent lunch discussing a potential podcast focused on the impeachment. “He is considering several options,” a Giuliani spokeswoman told CNN. “Many Americans want to hear directly from Rudy Giuliani.”
And Then There Is the Jewish Refugee Charity
Fruman is also at the helm of a U.S.-based nonprofit that raises money for a Jewish refugee settlement outside Kyiv. The nonprofit, American Friends of Anatevka, sponsored a trip Giuliani was planning to take to Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s opponents. Giuliani is also the settlement’s honorary mayor. American Friends of Anatevka is currently advertising a million-dollar match for donations. Its tax returns show it had less than $1,500 in income in 2017.
White House Gift Shop Selling Coronavirus Commemorative Coins
WASHINGTON, DC (TMZ) — The White House Gift Shop is hawking some odd memorabilia … a coronavirus commemorative coin no one asked for.
The COVID-19 coin features the names of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence … and it depicts an empty presidential podium on one side, and a graphic of the novel coronavirus above the world on the other side.
The coin also shouts out the rest of the COVID-19 task force … with smaller printed names for Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The collector’s item is emblazoned with tons of slogans … including “Together We FOUGHT The UNSEEN Enemy,” “Everday HEROES Suited Up,” and “Everyday CITIZENS Did Their Part.”
The White House Gift Shop is already taking pre-orders for the coin … and the price is slashed from $125 down to $100. The store, which is privately run and only loosely related to the actual White House, claims proceeds will be donated to hospitals.
The COVID-19 coin is the 11th in the gift shop’s “Historic Moments” collection, which also commemorates Trump’s meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So, at least the coronavirus coin is in … good company.
Trump Thinks Armed Michigan Protesters Are ‘Very Good People’
MICHIGAN (TMZ) — President Trump has found another group of “very good people” … the gun-toting right-wing extremists who stormed the Michigan statehouse to protest coronavirus restrictions.
Trump is strongly supporting the heavily-armed protesters … he says they are very good, very angry people who deserve a seat at the table with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
Mind you, Michigan does not meet the very same federal guidelines for reopening that the President and his coronavirus task force announced last month.
Trump tweeted out his support of the rifle-clad protesters and tried to shift the onus on Whitmer, saying … “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.”
POTUS added … “They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
The protesters are up in arms over the fact Gov. Whitmer extended the state’s emergency stay-at-home order until the end of May.
Of course, Trump started the battle cry for the “liberation” of several states — including Michigan — just hours after he laid out the federal guidelines. He, at least, said reopening should be done slowly and smartly … based on data.
That’s apparently out the window.
It has to be said … Trump’s comments about the Michigan protesters are reminiscent of the Charlottesville rioters, who he called very fine people.
Trump’s Own Officials Depended on WHO. Then He Turned Against It.
As President Donald Trump publicly bashed the World Health Organization over its response to the coronavirus pandemic last week, American aid officials tried to delicately sidestep the political tensions, internal documents shared with ProPublica show.
And Trump’s campaign upended weeks of partnership between his own administration and the WHO, which provides advice and support for health officials in developing countries. The U.S. Agency for International Development had chosen to funnel much of its pandemic response through the WHO.
Even as they dealt with the fallout of Trump’s decision to cut off WHO funding, his administration leaned on it for expert advice.
“Given the political dynamics, I do not recommend reference to WHO here or below,” wrote one U.S. Agency for International Development career official in a comment on a draft report about how emergency funding would be spent. “Recommend deleting.”
The April 10 comment on the document prompted a rebuttal a few days later from another career official, one of many who argued that the WHO’s role in the health crisis should not be caught up in a political spat.
“It’s actually important to reference WHO standards during this type of emergency pandemic response – even with current political dynamics,” wrote the official, who argued for leaving in the mention of the WHO. It’s unclear which wording made it into the final version of the document.
The exchange was just one example of the angst that spread throughout USAID as it became clear that Trump would follow through with his April 10 threat to cut off WHO funding, and it was indicative of efforts by officials to downplay the role of an important public health partner. Just a few days later, on Tuesday, Trump paused all U.S. funding for the WHO, upending crucial plans for containing the virus in developing countries and bolstering China’s narrative that it is stepping into the traditional U.S. role of global leader.
Interviews with current and former U.S. officials and the internal documents and communications show that despite Trump’s recent disparagement of the WHO, his administration was for weeks relying heavily on its expertise and global reach to fight the pandemic. And in a public relations battle between China and the U.S. over global leadership, American diplomats and aid officials have cited robust U.S. funding of the WHO as a key supporting argument.
The WHO’s expertise is a critical resource for developing countries that lack their own strong public health sectors, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former USAID official during the Obama administration. Cutting the WHO out of funding means the U.S. is eliminating its own ability to control the pandemic in those countries, he said.
“If you want to try and fight a public health crisis in a developing country without the WHO, you are lost from the outset,” Konyndyk said.
Particularly in conflict zones where the U.S. has limited or no reach, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya, working with the WHO is crucial, one U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity.
Just one day after Trump’s announcement, on Wednesday, WHO staff held a presentation for USAID’s Global Health Bureau on health care in conflict settings, according to a description of the meeting seen by ProPublica.
USAID, the State Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. The WHO referred ProPublica to comments on Wednesday by its director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying that his organization hopes the U.S. will continue to be a “generous friend” and that his agency “works to improve the health of many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.”
The State Department and USAID turned to the WHO soon after the agencies received nearly $1.3 billion in new funding from Congress to address the pandemic in March. That funding had few strings attached, meaning officials could disburse it largely as they saw fit and did not have to channel it through the WHO or any other specific entity.
In a March memo outlining the administration’s global pandemic response, obtained by ProPublica, officials wrote that the U.S. would work “in close coordination with” the WHO. Several strategy elements mentioned the WHO.
In a March 31 public statement, the State Department highlighted U.S. assistance to the WHO, boasting that the agency’s “broad-based effort would not be possible without U.S. support.” The statement made repeated swipes at China, comparing U.S. funding of multilateral organizations to China’s much lower contributions.
That view was also reflected in an internal document dated April 13 and titled “Countering People’s Republic of China (PRC) Propaganda on Health and Humanitarian Aid.” It cited “critical support” from the U.S. to “the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program and dozens of other organizations.”
Internal State Department guidance sent in early April, with diplomatic talking points about U.S. assistance, encouraged “Ministries of Health to reach out to the local WHO representative and other local partners to inquire about laboratory test kits, reagents, and supplies, laboratory supplies, and test kit availability in your region.”
The guidance also served as an endorsement of the WHO’s unique capabilities. “WHO uses existing agreements and its vast network of procurement mechanisms to purchase tests on behalf of countries that cannot afford them,” it said.
The U.S. quickly funneled nearly $700,000 each to Morocco and Iraq via the WHO last month. In response to a White House query this week, USAID officials compiled information on several grants they had made to the WHO that were supporting coronavirus relief and detection efforts in South Africa, India, Angola and elsewhere, according to a spreadsheet seen by ProPublica.
U.S. officials working on the response said they now worry about how they can help countries if they can’t channel the assistance via the WHO.
“For several countries, the WHO is the only way we can help them,” one official said. “We know nothing about anyone else who’s operating there.”
The significant U.S. reliance on the WHO in the Middle East prompted officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to write a memo to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning of the consequences of a funding halt. The memo, a draft version of which was seen by ProPublica, warned of undermining the global response to the pandemic, threatening American lives, and ceding ground to China.
Indeed, Trump officials have been preoccupied with the idea that China is winning the global PR battle. On Thursday morning, White House, State Department, USAID and Pentagon officials held a conference call to discuss the issue, focusing on the Middle East. Several diplomats in the region said that talking points against China gain little traction in their countries, according to someone with knowledge of the call.
Privately, USAID officials acknowledge that China is well ahead of the U.S. in pushing the narrative that it is the leading humanitarian actor responding to the pandemic, according to meeting notes and emails seen by ProPublica.
One U.S. embassy in North Africa reported to officials in Washington this week that the Chinese had until recently avoided bashing the U.S. in favor of boosting their own donations of medical equipment. There was one exception, they noted: The Chinese took the opportunity to highlight the U.S. decision to halt funding to the WHO.
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