President Donald Trump's lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani pauses while speaking to members of the media outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 1, 2020. Credit - Stefani Reynolds—CNP/Bloomberg/Getty Images
“Let these investigations go forward,” Rudy Giuliani told the presidential headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine, his voice turning impatient. “Get someone to investigate this.” On the other end of the line, hunched over a speakerphone, two Ukrainian officials listened in disbelief as Giuliani demanded probes that could help his client, then-President Donald Trump, win another term in office.
The 40-minute call, a transcript of which was obtained by TIME, provides the clearest picture yet of Giuliani’s attempts to pressure the Ukrainians on Trump’s behalf. The President’s personal lawyer toggled between veiled threats—“Be careful,” he warned repeatedly—and promises to help improve Ukraine’s relations with Trump. “My only motive—it isn’t to get anybody in trouble who doesn’t deserve to be in trouble,” Giuliani said. “For our country’s sake and your country’s sake, we [need to] get all these facts straight,” he added. “We fix them and we put it behind us.”
The conversation on July 22, 2019, kicked off the campaign of intimidation that resulted in Trump’s first impeachment. For a year and half, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his aides said little about their interactions with Giuliani, not wanting to anger an emissary of the U.S. President. But now, as the Trump era ends with a historic second impeachment trial, the Ukrainians have begun to speak up about the circumstances that led to the first. They are also taking steps that could imperil Giuliani and his Ukrainian allies.
Igor Novikov, who served as a close adviser to Zelensky during Trump’s first impeachment, says he is willing to assist an ongoing federal investigation of Giuliani that is reportedly underway in New York, as well as a separate effort to strip Giuliani of his license to practice law. Zelensky’s government has taken legal action against Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates. And they have opened up to the media about the pressure campaign mounted by Trump and his allies. On Feb. 3, Novikov sent TIME a transcript of the Giuliani call, whose accuracy TIME has independently verified.
Giuliani did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian officials, the Ukrainian support for his disbarment and the federal investigation.
In a series of interviews, Zelensky’s advisers say their motives are not to get even with Giuliani or merely clarify the historical record. Their goal is to rebuild relations with the U.S. now that President Joe Biden has taken office. “The past is the past,” Zelensky told TIME in a statement on Feb. 4. “I care deeply about the future of our relationship with the United States, so I want to focus on that.”
The Ukrainian moves highlight the raft of fresh threats to Trump and his associates now that he has left office. Under the Constitution, impeachment by the House and a conviction by the Senate are the remedies for presidential misconduct. Trump is now likely to escape conviction for the second time. Yet his critics don’t have to rely on Congress to punish Trump and his allies. They are finding ways to do it themselves: through libel lawsuits, criminal investigations, pressure to ban his social media accounts and other means.
The costs are mounting for Giuliani and his associates, especially the Russian agents and Ukrainian politicians who aided his crusade to get Trump re-elected in 2020. In the final days of Trump’s term, the U.S. government sanctioned seven of these men—all Ukrainian citizens—for being part of a “Russia-linked foreign influence network” that promoted Giuliani’s spurious claims against the Bidens.
Zelensky’s government has launched its own counter-offensive against Giuliani and his enablers in Ukraine. It moved to shut down several Ukrainian media outlets that broadcast unsubstantiated claims of corruption against the Biden family, which Giuliani spent more than a year trying to prove and publicize. One of the Ukrainian lawmakers who helped him, Oleksandr Dubinsky, was kicked out of Zelensky’s political party on Feb. 1.
Potentially more worrying for Giuliani is the Ukrainian support for the investigations he is reportedly facing in New York. Novikov tells TIME that he is providing assistance to a legal campaign to revoke Giuliani’s law license. Novikov is also open to helping the investigation that the former New York City mayor is reportedly facing in the Southern District of New York, the same office where Giuliani made his name as a prosecutor in the 1980s.
“If I get an official request from SDNY or any other non-partisan effort, such as potential disbarment of Rudy Giuliani, I would be open to helping them,” says Novikov, who left government in August but remains close to Zelensky’s administration. “That is because I believe Mayor Giuliani’s actions in Ukraine threatened our national security,” he adds. “It is our responsibility to make sure that any effort to drag our country into our allies’ domestic politics does not go unpunished.”
Initiated in 2019, the SDNY investigation has reportedly focused on Giuliani’s alleged lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian politicians, as well as business deals that his associates pursued in the country’s energy sector. A spokesman for the Southern District declined to comment on the status of the probe, though an NBC News report indicated that it is ongoing as of December. At least two Ukrainian officials have told TIME that they already discussed Giuliani with SDNY investigators. “It was weird,” says one, describing a visit in 2019 to their Manhattan offices, which Giuliani led before becoming mayor of New York City. “There I am to give testimony against Giuliani, and [hanging on the wall] they’ve got these pictures of him shaking hands with people.”
Giuliani has long insisted that there is no grounds for SDNY to investigate him. After NBC News reported in December that prosecutors are seeking access to his communications, Giuliani tweeted, “They want to seize my emails. No reason[.] No wrongdoing.” On his video blog and other outlets, the former mayor has also defended his ethical standards. “I’m not stupid,” he said on his radio show Jan. 14. “I don’t want to get in trouble. And I have a high sense of ethics, personally. I hate it when people attack my integrity.”
In the phone call with Zelensky’s aides in 2019, Giuliani was careful to avoid explicitly asking for a favor, according to the transcript. “I have no interest in anybody not telling the truth or exaggerating. It isn’t about political favor,” Giuliani said on the call. He also seemed keenly aware of the dilemma he was creating for the Ukrainians, and how it might make them feel. “You shouldn’t feel terrible,” he said. “All we need from the President is to say, ‘I’m putting an honest prosecutor [on these investigations], and he will dig up the evidence that presently exists.’”
But from Ukraine’s perspective, the call put the Zelensky government in a perilous position. “That first phone call left me in a state of shock,” says Novikov, who participated in the call along with Andriy Yermak, then a top adviser to Zelensky and currently his chief of staff. “After we hung up the phone, without a shadow of a doubt I knew that we were in grave danger.”
Three days after that conversation, Trump held a phone call with Zelensky that would become Exhibit A in his first impeachment inquiry. He used the call to make some of the same requests of the Ukrainians that his lawyer made earlier that week. Trump famously asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” by opening investigations related to Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
At the dawn of the Biden administration, Zelensky and his top aides have embarked on a mini-media tour to discuss some of these events. During an interview with Axios broadcast on Jan. 31, Zelensky was asked whether he felt “a little bit angry” at Trump. The Ukrainian leader laughed and responded, “A little bit?” The day before that interview aired, details of Giuliani’s first phone call with Zelensky’s aides appeared in the Washington Post, which cited Novikov’s notes from the conversation.
Trump ordered a freeze on some $400 million in aid to Ukraine in the summer of 2019. After learning of the move, Zelensky and his aides prepared to announce the investigations that Trump and Giuliani wanted. But before they went through with it, a complaint from a whistleblower inside the White House exposed Giuliani’s pressure campaign, and Trump agreed to release the aid to Ukraine.
Looking back on those events, Zelensky’s advisers still wonder what the fallout would have been if those investigations of the Biden family had been opened. “The consequences could have been catastrophic,” says Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukraine’s president. “I think we avoided domestic American politics,” he tells TIME. “At least that was our mission all along.”