WASHINGTON - In his quest to rewrite the history of the 2016 election, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney has turned to an unusual source of information: Trump’s imprisoned former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Rudy Giuliani in recent months has consulted several times with Manafort through the federal prisoner’s lawyer in pursuit of information that would bolster his theory that the real story of 2016 is not Russian interference to elect Trump, but Ukrainian efforts to support Hillary Clinton.
The alliance, which Giuliani acknowledged in an interview this week with The Washington Post, stems from a shared interest in a narrative that undermines the rationale for the special counsel investigation. That inquiry led to Manafort’s imprisonment on tax and financial fraud allegations related to his work in Kiev for the political party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.
Giuliani’s effort is gaining traction on Capitol Hill. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, have announced their renewal of an inquiry into any coordination between Ukraine and Democratic Party officials.
Manafort, who is serving a 7 1/2-year term in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, has continued to express support for Trump, and Trump has never ruled out giving him a pardon.
Trump’s push on a July 25 call to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the matter, and also to probe Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, triggered an impeachment inquiry in the House. Many of the accusations Giuliani has been making about Ukraine recycle those that Manafort’s team first promulgated.
Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team in April 2018 to help defend the president against special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, and the former mayor said he launched his own investigation into Ukraine late last year, which led him to consult with Manafort. He said he has not spoken directly to Manafort in two years.
‘‘It was that I believed there was a lot of evidence that the [Democratic National Committee] and the Clinton campaign had a close connection to Ukrainian officials,’’ Giuliani said, noting that he wasn’t seeking to lay the groundwork for a pardon of Manafort. ‘‘It was all about Trump. I don’t think I could exonerate Manafort.’’
Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, did not respond to a request for comment.
Giuliani said his consultation with Manafort centered on trying to ascertain the veracity of a secret black ledger obtained by Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which The New York Times revealed in an August 2016 story. The Times said the ledger recorded $12.7 million in cash payments from Yanukovych’s political party to Manafort. The revelation led Manafort to resign from the campaign.
Giuliani’s narrative recasts Ukrainian accusations in 2016 against Manafort and efforts by Democratic operatives to gather research on Manafort after he took a leading role in Trump’s campaign as a conspiracy involving Ukrainian and American officials to swing the election for Clinton.
As part of that, Giuliani has focused on a theory that Manafort’s team was promoting as early as 2017: that the Ukrainian government separately interfered in the 2016 campaign on behalf of Clinton through the activities of a Ukrainian American contract worker for the DNC, Alexandra Chalupa.
Chalupa confirmed that she worked part-time as an outreach worker for the DNC to Ukrainian Americans and others, and met with Ukrainian officials from the embassy in Washington during that time. She said she ‘‘sounded the alarm’’ on Manafort outside her duties for the DNC, and sought to circulate that information, because she said she was concerned about Manafort’s ties to Yanukovych, who was backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. She said the Ukrainian Embassy stayed clear of U.S. election matters, even with regard to Manafort.
‘‘The White House has been pushing this narrative to distract from Donald Trump’s gross abuse of power in pressuring a foreign country to interfere in our elections,’’ DNC press secretary Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
There were Ukrainian Americans and people in the Ukrainian anti-corruption movement who were motivated to ‘‘shine a light’’ on Manafort’s activities in Ukraine during 2016, and some Ukrainian Americans were active on behalf of Clinton, said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but he said those activities aren’t equivalent to Russia’s state-sponsored intervention, which included the release of stolen emails and an extensive online disinformation campaign.
‘‘One theory has been documented with extensive detail in the mueller report,’’ Mankoff said. ‘‘The other is something that Rudy Giuliani and people in his orbit have conjured up as a way to cast aspersions and confuse the story.’’
Giuliani said Manafort was prosecuted for political reasons so he would ‘‘rat out on Trump,’’ noting that he and Trump both felt sorry for the former campaign chairman, whose treatment was ‘‘a complete indication of how out of control they are in going after Trump.’’
Giuliani said he needed to consult with Manafort through the latter’s lawyer this spring to ask whether a black ledger ever existed.
‘‘I said, ‘Was there really a black book? If there wasn’t, I really need to know. Please tell him I’ve got to know,’ ‘‘ Giuliani recalled asking Manafort’s lawyer. ‘‘He came back and said there wasn’t a black book.’’
Giuliani said he was interested in the matter to prove his theory that the ledger’s release, which he has claimed was done in conjunction with U.S. officials, was part of a falsified pretext for U.S. authorities to reopen a case against Manafort.
The FBI, however, already had a case open against Manafort before the 2016 campaign, having interviewed him twice about his work in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014.
The special counsel’s office did not introduce the ‘‘black ledger’’ at Manafort’s trial in Virginia in August 2018, nor did Manafort’s defense team mention the document during his trial on tax and financial fraud charges, or try to show that it had been forged.
After a jury convicted Manafort of eight felonies, the former Trump campaign chairman pleaded guilty in Washington to avoid a second trial. As part of his plea, Manafort acknowledged that he made more than $60 million in Ukraine, laundering more than $30 million of it through foreign companies and bank accounts to hide it from the IRS and cheating the government out of $15 million in taxes. He also said that he had lobbied in the United States on behalf of Ukrainian officials without registering and that he conspired to tamper with witnesses in his case.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian journalist, anti-corruption campaigner and former member of parliament, said the ledger ‘‘was obtained by an anonymous source in the burned-out ruins of the headquarters of Yanukovych’s party.’’ His involvement in the release of part of its contents at a news conference, he said, was motivated by a desire that Manafort be brought to justice for his activities in Ukraine.
‘‘Giuliani’s entire approach is built on disinformation and the manipulation of facts,’’ Leshchenko said in an opinion article in The Post. ‘‘Giuliani has developed a conspiracy theory in which he depicts my revelations about Manafort as an intervention in the 2016 U.S. election in favor of the Democratic Party.’’
In a text conversation with Manafort from August 2017 released by prosecutors in the District of Columbia case, Fox News host Sean Hannity mentions ‘‘Ukraine interference’’ as one of the issues he was highlighting to attack Mueller. On his show that year, Hannity repeatedly claimed Ukraine had intervened in the 2016 election by sharing information on Manafort with a DNC contractor. Manafort did not respond directly to those claims but frequently encouraged and praised Hannity throughout the summer.
The White House also promoted the allegation.
‘‘If you’re looking for an example of a campaign coordinating with a foreign country or a foreign source, look no further than the DNC, who actually coordinated opposition research with the Ukrainian Embassy,’’ then-White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in July 2017.
Grassley and Johnson, writing this week in a letter to Attorney General William Barr, again mentioned the allegations as a matter they intend to investigate.
‘‘Ukrainian efforts, abetted by a U.S. political party, to interfere in the 2016 election should not be ignored,’’ the senators wrote. ‘‘Such allegations of corruption deserve due scrutiny, and the American people have a right to know when foreign forces attempt to undermine our democratic processes,’’ the senators wrote in the letter.
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The Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.