During President Trump’s impeachment, former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified to Congress that she knew little beyond an initial briefing and “press reports” about Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian natural gas firm that had hired Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter and was dogged by a corruption investigation.
“It just wasn’t a big deal,” she declared under oath on Oct. 11, 2019.
But newly unearthed State Department memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show Yovanovitch’s embassy in Kiev, including the ambassador herself, was engaged in several discussions and meetings about Burisma as the gas firm scrambled during the 2016 election and transition to settle a long-running corruption investigation and polish its image before President Trump took office.
Yovanovitch, for instance, was specifically warned in an email by her top deputy in September 2016 — three years before her testimony — that Burisma had hired an American firm with deep Democratic connections called Blue Star Strategies to “rehabilitate the reputation” of the Ukrainian gas firm and that it had placed “Hunter Biden on its board,” the memos show.
She also met directly with a representative for Burisma in her embassy office, less than 45 days before Trump took office, a contact she did not mention during her impeachment deposition.
The discussions about Burisma inside Yovanovitch’s embassy were so extensive, in fact, that they filled more than 160 pages of emails, memos and correspondence in fall 2016 alone, according to the State Department records obtained under FOIA by the conservative group Citizens United.
The contacts included a detailed private letter hand-delivered to Yovanovitch by one of Burisma’s lawyers in September 2016, a briefing later that month from her staff on Burisma’s issues, and a meeting scheduled between the ambassador and a Burisma representative shortly before Christmas 2016 as the Obama administration was preparing to leave office.
Yovanovitch, who recently retired from State, did not respond Tuesday to a message sent to her private email seeking comment. Her lawyer during the impeachment proceedings, Lawrence S. Robbins, also did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
State officials declined comment.
David Bossie, a former congressional investigator and current outside adviser to Trump who runs Citizen United, said the documents his group obtained raise questions about Yovanovitch’s testimony last fall and what else Congress may not know about the embassy’s involvement with the Hunter Biden-connected Burisma firm.
“These new records clearly don’t support Ambassador Yovanovitch’s testimony under oath during [Rep. Adam] Schiff’s sham impeachment. Her sworn testimony must be investigated and scrutinized just like in the case of General [Michael] Flynn,” he said. “You can’t have two sets of rules.”
The impeachment hearings last fall, which focused on efforts by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Guiliani to find evidence inside Ukraine on the Bidens and Burisma and to remove Yovanovitch from her job as U.S. ambassador, included testimony from Yovanovitch herself.
During that deposition in October 2019 she made no mention of direct contact with Burisma representatives and instead suggested her knowledge about the company and its legal travails was limited mostly to a briefing she received in preparation for Senate confirmation as ambassador in summer 2016 and subsequent news media reports.
Hunter Biden’s work for one of Ukraine’s largest energy companies, which generated more than $3 million in payments to his American firm over two years, stirred controversy in both Ukraine and the United States because his father oversaw U.S. policy for Ukraine while Burisma was long a focus of a criminal corruption probe in Ukraine. State Department officials have said they believed the relationship created the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“What do you know about the investigation of Burisma?” Yovanovitch was asked at one point during her October testimony.
“Not very much. And, again, that happened before I arrived,” she testified. “… Burisma wasn’t a big issue in the fall of 2018 — 2016 when I arrived.”
“Were you aware at that time of Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma?” she was asked at another point.
“Yes. As I mentioned, I became aware during the Q&A in the prep for my testimony,” she answered.
Yovanovitch said she believed she learned from press reports that Burisma’s criminal case had been dormant by the time she arrived in Kiev in late summer 2016.
“I’m trying to understand your testimony, because earlier in the day you said that, based on press reports, your understanding was that it was dormant. You may have had additional information it was dormant, or you don’t know?” Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., inquired at one point.
“Yes. And all I can tell you is it was a long time ago and it just wasn’t a big issue,” she said.
“So I just want to understand your position. Obviously, you knew that Burisma was dormant, based on press reports. That was what you stated earlier,” Zeldin pressed.
“Uh-huh,” she answered.
“But you’re saying that you may have had other information, but you don’t recall that now?” the lawmaker followed.
“I may have had other information, but I don’t recall how I had that impression …” she answered.
During a nationally televised impeachment hearing a month later in the House, Yovanovitch doubled down on her testimony that Burisma and Hunter Biden weren’t on her radar when she took over as ambassador. “It was not a focus of what I was doing in that six-month period,” she testified anew.
But the memos show Yovanovitch was informed that the criminal cases were actively being settled in fall 2016 and that Burisma and its founder Mykola Zlochevsky were trying to repair the company’s reputation with the U.S. Embassy.
For instance, a briefing memo prepared for Yovanovitch’s 30-minute meeting Dec. 8, 2016 inside the U.S. Embassy with Burisma representative Karen Tramontano noted that Tramantano worked for the lobbying and strategy firm Blue Star Strategies.
“An Atlantic Council member and Washington veteran, Tramontano informally represents Mykola Zlochevsky, the Burisma CEO, who has long been the target of law enforcement proceedings in Ukraine,” the memo stated.
The memo added that “his [Zlochevsky’s] official US representatives sent a letter in September (attached) asking that the embassy reconsider its position on him.”
The new memos aren’t the first to raise questions about Yovanovitch’s testimony. Last November, Fox News challenged another portion of her testimony denying she had contact with a Democratic House staffer after the network said it obtained emails showing Yovanovitch did in fact have the contact on her private email, and not her official State email.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has been trying to subpoena documents about Blue Star Strategies and its work for Burisma for weeks but has been blocked by opposition from Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, whose friend serves on the Burisma board. Johnson and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, are now seeking to interview witnesses who previously served at the embassy.
The memos show that both Blue Star Strategies and the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit policy organization, played a role in fall 2016 pressing the U.S. embassy in Kiev to change its position on Burisma and Zlochevsky, whom the embassy viewed as corrupt. Zlochevsky has long denied any wrongdoing.
For instance, after the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department foreign funding arm, was told by the embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission George Kent not to accept a $7,500 donation for Burisma for a clean energy event in Ukraine in late summer 2016, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine named John Herbst working for the Atlantic Council reached out.
Herbst asked to meet with Yovanovitch in September 2016 and secured a private dinner date instead with Kent in Ukraine, the memos show. “I will factor into our conversation the Zlochevsky Affair,” Herbst wrote to Kent as he prepared for their dinner.
Kent, long a critic of Burisma, is one of the witnesses Johnson and Grassley are seeking to interview. He went out of his way to mention the Burisma-Hunter Biden connection during one of his pre-dinner email exchanges with Herbst in which he decried alleged “payoffs” to Ukrainian officials “to do nothing” about the Burisma investigation.
“I have no doubt such arrangements were made, apart from Mr. Zlochevsky (who also put Hunter Biden on the board of his Burisma Energy company),” Kent wrote.
One of the maneuvers Blue Star planned was to take the new Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, who held the fate of Burisma in his hands, to the United States for an event with the Atlantic Council, a move that would have created positive press for Lutsenko in both countries, the memos state.
Kent discouraged doing so and eventually sent a memo to Yovanovitch alerting her that “Lutsenko now likely not to go to DC with Blue Star.”
She followed up with a request to be briefed. “Thanks George. At some point appreciate discussing in more detail some of the folks referenced,” the ambassador wrote in a Sept. 4, 2016 email.
Within a few days, Yovanovitch received a direct letter from one of Burisma’s American lawyers, John Buretta of the Cravath, Swaine and Moore law firm in New York, alerting her that Lutsenko’s office was dropping a long-running corruption investigation of Burisma without filing charges based on a Ukrainian court ruling favorable to Zlochevsky.
Buretta’s letter to Yovanovitch said the allegations against Zlochevsky were “baseless,” and the lawyer asked the U.S. embassy to drop its long-running narrative that Burisma was somehow corrupt.
“We respectfully request that Your Excellency take into consideration these objective facts when considering the narrative promoted by some, and no doubt to be repeated again, in disregard of the facts and the law and the decisions by courts,” Buretta wrote the ambassador.
Yovanovitch immediately forwarded the letter to Kent. “What is this about?” she emailed.
Kent, the memos show, then arranged a special briefing for Yovanovitch later in September to get up to speed. The planned subject of the briefing, the memos show, was “Zlochevsky, Burisma, Cravath and image rehab campaigns.”
One of the topics for the briefing, Kent wrote colleagues on Sept. 16, 2016, was “Zlochevsky/Burisma – asset recovery and past crimes of the Yanu regime as they intersect U.S. corporate/individual interest,” an apparent reference to Hunter Biden’s role with the company.
In a separate email to Yovanovitch, Kent was more explicit about the Biden connection. “This is further to the Blue Star effort to rehabilitate the reputation of their non-client in the US, former ministry of ecologies Zlochevsky, who clearly has retained the services of a blue chip law firm (Cravath) and his energy company Burisma, which in turn has Hunter Biden on its board,” Kent emailed the ambassador.
By November 2016, with Trump now the president-elect, Burisma’s American emissaries were in full motion to get a second corruption case against Burisma — this one involving tax evasion — settled in Ukraine. They succeeded by early January, just days before Trump took office.
The American legal team for Burisma also wanted to improve relations between the gas firm, where Hunter Biden worked, and the U.S. embassy and USAID, the foreign aid arm, the memos show.
The Dec. 8, 2016 briefing memo prepared for Yovanovitch detailed the lobbying efforts by Blue Star.
“USAID spoke to Blue Star Strategies representative Sally Painter by phone and indicated that we would be open to discussing other forms of cooperation between USAID and Burisma, and agreed to meet with Burisma Government and Public Affairs representative Vadim Pozharskyi,” the memo to Yovanovitch explained. “In the November meeting, Pozharskyi briefed USAID on Burisma and the gas sector more broadly but did not propose specific ideas for cooperation.”
U.S. officials directly familiar with the Dec. 8, 2016 meeting confirmed it took place and that Yovanovich attended, but did not know whether the ambassador read the briefing memo beforehand.
After Yovanovitch met with Blue Star’s Tramantano, word surfaced in Ukraine that Zlochevsky had settled the second case against Burisma with a fine, and the Ukrainian news media was up in arms, critical that the owner and his company with Hunter Biden on its board had escaped more serious penalty.
One headline forwarded by email to the ambassador read, “Activists cry foul as courts, prosecutors clear Zlochevsky.”
“Lots of accusations/innuendo,” a State official wrote Yovanovitch and Kent on Dec. 29, 2016, forwarding another news article that alleged Burisma may have dumped natural gas into the market as a political payoff for getting off in the criminal case.
“Mentions Biden’s son and Kwasniewski are on board of Burisma, which allegedly had a subsidiary dump natural gas recently as a way to pay bribes” to Ukrainian officials, the State official wrote Yovanovitch.
A few hours later on that same day, the embassy’s deputy economic counselor followed up with Yovanovitch about the payoff allegations. “The dumping part is true,” the official wrote.
By early January 2017, as Vice President Joe Biden prepared to make a final visit to Ukraine before leaving office, officials around Yovanovitch worried the Burisma scandal might taint the visit. They forwarded news articles to the ambassador, some which were critical of the Bidens.
A Jan. 7, 2017 email from a State official to Yovanovitch, for instance, provided a summary of recent news reports about the impending Biden visit. “Ukrainian political scientists speculate on the purpose of the visit,” the email told Yovanovitch.
One of the speculations quoted in the memo was that Biden “has a business interest” in Ukraine because his son worked for Burisma. “Perhaps the behind the scenes part of the visit can be attributed to the fact that the Ukranian authorities guaranteed some business positions to the former Vice President and his family,” the memo quoted one Ukrainian figure as saying.
Kent had long feared the Bidens had created the appearance of a conflict of interest with the Burisma relationship and testified during impeachment he tried to warn the vice president about his concerns in 2015 but got rebuffed. As the media speculation about Biden’s last visit got more intense and nasty, Kent lamented to colleagues in a Jan. 17, 2017 email that copied Yovanovitch: “Burisma – gift that keeps on giving.”
For the Atlantic Council and Herbst, Kent’s line was prophetically, and literally, true.
On Jan. 13, 2017, Herbst emailed Kent that the Atlantic Council had just accepted a donation from Burisma.
“I wanted you to know before it becomes public that the Atlantic Council decided to accept support for its program from Burisma,” Herbst wrote.
“We looked at the matter closely and weighed it over for a month. Information provided by the Cravath lawyer for Burisma in the London case was an important factor, although some uneasiness remains.”