Desmond Butler and Michael Biesecker, global investigations reporters in Washington, wanted to fill out the timeline of the diplomatic scandal at the heart of House impeachment inquiry. For weeks, Biesecker worked sources in Washington, while Butler traveled to Ukraine to meet with associates of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and with other sources developed over years of investigating wrongdoing in the former Soviet Union.
What they learned moved the needle on a complex narrative — associates of the Ukrainian leader said that pressure on Zelenskiy from the Trump White House started much earlier than was known previously, dating from shortly after Zelenskiy’s election in April, and before he took office as president.
The exclusive report earns Best of the Week honors for Butler and Biesecker.
More than two months before the July phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy at the heart of the House impeachment inquiry, the newly elected Ukrainian leader, a former comedian suddenly thrust with the responsibility of defending his country from an ongoing war with Russia, told his closest advisers that he was concerned that he would be drawn into U.S. domestic politics, Butler learned.
Sources close to Zelenskiy told Butler of a three-hour meeting May 7 that was supposed to be about Ukraine's energy future but was instead dominated by discussion of how to navigate the treacherous yet strategically crucial relationship with Trump, who wanted Ukraine’s leaders to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden.
The story raises the question of whether Trump had brought up his desire for the investigation in an earlier phone call with Zelenskiy on April 21, just after Zelenskiy was elected as president. The details of that call still have not been released.
The Oct. 24 story by Butler and Biesecker won massive play, with more than 330,000 page views on the day of publication — more than double the next most-viewed story and well outpacing dramatic breaking developments in the impeachment story. It also ran on a number of front pages nationally.
CNN later matched the story with credit to the AP. Butler and Biesecker were invited to appear on Rachel Maddow, Morning Joe and CBS to discuss their discoveries.
The pair’s editor, Alison Kodjak, working in conjunction with international investigations editor Ron Nixon, said the story emerged from deep source and document work by Butler and Biesecker, built on the credibility of their earlier reporting. This scoop was the latest in a series of breaking stories and exclusives that have defined coverage of the impeachment investigation and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s role in it. Those stories include Giuliani’s ties to two Soviet-born Florida business partners — now charged with federal campaign finance violations — who are linked to the Ukraine impeachment investigation, and the effort to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company to then steer lucrative contracts to the companies of Trump allies.
For meticulous work that led to a major scoop and widened the horizons of the ongoing Ukraine-Trump story, Butler and Biesecker share AP’s Best of the Week award.