Trump claims on Ukraine call may stem from foreign official's year-old request

Official Whte House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

(WASHINGTON) -- At least some of the still-unfounded claims referenced by President Donald Trump on his controversial call with Ukraine’s president in July echoed a year-old effort by a Ukrainian government official to oust the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, according to government documents reviewed by ABC News, public statements from the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and others, as well as from newly unsealed court documents.

Giuliani’s associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted Thursday on campaign finance-related charges, and the charging documents filed against them describe the first known steps of a push to remove the career diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch.

According to the indictment, the initial push aimed to “advance their own personal financial interests and the political interests of Ukrainian government officials."

Trump removed Yovanovitch from her post in Ukraine in May, but he brought her up two months later on the July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is now the subject of a House impeachment inquiry.

On that call, Trump asked Zelenskiy to help Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr investigate still-unfounded allegations that former Vice President Joe Biden forced Ukraine to fire its head prosecutor in 2016 to "shut down" an investigation targeting the major Ukrainian gas company Burisma, which employed Biden’s son.

Immediately before mentioning Biden, though, Trump raised Yovanovitch, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House.

"The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that," Trump told Zelenskiy, saying the Justice Department would "get to the bottom of it."

The story of how Yovanovitch ended up in the president's crosshairs, however, began in the spring of 2018, when an unidentified Ukrainian government official asked Parnas for "assistance in causing the U.S. government to remove or recall" Yovanovitch, according to the charging documents unsealed Thursday against Parnas and Fruman.

Parnas and Fruman were reportedly working to secure a major deal to ship liquefied gas to Ukraine -- a deal that a U.S. ambassador might be able to influence. And the duo was working with at least one Ukrainian official, according to the charging documents.

By January, nearly seven months after the Ukrainian official sought help from Parnas, Yovanovitch had yet to be removed. Around the same time, Giuliani was drafted into the effort, believing it could help undercut special counsel Robert Mueller’s widening investigation into whether members of Trump’s presidential campaign were coopted by Russian intelligence services.

"I got information [at the time] that a lot of the explanations for how this whole phony investigation started will be in Ukraine," Giuliani later recalled to Fox News. "And it stems around the ambassador and the embassy being used for political purposes. So I began getting some people that were coming forward and telling me about that. And then all of a sudden, they revealed the story about Burisma and Biden’s son."

One of the people Giuliani spoke with was Viktor Shokin, the former prosecutor fired in 2016 at the behest of Biden and other officials around the world who viewed Shokin as deeply corrupt and ineffective. At the time, Biden even threatened to withhold $1 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine if its government didn’t replace Shokin. The International Monetary Fund also threatened to withhold aid if reforms, such as Shokin's removal, weren't made.

In late January, Giuliani, Parnas, Fruman and others gathered in Giuliani’s New York office to interview Shokin over the phone. Shokin suggested Biden may have wanted him fired to protect Biden’s son, and he told the group that Yovanovitch was "close to Biden," according to notes of the conversation reviewed by ABC News.

Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman also spoke with Shokin’s successor, Yuriy Lutsenko, according to the documents reviewed by ABC News. He offered a similar assessment as Shokin, according to the documents.

Yet two months later, Yovanovitch still remained as ambassador to Ukraine.

Then, in a March interview with a conservative columnist at The Hill newspaper, Lutsenko offered a new explosive allegation against Yovanovitch: In their first meeting, Lutsenko alleged, the ambassador gave him a "do-not-prosecute list" -- a list of Ukrainians that the Ukrainian government could not investigate.

Lutsenko also said he had opened an investigation into whether Ukrainian officials tried to help Hillary Clinton win the 2016 presidential election by leaking a series of financial documents linking Trump’s then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to corrupt proceeds. Lutsenko has since retracted some of his previous statements, particularly his claims about Biden.

Nevertheless, despite questions about Lutsenko's credibility, Trump posted the reporting to his Twitter account within hours of it being published.

Victoria Toensing, an outspoken Trump ally who has worked with Giuliani and Parnas, also posted the reporting to her Twitter page, writing, "The real collusion began in Ukraine. U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch."

Five days later, the conservative columnist who published Lutsenko’s claims sent an email to Parnas and Toensing, forwarding them a preview of his upcoming report that would allege further political bias at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine and offer new alleged details on the purported "do-not-prosecute list" that Lutsenko claimed Yovanovitch gave him.

The next day, the website Medium published a story by an unknown author named "Tony Sealy," noting The Hill newspaper’s previous reporting and disclosing what it claimed was the purported "do-not-prosecute list." But, according to internal emails described to ABC News, officials inside the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine almost immediately recognized it as "a totally manufactured, fake list" and a "classic disinfo play," as one senior official wrote at the time.

"One key sign of it being fake is that most of the names are misspelled in English -- we would never spell most that way," a top diplomat at the embassy, George Kent, wrote. And the embassy could find no evidence that "Tony Sealy" even existed.

"This list appears to be an effort by Lutsenko to inoculate himself for why he did not pursue corrupt [former] associates and political allies," Kent said, adding that Lutsenko wanted "to claim that the U.S. told him not to."

"Complete poppycock," Kent added.

Nevertheless, two weeks later, Giuliani went on Fox News to claim Mueller’s "phony investigation" stemmed from Yovanovitch.

Around the same time, Lutsenko indicated in an interview with a Russian-language news outlet that his initial account of Yovanovitch giving him a "do-not-prosecute list" was not accurate.

Then, in early May, The New York Times published a story with the headline: "Biden Faces Conflict of Interest Questions That Are Being Promoted by Trump and Allies."

Trump retweeted it. And six days later, the Trump administration announced that Yovanovitch was being recalled as U.S. ambassador.

Testifying to House investigators behind closed doors on Friday, Yovanovitch insisted she was dismissed as ambassador based on "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives," according to prepared remarks obtained by the New York Times. In fact, she reportedly said, a top State Department official told her that Trump had pushed for her removal even though she had “done nothing wrong.”

In announcing the charges against Parnas and Fruman on Thursday, the head of the FBI’s field office in New York, Bill Sweeney, said, "The American people expect and deserve an election process that has not been corrupted by the influence of foreign interests."

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