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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Twists Facts on Biden and Ukraine

President Donald Trump once again twisted the facts to claim that Joe Biden, as vice president, threatened to withhold “billions of dollars to Ukraine” unless it removed the prosecutor general who “was prosecuting” Biden’s son, Hunter.

In May, Ukraine’s top prosecutor at the time said the younger Biden — a former board member for a gas company in Ukraine — was not investigated.

“Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing,” Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general, told Bloomberg News. Lutsenko, who resigned in August, said a corruption investigation into leaders of Ukrainian gas companies concerned a potential money-laundering transaction that had occurred before Hunter Biden joined the board.

We wrote about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine four months ago, when the president made a similar claim in May on Fox News. In that interview, Trump said that “the [Ukraine] prosecutor was after his son,” referring to Biden’s son, Hunter. 

Trump has raised the issue again in recent days in response to reports that he pressured the newly elected Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens during a phone call in July. According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump urged “Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with [Trump’s personal attorney] Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”

Biden is a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and consistently tops Trump in early general election polls.

Trump called Zelensky on July 25 to congratulate the new president of Ukraine on his election. In remarks to reporters in Houston, Trump described his conversation with the Ukrainian president as “perfect.” He then went on to twist the facts surrounding the removal of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, in 2016.

Trump said Biden threatened to withhold U.S. assistance to Ukraine unless it fired Shokin, which is true, but then implied without proof that it was done to protect Hunter Biden from prosecution.

Trump, Sept. 22: Joe’s got a lot of problems. Joe’s got enough problems without that. But what he said was a terrible thing. And, you know, he really made it a — it was an offer. It was beyond an offer. It was something where he said, “I’m not going to give billions of dollars to Ukraine unless they remove this prosecutor.” And they removed the prosecutor supposedly in one hour. And the prosecutor was prosecuting the company of the son and the son.

Earlier that same day, Trump told reporters he had a “great conversation” with Zelensky, and accused both Bidens of corruption.

Trump, Sept. 22: The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption —  all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.

So, what is Trump talking about?

In January 2018, Biden disclosed that during a trip to Kyiv he privately warned Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, and then-prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if Ukraine failed to deal with corruption and remove Shokin as its prosecutor general. (Biden did not say when he made the threat, but he addressed the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv on Dec. 9, 2015, and dangled the prospect of future U.S. aid if the country rid itself of the “cancer of corruption.” )

“I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,” Biden recalled in remarks at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “Well, son of a bitch. He got fired.”

But the U.S. was not alone in pressuring Ukraine to fire Shokin.

In February 2016, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde threatened to withhold $40 billion unless Ukraine undertook “a substantial new effort” to fight corruption after the country’s economic minister and his team resigned to protest government corruption. That same month, a “reform-minded deputy prosecutor resigned, complaining that his efforts to address government corruption had been consistently stymied by his own prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin,” according to a Jan. 3, 2017, Congressional Research Services report

Shokin served as prosecutor general under Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine who fled to Russia after he was removed from power in 2014 and was later found guilty of treason. Shokin remained in power after Yanukovych’s ouster, but he failed “to indict any major figures from the Yanukovych administration for corruption,” according to testimony John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under President George W. Bush, gave in March 2016 to a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

“By late fall of 2015, the EU and the United States joined the chorus of those seeking Mr. Shokin’s removal as the start of an overall reform of the Procurator General’s Office,” Herbst testified. “U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke publicly about this before and during his December visit to Kyiv; but Mr. Shokin remained in place.”

In early 2016, Deputy General Prosecutor Vitaliy Kasko resigned in protest of corruption within Shokin’s office. In a televised statement, Kasko said: “Today, the General Prosecutor’s office is a brake on the reform of criminal justice, a hotbed of corruption, an instrument of political pressure, one of the key obstacles to the arrival of foreign investment in Ukraine.”

In reporting on Kasko’s resignation, Reuters noted that Ukraine’s “failure to tackle endemic corruption” threatened the IMF’s $40 billion aid program for Ukraine. At the time, the IMF put a hold on $1.7 billion in aid that had been due to be released to Ukraine four months earlier.

“After President Poroshenko complained that Shokin was taking too long to clean up corruption even within the PGO itself, he asked for Shokin’s resignation,” the CRS report said. Shokin submitted his resignation in February 2016 and was removed a month later.

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, on Sept. 20 tweeted that the “Obama administration policy (not just ‘Biden policy’) to push for this Ukrainian general prosecutor to go” was “a shared view in many capitals, multilateral lending institutions, and pro-democratic Ukrainian civil society.”

At the time, however, news organizations were also reporting that Biden’s anti-corruption message in Kyiv was being undermined by an appearance of a conflict of interest.

In May 2014, Hunter Biden became a board member for the Burisma Group, one of the biggest private gas companies in Ukraine. In a June 2014 article, the Associated Press called Biden’s hiring “politically awkward.”

“Hunter Biden’s employment means he will be working as a director and top lawyer for a Ukrainian energy company during the period when his father and others in the Obama administration attempt to influence the policies of Ukraine’s new government, especially on energy issues,” the AP wrote.

In December 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mykola Zlochevsky, who ran Burisma, was under investigation by Ukrainian and British authorities for “alleged criminal wrongdoing,” and it quoted anti-corruption advocates in Ukraine who were concerned that Zlochevsky would be protected from prosecution because of Hunter Biden’s role with Burisma.

“If an investigator sees the son of the vice president of the United States is part of the management of a company … that investigator will be uncomfortable pushing the case forward,” Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, or AntAC, told the Wall Street Journal.

However, there is no evidence that Hunter Biden was ever under investigation or that his father pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin on his behalf.

In May, Lutsenko, then-Ukraine’s prosecutor general, told Bloomberg News: “Hunter Biden did not violate any Ukrainian laws — at least as of now, we do not see any wrongdoing.”

Lutsenko told Bloomberg that the prosecutor general’s office in 2014 — before Shokin took office — opened a corruption investigation against Zlochevsky and numerous others. He said the probe’s focus was Serghi Kurchenko, who owned a number of gas companies, and a transaction that occurred in November 2013, months before Biden joined Burisma.

Bloomberg News, May 16: As part of the 5-year-old inquiry, the prosecutor general’s office has been looking at whether Kurchenko’s purchase of an oil storage terminal in southern Ukraine from Zlochevksy in November 2013 helped Kurchenko launder money. Lutsenko said the transaction under scrutiny came months before Hunter Biden joined the Burisma board.

“Biden was definitely not involved,” Lutsenko said. “We do not have any grounds to think that there was any wrongdoing starting from 2014.”

On Jan. 13, 2017, Burisma announced that “all legal proceedings and pending criminal allegations against its President Mykola Zlochevsky and operating companies of Burisma Group have been closed.” Hunter Biden told the New York Times that he left Burisma’s board earlier this year when his term expired.

On “Fox News Sunday,” host John Roberts challenged Giuliani, Trump’s private attorney, on the facts of the case in a Sept. 22 interview. Roberts noted that “other countries in the West were saying [Shokin] needs to go as well,” not just Joe Biden. Giuliani responded, “What does it matter, if the — if the son is under investigation? He didn’t disclose that.”

But there was no evidence at the time that Hunter Biden was under investigation, and there still isn’t.

Correction, Sept. 26: An earlier version of this story said that Biden’s threat to withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine occurred in March 2016. We could not verify the date when Biden issued his ultimatum, except to say it occurred prior to the prosecutor’s removal. We have updated to reflect that change.