Trump’s Ego Makes Him an Easy Mark

How a Ukrainian oligarch pulled the president’s strings in service of his own agenda.

Back in October, CNN reported that FBI investigators had been looking into Rudy Giuliani’s dealings in Ukraine since early this year.

Kenneth McCallion, a New York attorney, says that investigators first approached him earlier this year to ask about Giuliani’s ties to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Giuliani associates indicted last week on campaign-finance related charges.

McCallion says FBI counterintelligence agents in February or March asked questions about some of Giuliani’s Ukrainian business dealings.

The counterintelligence probe hinges in part on whether a foreign influence operation was trying to take advantage of Giuliani’s business ties in Ukraine and with wealthy foreigners to make inroads with the White House, according to one person briefed on the matter.

McCallion was questioned because he has experience representing Ukrainian clients, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. As Michelle Goldberg reported, by February or March, McCallion was already hearing about the activities of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

“All of a sudden they started going around Ukraine telling anybody who would listen, particularly with the government, that they have been advised by a high-level, mysterious unnamed source, that in fact the D.N.C. servers had been hidden in Ukraine, that Russia was not the origin,” [McCallion] told me.

Goldberg points out that, contrary to what we might assume, Giuliani wasn’t paying Parnas and Fruman to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponents, they were paying Giuliani.

On Tuesday, U.S. prosecutors announced that Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash paid Parnas $1 million, which would be in addition to the $1.2 million Firtash paid lawyers Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova. That might explain why the FBI was looking into the possibility that a foreign influence operation was using Giuliani to make inroads with the White House.

As a reminder, Firtash is an “upper echelon” associate of Russian organized crime with close ties to the Kremlin. He currently lives in Vienna, awaiting extradition to the U.S. on bribery and racketeering charges. This is the guy who was paying Parnas, Toensing, and diGenova, who were then passing some of that cash on to Giuliani.

What was Firtash buying from Giuliani and his associates? Perhaps he wanted some help from the U.S. president in fighting extradition. We already know that Toensing and diGenova arranged a private meeting for him with Attorney General William Barr.

Of course, the investment Firtash made in spreading the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election furthers the aims of his friends in Moscow.

But according to Betsy Swan and Adam Rawnsley, Firtash also has a personal beef with Joe Biden.

Two Ukrainian gas industry experts say the gas-market reforms pushed by Biden and others in 2014 and 2015 hit Firtash in the wallet, and badly. One knowledgeable outside observer estimated that the 2014 and 2015 gas reforms and legislation cost him hundreds of millions of dollars.

On Dec. 9, 2015, Biden gave a speech to Ukraine’s parliament. He praised the protesters who forced out Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president, he recited Ukrainian poetry, and he called for reforms to Ukraine’s gas market, too.

“The energy sector needs to be competitive, ruled by market principles—not sweetheart deals,” he said, basking in the audience’s repeated applause.

Firtash, who built his fortune in part through a rather sweet gas-trading deal, hated it. Earlier this year—more than three and a half years after the talk—he was still seething.

That’s another example of how Trump and his enablers aren’t just lying, but turning the truth on its head. While Joe Biden fought for anti-corruption reforms in the Ukrainian gas industry, it is Giuliani who is working for the corrupt oligarch who was harmed by those reforms.

Goldberg made the point that, in all of this, Trump wasn’t just the perpetrator, he was the mark.

Trump used the power of his office to try to force Ukraine to substantiate conspiracy theories. But the president was fed those conspiracy theories by people with their own agendas, who surely understood that he is insecure about Russia’s role in his election, and he will believe whatever serves his ego in the moment. The main reason Trump should be removed from office is that he has subverted American foreign policy for corrupt personal ends. But this scandal is the latest reminder of how easy sinister forces find it to pull his strings.

The fact that we have a president who “will believe whatever serves his ego in the moment,” is obvious to anyone who has been paying attention. That makes him an easy mark for a whole variety of sinister forces, both domestic and foreign.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.