Will Pittsburgh-Ukraine connection yield results Trump wants? ‘It’s a double-edged sword’

The Pittsburgh skyline (Pittsburgh Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Tom Squitieri

PITTSBURGH — The designation of the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh as the inflection point for the Trump administration’s ongoing interest in Ukraine results from a convergence of national and local politics, Pennsylvania’s pivotal role in the 2020 presidential election and a presumption that the region’s Ukrainian community can provide untapped benefits and information conduits.

None of those reasons — confirmed in various degrees by various individuals — ring with guarantees of success, those interviewed say.

“That might be a stretch,” Andrij Dobriansky, communications director for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said in an interview regarding a plethora of new leads garnered from the Ukrainian Pittsburgh community. “It’s possible that people know people but it’s not really our thing to get involved in shady deals.”

Designating the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh as the prime portal for information on Ukraine that could be weaponized for political purposes is one of several moves being made by the Trump administration to ensure a united effort to protect the president and blunt rivals, former prosecutors, Washington officials and Republican politicians said in interviews.

More specifically, President Donald Trump sees U.S. attorney Scott Brady as a loyalist who can deliver data on ties by Democrats, former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden, those interviewed by the Capital-Star say.

That would help the president’s effort for reelection nationally and help him cling to another win in Pennsylvania, Republicans in Pennsylvania and Washington said.

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Dobriansky said it is likely the community becomes a key swing group in the election. He is watching carefully how the image of Ukraine and what happens from the Pittsburgh office plays out, as he says the Ukrainian community is also doing.

“It’s a double-edge sword,” Dobriansky said. He addd that Ukrainian-Americans are tired of “being used as a political pawn.”

The designation of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Pittsburgh to set up a special intake process on Ukraine and Biden was quickly criticized by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., when it was announced last month.

“Law enforcement resources in western Pennsylvania should not be diverted from combating serious safety issues to vetting Russian propaganda from Mr. Giuliani,” Casey wrote in a February letter to Attorney General William Barr.

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“I am very concerned that the DOJ is diverting essential law enforcement resources away from urgent public safety concerns in the Western District of Pennsylvania in order to accept and review ‘information’ that is Russian propaganda and political smears against the president’s political rivals,” Casey wrote.

White House officials insist that Brady and the U.S. attorney’s office in Pittsburgh were selected to handle all new information on Ukraine — mostly what Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani would bring forth — based on the office’s experience in dealing with Russian hacking.

For example, in 2018 Brady brought indictments against seven Russian military intelligence operatives for hacking Westinghouse. The Pittsburgh-based company designs the power plants that supply half the world’s nuclear operating plants, including in Ukraine.

One of those indicted was Ivan Sergeyevich Yermakov. He was among 12 persons also indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.

Two former Republican elected officials from Pennsylvania, and one high-ranking GOP official in the Justice Department, said in interviews that Brady is viewed as a solid Trump supporter with lots of political potential and intelligence and a rising star in the GOP — all things that helped the Justice Department select him for the Ukraine matter. “He (Brady) wants to be big, run for something (and) he is believed to be competent,” one of the officials said in an interview.

Those in Pennsylvania and Washington interviewed are not being named as they are not authorized to speak on-the-record.

Some in Washington and in Pennsylvania point to the longstanding, well-connected Ukrainian community in Pittsburgh as a potential goldmine of information and leads, keying on the fact that ties between Pittsburgh and Ukraine are deep and unique.

Depending on statistics used, Pittsburgh has either the fourth or fifth largest Ukrainian community in the United States.  By most measurements, it is one of the more tightly knit, as well as political cautious.

Many Ukrainian-Americans in the region tend to follow the advice of an inscription on a beam in the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning that talks about the balance needed between loyalty to their homeland and assimilating with America.

“Learn foreign thoughts but do not shun your own country,” the inscription reminds.

Steven Haluszczak, who wrote the book “Ukrainians of Western Pennsylvania,” said in an interview that there are strong ties between many Ukrainian-Americans in the Pittsburgh region and Ukraine.

In 2000, Pittsburgh became the sister city of Donetsk, which is in eastern Ukraine and part of the country now controlled by Russian separatists. That war has accentuated the closeness of Ukrainian-Americans to the region, Haluszczak said.

The sister city relationship led to many Ukrainians visiting Pittsburgh and staying with host families, deepening connections that continue today, he said. “There is a lot of concern about what is going on there,” Haluszczak said.

One example of the continued ties: during this year’s Malanka New Year’s dance on Jan. 11, the Pittsburgh community raised funds to provide assistance to wounded Ukrainian soldiers, Haluszczak said.

Pennsylvania is a critical election swing state. Along with Michigan, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin, all were targets of election interference from Russia in 2016.

Dobriansky said it is unclear who Ukrainian-Americans will support in the 2020 November vote. Ukrainian-Americans who have run for higher profile seats in western Pennsylvania have usually been Republican candidates, such as when Melissa Haluszczak,  Steven Haluszczak’s sister, challenged incumbent Democratic Rep, Michael Doyle of Pittsburgh.

About 122,291 Ukrainian-Americans live in Pennsylvania, second only to New York. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by less than 45,000 votes.

Barr’s assigning Brady to serve as the intake portal for information funneled to the United States from sources in Ukraine was preceded and followed by similar outsourcing to other U.S. attorneys to do new dives into political waters.

They include John Huber in Utah to review and reinvigorate the concerns of GOP lawmakers about the government’s Russia probe; John Durham in Connecticut to parse and recast the U.S.-Russia probe that began when Trump was a candidate up until the time of his inauguration, and Jeff Jensen in Missouri recasting the criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

All are considered Trump loyalists. “The president just doesn’t trust Washington, D.C.,” one senior White House advisor said in an interview.

She said the U.S. attorney moves are consistent with the president’s larger agenda to reduce the size of federal agencies in the nation’s capital and relocate them to various parts of the United States.

She added it also aligns with the president’s goal to break up the so-called “deep state” — the belief that there is a cadre of military, intelligence and government officials who try to secretly manipulate government.

Capital-Star Correspondent Tom Squitieri is a free-lance writer based in Washington D.C.