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Trump gets a Ukraine probe, just not the one he asked for

The Ukrainian criminal investigation into possible spying on former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch is in response to the U.S. House Intelligence Committee publication of notes suggesting she was illegally spied on in Ukraine, the country's interior ministry said.

Posted: Jan 16, 2020 8:11 AM
Updated: Jan 17, 2020 5:00 PM

President Donald Trump finally got Ukraine to announce an investigation — though not the one he was hoping for.

On Thursday, Ukraine's Interior Ministry announced a criminal probe into alleged surveillance against then-US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch by people linked to Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

The investigation provides a stark counterpoint to Trump's own attempt to coerce Ukraine's president to announce an investigation of his political rival, and what it reveals could deepen the controversy over Trump's actions beyond his impeachment trial.

First, the speed with which Ukraine opened this investigation shows that, given a valid basis, it would not hesitate to investigate potential criminal activity. The Interior Ministry moved just days after public disclosure of text messages between Lev Parnas, an associate of Giuliani's, and Robert Hyde, a GOP congressional candidate who claimed that he had tracked Yovanovitch.

By contrast, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky resisted Trump's demands last year for an announcement of an investigation into the Bidens. Zelensky was reluctant even though he had much to gain from complying with Trump's demand, including vital military aid to counter Russian aggression and, possibly, an official welcome at the White House.

This suggests that Trump's demand to investigate the Bidens wasn't based on facts or evidence but was an effort to gain an advantage in the 2020 election.

Second, Ukraine's Interior Ministry noted that it would be asking the FBI to help in its investigation. This is a reminder that there are formal channels that countries use and jurisdictional boundaries that they respect when undertaking investigations like this. Countries that have good faith concerns about wrongdoing will take the lead in investigating them, if possible, seeking support from other countries only when necessary.

Trump and his cronies did none of this. They circumvented formal channels, asking Zelensky to coordinate with Trump's personal lawyer instead of the government. Though the US had jurisdiction over the Bidens, Trump ignored extensive US corruption statutes and outsourced his concern for 'corruption' to another country rather than have his own attorney general investigate. This would make sense only if the interest wasn't a real investigation, but just the specter of one held over his political opponent. Trump denies that was his intent.

Finally, Ukraine's decision to investigate the circumstances surrounding Yovanovitch's security exposes, by comparison, Attorney General William Barr's willingness to turn a blind eye to Trump's actions in Ukraine. For example, the Office of Legal Counsel, under Barr's auspices, made the legal argument (later criticized by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency) that justified not forwarding the whistleblower's initial complaint about Trump's request of Zelensky to Congress, as required by law.

The Justice Department's criminal division, also under Barr's authority, concluded that none of the conduct outlined in that complaint warranted further investigation. Barr has refused to recuse himself from legal issues relating to Ukraine, or to appoint a special counsel in his stead, even though Trump told President Zelensky on the phone to bring Barr into the loop. (Barr denies any involvement.)

(The State Department, for its part, appears to have been shamed into declaring an investigation led by its Bureau of Security, more than 24 hours after Ukraine's announcement.)

That Ukraine is investigating possible threats against an American diplomat more aggressively than the US Department of Justice makes Barr's silence even more deafening.

Trump, Barr, and the GOP may hope that the Senate trial — which right now appears poised to acquit him on partisan lines, without calling further witnesses — will put an end to this scandal. But with Ukraine investigating the alleged surveillance on Yovanovitch, neither Trump nor his GOP supporters have control over further evidence of Trump's Ukraine plot from emerging. Ukraine's investigation may, in fact, pick up where the Senate trial leaves off, and that should worry the President.

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