(CNN) Never-before-heard audio, obtained exclusively by CNN, shows how former President Donald Trump's longtime adviser Rudy Giuliani relentlessly pressured and coaxed the Ukrainian government in 2019 to investigate baseless conspiracies about then-candidate Joe Biden.
The audio is of a July 2019 phone call between Giuliani, US diplomat Kurt Volker, and Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The call was a precursor to Trump's infamous call with Zelensky, and both conversations later became a central part of Trump's first impeachment, where he was accused of soliciting Ukrainian help for his campaign.
During the roughly 40-minute call, Giuliani repeatedly told Yermak that Zelensky should publicly announce investigations into possible corruption by Biden in Ukraine, and into claims that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to hurt Trump. (These separate claims are both untrue.)
Exclusive: New audio of 2019 phone call reveals how Giuliani pressured Ukraine to investigate baseless Joe Biden conspiracies
"All we need from the President [Zelensky] is to say, I'm gonna put an honest prosecutor in charge, he's gonna investigate and dig up the evidence, that presently exists and is there any other evidence about involvement of the 2016 election, and then the Biden thing has to be run out," Giuliani said, according to the audio. "... Somebody in Ukraine's gotta take that seriously."
The new audio demonstrates how Giuliani aggressively cajoled the Ukrainians to do Trump's bidding. And it undermines Trump's oft-repeated assertion that "there was no quid pro quo" where Zelensky could secure US government support if he did political favors for Trump.
The call was one of the opening salvos in the years-long quest by Trump and his allies to damage Biden and subvert the 2020 election process -- by soliciting foreign meddling, lying about voter fraud, attempting to overturn the results, and inciting the deadly January 6 assault on the Capitol.
There is an ongoing criminal investigation into Giuliani and his Ukraine dealings, including whether he violated lobbying laws while coordinating with ex-officials who gave him dirt on the Bidens. The federal inquiry ramped up when the FBI raided Giuliani's home and office in late April. It's unclear if the call with Yermak is part of the investigation. Giuliani denies all wrongdoing.
A partial transcript of the Giuliani-Yermak phone call was first published by BuzzFeed News in April, and Time Magazine was first to publish some key excerpts from the call in February.
Over and over, Giuliani pressed for the investigations, according to the audio recording. Giuliani even said the US-Ukraine diplomatic relationship would improve if Zelensky launched the probes. Giuliani and Volker suggested during the call that a public announcement could clear the way for Zelensky's much-desired visit to the US, or for in-person meetings with Giuliani.
"That would clear the air really well," Giuliani said, according to the recording. "And I think it would make it possible for me to come and make it possible, I think, for me to talk to the President (Trump) to see what I can do about making sure that whatever misunderstandings are put aside ... I kinda think that this could be a good thing for having a much better relationship."
The tape provides a firsthand perspective to one of the most consequential moments of Trump's presidency. The Ukrainians are occasionally heard shuffling through papers, and the phone that's dialed into the call rings a few times during the conversation -- but Yermak stays on the line with Giuliani.
Giuliani did not respond to CNN's requests to comment about the new audiotape. In the past, he has said he didn't do anything wrong in Ukraine and was merely pursuing his client's best interests. (He was Trump's personal lawyer at the time.) Giuliani also condemned Trump's impeachment over the Ukraine affair and said Trump's conduct was constitutional and proper.
Cajoling and arm-twisting
The call was a big moment for Giuliani's quest to damage Biden's candidacy.
The former New York City mayor had spent months meeting with Ukrainians to find dirt on the Biden family, and to corroborate right-wing conspiracies that anti-Trump forces in Ukraine undermined his 2016 campaign. Giuliani met with officials who weren't considered trustworthy by US diplomats in Ukraine, including Volker -- but they told Giuliani what he wanted to hear.
Zelensky, who was a comedian and actor before entering politics, was sworn in as Ukraine's president in May 2019. Giuliani sounded eager to connect with the new president and his team.
Several weeks later, Volker brokered a call between Giuliani and Yermak, who is a longtime friend and adviser to Zelensky. This was Giuliani's first opportunity to make his pitch about the Biden investigation to Zelensky's inner circle, which was desperate to get to know Trump's team and to firm up US military support for Ukraine's ongoing war against Russian proxies in the east.
The call started with Giuliani explaining several convoluted right-wing conspiracy theories about Biden's diplomatic dealings in Ukraine and supposed Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.
Giuliani pushed many of these theories even after Volker had warned him that the Ukrainian officials who were feeding him information were not trustworthy, and said the corruption claims against Biden were "simply not credible," according to Volker's testimony in the House impeachment inquiry.
"I got information from a reliable investigator, international investigator, that there was a certain amount of activity in Ukraine during the 2016 election," Giuliani said to Yermak during the call, pushing the false claim that US embassy officials tried to "produce dirt on then-candidate Trump and Paul Manafort."
"Another one was involved with (George) Soros ... Soros apparently is behind a lot of this," Giuliani said, referring to the liberal billionaire philanthropist who is the subject of many GOP conspiracies.
Giuliani also brought up the false claim that Biden acted corruptly as vice president when he urged Zelensky's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, to fire the country's top prosecutor in 2016. (Multiple witnesses in the impeachment inquiry testified that Biden was simply following bipartisan US policy, and that the Ukrainian prosecutor needed to go because he was corrupt.)
"To me, as a lawyer, it sounds like a bribe," Giuliani said. "A bribe is offering something of value in exchange for official action. So, he offered Poroshenko a $1.2 billion loan guarantee, critical to Poroshenko's success as president, in exchange for getting rid of a prosecutor general."
He peppered in several disclaimers throughout the conversation, like saying he wasn't sure if the corruption claims against Biden were true and that he only wants "the truth" to come out. Giuliani also told Yermak, "I'm not telling (Zelensky) what to say," even though he very clearly said on a few occasions that Zelensky should announce the specific probes that Trump wanted.
One of the Ukrainians who was listening into the phone call, ex-Zelensky adviser Igor Novikov, told CNN last month that Giuliani's antics threatened Ukraine's already-fragile national security situation.
"We're a country fighting an active war with Russia for many years," he said. "So, anything to do with swapping favors within our bilateral relationship in exchange for trying to get us involved in US domestic politics is just wrong, on many levels, morally, ethically and probably even legally."
'That would be good for all of us'
During the call, Yermak listened patiently and tried to reroute the conversation to official diplomatic matters, like arranging dates for Zelensky to make his first official visit to the US. But he also gave signals to the Americans on the line that he'd work to move the ball forward on the "investigations."
"I'm absolutely sure that as soon as the dates of the President Zelensky's upcoming visit to United States will be confirmed, I am ready to be personally assume control of the preparation," Yermak said. "And of course, I will be ready to come, and we can (be) personally sitting (down), and in detail discuss all the questions, all this investigation which you listed in our conversation."
The tone from the Americans changed -- Giuliani and Volker liked what they were hearing. And Volker mentioned that Trump was scheduled to speak with Zelensky soon and congratulate him on his major parliamentary victory.
By the end of the call, it seemed clear to Yermak what needed to happen to get on Trump's good side.
"I'm sure that Zelensky will say that," Yermak said, referring to the requests from Giuliani and Volker that Zelensky should mention the investigations during his upcoming call with Trump.
"Good," Volker said.
"Believe me, Andriy, that would be good for all of us," Giuliani replied. "That would move it along very fast. And I can assure you that, as far as I'm concerned, I think they should talk this week."
Volker said, "I will press that as well," referring to getting Trump to call Zelensky.
Trump connected with Zelensky three days later, on July 25, 2019. According to a rough transcript released by the White House, Trump raised with Zelensky some of the same baseless theories that Giuliani mentioned to Yermak. Trump said, "I would like you to do us a favor" and investigate the allegations.
His conduct during that now-infamous phone call with Zelensky led to a whistleblower complaint from a US intelligence official who claimed Trump abused his powers and solicited foreign help in the 2020 election from Ukraine. The scheme unraveled within a few months, and Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives. He would be acquitted after a Senate trial.
Trump's conspiracy theories thrive in Ukraine, where a young democracy battles corruption and distrust
We talked with two dozen leaders and investigators in Ukraine. They all agree the claims against Joe and Hunter Biden are baseless. Yet they persist.
VODIANE, Ukraine – In a muddy field 5,000 miles from Washington, D.C., are a set of gas wells that extend several thousand feet underground.
The wells are owned by Burisma, a Ukrainian company registered in Cyprus – a company no one outside the energy industry would have known a month ago.
Now this place is ground zero for a central claim – one with no credible evidence – in a scandal that has engulfed the Trump administration in an impeachment inquiry: that former Vice President Joe Biden forced the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor in order to protect his son Hunter Biden, who served on Burisma's board.
Burisma's gas fields are ringed by light woodlands and an assortment of post-Soviet tropes: crumbling factories and farm buildings, babushkas clutching bags of food as they ride bicycles, bored security officials in military fatigues who always seem to require permission to do anything – from a boss who can never be found.
"There's no one here who will talk to you. Now go away," a sullen-faced guard shouted at the entrance to Burisma's small office in Vodiane, 300 miles southeast of Kyiv, last week.
"Hunter Biden? Never heard of him," said Ludmila Rynovaya, 72, a resident of Vodiane's nearby village – population 600 – who was chatting with a friend in a small grocery store. "We're pretty good at corruption," she said. "We don't need Americans to help us."
Over the course of about a week in Ukraine, the message from two dozen government officials and anti-corruption investigators quickly became clear: The allegations against the Bidens are entirely lacking in evidence.
But they persist, and not only because Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, keep repeating them.
What is true and what is false is exceptionally hard to pin down in this fledgling democracy, one riddled with regulatory loopholes, poor governance and never-ending budget shortages.
Ukraine is a place of great economic promise, with extensive natural resources and a highly educated, tech-savvy workforce.
But abuses of power and cronyism are rampant, reaching from the highest levels of government to everyday tasks like acquiring a driver's license or paying a doctor's bill, according to more than two dozen Ukrainians interviewed for this story.
"It's not really corruption, but more a way of saying, 'Thank you,' " said Vladimir Grigorishin, 49, a Kyiv resident and customs "broker" who stopped in the city's picturesque Kontraktova Square on his way to work to describe what he does for a living.
He mediates fees between tax officials and private business owners who rely on foreign-made products. The process involves informally negotiating payments to officials.
Outside Ukraine, this is known as bribery. For Grigorishin, it's business.
'The whole thing is manufactured'
Perhaps one of the most incongruous aspects of Trump's allegations is that he seems to believe that Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, which has been fighting a costly war with Russian-backed separatists for the past five years 1, is conspiring with Democratic rivals in order to force him from office.
There is a problem with this theory: There are few, if any, trustworthy voices in Ukraine to back it up. Nor is there any credible evidence. Even Trump's staff have repeatedly warned him that the claims are baseless.
How Trump's Ukraine allegations spurred an impeachment inquiry
That hasn't prevented Trump from spreading false information, just as he once promoted the so-called "birther" conspiracy theory – the debunked claim that President Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States.
"Rudy Giuliani's only interest in Ukraine was to push the idea of an investigation into Biden and then push that idea with the American media, to hype it, and to attack Biden's son ahead of the U.S. election" next year, said Sergii Leshchenko, a former lawmaker who worked under former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Leshchenko has met Giuliani. He also helped spearhead anti-corruption efforts under Poroshenko, who lost reelection this spring to Volodymyr Zelensky, a TV actor turned politician.
"The whole thing is manufactured for Trump's political advantage," said Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist.
Allegations like this are not uncommon in Ukraine. Since gaining independence 2 from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has struggled to confront corruption and misinformation, said Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
"After Communism, we've had to build a completely new system – all new laws, judges, a constitution. This has created many legal loopholes," he said.
Many hide in plain sight.
"Speeding tickets are easy to make go away," said Orest Grigorishin, 23, a Kyiv musician. He views such activity, officially illicit, as essential to surviving in the faction-ridden country.
There are more egregious examples. Some involve people an arm's length from Trump.
Yuriy Lutsenko is one of the former Ukrainian prosecutors who, according to a whistleblower's complaint 3, peddled a series of baseless claims against the Bidens and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and about alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Lutsenko is a "lawyer" who has no legal training. He was appointed by Poroshenko, a close political ally.
To appoint Lutsenko, Poroshenko had to force a law through Ukraine's Parliament so someone without legal qualifications could fill the post.
Lutsenko has served jail time for embezzlement and abuse of office. His supporters claimed the charges were politically motivated. You hear that a lot here.
"Lutsenko is a crook," said Daria Kaleniuk, the co-founder and executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based organization that has led Ukraine's anti-corruption efforts. "He basically used the general prosecutor's office that he headed as a kind of public relations office for himself."
Lutsenko did not return multiple requests for comment.
A Lutsenko representative told USA TODAY he traveled to London in late September for a month.
"It has nothing to do with what's happening right now," his assistant said. "It was planned a long time ago. He went to take some English lessons."
Former president's estate is now a museum of corruption
"Ukraine is an extremely good place to be if you're into making money illegally," said Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda.
The news outlet published some of the first investigations into Paul Manafort 4, Trump's former campaign manager. Manafort is now imprisoned in the U.S. on convictions related to concealing millions of dollars he made in Ukraine.
His client: former President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin-friendly president who was ousted from office in 2014 and now lives in exile in Russia. Ukraine convicted him of treason in January.
Yanukovych abused his office in other ways. Today, his sumptuous estate outside Kyiv, called Mezhyhirya Residence, has been preserved as a kind of museum of corruption.
The estate is a national park, but its ownership is murky. An attendant accepted admission fees only in cash and wouldn't issue a receipt.
Visitors can marvel at its former zoo, a pier for luxury yachts, a helicopter pad, a tennis court, horse stables, a rare-breed dog kennel, a boxing ring, a fleet of vintage cars, a spa and a shooting range.
Former Ukrainian president’s estate is a now a museum of corruption
The estate of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is now a museum of corruption, open to tourists wanting a glimpse of his opulent lifestyle.
Evidence, Ukrainians say, that Yanukovych ran Ukraine like a mafia boss.
The main house is decorated with paintings of his favorite ballerinas and elaborate mosaics of historical and religious scenes. Yanukovych built a private church at Mezhyhirya.
"Here, you can stand and look over your empire like a real czar," a visitor remarked last week as he surveyed the view of the Dnieper River from the balcony of one of the master bedrooms. The entire estate is furnished in a manner that calls to mind the decadent court of France's King Louis XIV. Even the planters are encased in expensive snakeskin.
"I supported the ostriches. What's wrong with that?" Yanukovych said about his petting zoo in an interview with the BBC in 2015, a year after he fled to Russia.
In the interview, Yanukovych seemed incredulous that someone would question whether it was appropriate to spend $100,000 on chandeliers in a country where in 2018, the average monthly salary was about $350.
That's partly where Hunter Biden comes in, according to Kaleniuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center – not as an example of American corruption, but of Ukrainian reputation management.
Hunter Biden joined the board in the aftermath of Yanukovych's ouster, when some Ukrainian companies tried to distance themselves from pro-Moscow authorities. They invited Westerners and other high-profile figures to sit on their boards.
A former president of Poland joined Burisma's board at the same time as Hunter Biden in 2014, according to the company. In 2017, a former CIA official under President George W. Bush joined, too.
"Ukraine is full of (people) who acquire wealth illegally through their connections to politics," Kaleniuk said. "Then they try to whitewash this wealth and their reputations with the help of an army of Western lawyers and public relations types."
Burisma is Ukraine's largest private natural-gas company. It's owned by Mykola Zlochevsky, a former energy minister in Yanukovych's government who has been at the center of multiple corruption cases in Ukraine.
"I'm not sure that (Hunter) Biden understood the environment he was getting into" when he agreed to serve on Burisma's board, said Musaieva, the Ukrayinska Pravda editor.
USA TODAY spoke with Musaieva in the publication's tightly secured office in Kyiv. During the interview, a small dog named Justas roamed the hallways. His name, which sounds like "justice," seems like a nod to the dangers journalists in Ukraine face when they expose corruption.
Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist who founded Ukrayinska Pravda, was abducted and murdered in 2000. Ukrainian prosecutors blamed his killing on the country's then-interior minister. Gongadze had exposed political corruption and was an outspoken government critic.
Pavel Sheremet, another journalist who covered political figures for the online publication, was assassinated with a car bomb in Kyiv in 2016. His death remains a mystery. No one has been arrested.