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Inside Ukraine’s Push to Cultivate Trump From the Start

WASHINGTON — Long before a telephone call with Ukraine’s president that prompted an impeachment inquiry, President Trump was exchanging political favors with a different Ukrainian leader, who desperately sought American help for his country’s struggle against Russian aggression.

Petro O. Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president until May, waged an elaborate campaign to win over Mr. Trump at a time when advisers had convinced Mr. Trump that Ukraine was a nest of Hillary Clinton supporters.

Mr. Poroshenko’s campaign included trade deals that were politically expedient for Mr. Trump, meetings with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the freezing of potentially damaging criminal cases and attempts to use the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort as a back channel.

From the start, Mr. Poroshenko’s aides also scrambled to find ways to flatter the new American president — advising their boss to gush during his first telephone call with Mr. Trump about Tom Brady, the star New England Patriots quarterback whom Mr. Trump has long admired.

An examination of the first year of Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine shows how the White House also saw the relationship as a transactional one that could help Mr. Trump politically.

Mr. Poroshenko, so eager to gain favor as Russian-backed separatists were escalating a fight against the Ukrainian military, did his part to encourage this belief. He helped plant the seeds for Mr. Trump’s July quid pro quo request to his successor, Volodymyr Zelensky — a request that prompted the impeachment inquiry into whether he manipulated American policy toward Ukraine for personal gain.

Mr. Poroshenko’s strategy yielded results. The Trump administration reversed an Obama-era moratorium on sales of lethal weapons that Ukraine sought for its fight against the separatists in the country’s east.

Near the end of 2017, just as the government in Kiev was trying to get final approval from the Trump administration on the sale of the Javelin anti-tank weapons, Mr. Poroshenko’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, had begun freezing cases in Ukraine relevant to the Mueller investigation, including an inquiry tracing millions of dollars that Ukrainian political figures paid to Mr. Manafort.

Now, impeachment investigators are examining the two years of interactions between Mr. Trump and Mr. Poroshenko, according to a congressional Democrat. And Mr. Zelensky’s team is researching back-channel communications between Ukrainian officials and Americans from both political parties going back to 2017, according to a Ukrainian with knowledge of the effort. No evidence has surfaced of an earlier quid pro quo of making the Javelin missile sale contingent on the halting of investigations relevant to the Mueller inquiry.

But congressional investigators want to know what political factors, if any, influenced Mr. Trump’s actions.

It started with some carefully scripted remarks on the eve of the Super Bowl.

On Feb 4, 2017, just two weeks into the Trump presidency, the two leaders were due to talk. Mr. Poroshenko’s advisers rushed to find ways to connect with a new American leader with little political history and an uncertain agenda on Ukraine. With the Super Bowl the next day, they researched Mr. Trump’s football preferences and soon told Mr. Poroshenko to speak glowingly on the phone call about Mr. Brady and the Patriots.

Mr. Poroshenko then turned to the important business: asking Mr. Trump to appoint a special envoy for settlement talks with Russia.

Mr. Poroshenko knew he faced an uphill struggle to win Mr. Trump’s favor. Among other things, he had a highly publicized meeting with Hillary Clinton in the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Mr. Trump’s allies saw Mr. Poroshenko and his embattled country as hostile to a Trump presidency. Mr. Manafort, who had done consulting work for a pro-Russian party in Ukraine, had also peddled as far back as June 2016 the theory that Ukraine played a role in the hacking of Democratic email systems, according to documents prepared by the special counsel’s office and released as a result of lawsuits by BuzzFeed News.

Fearing recriminations, allies of Mr. Poroshenko nonetheless reached out to Mr. Manafort to try to convince the Trump team of Ukraine’s determination to work closely with the new administration, Mr. Manafort told associates. They were “panicked that they bet on the wrong horse, and that they have no access to the right horse,” according to someone who discussed the matter with Mr. Manafort.

The approach went nowhere, so Mr. Poroshenko began pursuing other avenues. Advisers came up with an idea that they were certain would appeal to Mr. Trump’s base: a plan to buy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of American-mined coal to help supply Ukrainian power plants.

Ukraine faced a coal shortage in 2017. Some of its largest mines had wound up in separatist-controlled territory three years earlier, and nationalist protesters objected to what had been a brisk trade with the enemy. That cut off its primary domestic supply of coal.

Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, the chief foreign policy adviser to Mr. Poroshenko, saw the plan to buy coal from American mines as a perfect move. “It was a deal that pleased Trump,” Mr. Yelisieiev said. “He had promised work for Pennsylvania coal miners. It was a win-win situation.”

Ukraine sent executives from its state-owned electric utility Centrenergo to Pittsburgh to meet with a potential coal suppliers, with the help of the United States Commerce Department. Mr. Poroshenko met with Mr. Trump and separately with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, both of whom helped secure the deal.

Within weeks — unusually fast for an international deal — a Latrobe, Pa.-based supplier, Xcoal Energy & Resources, signed a contract to deliver 700,000 tons of coal to Ukraine.

Ernie Thrasher, the chief executive of Xcoal, traveled to Ukraine to mark the arrival of the first shipment to the Black Sea port of Odessa, along with the United States ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie L. Yovanovitch. Later, Mr. Thrasher personally handed Mr. Poroshenko a small bag of the just-delivered coal, with a red ribbon tied to the bag.

“This is a great beginning,” Mr. Poroshenko said, laughing, as he took the gift during a ceremony and shook Mr. Thrasher’s hand.

Mr. Poroshenko’s advisers packaged the coal deal as a present of their own. When the two presidents met at the United Nations months later, Mr. Poroshenko produced a small red gift box containing some of the Pennsylvania coal, according to Mr. Yelisieiev.

The economic impact of the deal was relatively small for the United States: just 70 American jobs, according to a Commerce Department estimate. But it was just the first of three similar deals intended to warm relations between the United States and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government signed a separate $1 billion deal in early 2018 with GE Transportation to build 30 new train locomotives in Erie, Pa., and to retrofit other aging Ukrainian train systems. And Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Electric Company also signed its own deal to supply more fuel for Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. The contract gave Westinghouse a greater share of the business of supplying nuclear fuel to Ukraine, which Russia used to dominate.

Ukraine backed up the commercial push with an expanded lobbying effort in Washington. It hired the BGR lobbying firm in 2017, led by the former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour. Ukraine wanted its lobbyists to build a “comprehensive government affairs and business development strategy” to help strengthen relations with the American government.

The lobbyists immediately began reaching out to diplomats, lawmakers and the news media, Justice Department filings showed. And the envoy Mr. Poroshenko sought was also drawn from the lobbying firm. Kurt D. Volker, an adviser and former manager at BGR who became enmeshed in the impeachment scandal, agreed to work for the Trump administration for free.

“We did our homework,” Mr. Yelisieiev said of the overall approach that the Poroshenko administration crafted to warm relations with Mr. Trump.

Ukraine had another element in its pursuit of warmer relations with the Trump administration: embracing Mr. Giuliani.

He had ties with Ukraine dating to at least 2008, when Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing and kickboxing champion then running for mayor of Kiev, hired Mr. Giuliani to serve as a crime-fighting consultant.

After Mr. Trump took office, Mr. Giuliani secured a new contract paid by Pavel Fuks, a wealthy Ukrainian-Russian developer, to help improve emergency services in the city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, 300 miles from Kiev.

The work would seem to have little to do with international diplomacy — and Mr. Giuliani insisted in an interview on Sunday that he was not serving as a foreign lobbyist targeting the United States as he took up the assignment through his New York-based consulting firm, Giuliani Security & Safety.

But for Mr. Poroshenko, the multiple trips that Mr. Giuliani and his staff took to Ukraine in 2017 offered another opportunity to influence the Trump administration. Mr. Trump had appointed Mr. Giuliani in early 2017 as a cybersecurity adviser, and they were in touch sporadically. Mr. Giuliani became the president’s personal lawyer in 2018.

Mr. Giuliani secured special access to Mr. Poroshenko, meeting with him twice in 2017, first in June when Mr. Giuliani was in Ukraine to give a speech and then again in November.

“We met him as a friend of Trump,” Mr. Yelisieiev said.

Mr. Giuliani said the main purpose of the meeting was to get Mr. Poroshenko’s approval for the emergency services project in Kharkiv.

But the two touched on other topics, he said. “The second part of the meeting was him telling me that the Russians are still killing us,” Mr. Giuliani said.

A summary released by Mr. Poroshenko’s office characterized the meeting as decidedly diplomatic. “The parties discussed ways to overcome Russian aggression against Ukraine,” it said.

Mr. Giuliani arrived in Kiev just weeks after Mr. Manafort was indicted on charges related to his work in Ukraine. Mr. Trump’s advisers were increasingly concerned that continuing investigations inside Ukraine might provide more fuel for the expanding inquiry by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

Earlier that year, Ukrainian law enforcement had quietly allowed a potentially key witness in the Mueller investigation, Konstantin V. Kilimnik, to escape to Russia, putting him out of reach of Mr. Mueller’s team. Mr. Kilimnik was an aide to Mr. Manafort believed to have ties to Russian intelligence.

In June 2017, shortly after Mr. Giuliani visited Kiev, Mr. Lutsenko — Mr. Poroshenko’s prosecutor general — took control from an anti-corruption bureau of a criminal investigation related to Mr. Manafort. Mr. Lutsenko would later coordinate closely with Mr. Giuliani to promote an investigation into the family of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Mr. Lutsenko took further steps to slow walk the Ukrainian cases related to the Mueller investigation in November and gave an official order to freeze them in April 2018.

One examined possible money laundering in a $750,000 payment to Mr. Manafort from a Ukrainian shell company. Another scrutinized a Ukrainian politician who signed entries designated for Mr. Manafort in a secret ledger of political payoffs uncovered after the 2014 revolution in Ukraine.

The other two involved the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, which wrote a report with Mr. Manafort’s help that came to be seen as whitewashing the arrest and imprisonment of a Ukrainian politician.

The hold on the investigations came as the Trump administration was finalizing plans to sell Ukraine hundreds of the Javelin anti-tank missiles that Mr. Poroshenko hoped could be used as a possible deterrent against a wider Russian military intervention into Ukraine.

Serhiy Horbatyuk, a special prosecutor who lost control over the cases, said during an interview that he had little doubt that Mr. Poroshenko ordered the slowdown. “In Ukraine,” he said, “every president can order a prosecutor to run, walk or stand still.”

Mr. Lutsenko has denied freezing the cases to curry favor with the Trump administration.

Separately, Mr. Lutsenko also opened a case into how the details of Mr. Manafort’s financial dealings had surfaced in the news media during the 2016 campaign. A member of Parliament characterized the inquiry as an investigation of Ukrainian meddling to favor Mrs. Clinton — the same issue that Mr. Trump raised on the phone call with Mr. Zelensky two years later.

Ukraine had come into play in domestic American politics. “For years, Ukraine and its fight for independence had united political opponents in the United States” in bipartisan support for Kiev, said Danylo Lubkivsky, a former deputy foreign minister. “Nobody of sane mind had ever doubted that if Ukraine failed, a gray zone of Russian influence would appear here.”

But Mr. Yelisieiev, the Poroshenko foreign policy adviser, said the flattery and deal-making kept relations on an even keel — and left Ukraine in a stronger position in its war.

The Javelin sale did at one point appear to encounter some interference, said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, who has participated in depositions of witnesses during the impeachment inquiry.

Citing testimony late last month of Catherine M. Croft, a State Department employee who worked on Ukraine issues for the National Security Council, Mr. Connolly said that the White House Office of Management and Budget briefly held up the weapons sale after the Pentagon and the State Department had both approved it. The reason for the holdup, first reported by The Daily Beast, is unclear.

The logjam eventually broke, and in April 2018 the first of 210 Javelins and 35 launching units were shipped to Ukraine. They are stored in a warehouse — ready for use in case of Russian attack.

Mark Mazzetti and Eric Lipton reported from Washington, and Andrew E. Kramer from Kiev, Ukraine. Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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