The Ukraine scandal isn't just about politics — it's also about profit
Donald Trump was a businessman before he was president, but it turns out that running a country like a corporation has its risks. On Monday, a new report from The Associated Press revealed that allies of President Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani meddled in a Ukrainian gas business at the same time as they were trying to pressure the government to investigate Trump’s political rivals. It didn’t take long for the profit motive to emerge in the growing Ukraine scandal.
The latest revelations expose how the political games played by Trump and Giuliani — withholding aid and dangling a White House visit while urging the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter — mirrored the profit-seeking behavior of a group of Trump allies, who planned to install friendly associates on the board of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s national gas company. In turn, those figures would be able to award contracts to Trump’s friends and associates. It’s exactly the type of naked corruption that Trump has claimed to be trying to fight in Ukraine.
Trump has never shied away from an opportunity to make a quick buck. He’s faced lawsuits over using his charity as a means for enriching his family; he paid a $25 million fine for operating a fraudulent for-profit school. Recently, his resorts in Ireland have been the focus of bribery and self-dealing allegations after U.S. government employees, including Vice President Mike Pence, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on rooms there. He’s displayed a consistent willingness to empower those around him to conduct shady dealings.
In this context, it’s not surprising that Trump allies appear to have been trying to turn the Ukrainian gas industry into a personal piggy bank. AP reports that three businessmen with ties to the Republican Party were managing the scheme: the Russian-born real estate entrepreneurs Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, and the Floridian gas executive Harry Sargeant III. Between them, the three men have donated millions of dollars to the GOP and Trump-affiliated PACs.
Per AP, Parnas and Fruman allegedly tried to replace the chief executive of Naftogaz, Andriy Kobolyev, with a different member of the company’s board, Andrew Favorov. An associate of Favorov’s told AP that Favorov perceived that the request was an attempt to take over control of Naftogaz with Trump’s blessing. The goal was to boost sales of American liquefied natural gas to Ukraine — a policy initiative dating back to the Obama administration that aims to lessen the country’s dependence on Russia. But the businessmen apparently touted their direct communications with Trump, with Sargeant telling Favorov that he “regularly meets with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and that the gas-sales plan had the president’s full support,” per AP’s sources.
At the same time as they were lobbying Naftogaz to switch up their board of directors, Parnas and Fruman were also helping Giuliani apply pressure to the Ukrainian government over the Biden investigation. Sometimes the political and profit-seeking efforts even explicitly overlapped, like when Parnas allegedly informed Favorov that Trump intended to replace the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, with someone more pliable. Trump discussed his dislike of Yovanovitch on his phone call with Zelensky; Yovanovitch, who was unexpectedly recalled from the country after facing baseless allegations of disloyalty by Trump allies, will testify to the House this week about the Ukraine scandal.
This whole affair reeks of the exact same shameless approach to business and politics that has gotten Trump in hot water everywhere from Ukraine to Trump University. He acts in his own political and financial self-interest at all costs, and relies on the weakness of regulators to get away with it.
Four people interviewed by AP said that Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, also played a key role in the machinations. Perry reportedly met with Zelensky and pushed him to replace the entire Naftogaz board with a new slate of members — including multiple allies from the Texas oil industry. One of these men, Ukrainian-American Michael Bleyzer, donated $20,000 to Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial re-election campaign.
The Department of Energy denied that Perry did anything improper, saying that Perry has merely been working toward the “modernization and reform” of Ukraine’s energy sector to make it more amenable to Western investors. But according to AP, one source who was in the room when Perry met with Zelensky perceived Perry’s efforts as an attempt by a powerful American official to increase profits for allies in the energy industry.
It’s an ignominious look for Perry, who, like so many of his fellow Cabinet members, appears to have been pulled deep into the undrained swamp by Trump’s insatiable need for profit. In a recent conference call with House Republicans reported by Axios, Trump allegedly said that he only made the July 25 call at Perry’s behest, saying that his Energy Secretary wanted “something about an LNG [liquefied natural gas] plant.” Perry has since confirmed that he did urge the president to make the call, though he denied mentioning anything about Biden, claiming instead that his only goal was to try and make the country a better place for U.S. business interests.
The fact that some of those business interests involved his old buddies from the Texas oil industry, however, apparently didn’t register as a problem to Perry. It’s been rumored that Perry will resign his post later this fall, though he has denied any such plans. If the reports turn out to be true, however, then Perry will end up sharing a fate with several Trump cabinet members: helping the president’s corrupt schemes, then falling on his sword when the plans are exposed.
This two-pronged effort to influence Ukraine’s energy sector demonstrates massive hypocrisy on the part of Trump and his allies. After all, it appears that at the same time as they were pushing a politically motivated investigation of Hunter Biden for his seat on the board of the energy company Burisma, and whether he used that post for improper gain, the same group was trying to install their own pet directors to profit off a different Ukrainian energy company. Moreover, that Trump and his allies apparently sought to simultaneously extract money and political favors from the government of Ukraine fits perfectly within the president’s long-standing pattern of cutting corners and wielding malign influence for shady deals.
These latest revelations come as the Ukraine scandal heats up on multiple fronts. Over the weekend, the lawyers for the initial whistleblower announced that a second whistleblower has come forward and is now preparing to testify to Congress. This second individual, the lawyers said, is armed with more direct knowledge of the incidents surrounding the Ukraine phone call than the first whistleblower, whose secondhand accounts have been attacked by Trump as “partisan” even as the White House’s own summary transcript of the Zelensky call largely corroborated the whistleblower’s report.
While the details of the Ukraine scandal are increasingly murky with every new report, at least one thing is becoming clearer: This isn’t going away for Trump anytime soon.