Shadowy Liberal Group Began Investigating Trump-Ukraine Months Before the ‘Whistleblower’ Complaint

US President Donald Trump speaks during a retreat with Republican lawmakers at Camp David in Thurmont, Maryland, January 6, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Months before a whistleblower complaint that would spark the Democrat effort for impeachment, a shadowy liberal group founded and staffed by Obama administration alums and former Democrat congressional staffers launched an outside investigation into whether President Trump’s allies were seeking “foreign interference” from Ukraine in the 2020 elections.

The group, American Oversight, began investigating the issue in May — more than two months before the “whistleblower” filed a complaint alleging Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals.”

The group’s purpose is to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits requesting official documents from the administration that could be used to bolster Democrat congressional investigations, and its actions on Ukraine show Congress began looking for Ukraine-related dirt on the administration before the “whistleblower” filed his complaint that catalyzed impeachment.

American Oversight claims to be the top “Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration.”

In anticipation of Democrats winning back the House in 2018, it launched a “Parallel Investigations Initiative” in April to reinforce congressional investigations of the Trump administration. It said in a statement:

Today, American Oversight announces the Parallel Investigations Initiative to lay the groundwork for this potential surge in congressional oversight activity. We have begun proactively tracking oversight requests made by both the chairs and ranking members of key congressional committees and, in many cases, we’ve already submitted parallel FOIA requests for the same information.

The Trump administration won’t know what hit them. Independent FOIA litigation paired with aggressive congressional oversight creates a nightmare for federal agencies because of the different levers litigants and members of Congress can pull to enforce their demands.

The group was founded in March 2017 by Austin Evers, a former senior counsel during the Obama State Department, to counter the Trump administration using FOIA. Evers said in a June 2018 interview:

I was quite troubled by the election of Donald Trump and his posture toward towards public service as a private enterprise, and I was also concerned that there didn’t seem to be any transparency watchdogs that planned to be antagonistic toward the administration. We had faced such high profile and aggressive litigation during the last administration that I wanted to model to make sure that this administration was held accountable.

The group claims to be non-partisan, but most of its staff have worked for Democrat administrations, lawmakers, or groups. The group’s senior adviser, Melanie Sloan, is a former federal prosecutor and Capitol Hill staffer who worked for now Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). She founded the left-wing watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) and ran it for more than a decade.

The group has kept its funding completely hidden. Sloan said in an interview with USA Today that the group is organized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and does not plan to disclose its funding sources. “We don’t discuss our donors,” she said.

Conservative watchdog Influence Watch has noted the group was founded after liberal “mega-donors” met at a posh Florida retreat in January 2017 to discuss ways to defeat the Trump administration, including through litigation. The retreat was hosted by David Brock, a former conservative journalist who founded the Democrat-affiliated publisher Media Matters, according to the Washington Free Beacon. Brock has close ties with Sloan, serving on CREW’s board before taking control from 2014 through late 2016.

One of American Oversight’s donors is the progressive Schooner Foundation, which gave $100,000 to the group in 2017, according to Influence Watch. Its founder is Vin Ryan, a multimillionaire and one of the top 50 richest people in Massachusetts.

It is not public how closely the group works with congressional Democrats, but House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s (D-CA) final impeachment inquiry report directly referenced the group’s work five separate times.

And American Oversight is still receiving documents related to the impeachment inquiry. The most recent batch of emails obtained by the group in late December were from the Pentagon. A recent CNN report highlighted emails obtained from American Oversight and The Center for Public Integrity (CPI).

Schumer shortly after cited one of the Pentagon emails obtained by CPI in a recent press conference as justification for calling in its author to testify, according to CNN:

If there was ever an argument that we need [Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey], to come testify, this is that information. This email is explosive. A top administration official, one that we requested, is saying, stop the aid 90 minutes after Trump called Zelensky and said keep it hush, hush. What more do you need to request a witness?

In March, as part of a different congressional investigation on retaliation against civil servants, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-NJ) cited American Oversight in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Except for the mention in the CNN piece, the group’s work on the Ukraine issue has gone on relatively quietly since May — months before the “whistleblower” filed his complaint on August 12, 2019.

American Oversight filed a FOIA request on May 21, 2019, for documents from the State Department related to the firing of then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and on whether the president’s personal attorney was trying to “persuade the Ukrainian government to conduct an investigation connected to a potential political opponent of the president.”

On that same day, 13 House Democrats announced their support for an impeachment inquiry — the largest group of Democrats to do so at that time. The group included Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former State Department official.

By that time, Democrats had already been eyeing the administration’s moves on Ukraine.

On March 20, the Hill‘s John Solomon reported Ukraine’s top prosecutor was opening an investigation into whether Ukraine’s law enforcement apparatus leaked financial records during the 2016 election on then Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to help Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The Hill article said Yovanovitch gave the top prosecutor a list of defendants who he would not be allowed to pursue and refused to cooperate in an early investigation into the alleged misappropriation of U.S. aid in Ukraine. The article also alleged that Yovanovitch had repeatedly bad-mouthed Trump in private.

The article caused consternation for Yovanovitch and her allies in the U.S. government, as a handful of bureaucrats would later testify to the House. After the article, more Trump allies called for Yovanovitch’s firing. On March 24, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that Yovanovitch was a “joker.”

In April, the Hill published another article based on interviews with Ukrainian officials, which said former Vice President Joe Biden demanded the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor, who was at the time leading a “wide-ranging corruption probe into the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings that employed Biden’s younger son, Hunter, as a board member.”

Consternation from Democrats arose further when the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani began saying in television interviews that he was looking into allegations of Ukraine and Democrat collusion during the 2016 election. He said people in Ukraine were coming forward and telling him about Ukrainians working to help Clinton, and also about “Burisma and Biden’s son.”

In an April 7 Fox News interview, he said Hunter Biden was allegedly a “named individual” in an investigation by a top prosecutor who Biden had pushed Ukraine to fire.

Behind the scenes, on April 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected and Trump called him that same day. The call was an exchange of niceties between the two presidents, according to a transcript of the call the White House would release later. There were no leaks of that phone call or any whistleblower complaints.

In late April, Yovanovitch was recalled to Washington, DC, and told she would no longer be serving in that position, a decision that upset her greatly despite the president having the right to make it; she would testify later in tears.

In early May, a slew of mainstream media reports began attacking Giuliani, questioning whether the president was seeking foreign political interference. On May 1, the New York Times reported, “Mr. Giuliani’s involvement raises questions about whether Mr. Trump is endorsing an effort to push a foreign government to proceed with a case that could hurt a political opponent at home.”

On May 20, Zelensky was inaugurated and his inauguration attended by a group of top U.S. officials, as well as U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an official on the National Security Council (NSC) who closely coordinated with U.S. bureaucrats at multiple agencies as well as Ukrainian officials.

On May 21, American Oversight filed that first document request. The request was filled with language the whistleblower would later echo in his complaint. It said:

On May 9, 2019, President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, announced that he would travel to Ukraine to meet with the country’s president-elect to urge the Ukrainian government to pursue an investigation related to the son of former Vice President Biden— a potential electoral opponent of the president.

It is more troubling that, shortly before Mr. Giuliani announced his plan to attempt to “meddl[e]” in a Ukrainian investigation related to one of the president’s potential political opponents, State recalled U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer who has served under Democratic and Republican presidents. Ambassador Yovanovitch had faced criticism from conservative media for purportedly criticizing the president in private conversations. Senator Chris Murphy has, further, expressed concern that Ambassador Yovanovitch’s recall may be related to Mr. Giuliani’s efforts to influence Ukrainian investigations.

American Oversight seeks records with the potential to shed light on whether and to what extent the political interests of the president have influenced State Department policies and actions in Ukraine, including actions related to the recall of Ambassador Yovanovitch and the efforts of the president’s personal attorney to persuade the Ukrainian government to conduct an investigation connected to a potential political opponent of the president.

On May 23, the American delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration briefed Trump and pressed for Trump to host Zelensky at the White House. Trump, sour on Ukraine, told them to “talk to Rudy.” Those delegates — U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry — decided to talk to Giuliani, who said he wanted a statement from Ukraine committing to investigations on the 2016 election collusion with Democrats and “Burisma.”

In June, mainstream media attacks continued on Giuliani. On June 6, the left-wing Daily Beast published a hit piece on him.

The next day, the Daily Beast published another piece that said Democrats were considering an investigation of Giuliani.

On June 12, Jonathan Chait, one of the main pushers of the Russian collusion hoax, published a short piece in New York Magazine that accused Trump of soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 election. It was headlined “Trump Goes on TV to Solicit 2020 Foreign Collusion.” It said:

Trump continues to show every sign of hoping and expecting to benefit from foreign collusion in 2020. In May, he intended to send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to pressure the government to supply dirt on Joe Biden.

His message to Russia, or any other government that wants a close relationship with him, is obvious: Do anything you can to help me win.

Chait’s piece came before the Trump administration began discussing the freezing of security aid to Ukraine and before the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky that the “whistleblower” based his complaint on.

Despite the attacks against Giuliani, by late June questions raised about Hunter Biden began to get some traction in mainstream media. A June 20 article by ABC News reported that Joe Biden sidestepped questions on his son’s foreign business dealings. 

A July 1 article by the New Yorker wondered if Hunter Biden would possibly sabotage his father.

In July, two pivotal events occurred that would give Democrats the hook they may have been waiting for.

On July 18, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) held an interagency meeting informing the rest of the national security apparatus that the aid for Ukraine was being held.

On July 25, Trump and Zelensky had the phone call that allegedly prompted the “whistleblower” to issue his complaint.

Vindman, who was part of the small group of officials who listened in on the call, testified that he was bothered by the call and reported it to the NSC general counsel, along with his twin brother, an NSC lawyer.

On July 26, Schiff hired Sean Misko, a former NSC aide and State Department official who worked with the alleged “whistleblower” at the NSC during the Obama and Trump administrations, according to the Washington Examiner. At the State Department, Misko worked for Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan, who later became Hillary Clinton’s senior foreign policy adviser during her 2016 presidential campaign.

Within the two weeks after the call, the “whistleblower” — a relatively junior CIA analyst who was not on the call but had heard about the phone call from one of the small group of officials who were on the call — went to an unnamed aide to Schiff, according to the New York Times. The aide reportedly told the “whistleblower” to get legal counsel and then file a whistleblower complaint with the intelligence community inspector general (ICIG).

The “whistleblower” — identified as a Democrat by CNN — filed his complaint to the ICIG on August 12.

The “whistleblower’s” lawyer, Andrew Bakaj, also had linkages to Congress, the State Department, and Ukraine. According to a profile in the Washingtonian, he served at the State Department, including at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine and worked for Democrat senators, including then Sen. Daniel Moynihan (NY), Schumer, and Clinton.

Just two days after the “whistleblower” filed his complaint, Laura Carey, a House Foreign Affairs Committee staffer reached out to Yovanovitch at her private email on behalf of the committee to see if she would discuss the circumstances of her leaving, according to the ambassador’s later testimony.

Yovanovitch suggested in testimony she did not return Carey’s email and said that since she was still a State Department employee, she forwarded the email to the State Department to handle the request. However, later, a Fox News report showed that Yovanovitch actually had responded. Carey wrote to Yovanovitch:

I’m writing to see if you would have time to meet up for a chat — in particular, I’m hoping to discuss some Ukraine-related oversight questions we are exploring. I’d appreciate the chance to ground-truth a few pieces of information with you, some of which are quite delicate/time-sensitive and, thus, we want to make sure we get them right.

In the August 14 email, Carey told Yovanovitch she had been detailed from the State Department to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but resigned to join the House Foreign Affairs Committee to perform “oversight work.” She pressed Yovanovitch twice to meet that week, the weekend, or the next week.

Carey would later serve as a staffer on the House’s impeachment inquiry team.

Two weeks later, on August 28,  Politico exclusively reported that the aid to Ukraine was being held. The story cites Malinowski, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and former senior State Department official. The article raised questions among top Ukrainian officials, who immediately contacted counterparts in the U.S.

There is “an at least temporary effect,” Malinowski told Politico. “The bigger problem is that Trump is once again showing himself to be an asset to Russia.”

On September 9, the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight Committees announced they were investigating Trump — before the existence of the whistleblower complaint went public.

On September 10, Schiff wrote a letter to the Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire about the “whistleblower” complaint.

On September 11, the Trump administration released the hold on Ukraine security assistance, which had until September 30 to be distributed.

On September 12, Schiff wrote an additional letter to Maguire subpoenaing the complaint. He released both letters to the public on September 14 — effectively making its existence public.

Within two weeks, moderate House Democrats had fallen in line and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced the launching of the impeachment inquiry.

American Oversight did not respond to a request for comment.

The group’s founder, Evers, reportedly had little experience with FOIA when he first joined the State Department to handle FOIA requests related to the Benghazi scandal.

His hire was seen as a scandal by then House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who accused the State Department of hiring Evers — then a lawyer who worked for the law firm defending Clinton in the Benghazi scandal — to make sure damaging or incriminating documents were never released. Evers would also work on FOIAs related to the subsequent Clinton email investigation.

So far, Evers has donated most to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the current presidential election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.

 

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