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Trump’s Pinocchio-laden claims about Joe Biden, Ukraine and polls

The Fact Checker unravels what happened when Trump tried to force an investigation into the false rumor about then-Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

“We’re putting up the bulk of the money. … Europe has to put up money for Ukraine also.”

— President Trump, in remarks to reporters at the United Nations, Sept. 24, 2019

Before giving his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump paused to speak to reporters about the growing controversy over his dealings with Ukraine. In doing so, he provided a string of false and misleading statements designed to obscure his actions and confuse Americans.

Before we tour through Trump’s comments, here’s a quick refresher. On July 25, Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Just days earlier, Trump unexpectedly ordered the withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid to the country, which is battling a separatist conflict backed by Russia on its Eastern border. What was said on the call is not precisely known — though Trump has said he will release the transcript — but Trump has acknowledged he raised former vice president Joe Biden, currently leading in the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Trump originally said he halted the aid because of worries about corruption — suggesting also that “corruption” by Biden was a concern — but at the United Nations, he changed his story. Now he says it was because the Europeans were not contributing enough to Ukraine.

But neither of those concerns was communicated over the summer to anxious lawmakers who did not understand why the money was being withheld. “Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an ‘interagency process’ but to give them no additional information — a pattern that continued for nearly two months, until the White House released the funds on the night of Sept. 11,” The Washington Post reported.

With that context in mind, let’s look at Trump’s comments, in the order in which he made them.

“As far as withholding funds, those funds were paid, they were fully paid. But my complaint has always been — and I’d withhold again, and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine. Because they’re not doing it; it’s the United States. We’re putting up the bulk of the money. … Europe has to put up money for Ukraine also. Why is it only the United States putting up the money? … Germany, France, other countries should put up money, and that’s been my complaint from the beginning.”

In the space of 24 hours, Trump changed the rationale for withholding the funds, from corruption to the claim that the United States was carrying the burden of funding Ukraine — “the bulk of the money,” as Trump put it.

But that’s not correct. Europe has been a major funder to Ukraine since Russia annexed its Crimean Peninsula in 2014, often providing more aid than the United States. The European Union has provided more than 15 billion euros ($16.5 billion) in grants and loans to Ukraine, according to an E.U. fact sheet on relations with Ukraine. Meanwhile, NATO has its own military cooperation program with Ukraine, establishing six trust funds to assist the country in improving its military readiness. The United States provided $1.3 billion to Ukraine since late 2013, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the top 10 donors in gross overseas development assistance for Ukraine in 2016-2017 are: European Institutions ($425.2 million), United States ($204.4 million), Germany ($189.8 million), Japan ($180.8 million), Global Fund to fight diseases ($44.8 million), Canada ($44.5 million), Poland ($42.5 million), Sweden ($34.6 million), Britain ($31.6 million) and Switzerland ($29.6 million).

Trump would be on more solid ground if he had kept his complaint strictly to military aid. “The United States is the largest provider of military aid to Ukraine,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Atlantic Council. He said there was “skittishness” among many European countries that “don’t want to provoke Russia,” with mainly Britain, Poland, Baltic nations and Canada joining the United States in contributing military aid. But this is how the aid burden is usually divided between the United States and the Europeans, with the United States providing the muscle and Europe providing the “soft power” to stabilize troubled nations.

“This is Trump’s third rationale” for delaying the aid, Herbst noted. “If it’s Tuesday, it must be because of the Europeans.”

At the very least, Trump’s constantly changing explanations for why he delayed the aid suggest he’s not being forthright about the real reason.

“I’m leading in the polls; they have no idea how they stop me.”

Just about every poll has Trump trailing many of his Democratic rivals, in particular Biden. Biden led Trump by 15 percentage points in a Fox News poll, 8 points in a SurveyUSA poll, and 15 points in a Post-ABC News poll. (Caveat: Polls at this point in the election cycle are not especially informative.)

“The only way they can try is through impeachment. This has never happened to a president before.”

One president, Bill Clinton, was impeached by the House during Trump’s lifetime; he was acquitted by the Senate. Another, Richard Nixon, resigned in 1974 after articles of impeachment were approved by the House Judiciary Committee. A third president, Andrew Johnson, was impeached in 1868; he was also acquitted by the Senate.

“That call was perfect. It couldn’t have been nicer. And even the Ukrainian government put out a statement that that was a perfect call.”

Trump appears to be referring to an interview by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko with Hromadske, a Ukrainian Internet television station. In the interview, he struck a careful balance, trying not to take sides between the administration and Congress.

“American investigators have the full right to turn to the U.S. and to get this information,” Prystaiko said. “If they think that our president has been pressured, they can establish this. I know what they spoke about, and I don’t think there was any coercion. There was a talk, talks can be on different topics, leaders have the right to talk about any problems they wish. This conversation was long, it was friendly, and it touched on a lot of questions, some of which required rather serious answers.”

Prystaiko obviously is trying to be diplomatic. He did not describe the call as “perfect.”

Zelensky appears to have had a different impression. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who spoke with Zelensky during an early September visit to Ukraine, said the Ukrainian president “directly” expressed concerns at their meeting that “the aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence” of his unwillingness to launch an investigation into the Bidens, The Post reported.

The official Ukrainian readout of the call, issued July 25, had this interesting line: “Donald Trump is convinced that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve image of Ukraine, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.”

“There was no pressure put on them whatsoever. But there was pressure put on with respect to Joe Biden. What Joe Biden did for his son, that’s something they should be looking at.”

Here, Trump continues his misleading effort to suggest that Biden somehow was involved in corruption. But we fact-checked these allegations in May and found they did not add up. In fact, Biden’s case has gotten stronger with time.

Trump repeatedly has falsely claimed that Biden in 2015 pressured the Ukrainian government to fire Viktor Shokin, the top Ukrainian prosecutor, because he was investigating Ukraine’s largest private gas company, Burisma, which had added Biden’s son, Hunter, to its board.

But it turns out that the investigation had already been shelved when Biden acted and may have even involved a side company, not Burisma. Hunter Biden, who served on the board for five years, was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation. The Ukrainian prosecutor was regarded as a failure, and “Joe Biden’s efforts to oust Shokin were universally praised,” said Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist heavily involved in Eastern European market reforms.

“Shokin was not investigating. He didn’t want to investigate Burisma,” Daria Kaleniuk of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center told The Washington Post in July. “And Shokin was fired not because he wanted to do that investigation, but quite to the contrary, because he failed that investigation.”

Shokin was ousted three months after Biden’s visit. “Bowing to pressure from international donors, the Ukrainian Parliament voted on Tuesday to remove a prosecutor general who had clung to power for months despite visible signs of corruption,” the New York Times reported at the time. “The United States and other Western nations had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticized for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite.”

Moreover, Yuri Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian prosecutor general who succeeded the fired prosecutor, told Bloomberg News that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.

By continuing to claim that Biden “did” something for his son, Trump persists in spreading a false narrative about a diplomatic maneuver hailed at the time as a step toward reducing corruption in Ukraine.

The Pinocchio Test

In the space of minutes, the president told falsehoods about aid to Ukraine, his standing in the polls, the history of impeachment, impressions of his phone call and of course the role that Biden played in trying to root out corruption in Ukraine.

It adds up to Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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