Trump’s most effective inoculation effort centered on Russian influence

Before we do, though, we must recognize that the proportion of readers from each camp reading this article diverges wildly from the proportion of the general public. Out there in the broader world, the “Russia collusion hoax” skeptics are abundant, if not a plurality of the public. There has perhaps been no sales pitch offered by Donald Trump that has paid larger dividends than his immediate, long-standing push to cast any questions about Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 campaign as the deranged rantings of weirdo liberals. He’s inculcated an immediate, visceral reaction from members of his base as well as Americans more broadly that when they hear “Russia” in the context of “Trump,” they should dismiss what follows as false and defamatory.

This reaction has provided him an enormous amount of space to avoid very serious questions about the ways in which Russia worked to his benefit while he was in office — and may continue to do so.

There is news on this front. On Monday, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) brought charges of treason against Oleksandr Dubinsky, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament. Dubinsky is accused of helping Russia to spread “fakes about the alleged interference of Ukrainian high-ranking officials” in the United States’ 2020 presidential elections, according to a Post translation of the charges.

Dubinsky has long been an ally of another Ukrainian politician, Andriy Derkach. The SBU accused Derkach last year of having provided assistance to Russia during its expanded invasion of Ukraine.

Derkach and Dubinsky have been linked to Russian intelligence efforts by the U.S. government, as well. In September 2020, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Derkach for having “waged a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, spurring corruption investigations in both Ukraine and the United States designed to culminate prior to election day.” Dubinsky was sanctioned as part of that effort in January 2021, before Trump left office. Last December, Derkach was indicted by the Justice Department.

You probably picked up on the theme here: that Derkach and Dubinsky were involved in efforts to spread false information with the aim of affecting the 2020 election. Those efforts directly involved Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani. They are also interwoven with the ongoing effort by Republicans to impugn President Biden, though the line between driving and leveraging doubt about Biden is often blurry.

Some background is useful here.

In late 2015 and early 2016, the United States and other governments engaged in a campaign to oust Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin. Shokin was broadly seen as corrupt and, in March 2016, was removed from his position by Ukraine’s parliament.

This event has become a central part of American political debate. Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma at the time, raising concern within the Obama administration (for which Joe Biden served as vice president) and from media observers. But there’s no evidence that there was a connection between Joe Biden’s calls for Shokin’s ouster and Hunter Biden’s role: There’s no evidence that Shokin was investigating Burisma before his ouster; there is evidence he was actively protecting Burisma’s founder Mykola Zlochevsky from foreign investigations.

Nonetheless, by the end of 2018 or early 2019, Shokin began speaking with Giuliani — already serving as Trump’s attorney — claiming that his ouster was a function of an effort by Joe Biden to protect Burisma on behalf of his son. Again, there’s no evidence that Biden was motivated by anything other than the international consensus that Shokin was corrupt; claims otherwise have primarily been driven by that same corrupt actor.

For Giuliani, though, there was obvious appeal to the narrative. Biden was generally understood to be Trump’s most dangerous threat in the 2020 election, so a claim that he’d acted illegally would be useful. This was the trigger for Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden, efforts that led to Trump’s first impeachment in December 2019.

There was already an investigation to that end, however. Shokin was replaced by Yuri Lutsenko, who very quickly demonstrated that he was also not a reliable anti-corruption fighter. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch began putting pressure on Lutsenko, including by supporting an independent anti-corruption body referred to as NABU. Lutsenko began speaking with Giuliani in early 2019 and, in March, opened investigations that were, as the New York Times reported that year, “seen in some quarters as an effort … to curry favor from the Trump administration for [Giuliani’s] boss and ally, the incumbent president.”

In March 2019, the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III concluded, with new Attorney General William P. Barr’s encouragement. April was a busy month, with Mueller offering testimony about his probe before Congress. In response, Giuliani pointed to the real investigation: the one underway from Lutsenko. Giuliani ally and writer John Solomon began writing about the Biden-Burisma allegation for The Hill.

It was also during this month that Hunter Biden left the board of Burisma — and that a computer repairman in Delaware says that Hunter Biden dropped off laptops for repair.

What’s important by this point is that Giuliani was, by all appearances, an energetic customer for derogatory information about Joe Biden. In early May, he planned to travel to Ukraine to dig up more dirt, a trip that was canceled after it became public and questions arose about his interest in using foreign intelligence to aid Trump politically — the heart of the questions Mueller had just finished investigating.

But in December 2019 — even as Trump was facing impeachment for his efforts to pressure Ukraine — Giuliani went anyway. While there, accompanied by the sycophantic media outlet One America News (OAN), Giuliani sat down for on-air interviews with Shokin, Lutsenko — and Derkach.

Derkach came to Giuliani’s attention (according to OAN’s Chanel Rion) when he and Dubinsky held news conferences in October 2019 attempting to lend credence to the Biden-Burisma story. By that point, the value to Trump in doing so was obvious; the president was facing an impeachment investigation for attempting to leverage his power to aid his 2020 campaign by boosting that story. If you were a foreign government looking to aid Trump politically and had assets in Ukraine who might speak on that nation’s behalf, it would seem like a good moment to do so.

Trump was warned that Giuliani was being targeted by Russian misinformation, but there’s no evidence that this served as a deterrent. “Do what you want to do,” one person familiar with the warnings said in summarizing them for The Post, “but your friend Rudy has been worked by Russian assets in Ukraine.” Derkach would be sanctioned for his role in promoting misinformation less than a year later.

In fact, not only did Trump wave Giuliani away from the misinformation, he hyped it. He pledged that Giuliani’s trip — the one where he spoke with Shokin, Derkach and Dubinsky — provided his attorney with “a lot of good information.” There would be a report to Congress, Trump said, and to the attorney general, Barr.

A few weeks later, Barr contacted U.S. Attorney Scott Brady to establish a system to vet information, including stuff provided by Giuliani.

When that began, the FBI had just shut down an investigation into Zlochevsky, the Burisma founder, as journalist Marcy Wheeler notes. This came after Giuliani (who was by November 2019 already under federal investigation) had tried to pry damaging information about Biden out of the Burisma founder. In response to questions from an aide to Giuliani, Zlochevsky at some point in 2019 denied having been in contact with Joe Biden or Biden’s staff while Hunter Biden was on the board (a period from 2014 to early 2019).

Brady’s team, though, learned in March 2020 about a 2017 interview conducted as part of the Zlochevsky probe in which Hunter Biden’s role on the board was mentioned by a confidential informant. The informant was reinterviewed in June 2020, at which point they alleged that Zlochevsky had in 2016 claimed to have bribed or intended to bribe Hunter and Joe Biden. According to Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s (R-Iowa) timeline of the interaction, the Brady-led effort ended in September 2020 with the results of the research sent back to the Justice Department. The interview alleging a bribe eventually made its way to Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, though, as Grassley writes, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force had described it as “subject to foreign disinformation.” (Grassley rejects this assertion.)

In October 2020, there was another “disinformation” allegation: the publication of elements of Hunter Biden’s laptop after the owner of the Delaware computer store had given them to Giuliani.

It is known that there was information from Hunter Biden floating around as early as the spring of 2019. Time reported that multiple people in Ukraine had been approached about emails and photos involving Hunter Biden in that time period. Giuliani’s aide Lev Parnas wrote in a letter to House investigators that he’d been approached about digital material belonging to Hunter Biden in June 2019, information allegedly stolen from Biden’s laptop by Russian intelligence and Zlochevsky allies during a trip Biden made to Kazakhstan. (Parnas, it’s worth noting, is himself not an entirely reliable narrator.)

Given the Russian effort in 2016 to affect the presidential election by releasing information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, the laptop story was quickly identified as a possible similar effort. No evidence has emerged to suggest that it demonstrably wasn’t the result of Hunter Biden abandoning his laptop, with the FBI first taking possession of its contents in late 2019. It is nonetheless noteworthy that Giuliani, having been offered material stolen by Russian actors from Hunter Biden’s laptop in June 2019, ended up in possession of material from Hunter Biden’s laptop in August 2020. Trump, of course, has been eager to present questions about the laptop’s authenticity as further evidence that no valid questions about Russia exist.

This brings us to the through line that Trump demands we ignore, this surfeit of post-2016 activity in which information potentially damaging to Joe Biden has however-tenuous connections to Russian disinformation efforts. Giuliani chatting with Dubinsky and Derkach. The alleged offer of Hunter Biden material is known to be circulating in Ukraine. Questions about the information presented by the confidential informant. Trump has been so effective at poisoning any question about Russia’s effort that questions about what is intended often simply aren’t asked.

In May of this year, Derkach leaked recordings of several calls, including ones between Biden and Ukraine’s former president centered on Shokin. This came after Grassley and House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) had raised questions about the bribery claims made to the informant — claims that included an allegation that Zlochevsky was in possession of recordings of calls involving himself and Joe Biden.

Despite Derkach already having been penalized as a Russian agent and charged with federal crimes, OAN ran a segment that month hyping the recordings as inculpatory. Giuliani was interviewed to offer his thoughts.

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