Even compared with the numerous reports about murky dealings between the Trump administration and governments of countries such as Russia, China, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the transaction described in a new BBC report between Ukraine’s government to Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen involve incredibly brazen, direct dealings. They also suggest that Cohen and his associates were playing on both sides in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
According to the report, Cohen had been paid $400,000 (though another source says it was $600,000) to arrange a White House meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Trump last June. Shortly after the meeting, the Ukrainian government shelved a bribery investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Ukraine has been locked in conflict with Russia since 2014, when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, Russia annexed Crimea, and the Kremlin began supporting pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. During the 2016 U.S. election, the Ukrainian government was deeply alarmed by Trump’s pro-Putin rhetoric and promises to lift sanctions on Russia. During the campaign, the New York Times reported that the Ukrainian government was investigating off-the-books payments from Yanukovych’s party to Manafort. Those reports led to Manafort’s ouster from the campaign. According to the BBC, Poroshenko had authorized a leak of the investigation, believing that Hillary Clinton would win the election. When she didn’t, he scrambled to reach out to Trump. When Ukraine’s embassy in Washington and registered lobbyists couldn’t secure a meeting, he reached out to Cohen through backchannels.
The lead-up to the meeting was a bit rocky—Poroshenko called it a “substantial visit” while the White House described it as a “drop-in.” But the Ukrainian chocolate baron-turned-president got what he wanted: face time with Trump and the chance to brag that he had met with him before Putin. In addition to dropping the Manafort investigation—it’s technically still ongoing but the prosecutor involved has reportedly been ordered not to interview witnesses or issue subpoenas—Ukraine agreed to import U.S. coal and diesel trains. A Western intelligence report cited by the BBC said these deals “can only be understood as Poroshenko buying American support.” (Ukraine is itself a major coal producer.) In March of this year, the Trump administration agreed to sell Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine. The Obama administration had refused to sell offensive weapons to the Ukrainians, in order to avoid escalating the conflict with Russia, and Manafort had reportedly pushed to remove a pledge to do so from the GOP platform during the campaign. While Trump himself was reportedly not enthusiastic about the sale, Poroshenko’s charm offensive had paid off.
A few things jump out about the story. The BBC reports that Cohen worked with Felix Sater, a Russian-American ex-con and longtime Trump associate, in his efforts to secure the meeting. Cohen and Sater had also, the Times reported in 2017, been involved in lobbying former national security adviser Michael Flynn to support a “peace plan” for Ukraine that would lead to lifting sanctions on Russia and was developed by Andrii V. Artemenko, a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker working to oust Poroshenko. This means that Cohen, not a registered lobbyist, was working on behalf of both sides in the ongoing dispute between Putin and Ukraine’s Western-backed government in the same year.
The BBC also reports that a Ukrainian MP working on Poroshenko’s behalf had first reached out to Cohen through contacts in Chabad of Port Washington. Chabad, a Hasidic Jewish movement also known as Lubavitch, has close ties to Putin’s government, which I wrote about in 2014. Oligarch Roman Abramovich, a close Putin confidante, is one of Chabad’s major funders worldwide. Chabad of Port Washington gave its “man of the year” award to Sater in 2014, and a 2017 Politico article explored the group as a potential link between Trump and Putin’s circle. If the BBC report is true, those links may be a little more tangled than we thought.