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If you read the whistleblower’s complaint on President Trump’s Ukrainian scandal, you could be forgiven for believing Yuriy Lutsenko is a genius.
The complaint singles out the now-former top Ukrainian prosecutor for statements he made that seeded the conspiracy theory about Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — namely, that the former vice president used his office to shield Hunter and the Ukrainian energy company he worked for, Burisma Holdings, from a corruption investigation.
After a string of meetings and conversations with President Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — Lutsenko says the two spoke “maybe 10 times” — the Ukrainian made statements about the Bidens that set off a conservative firestorm. And Trump was so captivated by the theory that, in his now-infamous phone call in late July, he suggested the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, investigate the Bidens if he really wanted the nearly $400 million in military aid the U.S. had promised Ukraine to help it fend off Russian aggression.
It’s a scary story, as it suggests Lutsenko was able to meddle in the 2020 election — and reshape U.S. foreign policy in the process — by injecting a few loud lies into the political discourse and leaving the rest to a fractured U.S. media and a post-fact president with a penchant for parroting conspiracy theories. “If I were Russia watching this, I’d game the U.S. media in the exact same way” to mess with 2020, says Clint Watts, a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
There’s something about Lutsenko’s foray into American politics, however, that doesn’t add up. As the whistleblower’s report notes, even before Trump was repeating Lutsenko’s lines to Zelensky, the prosecutor was already walking them back. And since the release of the whistleblower report, Lutsenko has told multiple major U.S. newspapers that, regardless of what he said earlier, he doesn’t have dirt on Biden of any consequence whatsoever.
So what gives? If Lutsenko hatched a plan with Giuliani to go after Biden, why is he saying things to exonerate him at the exact moment when he could hurt him most? Why would he coordinate with Giuliani to seed anti-Biden sentiment only to repeatedly walk it back? For that matter, why would Lutsenko announce an investigation that he suggested would reflect poorly on Biden when he knew he didn’t have anything on him?
Lutsenko did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, and at this point, it would be hard to believe anything he said, given his inconsistent relationship with the truth. So we’ll probably never know the exact game Lutsenko has been playing.
But here’s what is known: At the time Giuliani was sniffing around Ukraine for dirt on Biden, Lutsenko was trying to hold onto his job as Ukraine’s top prosecutor. Per the whistleblower, he hoped to hold onto his high-ranking political position, but the favored candidate to become the next Ukrainian president, Zelensky, showed little interest in keeping around a prosecutor with no legal training but political connections to the outgoing regime.
A close review of what Lutsenko said — and, pointedly, didn’t say — in the pivotal media interview that sparked a frenzy over the Joe Biden-Burisma theory raises questions about what Lutsenko has been up to this whole time. And it suggests a version of events in which Lutsenko isn’t a mastermind, but a flailing public official who lost control of his message the minute it made contact with the US conservative media, leaving him caught between forces far bigger than he knew how to handle and on the hook for promises he couldn’t keep. In this version, he’s a puppeteer who got so tangled in his own strings that he ended up a marionette.
That story, of a desperate official blundering his way to the center of American government and into history, suggests something darker about the state of our democracy. It suggests President Trump is so hungry for messaging that will help him win another term, and the right-wing media is so willing to feed it to him, that it may even be easier than we thought for other countries to meddle in the 2020 election and reshape U.S. foreign policy in the process.
So easy, in fact, that one may even be able to do it by accident.
LUTSENKO’S PUBLIC MISADVENTURE IN AMERICAN POLITICS began in earnest on March 20th, in a video interview-via-translator with John Solomon, a conservative “investigative columnist” at the Washington-based publication The Hill. The interview was full of tasty morsels for Trumpians.
First, Lutsenko said he was opening an investigation into Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, specifically into a Ukrainian official who’d allegedly sought to help Hillary Clinton by releasing dirt on Trump’s one-time campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. He vaguely suggested that investigation would touch on the Bidens.
Second, he said Joe Biden had more or less held hostage critical U.S. economic support in 2015 and early 2016 as he pushed Ukraine’s last president to oust his Prosecutor General, Viktor Shokin. Shokin, Solomon went on to note in a string of columns, was the same prosecutor who had looked into Burisma Holdings, which was paying a king’s ransom for the services of one Hunter Biden.
Lutsenko’s third accusation was his most tantalizing: He said he had information on Joe Biden that warranted a meeting with new U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
The Biden-Burisma conspiracy theory wasn’t new. Peter Schweizer, who works in the gray area between investigative journalist, conservative apparatchik, and conspiracy theorist, had written about Burisma and the Bidens previously. Biden himself has boasted about getting rid of Shokin, though the vice president says he did so because Shokin was a do-nothing law enforcement official in a country rife with corruption.
And while Lutsenko said he had “something” for Barr, he never said what that evidence was. Critically, at no point did he present what Biden’s critics really needed: proof that Joe went after Shokin not to help Ukraine, but to help Hunter.
But Lutsenko’s interview — reinterpreted into a series of innuendo-laden columns from Solomon — reinjected the Joe and Hunter Biden corruption theory into the conservative narrative. And as Lutsenko’s account moved up the right-wing media food chain, his words were stretched farther and farther.
Laura Ingraham brought Schweitzer on her show on March 22nd, in which he and another guest said the case has “all the markings of bribery and extortion.” On April 1st, Solomon wrote about Biden again, leaning heavily into the theory that the vice president ousted Shokin to protect Hunter and suggesting it be investigated. On April 2nd, Fox News picked up the story in what was ostensibly a straight news piece — headlined “Biden faces scrutiny for demanding ouster of Ukraine official probing firm that employed his son.” The piece quoted Lutsenko and linked back to Solomon.
We don’t have to wonder too much about how the Biden accusations got on Trump’s radar. Sean Hannity detailed them live on air to the president when Trump called into his show on April 25th. Hannity had run through the charges earlier in his show, and when he got Trump on the line for a circular admiration session, the host/de facto advisor asked his hero about Solomon’s claims. Trump — after suggesting Solomon should win a Pulitzer — says it “sounds like big stuff. It sounds very interesting with Ukraine.”
Three months to the day later, Trump brought up the Biden-Burisma conspiracy theory on his July 25th phone call with Zelensky, according to both the whistleblower complaint and the White House readout of the call. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump said, according to the White House readout. “So whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”
GIVEN THAT HIS WORDS REACHED TRUMP, it’s worth looking back on what exactly Lutsenko said to Solomon to get this all started. If you listen closely, with a bit of context, what Solomon played up as a bombshell was a mix of falsehoods, spin, and vague innuendo.
First, on the allegation that the Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, it’s hardly surprising that some Ukrainian officials favored Clinton, who was promising a hard line on Russia, over Trump, who has been cuddly enough with Vladimir Putin that their ties were the subject of a multi-year investigation. The 2016 campaign started less than two years after Putin looked at a chunk of eastern Ukraine and decided “I’m going to go ahead and make that mine.” (Ken Vogel, then of Politico and now with The New York Times, details how certain Ukrainian officials cultivated ties with team Clinton, though he notes it was far from the systematic, state-driven 2016 election interference effort Russia undertook to bolster Trump.)
Lutsenko’s big dig at Biden was that he “correlated and connected [U.S.] aid with some of the [personnel] issues and changes in the prosecutor’s office” — a reference to Biden leveraging economic aid to get Shokin fired. That certainly sounds scandalous, but even back in March, it was public knowledge. Nobody disputes that the vice president leveraged the aid to get rid of Shokin; Biden has bragged openly of doing so. It’s why Biden wanted Shokin gone that’s a matter of dispute.
While Solomon suggests it was to protect Biden’s son Hunter, Biden insists it was about fighting corruption. Multiple Obama, Bush, and Clinton administration officials have backed Biden’s account, and the International Monetary Fund at the time was also leveraging economic support to push for anti-corruption action. As CNN reports, several U.S. Senators, including Republicans Rob Portman and Ron Johnson, also supported “urgent reforms to the Prosecutor General’s office and judiciary.”
(None of this means that the millions paid to Hunter Biden, who appears wildly unqualified for his Burisma gig, aren’t a particularly gross symbol of a system in which political power translates to personal wealth. But that’s well short of the direct interference Trump claims Joe Biden engaged in. And it’s no different from the shameless grifting and political profiteering by this president and his family.)
Lutsenko didn’t weigh in directly on the question of why Biden wanted Shokin out, and, when talking to Solomon, he didn’t paint the rosiest picture of Shokin’s time in office. “It’s true that Mr. Shokin, former prosecutor general, was under heavy [criticism from] the Ukrainian people. People were demanding the results of the prosecutor’s activity, and Mr. Shokin could not actually communicate … about the output” he said through a translator in his interview with Solomon. “He was an easy victim for sometimes justified and sometimes unjustified [criticism] from people.”
Lutsenko’s most explosive statement was a tease, that he had information on Joe Biden that Barr should see. That seems to be what caught Trump’s attention, and it certainly left the right tingly with anticipation. But it was just a tease, because basically ever since Lutsenko suggested to Solomon he had the goods on Biden, he has been telling everyone else that he doesn’t.
In May, he told Bloomberg the 2016 election interference investigation he’d announced to Solomon in March wasn’t related to Hunter Biden. And by the time the whistleblower complaint was released last month, Lutsenko was in full reverse. The day the report came out, he told the Washington Post he didn’t believe Hunter had broken any laws. And though he had claimed he had evidence on Biden that Barr needed to see, it turned out he had basically nothing. Lutsenko said he would report Hunter’s Burisma income to ensure the younger Biden had paid taxes on it.
And by late September, Lutsenko could have become Joe Biden’s star witness. He told the Los Angeles Times that Giuliani had repeatedly urged him to go after the Bidens, but he had found no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.
(Solomon, the subject of multiple unflattering profiles since the whistleblower complaint became public, is not backing down. “Lots of reporters calling me after reference to my reporting in whistleblower complaint,” he wrote on Twitter. “Here’s my response. I stand by my stories 100 percent, all of which are completely accurate and transparent. We embedded the documents and videos we collected in each story for all to see.”)
IT’S HARD TO TRUST ANYTHING Lutsenko says. Take the tale he told Solomon about Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine. Lutsenko, in his initial telling to Solomon, said Yovanovitch had once given him a list of people he couldn’t prosecute for corruption. That’s quite the charge, and one that would seem to undercut the former administration’s claims of rooting out corruption.
Except, by Lutsenko’s own (later) admission, almost none of that is true. In a subsequent interview with the Ukrainian-language publication Babel, Lutsenko told a completely different story, according to multiple translations of the account.
In a group meeting that included both Lutsenko and Yovanovitch, she had objected to his plan to go after a Ukrainian official who was engaged in an anti-corruption crusade of his own, saying it would chill the country’s broader efforts to tamp down on dirty dealing. Lutsenko accused the official of housing fraud and — perhaps more rhetorically than literally — demanded a complete list of people who Yovanovitch was deeming untouchable. The U.S. ambassador refused to provide such a list, saying Lutsenko had misunderstood her, and the list never came into being, Lutsenko told Babel.
On the theme of “facts don’t matter,” Trump recalled Yovanovitch from Ukraine shortly after the Solomon interview, ending her time early amid Lutsenko’s accusation and other unsubstantiated charges that she was disloyal to the president.
That decision was based in part on a Lutsenko account that, in less than a month, went from essentially “she took the cookies from the cookie jar” to “I asked her to take cookies from the jar for me and she said ‘no.’”
SO IS LUTSENKO A MASTERMIND? Lutsenko’s words powered conservative media columns that influenced Trump’s actions, even if those words were later pulled back. It sure seems like the work of someone who has figured out how to play the U.S. political system like a fiddle. And the prosecutor himself claims to be a savvy operator: “I’m a political animal,” Lutsenko told The New York Times.
Except … If you’re playing someone, usually you get something out of it for yourself, and on that count Lutsenko has failed miserably. He’s out of a job, and seemingly out of allies.
Lutsenko didn’t do himself any favors with Democrats when he suggested he knew bad things about Biden. He undercut himself with Trump by subsequently taking the allegations back at the moment the president and his allies most wanted them to stick. And he put his own country’s new president in a bind by leading the right-wing media, and therefore Trump, to believe Ukraine could find dirt on Biden if they’d just look.
Within days of winning his election, incoming president Zelensky was saying he had no plans to keep Lutsenko on board, and he officially fired the prosecutor in August. Last week, the Guardian reported he’s under investigation for facilitating illegal gambling in Kyiv, an inquest driven by a member of parliament from Zelensky’s party. He’s been camped out in London since, purportedly studying English.
And as he faces the gambling investigation, Lutsenko probably shouldn’t call Giuliani for help, as it appears their relationship has soured. Talking to CBS News late last month, Trump’s lawyer contradicted his earlier praise for Lutsenko and claimed he was in the tank for the Bidens, calling him “exactly the prosecutor that Joe Biden put in in order to tank the case” against Burisma.
It seems unlikely that when this began Lutsenko’s grand plan was to end up fired, under investigation, thoroughly discredited, at odds with the Bidens and other U.S. Democrats, and in the doghouse with both the leader of his country and the leader of the free world.
It’s impossible to know for sure, but based on his actions before and after the whistleblower report, here’s a best approximation of what Lutsenko was trying to pull off — and why it so utterly backfired.
By announcing an investigation and telling Solomon he had dirt on Biden, but not saying exactly what that dirt was, the prosecutor hoped he could buy himself some time. In that dream scenario, Trump and Giuliani would press Zelensky to keep the prosecutor on and keep the investigation going, and Lutsenko could slow-walk the investigation — always promising to eventually deliver on Biden — while burrowing into the Zelensky administration.
“Lutsenko was trying to save his political skin by pretending to be Trumpist at the end of his career,” David Sakvarelidze, a former deputy prosecutor general in Ukraine, told the New York Times.
But this was a fundamental misplay of the Trump regime and conservative media. Lutsenko seems to have assumed both entities would need actual dirt on Biden — rather than just vague future promises of it — before a string of conspiracy theory punditry would set the White House machinery in motion. In general terms, Lutsenko seems to have thought the world’s most powerful government would need hard evidence before withholding military aid from a foreign ally in exchange for demands of investigating a political rival. He was wrong.
Instead, Lutsenko became unnecessary the minute he gave Solomon enough to run with. Innuendo was all Solomon needed to write columns suggesting Joe Biden should be investigated. And those columns were all Hannity needed to strip Solomon’s work of any nuance and then tee it up for Trump.
And as Zelensky signaled his intentions to get rid of Lutsenko, nobody in Trumpworld stopped it. In the end, all Lutsenko’s shilling for Trump, at the expense of his own credibility, was worth only a brief mention when Trump and Zelensky spoke in July.
“I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair,” Trump says, according to the White House’s partial readout of the call. Zelensky responded: “The next prosecutor general will be 100% my person, my candidate.” In the readout, Trump never brings it up again, and Lutsenko was out of a job within weeks.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF YURIY LUTSENKO reveals the bulk of the problem doesn’t rest with his own bullshitting, but with America’s severely malfunctioning bullshit detector. Yes, he made vague insinuations about Biden before running away from them. And yes, he gave Solomon, Fox News, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity enough to run with.
There have always been big talkers. And partisan media is as old as media itself. And yes, in a better world, readers and viewers would be sampling enough sources to realize Solomon’s columns were stone soup instead of investigative stew. But a country banking on media literacy in the age of Fox News and Facebook is a country that is well and truly fucked.
What’s new is Donald Trump, and specifically his redefinition of “intelligence gathering” as “watching people say nice things about him on television.”
Traditionally, the president, in keeping with the task of making some of the world’s most consequential decisions, has taken advantage of one of the world’s most sophisticated intelligence gathering agencies. And before information would be presented to the president as actionable intelligence, it would go through an extensive vetting process, says Ned Price, who worked in the CIA under both Bush administrations and in the White House for Obama.
That doesn’t mean the intelligence is perfect or unbiased. Or that it prevented previous presidents from turning incomplete information into terrible decisions and manipulating the public into backing them — such as in the Bush administration and the disastrous war in Iraq.
But when it comes to getting the president facts, rather than internet rumors, the old system was inarguably better than the new one, in which a man who controls the nuclear arsenal is getting his “intelligence” live on air from Sean Hannity.
It’s frighteningly easy for foreign operatives to get in Trump’s ear, and it’s increasingly clear that bad actors know it. Operatives that at one time would have had to dupe an entire intelligence apparatus can now get fake news to the desk of the president just by spinning the right reporter.
And the approaching election has only upped the incentives and ripened the target. Because if a hapless, desperate foreign official such as Lutsenko can bumble his way into upending Trump’s foreign policy, just imagine what a focused operation from a united foreign intelligence service could do.