As Donald Trump appears caught attempting a quid pro quo, Max Blumenthal argues that the Ukrainegate scandal also highlights a web of corruption and meddling inside Ukraine implicating other prominent US figures and institutions.
Guest: Max Blumenthal, editor of The Grayzone and author of “The Management of Savagery.”
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté and my guest today is Max Blumenthal, editor of The Grayzone, author of several books, including his latest, The Management of Savagery.
We’re talking today about Ukrainegate, and we’re going to focus on several angles including the underlying issue which has gone mostly ignored in the media, which is the US military assistance to Ukraine that Trump briefly froze and that has caused all this outcry.
Trump accused of weakening Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression. That is the dominant narrative. We are going to dissect that today.
Max, as you look at the scandal as it unfolds, what sticks out to you as being the key issues that are being overlooked here?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, first of all, I think we have to say with, you know, a gun to our head just so we don’t seem like we’re these crypto-MAGA guys who were defending Trump, that it appears pretty clear that Trump was asking for some kind of quote unquote deliverable from Zelensky, the Ukrainian president.
So it looks like there was some kind of quid pro quo where Trump was asking for, in exchange for military aid up to $400 million worth. Trump was asking for some kind of assistance from Ukrainian leadership in his investigation and the investigation of Attorney General William Barr into the origins of Russiagate, which I think you and I have demonstrated and others have demonstrated and, I mean, it was basically demonstrated before the US public, was essentially an elaborate national security state hoax.
So I think that it’s legitimate to look into the origins of Russiagate and try to understand how this developed and whether foreign governments were actually involved in it, and it appears that they were, starting with the Ukrainian government.
Does that mean what Trump did is legitimate or defensible? No. Does it mean what he did was legal by asking, in trying to enlist foreign governments into his private partisan battles, into his domestic partisan battles, that should be looked into, and Congress has a role there in looking into that. So let’s just take that off the table.
But we should also consider what, and I think the whole point of this conversation we’re having is to consider some of the issues that are being left out of the mainstream and corporate media discussion, which I think are at least as salient as the issue of the quid pro quo.
And one is, did foreign governments interfere in the 2016 election and did they help influence Russiagate, and were they enlisted by Trump’s political opponents? This is an issue that hasn’t been discussed except with respect to Russia, where we constantly hear that Russia conducted this Pearl Harbor 9/11-level meddling in the US election.
Ukraine absolutely did interfere in the 2016 election, and its interference was possibly more consequential than anything Russia allegedly did, starting with the interference by Serhiy Leshchenko, who was the head of the national corruption board, basically a US creation in Ukraine which was supposed to crack down on corruption internally.
It was set up with the assistance from the FBI and in many ways it’s a US vehicle for influencing Ukrainian domestic politics, which are pretty much playing out completely under the watch of the US.
What happened with Leshchenko and with the Ukrainian government in general under Petro Poroshenko, which was a very sort of Nationalist government, ah, deeply opposed to any collaboration, ah, ties with their historic trading partner Russia, their neighbor to the east, was that they wanted Hillary Clinton to be elected.
Hillary Clinton was considered more anti-Russian than Trump, more supportive of the post-Maidan government. Donald Trump was, you know, being branded as Putin’s puppet in Washington, and so the Ukrainian government, through this anti-corruption board, interfered.
Serhiy Leshchenko released the “black ledger” on Paul Manafort, who was then Trump’s campaign manager, who had worked for the Party of Regions and Viktor Yanukovych, who was the predecessor to Poroshenko, who was considered more friendly with Russia, and the black ledger’s documented off-the-books payments from the Party of Regions to Manafort and his firm. These were handwritten notes.
And here’s what the Financial Times had to say about the takedown of Manafort by the Ukrainian government, by Serhiy Leshchenko, who is a Ukrainian legislator and the head of a Ukrainian government institution:
“The prospect of Mr. Trump, who has praised Ukraine’s arch-enemy Vladimir Putin, becoming leader of the country’s biggest ally has spurred not just Mr. Leshchenko but Kiev’s wider political leadership to do something they would never have attempted before: intervene, however indirectly, in a US election.”
This is the Financial Times in 2016. “But Mr. Leshchenko and other political actors in Kiev say they will continue their efforts to prevent a candidate…from reaching the summit of American political power.”
So it’s an open admission by Leshchenko, the government in Kiev that they were interfering to prevent Trump from gaining power, and they were essentially responsible for the takedown of Manafort.
Now, how did Manafort become an issue for Trump? And this is no defense of Manafort, who’s worked for some of the worst tyrants in the world, who’s as corrupt as they come in Washington. Although you know there are thousands of mini-Manaforts and major-Manaforts in this city.
How did Manafort, how did the US media get interested in Manafort? It was through a Democratic operative, who is also a Ukrainian nationalist, named Alexandra Chalupa, who was working for the Democratic National Committee on opposition research. She helped Michael Isikoff shape his stories on Manafort, and it was Politico in January 2017, before Trump had even taken office, that Ken Vogel, who it seemed like he was using Chalupa as his own source and he decided to burn her when he didn’t need her anymore — that’s just my reading — but Ken Vogel turns around this story, “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump backfire.”
And here’s what Ken Vogel wrote: “Ukrainian government officials tried to help Hillary Clinton and undermine Trump by publicly questioning his fitness for office. They also disseminated documents implicating a top Trump aide in corruption and suggested they were investigating the matter, only to back away after the election.”
“A Ukrainian American operative,” referring to Alexandra Chalupa, “who was consulting for the DNC, met with top officials in the Ukrainian embassy in Washington in an effort to expose ties between Trump, Manafort and Russia.” So it’s right there.
This is not, you know, something people can dismiss because it was printed in, you know, The Grayzone, although we’re probably much more factual than Politico.
But this is just clear evidence, plain as day, that the Ukrainian government interfered in the 2016 election and helped influence the Russiagate narrative that Trump was secretly colluding with Russia. And so this definitely deserves investigation. And that was really the source of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. And so this is kind of being left out, especially on CNN and MSNBC, but it’s really being left out of the discussion.
Then you have Trump going to Australia, asking the Australian government, which is another tool of the United States, just like Ukraine, and you can see the way that they prostrate themselves before Trump, these leaders. It’s just so pathetic and says everything about the way the US operates in the world.
But Trump is asking Australia for information about its own meddling in or involvement in the 2016 election, and that relates to a conversation between an Australian diplomat who has ties to the intelligence community, and Australia is a member of the Five Eyes global intelligence collaboration network.
Alexander Downer and George Papadopoulos, where Papadopoulos supposedly spilled the beans and got all excited about Mifsud, another very shady character who’s been involved in this saga, who’s really kind of the key to Russiagate, because there is very clear indication that Mifsud has been working for Western intelligence — while he was described as a Russian agent, falsely, by Robert Mueller.
You know, Mifsud had been kind of entrapping George Papadopoulos and working on him because they…Papadopoulos was loosely connected to the Trump foreign policy team. He was the coffee boy. He was kind of an easy rube.
And Papadopoulos sits down with Downer and says, “You know, this guy Mifsud told me that there’s all these Hillary emails that are coming out soon,” and Downer, of course, spreads that information to his connections. And Downer is an Australian government official. So that, that’s what’s going on here.
And those, those parts, this critical context is being left out. So there’s no denying that what Trump did was improper, but there’s also no denying that foreign governments have been also, besides Russia, have interfered in a US political campaign.
And let me make one last point about foreign interference in the US. Every four years the US chooses the person who will interfere in governments around the globe, so it kind of makes sense that those governments would want to have an influence over who the US selects. That’s kind of part of the blowback of empire.
We should consider that one third of the world is currently living under US sanctions and that they might want a different leadership. So the US has sort of made itself a target by the way it behaves around the world, by being, representing this unprecedented global meddling machine.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and on that point this is not the only time where the US leverages foreign aid to achieve its goals. In the case of Trump, it just, it does seem extraordinary that he’s been caught, where that tactic is mixed up with his own political ambitions, which is something different, and I think you’re right to highlight, that that is improper and deserves to be investigated.
But it’s interesting, when Trump cancels millions of dollars in aid for Palestinian refugees for UNRWA and openly says that this is leveraged to get Palestinians to abandon their claim to the right of return, their claim to the return, their claim to returning to the homes from which they were expelled by Israel in 1948. When Trump and his acolytes openly say that, that’s their goal, there’s no impeachment inquiry by Congress and no expressions of outrage by Democrats and their media allies. That’s one angle of the hypocrisy here.
So let’s talk about Joe Biden here and his involvement with this story. One facet of this that I find striking is that once again, kind of like Russiagate, Democrats are centering a scandal that forces the highlighting of their own corruption.
So in the case of Russiagate, by talking about the stolen Democratic Party emails, that brought attention to the fact that those emails revealed corruption by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party in their bias against Bernie Sanders.
Now again the victim, purported victim here, is Joe Biden, so now Democrats are in this awkward position where they have to defend the fact that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, got a $50,000 a month seat on a Ukrainian gas company’s board of directors, months after his father helped back a coup in Ukraine.
And Democrats have to defend that once again, and I guess my read on this, Max, is even if the suspicions from Giuliani, that the prosecutor that Biden got fired was fired because he was investigating Hunter Biden’s company, even if that’s not true, which I don’t have a reason to believe that at this point because it’s hard to trust what comes out of Ukraine.
But even if Giuliani’s suspicions are not true, just what is established is damning enough: the fact that Hunter Biden got this gig, I mean, imagine if one of Trump’s kids had gotten a comparable gig in Venezuela had, say, Trump’s coup in Venezuela had been successful, like Biden’s coup in Ukraine was.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, the Democrats, by driving towards impeachment, you know, they might help their prospects winning some Senate seats, they might impeach Trump in the House, who knows? But they’re going to keep this story out there, and it’s a story that is incredibly harmful for Joe Biden, because it is largely true, it is a case of legal corruption in Washington, and it’s something that Biden largely can’t deny.
So what Giuliani has done, and I think maybe his mistake is he’s gone overboard and tried to allege that Biden, going in, in late 2015, early 2016, to Ukraine and demanding the firing of the general prosecutor, the attorney general of Ukraine, Viktor Shokin, was related to an investigation Shokin was carrying out against Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian gas company that had hired Biden’s son Hunter Biden as a board member to the tune of $50,000 a month, in order to cover for his own son.
Now that may have happened, it may be true. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. The problem is there’s no concrete evidence to prove it, and so the Democrats are hammering Giuliani about that and saying it’s completely meritless. And right now, it is.
What isn’t meritless is the fact that the same month that Joe Biden made his first big visit to Ukraine in April 2014 to raise the morale of this flailing government that had been installed by a coup that Biden personally midwifed, his son Hunter Biden was appointed to the board of this insanely corrupt company, by its oligarch founder Mykola Zlochevsky, who was currently under investigation in the UK and had $23 million of his assets frozen by the UK government because he was considered to be so corrupt.
So Zlochevsky wanted to not only get out from that UK investigation but also to improve his name in Washington, because he was associated with the previous government of Yanukovych, who is considered pro-Russian. And so he hires Hunter Biden, he brings on Devon Archer, who, you know, is close to the Heinz family, basically close to John Kerry, and he basically starts paying anyone he can to whitewash his corruption.
Hunter Biden then enlists a law firm, a powerful law firm run by David Boies, where he’s a co-counsel, to start advising Burisma on how to supposedly improve its ethics. And The New York Times, at the time, in an editorial board op-ed written by the whole editorial board, wrote this, “It should be plain to Hunter Biden that any connection with a Ukrainian oligarch damages his father’s efforts to help Ukraine. This is not a board he should be sitting on.”
So the issue is, you’re Joe Biden, the New York Times editorial board calls you out for your son’s intimate association with one of the most corrupt oligarchs in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where you have just implemented regime change as a personal project that you deeply believe in, and you have never spoken with him about his business dealings once. I find that completely unbelievable. I find that totally unbelievable.
And the timing of Hunter Biden’s appointment to the Burisma board is very fishy, so this is a real issue for Joe Biden, and for anyone to say “Oh, there’s nothing there. Let’s move on,” they’re not holding Biden up to the scrutiny he deserves. He’s running for president, and this is someone who I think is not trustworthy.
And Trump is doing what he did to Hillary Clinton, pointing to, using the Peter Schweizer Clinton Cash investigation, about all of the money that the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation was pumping in from the Gulf States. And then, you know, doing these arms deals that Hillary Clinton was authorizing as, as Secretary of State, to those very same theocratic monarchies in the Gulf, and it gets framed in a partisan way, but the fact is the Clinton Global Initiative was an influence peddling operation and it did great damage to public trust in Hillary Clinton.
And so this whole narrative is coming back on Joseph Biden, and it’s doing damage to him no matter whether no…whether or not Giuliani is able to come up with the evidence, that Biden fired Shokin to protect his son.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and on that point you raised about Joe Biden, saying he’s never discussed Hunter’s business dealings with him, well, that’s contradicted by Hunter himself, in that long profile in The New Yorker about Hunter’s personal struggles, including drug addiction.
The article says, “As Hunter recalled, his father discussed Burisma with him just once,” and it quotes Hunter saying, “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do,’ ” unquote, so right there, even a contradiction from Biden’s own kid.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I’m sure the conversations went further than that. I’m sure they did, and so Joe Biden is not telling the truth about that.
AARON MATÉ: So, Max, speaking of Burisma, let’s talk more about this company and their influence in Washington. It’s just one more facet of all the ways in which corruption in Ukraine intertwines with corruption in Washington. Talk to us more about what you know about Burisma and its ties to the lobbying world in DC.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, this is another angle of this so-called Ukrainegate scandal that’s been completely ignored. And I think once we probe deeper into it we can maybe understand why it’s being ignored. It’s just another story about legal bipartisan corruption in Washington.
Basically, you know, Hunter Biden enlisted his law firm where he was co-counsel to quote-unquote improve Burisma’s corporate governance. And by January of 2015, the Burisma founder, who’s this corrupt oligarch, Mykola Zlochevsky, who had had to flee Ukraine, flee charges that he was illegally enriching himself, his assets were unfrozen in the UK.
Now, later that year Geoffrey Pyatt, who was the US Ambassador to Ukraine, who was another person who was a key architect of the Maidan coup who was handing out cookies along with Victoria Nuland in Maidan Square, who was plotting who would be the successor to Yanukovych, goes and declares that the prosecutor general Viktor Shokin needs to be fired for corruption. They take him out and then they bring in this guy Leshchenko, who everybody says is discredited now, but Joe Biden, I think last year called him “solid,” very weird.
Leshchenko ultimately closes the criminal probes in Ukraine, of Zlochevsky and Burisma. And the date here is really important. Those criminal probes were closed by Leshchenko, who Joe Biden called “solid” on January 12, 2017.
Less than a week later, on January 17, Joe Biden travels to Ukraine and makes what is his final speech as vice president. Ukraine was so important to Joe Biden that he chose to make his final public appearance as vice president a speech to the Ukrainian Rada — the Ukrainian Parliament — and he calls for them to continue on this IMF-led path of austerity and mass privatization, and then he urges them to, quote, “press forward with energy reforms that are eliminating Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas.”
This means a boon for companies like Burisma, that are domestic gas producers, because Ukraine and Russia are having all of this tension thanks to the US, which is funding and influencing this proxy war in the east of Ukraine. So Ukraine has to rely on domestic gas producers instead of Russian gas, so Burisma’s doing really well.
Exactly two days after Biden’s speech and about a week after the charges are dropped against its founder, Burisma announces a major cooperative agreement with the Atlantic Council, which is one of the major think tanks focusing on Ukraine and Eastern Europe and Washington.
It’s basically NATO’s unofficial think tank, and it takes money from the Gulf States, it takes money from the arms industry, it takes money from corporations like Chevron and Exxon Mobil and everyone else.
But now it signs a cooperative agreement with Burisma, which was, had been under investigation for years, its founder had had to flee Ukraine for illegally enriching itself, and it was so corrupt that even at that time, after the charges were dropped against it in Ukraine, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine rejected Burisma’s application for membership.
A western financial institution told the Financial Times that, you know, “we’ve never worked with Burisma for integrity reasons.” But the Atlantic Council was willing to do so, and you know who inked that deal was John Herbst, who was a US ambassador to Ukraine under Bush, who testified to Congress a year before in support of all of these reform measures and said he was against corruption.
So the point is, well, let me make another point. The Atlantic Council is very closely connected to Joe Biden. Biden has rolled out his foreign policy vision while he was vice president at the Atlantic Council, given several speeches there, and Joe Biden’s top adviser, his top foreign policy adviser, his point man on Ukraine, Michael Carpenter, who heads the Penn Biden Center, basically Biden’s think tank, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council.
So we’re told that Biden went to Ukraine and told them to fire the prosecutor, even though it would hurt his son, that he was so concerned about corruption in Ukraine. But here you have an institution in Washington very closely linked to the Biden campaign and Biden, which was, is taking as much as $250,000 a year from Burisma, this hopelessly corrupt company that’s at the center of the Ukrainegate scandal.
I think that it’s shocking that no one has even scratched the surface of this angle, and it’s because this is the way Washington works. As I said before, there are a million Manaforts in Washington and there are no prosecutors following them around.
AARON MATÉ: Alright, so we’re going to pause there and come back in part two and discuss the underlying issue here, when it comes to the US military assistance to Ukraine that Trump briefly froze, the apoplectic reaction in Washington to that and what is the actual impact of that military aid and the interests behind it.
My guest is Max Blumenthal, editor of The Grayzone, author of several books, including his latest, The Management of Savagery.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.