AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File President Donald Trump insists there’s an innocent explanation for the July 25 phone call in which he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate political rival Joe Biden. “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign,” he told reporters on Friday, “but I do care about corruption.” Now, congressional Republicans seem to be bolstering that…
President Donald Trump insists there’s an innocent explanation for the July 25 phone call in which he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate political rival Joe Biden. “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign,” he told reporters on Friday, “but I do care about corruption.” Now, congressional Republicans seem to be bolstering that defense. Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Tuesday that he will invite Rudy Giuliani, a key player in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, to testify on corruption in the country—an odd choice when Graham could have asked, for example, a U.S. government official who is an authorized expert on corruption in Ukraine.
Let’s break the president’s priorities in that phone call into two parts: investigating Joe Biden and his son Hunter and investigating corruption in Ukraine.
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When it comes to the Bidens, asking a foreign country to investigate an American, when there is no domestic criminal investigation into him, is a non-starter. We have domestic law enforcement avenues for that. But there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden and no criminal investigation into his activities.
If Trump were really, legitimately focused on rooting out corruption in Ukraine—whether at companies like Burisma, which employed Hunter Biden, or within the government—there are U.S. government processes for doing so, when there is a credible case.
If he had really been interested in fighting corruption in Ukraine, here’s what the president’s team could have done:
Step 1: Stop cutting State Department anti-corruption funding
There is an entire State Department bureau—the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL)—focused on law enforcement efforts overseas, including investigating corruption. INL is headquartered in Washington, but it has experts serving at many U.S. missions overseas. The officials at INL work with their foreign diplomatic counterparts—some willing and some less so—as well as non-governmental organizations and law enforcement agencies at the local, national and international level to support foreign governments’ efforts to build sound institutions by sharing best practices, training and giving grants. In Ukraine, that work has included supporting the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. INL and its partners can investigate and report on corruption and even take actions to punish it, like barring entry to the United States for certain foreigners.
Strangely, while Trump has a new-found interest in fighting “corruption”—at least that associated with his political rivals—his administration has requested less money for INL, not more. In fiscal year 2019, the bureau was granted $5 million, but State requested $3 million for fiscal year 2020. If the president were really concerned about corruption in Ukraine, he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should have requested more resources for INL work there.
STEP 2: Alert the Ukraine ambassador, and let him deal with it
If Trump and Pompeo really wanted to police corruption in Ukraine, they would have first alerted the acting U.S. ambassador there to specific concerns, like Ukrainian executives laundering money or a Ukrainian official misusing his or her position (such as the former prosecutor general mentioned in Trump’s phone call). Ambassadors can’t interfere in a corruption investigation or direct that one be opened, but they can pass information along to experts at the embassy—including INL experts and Department of Justice personnel.
Those U.S. law enforcement professionals in the foreign country could see if there were a basis for them to open a criminal investigation based on that concern, and U.S. anti-corruption experts there could review suspect activity and decide how best to address them with the relevant Ukrainian officials. If there were law enforcement concerns about an American’s involvement, DOJ could coordinate on that with Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice.
For instance, the chargé d’affaires in Kiev, Ambassador William Taylor, and his team could send a “demarche”—an official statement of U.S. policy with respect to a corrupt activity or individual—to Ukrainian officials at the Ministry of Justice or in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office and try to sort out ways to address them. EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker had to have been aware of these official channels for addressing corruption.
STEP 3. Request cooperation (officially)
Trump and his team have another tool at their disposal to investigate corruption in Ukraine related to an ongoing criminal case: the United States’ Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) with the country. MLATs are international agreements that establish a formal process for one country to gather evidence in another country for a criminal investigation.
If there were an actual U.S. government investigation into alleged criminal activity by Americans in Ukraine, or foreigners suspected of violating U.S. laws, a request for cooperation could have been made through a formal process that’s run by DOJ’s Office of International Affairs. Once MLAT requests are vetted by the DOJ, they are transmitted to a foreign country’s “central authority”—in this case, Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice. If granted in the foreign country, this arrangement could allow the DOJ to obtain documents, locate people, take testimony, request searches and seizures, freeze assets and more. If the United States were actually pursuing criminal investigations into corruption in Ukraine, U.S. officials would have made a request under our MLAT for cooperation.
The United States even has a Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement (MLAA) with China, the country that Trump called on last week to investigate Biden, after the whistleblower complaint was made public.
There is no shortage of official options when it comes to cooperation on criminal matters and fighting corruption with a foreign country—whether it be with the Ukrainians or the Chinese or anyone else. If the president actually cared about addressing corruption in Ukraine more broadly, he would ensure that experts like INL staffers at the State Department have the resources they need to do their jobs. The fact that Giuliani was his answer suggests that something very different is going on here.