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Nation & World

Inside the Ukraine peace plan in Mueller probe: More authors, earlier drafting than believed

A controversial peace plan for Ukraine and Russia that has drawn headlines and scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller was initially devised in early 2016 with significant input from an ex-congressman and a Ukrainian-American billionaire, according to a former Ukrainian legislator who promoted the proposal before Donald Trump’s election.

Ex-Ukrainian legislator Andrii Artemenko told McClatchy in several recent interviews that the peace proposal, which some analysts believe had a pro-Moscow tilt, was hatched in February 2016 during side discussions at a Ukraine-focused conference at Manor College in suburban Philadelphia. Former Republican Rep. Curt Weldon and New York real estate mogul Alexander Rovt were involved, said Artemenko, who also participated.

“It was called the Rovt-Weldon plan,” said Artemenko, noting that he had been friends with Weldon for almost a decade.

Neither the roles of Weldon and Rovt in the early framing of the plan, nor the fact that it was being devised nearly a year before it was given to a Trump associate for delivery to the administration, have been reported previously. The new names add to a roster of individuals with close ties to Trump who have been identified in connection with the proposal: Trump’s personal lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen; a former sometimes-real estate partner, Felix Sater, who was also an old friend of Cohen; and the president’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition and is cooperating with the Mueller probe.

Some observers say the new names, timing and other details raise questions about whether and to what extent Moscow or its allies influenced the proposal.

Mueller and congressional investigators have been probing the Kremlin’s interference with the 2016 elections and whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Some of the witnesses before a Mueller grand jury have been asked about the plan.

The proposal would have lifted sanctions on Moscow if the Kremlin withdrew Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine; it also could have permitted Russia to keep control of Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has indicated interest in interviewing Weldon “because of his connections to both Russia and the Trump campaign,” said Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer. Weldon’s name also was included in a letter to Cohen from Feinstein’s office instructing him to save any communications with a long list of individuals, as the Atlantic first reported.

Artemenko said Weldon “introduced me to high society in the U.S.,” including other lawmakers such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who is sometimes called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s best friend in Washington, GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio.

Weldon and Rovt have each had links to Russian business interests.

Weldon’s two decade career in Congress ended with the 2006 elections, weeks after the FBI raided his then-29-year-old daughter’s office and home. The Justice Department was probing his actions to support a Russian-managed oil and gas company that gave his daughter a $500,000 contract to do public relations work, Soon after the contract was signed, Weldon helped corral some 30 lawmakers for a dinner, which his daughter’s firm worked on too, to honor the chairman of the Russian company, Itera International Energy Co, and Weldon also intervened to help Itera when federal agencies canceled a contract with the company. Weldon was never charged.

Rovt made his fortune initially in the fertilizer business, with some operations in Russia, but sold most of his foreign fertilizer assets in 2007 to another Ukrainian, oligarch Dmitry Firtash, who was a chief financier of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party before Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 and fled to Moscow. That party paid millions of dollars to yet another figure in the Trump-Russia investigation, lobbyist and political consultant Paul Manafort, who was a key Yanukovych adviser before he became Trump’s campaign chairman. Manafort has since been indicted by two Mueller grand juries on charges including money laundering, tax evasion, bank fraud and obstruction.

NBC has reported that Rovt was an investor with Spruce Capital, a subsidiary of which made a $3.5 million dollar mortgage loan to a small company set up by Manafort right after he left his campaign perch in August 2016; that was a focus of federal investigators’ attention last year, prior to the multiple criminal charges that were filed against Manafort.

Weldon didn’t respond to phone and written requests for comment. Rovt could not be reached for comment.

Artemenko’s interviews with McClatchy provided other new details about his 2016 efforts to promote the plan in Russia and in the U.S. before Trump’s election.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and an outspoken critic of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, said in a statement that “The fact that this proposal was being considered a year in advance of its provision to the White House raises serious questions about how far along the discussion had progressed and the extent to which Russia was involved in the planning or consideration of the proposal.”

Schiff also noted that investigators for the committee had long “been interested in the Trump Administration’s potential willingness to provide Russia a significant giveaway that might be at odds with the foreign policy position of the United States and our allies.”

Similarly, some Russia experts say that the involvement of Weldon and Rovt and other new details provided by Artemenko suggest that the plan had links to Moscow.

“There remain a lot of unanswered questions about who ultimately stood behind this so-called ‘peace plan,’” said Michael Carpenter, a top Russia policy analyst in the Pentagon under President Obama. “ Given the nature of the people involved in disseminating the proposal, it seems likely that its ultimate sponsors were either Kremlin surrogates or pro-Russia forces in Ukraine.”

When the plan was first detailed in February 2017 by the New York Times the paper said it included a provision that called for a referendum to be held in Ukraine after Russian troops withdrew on whether Crimea, which Moscow had annexed, would be leased to Russia for 50 to 100 years. But Artemenko, who in 2016 was an obscure legislator allied with a right wing party in his country, and Sater told McClatchy separately that the plan included no such lease language. However, Artemenko said the plan did call for a referendum on whether Crimea should be part of Russia, Ukraine or independent.

On June 8th, Artemenko testified for several hours before a Washington, D.C., grand jury tied to the Mueller investigation. The Ukrainian, who was ousted from his country’s legislature and lost his citizenship because of fallout from the initial revelation of the plan and its perceived pro-Moscow tilt, said that Cohen was a major focus of the grand jury questions he fielded.

After his grand jury appearance, Artemenko added, he realized that Cohen “is a target” of interest to Mueller.

A spokesman for Mueller’s office declined to comment on questions about Cohen and Artemenko. Cohen did not reply to several written questions about his role with the peace plan.

The peace plan is one of a few areas involving Cohen that are part of Mueller’s sprawling inquiry. Mueller also has been probing Cohen and Sater’s efforts to secure a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow, a project they worked on during the last months of 2015.

Cohen is also facing close examination by federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District who have been looking into whether he committed crimes with some of his other ventures, including a once-lucrative taxi operation and the $130,000 payment he made to porn star Stormy Daniels to buy her silence just before the 2016 election; Daniels says she had sex with Trump in 2006, but Trump has denied the affair.

The Ukraine Russian peace initiative fizzled in early 2017 after the Times disclosed its existence along with a late January meeting in New York that Artemenko and Sater had with Cohen to persuade him to pass it along to a top administration official, like Flynn. Both Artemenko and Sater told McClatchy that Cohen agreed to do so.

Artemenko “asked me if I could help introduce him to the administration,” Sater recalled in an interview, adding that Cohen promised he would “get the plan” to Flynn.

Artemenko said he never gave Cohen anything in writing about the plan. But a few days after they met, Sater phoned the Ukrainian and read him a few sentences that contained the gist of it; Artemenko signed off on the language — which Sater described as “four bullet points” — for Cohen to give to Flynn.

A few days later Artemenko said that in another call with Sater he was informed that “the package had been delivered” to Flynn.

Cohen has offered shifting and contradictory statements about what he did with the document. Initially, he told the New York Times that he delivered the plan to Flynn’s office.

But Cohen quickly changed his story, telling the Washington Post within days that he never gave it to Flynn or anyone in the White House. Then Cohen changed his account again in two subsequent interviews. He said at one point that he threw the envelope, unopened, in the trash.

These contradictory accounts by Cohen have likely spurred Mueller’s team to look more closely at the plan, say former prosecutors.

“Whenever a subject changes his story, especially multiple times, he draws a lot more interest from prosecutors, who will want to know what he’s hiding,” said former New York prosecutor Jaimie Nawaday who’s now a partner at Kelley Drye & Warren.

With increasing scrutiny from Mueller’s grand jury and New York prosecutors, Cohen has lately signaled to associates that he expects to face charges soon — and that he may be willing to cut a deal and cooperate with prosecutors to avoid a potentially lengthy jail sentence.

In recent days Cohen switched lawyers in a sign of his deepening legal troubles. Previously represented by veteran white collar lawyer Stephen Ryan, Cohen tapped Guy Petrillo, a former chief of the criminal division in the Southern District and a well established criminal defense lawyer.

“If, like Cohen, you don’t have a lot of credibility and you’re in a tight spot, it’s especially important that you have someone go to bat for you who has a lot of credibility in dealing with the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” Nawaday said.

Peter Stone is a special McClatchy correspondent.
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