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How A Ukrainian Prosecutor Helped Ignite The Trump Impeachment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As the House prepares to vote tomorrow on the impeachment of President Trump, we're going to look at the one person whose name is cited in the inquiry more often than almost any other. It's not Trump or even his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who went to Ukraine to seek dirt on Trump's political rivals. It's one of the people Giuliani met there - the former prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko. That observation comes from "The Ukrainian Prosecutor Behind Trump's Impeachment." It's the title of the latest story by Adam Entous of The New Yorker. He joins us now to talk more about it.

Welcome.

ADAM ENTOUS: It's great to be here.

CORNISH: Before we get to why Lutsenko is so vital to the impeachment, can you give us a little bit of his biography? He's got a long history in Ukrainian politics, right?

ENTOUS: Lutsenko was, as a younger man - helped lead some of the early revolutions in the country. He went on to become interior minister and was hailed by the U.S. Embassy and by the FBI as one of the country's honest cops. There was a lot of optimism about his future in the country.

CORNISH: So what happened? - because by 2016, he's the prosecutor general, and the U.S. wants him to root out corruption and self-dealing among Ukraine's leaders. And it seems like that's not the way it works out. The former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch talks about this goal in her public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE YOVANOVITCH: I did not tell Mr. Lutsenko or other Ukrainian officials who they should or should not prosecute. Instead, I advocated the U.S. position that rule of law should prevail.

CORNISH: What was the relationship between Yovanovitch and Lutsenko? And why is it key to the impeachment inquiry?

ENTOUS: Well, that clip is a reference to their first meeting, which takes place in October 2016. The way it was described by Ukrainian officials who were present was Lutsenko basically said that there were some anti-corruption activists who were supported by the Americans who he reserved the right to investigate and prosecute. And according to Lutsenko and his aides who were there, the Ambassador Yovanovitch was unhappy with that and expressed concern that doing so was not what his office really should be doing, that they should be investigating actual corruption instead of harassing anti-corruption activists.

And that sort of set the tone, frankly, for the entire relationship between them. They became, you know, largely enemies and could barely meet together, at least according to Lutsenko's account. And the embassy cut him off, and he became embittered and was looking for a way to, you know, improve his standing in Washington. And to find a way to do so meant looking for people that he could meet with besides Ambassador Yovanovitch.

CORNISH: And the person he found was the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Did Lutsenko, in your conversation, take credit, so to speak, for helping to usher out this ambassador? How did he talk about his relationship with Giuliani in relation to that?

ENTOUS: So his version, which I think is accurate, is that when he went to go meet with Giuliani, he knew that Giuliani wanted to talk about the Bidens. But his version is that he didn't know that they wanted to talk about Yovanovitch. Now, he had plenty of things to say about Yovanovitch when Giuliani raised her name. And then he contributed, you know, with dirt that he had and all this bile that he had in his - built up over time towards her, which he shared with Giuliani. And when she was removed, he said he was pleased with the result.

CORNISH: Considering the ripple effects of all of these meetings and all of these situations, it sounds kind of horrifyingly personal, considering what's at stake.

ENTOUS: I mean, I was struck by, you know, kind of the ego and what happens when somebody who's very proud of themselves and part of that is justified feels like their ego's been bruised. I mean, that's what happened with Lutsenko. Also, I was amazed by how really petty the disputes were - kind of reminded me of any office politics, frankly, where, you know, he was jealous of a rival - domestic rival - who was getting more adoration from Yovanovitch than he was getting. It was almost as if - you know, if he had been invited to a few more holiday parties at the embassy, none of this would have happened.

For him, obviously, it's not petty. For him, it's - it became, in his mind, existential because he realized that his political future, you know, was being held back because the Americans distrusted him so much.

CORNISH: Giuliani was just in Ukraine recently, met with Lutsenko. Are they still at it? Are they still trying to investigate President Trump's Democratic rivals?

ENTOUS: I don't know if investigate's the right word for what they're doing. They're having meetings. He did have meetings with several former Ukrainian officials that have provided him with information that has almost no credibility. You know, I think Giuliani's strategy here is to put it out there and hope that a good percentage or some percentage of the American population will believe it's true or at least be confused - so confused that they won't necessarily pay as much attention as they might to the allegations that are being made against the president for his conduct in Ukraine.

CORNISH: That's Adam Entous, staff writer for The New Yorker. His story about Yuriy Lutsenko is in the December 23 issue.

Thank you for your time.

ENTOUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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