Today
Fri 4 December 2020

Robert Waldeck with a comprehensive, compelling account of how the Ukraine crisis propelled Putin’s information war, the courtship of Donald Trump and the targeting of Joe Biden

The Frank Project

In the fall of 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort launched what he called ‘the Frank Project’. The story of the Frank Project links the Russian interference campaign of 2016 to Trump’s attempts to obtain disinformation on Hunter Biden, son of his Democratic rival Joe Biden.

An attempt to pay Russia back for its help in the presidential election, the Frank Project attempted to force Ukraine into a peace process based on the Minsk Agreement, a peace plan negotiated between Ukraine and Russia, and mediated by France and Germany.

The project began with Oleksandr Onyshchenko, a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker, oligarch, and Trump associate. In June 2016, Onyshchenko fled Ukraine for Russia after investigators announced a corruption probe against him. 

A week later, the New York Times reported that US Intelligence determined that the Russian Government had hacked the Democratic National Committee, obtaining emails from the governing body of the Democratic Party.

Putin was moving to collect Trump’s debt to Russia. On 2 August 2016, Manafort and the Trump campaign’s deputy chair Richard Gates met with Russian Intelligence Officer Konstantin Kilimnik in New York City. There, Kilimnik gave Manafort a copy of Russia’s plan for peace in Eastern Ukraine – seeking the return of disgraced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, to rule over an autonomous region of Donbas.

At the same time, Manafort provided Kilimnik with polling data from the Trump campaign, showing Trump could win and told the Russian to give the data to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

Twelve days later, the New York Times revealed Manafort’s name was found in the “Black Ledger” a record of off-the-books political influence spending in Ukraine. Trump fired Manafort on 19 August. Kilimnik told associates that Manafort “remained” with Trump. Gates stayed on the campaign.


The Peace Plan and the Biden Kompromat

In the following weeks, facing the potential of a Trump presidency, and perhaps aware of Manafort’s polling data, then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko began moving towards peace with Russia. 

On 14 September 2016, a former State Department staffer, Frank Mermoud, reached out to Gates at the Trump campaign and requested a meeting with Poroshenko on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. When a meeting could not be arranged, a phone call was discussed. It is unclear if the call happened.

A Senate Intelligence Report revealed that Poroshenko reached out to the Trump campaign through Rick Gates and Paul Manafort in September 2016.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators in Minsk quietly announced a breakthrough on 21 September – they had signed a ‘Framework on Disengagement of Forces and Hardware’ that would be followed by talks on implementing the Minsk formula. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, in September, Lev Parnas and David Correia – business associates of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani – entered into a development deal to obtain foreign funding for a Florida development company. The key partner in the deal was top Ukrainian official Roman Nasirov, a Poroshenko ally.

On 5 October, European diplomats began setting up a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Poroshenko, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Parnas recently revealed in a tweet that his first real meeting with Trump occurred that October, hinting at revelations to come.

THE KEY PLAYERS

  • Paul Manafort – Chair of the 2016 Trump campaign from June to August that year.
  • Hunter Biden – Former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.
  • Oleksandr Onyshchenko – A pro-Russian lawmaker and Trump associate.
  • Richard Gates – Deputy chair of the 2016 Trump campaign, under Manafort.
  • Konstantin Kilimnik – Russian intelligence officer.
  • Viktor Yanukovych – Pro-Russian Ukrainian President in office from 2010 until 2014, when he was ousted in a revolution.
  • Petro Poroshenko – Ukrainian President from 2014 to 2019.
  • Frank Mermoud – Former State Department staffer.
  • Lev Parnas and David Correia – Business associates of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
  • Roman Nasirov – Top Ukrainian official and Poroshenko ally.
  • Kirill Dmitriev – Head of Russia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.
  • Andrii Artemenko – Poroshenko’s Trump go-between.

A Normandy Peace format meeting was held on 19 October in Berlin with Merkel, Putin, Poroshenko and Hollande attending. A tweet by Parnas’ attorney Joe Bondy shows that later that evening, Parnas appeared in photographs with top Trump surrogates at a presidential debate. Parnas followed with a $99,000 donation spree to Republican committees.

On the day after the US election, Onyshchenko told Ukranian publication Strana he had congratulated Trump, that the election would help his criminal case in Ukraine, and that the new President would bring peace with Russia. On 30 November, Onyshchenko claimed that he had secretly recorded telephone conversations with Poroshenko showing their joint involvement in corruption involving Burisma – one of the largest private natural gas firms in Ukraine.

Cryptically, in a now-deleted tweet, Parnas’ business partner hinted that Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma would be later used against his father, Vice President Joe Biden.

Screenshot of deleted tweet of Parnas’ associate David Corriea on 22 January, 2017.

According to Senate investigators, two days after Trump won, Manafort ordered Gates to start the Frank Project. Gates reached out to Mermoud to open a backchannel with Poroshenko. The next day, 11 November, Mermoud emailed Ukrainian Ambassador Valreiy Chaly.

Paul Manafort arranges the first telephone call between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and President-elect Donald Trump.

On 13 November, Mermoud informed Gates that Chaly had established contact with the President-elect’s team to set up a phone call between Trump and Poroshenko. Two days later, President-elect Trump and Poroshenko held their first official call. Ukraine’s attitude about the Black Ledger underwent a remarkable change after Trump won. Anti-corruption prosecutors announced there was no reason to charge Paul Manafort in the Black Ledger cases. 

Meanwhile, Onyshchenko’s story about his involvement in corruption with Poroshenko unravelled. On 15 December, Ukrainian publication Obzervatel revealed a video of an unpublished interview of Onyshchenko showing he did not know the details of his wild claims and needed to be coached by Viktor Zubritsky, a Ukrainian asset of Putin. The video discredited Onyschenko’s claims in Ukraine.


Lev Parnas and Backchannels to Trump

Parnas then moved to introduce Ukrainian official and Poroshenko ally Nasirov to Trump. A tweet by Parnas’ attorney shows him introducing Nasirov to President-elect Donald Trump on 16 December at a Mar-a-Lago party – Trump’s Florida estate.

While Ukraine worked through Parnas, Russia used the head of its Sovereign Wealth Fund, Kirill Dmitriev, to let Trump know what it wanted. Through contacts in the United Arab Emirates, Dmitriev connected with Rick Gerson, a close friend of Jared Kushner. Gerson later told Senate investigators that Dmitriev’s list included “something about Ukraine. Something following the Minsk Agreement on Ukraine.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Report detailing the Russians Federation’s request to President-elect Trump on the Minsk Agreement.

Gerson sent the list to Kushner, who told the FBI he printed out the Russian’s request regarding peace and handed it to Steve Bannon, who would become Trump’s chief strategist, and Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson.

FBI Form 302 detailing how Jared Kushner passed on Gerson’s list.

At his confirmation hearing, Tillerson told senators Trump would never agree to Russia’s annexation of Crimea unless it was part of a “broader settlement” acceptable to Ukraine. The comments, passing unnoticed in the US, triggered rumours of imminent peace in Ukraine just as oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, a Poroshenko ally, penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal saying Ukraine would have to make painful compromises for peace. Multiple press reports linked former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a ‘peace offensive’ for Russia and Ukraine.


All Paths Lead to the Inauguration 

In the days leading up to Trump’s inauguration, Ukrainians and Russians converged on the US to deliver competing peace plans. Andrii Artemenko, a pro-Trump lawmaker in Ukraine, brought his country’s plan to a meeting at a New York hotel with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.

Cohen later gave the plan to National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The New York Times would later reveal that Artemenko brought compromising material – kompromat – on Poroshenko. Radio Free Europe’s Christopher Miller later traced this kompromat to Onyshchenko.

The Russian peace plan was brought by Kilimnik to a meeting with Manafort at the Alexandria Westin Old Town outside of Washington DC. Manafort later told FBI investigators that Kilimnik complained that the Ukrainian peace plan had reached Flynn’s desk.

Excerpt from Paul Manafort’s testimony that the peace plan passed on to Trump National Security Advisor was from Ukraine, not Russia.

A CNN photo showed Nasirov in the stands of the inaugural parade with the sons of Giuliani’s associate Lev Parnas. Days later, the development company that had hired Parnas to find funding, signed a $10 million dollar loan agreement with a company associated with Nikolay Negrich, a Kyiv City Council member who belonged to the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.


The Secret Deal Revealed

On 9 February 2017, the English-language Kyiv Post revealed that Ukrainian Foreign Ministry sources had revealed “that Ukrainian authorities are… urgently trying to reach a compromise with Russia” that involved a Crimea-for-Donbas swap. Poroshenko aides declined to dispute the reports. Sources told the Post that the negotiations intensified as Trump took office. 

The secret peace deal collapsed in February and March 2017. Flynn came under FBI investigation for lying to FBI counter-intelligence agents about phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump immediately began pressuring FBI Director James Comey to lay off Flynn, complaining that it was making it hard for him to make international deals for the country.

In mid-February, The New York Times reported the details of the Artemenko peace mission, endangering a Trump administration already under investigation by the FBI. Artemenko told the Times about the Poroshenko kompromat. Ukraine’s National Anticorruption Bureau arrested Nasirov for misuse of office and corruption on 3 March, further threatening to expose the backchannel.

These revelations rocked Ukraine, requiring Poroshenko to denounce the peace plan. Soon after, Poroshenko went on the offensive against Artemenko. Asked by a Kyiv Post reporter if he had represented Poroshenko in the peace plan affair, Artemenko replied with a smiley emoji. Poroshenko moved against former President Yanukovych, indicting him for treason. The secret peace was dead.

A year later, in April 2018, Onyshchenko revealed the kompromat: tapes of him in conversation with a voice he claimed to be that of Poroshenko, discussing a Burisma-related scheme that also involved Senator Biden and his son Hunter. Two years later, details of Trump’s attempts to investigate this link would emerge – setting off the impeachment of the President and a drama that rumbles on to this day.

Adapted from The Black Ledger: How Trump Brought Putin’s Disinformation War to America 


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