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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Democratic Letter to Ukraine

In May 2018, three Democratic senators wrote to the Ukrainian prosecutor general, asking about a news report that he had frozen four Ukrainian investigations involving Paul Manafort to avoid angering President Donald Trump. Republicans have called the letter a “threat” to withhold support for aid to Ukraine, saying it’s similar to what critics have charged Trump did.

There’s no explicit “threat” to take any actions in the letter. Whether there’s an implied threat involving U.S. support of Ukraine is a matter of opinion, but politicians have gone too far in claiming the Democratic letter is “the same kind of stuff they’re accusing Trump of,” in the words of Sen. Rand Paul.

Republicans have adopted this talking point to counter Democratic accusations that Trump withheld military assistance to Ukraine to pressure the country into investigating Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There are key differences between the Democratic letter and Trump’s actions:

  • The Democratic letter did not mention U.S. aid to Ukraine but described support for Ukraine building “democratic institutions.” Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July call that “we do a lot for Ukraine,” but it’s not necessarily “reciprocal,” according to a White House memo of the call. Trump then asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election.
  • The Democrats took no action to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine; Trump admitted that he placed a hold on security assistance to Ukraine the month of the phone call. The situation alarmed the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine who expressed concern that security assistance was contingent on Trump’s requests for investigations.
  • The Democratic senators wrote to ask about reports of Ukraine not cooperating with an existing U.S. investigation; Trump was asking Ukraine to open investigations involving a political rival and the 2016 election.

Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, used the GOP talking point during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Oct. 13. “Well, here’s the thing is if you’re going to condemn Trump you need to condemn the Democrat senators. It shouldn’t be just one-sided,” Paul said. “Everybody’s going after President Trump. Someone needs to actually, in an objective way, evaluate a letter from four Democrats that said to Ukraine, ‘If you don’t keep investigating Trump we will reconsider our bipartisan support for aid.’ That’s a threat. And that’s the same kind of stuff they’re accusing Trump of.”

Trump himself referred to the letter in a Sept. 25 press conference. “And it got almost no attention, but in May, CNN reported that Senators Robert Menendez, Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy wrote a letter to Ukraine’s prosecutor general expressing concern at the closing of four investigations they said were ‘critical,'” Trump said. “In the letter, they implied that their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake and that if they didn’t do the right thing, they wouldn’t get any assistance. Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?”

And Sen. Lindsey Graham mentioned the letter the same day in an interview on Fox News: “There was a letter sent by Democratic senators in May 2018 threatening the Ukraine to cut off aid if they did not investigate Trump.”

Trump gets it right when he says the Democratic senators were “expressing concern at the closing of four investigations they said were ‘critical,'” — wording that comes from a Washington Post opinion column — but the senators didn’t ask Ukraine to “investigate Trump” or threaten to “cut off aid,” as Graham said. The senators — Menendez, Durbin and Leahy — were asking about a New York Times report on May 2, 2018, that Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, had “effectively frozen” four cases involving work done by Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

The May 4, 2018, letter says the Times reported that Lutsenko had frozen the investigations out of a concern of losing U.S. aid.

The Times reported that a special prosecutor, Serhiy Horbatyuk, was barred from issuing subpoenas in the cases and talking to witnesses. Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament and an ally of then-President Petro Poroshenko, “readily acknowledged that the intention in Kiev was to put investigations into Mr. Manafort’s activities ‘in the long-term box,'” the Times said. 

“In every possible way, we will avoid irritating the top American officials,” Ariev told the newspaper. “We shouldn’t spoil relations with the administration.”

At the time, Manafort, who had worked for pro-Russia political figures in Ukraine, was facing money-laundering and tax fraud charges as part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to aid Trump and whether there was coordination with the Trump campaign. 

The Times reported: “The decision to halt the investigations by an anticorruption prosecutor was handed down at a delicate moment for Ukraine, as the Trump administration was finalizing plans to sell the country sophisticated anti-tank missiles, called Javelins.”

Two days after the Times report, the Democratic senators wrote to Lutsenko, asking if the report was correct and whether “any individual from the Trump Administration, or anyone acting on its behalf” encouraged the Ukrainian government “not to cooperate” with the Mueller investigation.

Paul’s office told us the senator was referring to “the entire first paragraph and beyond” in the letter, so we’ll include the full first paragraph here:

Letter from Sens. Menendez, Durbin and Leahy to Lutsenko, May 4, 2018: We are writing to express great concern about reports that your office has taken steps to impede cooperation with the investigation of United States Special counsel Robert Mueller. As strong advocates for a robust and close relationship with Ukraine, we believe that our cooperation should extend to such legal matters, regardless of politics. Ours is a relationship built on a foundation of respect for the rule of law and accountable democratic institutions. In four short years, Ukraine has made significant progress in building these institutions despite ongoing military, economic and political pressure from Moscow. We have supported that capacity-building process and are disappointed that some in Kyiv appear to have cast aside these principles in order to avoid the ire of President Trump. If these reports are true, we strongly encourage you to reverse course and halt any efforts to impede cooperation with this important investigation.

Marc Thiessen, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, wrote on Sept. 24 that the letter carried the suggestion that the senators’ support for assistance to Ukraine was on the line. “In the letter, they implied that their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake,” he said.

On Aug. 22, 2018, the Times reported that Lutsenko “has denied any relation between the [Manafort] investigation’s suspension and potential concerns about antagonizing President Trump.” Lutsenko had announced on Aug. 21, the day Manafort was convicted on several charges in the U.S., an investigation into former Ukrainian officials who had paid Manafort.

A joint statement issued by Menendez, Durbin and Leahy on Sept. 25 said the “letter in no way calls for the conditioning of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.”

Whether the senators were making an implied threat that aid to Ukraine was at stake if Lutsenko didn’t reopen the investigations is matter of opinion. But the Republican politicians go too far when they claim a threat was made, and they don’t tell the whole story about the letter. The Democratic senators’ concern was about Ukraine halting investigations due to a fear that Trump would be the one cutting off aid.

Correction, Oct. 24: We originally misspelled columnist Marc Thiessen’s name. We regret the error.