President Donald Trump’s strong-arming of the Ukrainian government to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden raises serious questions about the White House’s alleged attempt to leverage foreign aid in order to influence the 2020 election. However, the United States has not even grappled with the full scope of Ukraine’s impact on the 2016 election.
Earlier this year, I broke down Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s allegation that Biden forced Kiev to fire a corrupt prosecutor in order to protect his son Hunter. (As I and nearly every other Ukraine watcher pointed out, Giuliani’s claim is meritless.) But Ukraine did play a significant factor in the 2016 election: the exposure of Paul Manafort’s corruption.
Of course, Manafort, who is currently serving time in prison, is legendarily corrupt. But the larger question is how to handle the fact that, in helping to expose his corruption, Ukrainian entities shaped the course of an American election.
Ukraine’s role in the 2016 race is undeniable: In the summer of 2016, Kiev’s release of the so-called “black ledger” resulted in Manafort’s ouster from the Trump campaign. The actions of foreign actors—however well-intentioned—directly impacted an American election.
One would imagine Washington media and lawmakers—who spent three years combing through every aspect of Moscow’s interference in our election—might direct similar attention to Kiev’s impact. Yet the Ukrainian angle barely made headlines.
If we want to get serious about safeguarding our electoral process from all foreign actors, not just Moscow-based ones, it’s time to examine Ukraine as well.
On August 14, 2016, The New York Times published a bombshell about what would become known as the “black ledger”—a handwritten document alleging millions of off-the-books payments to Manafort by the Party of Regions, led by his former client Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted pro-Russian president of Ukraine. The Times received the ledger from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), an independent government agency.
The story rocked the 2016 election, given Manafort’s position as head of Trump’s campaign. The Hillary Clinton campaign immediately seized on it as proof that Manafort—and therefore Trump—was tied to Yanukovych and the Kremlin.
Four days later, the Times ran a follow-up story, based on more details released by NABU and publicity by Serhei Leshchenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, who told the Times he’d studied the ledger. The next day, Manafort resigned from Trump’s campaign.
Two weeks later, the Financial Times did a story about Ukraine’s takedown of Manafort, including quotes from Leshchenko and Western analysts. “The prospect of Mr Trump, who has praised Ukraine’s arch-enemy Vladimir Putin, becoming leader of the country’s biggest ally,” it began, “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.”
“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,” the story went on.
Reading the article in 2019, after three years of nonstop coverage about overseas meddling in US democracy, is stunning. Here is an established Western outlet calmly discussing successful foreign influence of an American presidential campaign as a neat little coup, a bit of gutsy international derring-do.
Calling the intervention “indirect” is a bit generous, as well. Manafort was ousted based on handwritten pieces of paper—the story would’ve never gone anywhere without NABU and Leshchenko’s vouching for the ledger’s authenticity. That’s as direct as it gets.
Of course, all this occurred in August of 2016, when the prospect of a Trump presidency was seen as inconceivable. After Trump’s election, Leshchenko and NABU frantically denied their intent to damage the Trump campaign, claiming the ledger was publicized solely because of their concern to stamp out corruption and had nothing to do with US politics.
“My desire to expose Manafort’s doings was motivated by the desire for justice,” wrote Leschenko in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “Neither Hillary Clinton nor Joe Biden, nor John Podesta, nor George Soros asked me to publish the information from the black ledger.”
Ukrainians certainly had every reason to expose Manafort’s corruption, and the man’s subsequent trial showed there was an enormous amount to expose. But Ukraine’s efforts also happened to coincide with—and have an immediate impact on—an American campaign. And yet, despite this information’s being available in English, and published by established Western media, we’ve had almost no debate about its implications.
To understand just how astounding that is, simply imagine if the situation were reversed. Imagine the Financial Times ran a story about a Russian government bureau and lawmaker leaking documents that directly resulted in the ouster of the Clinton campaign manager. Even if everything exposed by Russia were true, it’d still be a major scandal.
None of this is to say we should ignore the Kremlin’s election meddling or Trump’s current attempt to coerce Ukraine into investigating Biden. These are extraordinarily serious issues—but so is Ukraine’s impact in 2016.
It seems many Americans are under the mistaken assumption that the moment Trump leaves office, things will return to normal. They won’t. If anything, the 2016 election let the devil out of the box—other actors in other nations surely took notice of the ease with which a handful of individuals in Ukraine were able to influence an American campaign. There will be more of this. Some may be in good faith; some will not.
It is impossible to say we’re taking foreign interference seriously until the media, lawmakers, and political activists have an honest conversation about the new norms. And that involves looking not only at Trump and Russia, but at Ukraine as well.