— New York Times, May 1, 2019
“In March 2016, Biden made one of his many trips to Ukraine and told the country’s leaders that they had to get rid of the prosecutor if they wanted $1 billion in U.S. aid.”
— NPR, Sept. 24
“In March 2016, Biden was in Kiev, where he was scheduled to announce a $1 billion American loan to the Ukrainian government.”
— Atlantic, Sept. 25
This is just a sampling of the many news organizations — starting with the New York Times in the first paragraph of a front-page article — that reported that Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion in aid unless a top prosecutor was fired while on a trip to Kiev in March 2016.
But here’s the rub: Biden never traveled to Ukraine that month. The Ukrainian president at the time, Petro Poroshenko, traveled to Washington in March — but only after the prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, had already been dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament.
Why the confusion? Because Biden managed to squeeze months of diplomacy into a few hours when he recounted the story years later at the Council on Foreign Relations. Biden’s tale, ironically, has become exhibit 1 in President Trump’s false narrative that Biden ousted the prosecutor because he was investigating a company associated with his son Hunter Biden. As we have reported, the drive to push out Shokin was an international effort widely celebrated at the time.
We don’t normally do media criticism, but it’s important to correct the timeline.
Here’s’ what Biden said during a 2018 appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations:
“I remember going over, convincing our team … that we should be providing for loan guarantees. … And I was supposed to announce that there was another billion-dollar loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from [then-Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor [Shokin]. And they didn’t…They were walking out to a press conference. I said, ‘Nah, … We’re not going to give you the billion dollars.’ They said, ‘You have no authority. You’re not the president.’ … I said, ‘Call him.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars.’ … I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a b----. He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”
From Biden’s story, it sounds like things had happened very fast, in the space of six hours. But it was really a diplomatic slog that extended from September through May. In August 2016, in fact, Biden gave a somewhat less dramatic version of the story to the Atlantic magazine:
“He described, for example, a meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko—whom he calls ‘Petro’—in which he urged Poroshenko to fire a corrupt prosecutor general or see the withdrawal of a promised $1 billion loan to Ukraine. ‘Petro, you’re not getting your billion dollars,’ Biden recalled telling him. ‘It’s OK, you can keep the [prosecutor] general. Just understand—we’re not paying if you do.’ Poroshenko fired the official.”
Biden was carrying out a policy developed at the State Department and coordinated with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. The $1 billion in loan guarantees was essential leverage because the Ukrainian government needed the credit line to underwrite its budget. At stake was not just Shokin, but a broad package of reforms, including a shake-up of the cabinet, sought by Western powers.
The U.S. ambassador at the time, Geoffrey Pyatt, along with then-Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, were key champions of the policy at the day-to-day level. Shokin was considered a close associate of Poroshenko, so his removal required a lot of work. “He’s was completely Poroshenko’s creature,” recalled one former U.S. official involved in Ukraine policy.
Pyatt kicked off the effort with a speech on Sept. 24, 2015 in which he blasted Shokin for “openly and aggressively undermining reform” and having “undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases.” In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 8, Nuland declared: “The Prosecutor General’s Office has to be reinvented as an institution that serves the citizens of Ukraine, rather than ripping them off.”
Biden followed up with a visit to Kiev in December. On Dec. 7, he held a news conference with Poroshenko and announced $190 million to “fight corruption in law enforcement and reform the justice sector.” He made no public mention of the loan guarantee, but behind the scenes he had explicitly linked the $1 billion loan guarantee to reform efforts, including removing Shokin, according to Colin Kahl, Biden’s national security adviser at the time.
A day after the news conference, he addressed the Ukrainian parliament and decried the “cancer of corruption” in the country. “The Office of the General Prosecutor desperately needs reform,” he noted.
Kahl said Biden had a version of the parliament speech in which he would have announced the loan guarantee if Poroshenko immediately had taken the actions demanded by the United States and its international partners. But since the Ukrainian leader did not remove Shokin during that trip, Biden instead emphasized the country’s corruption in his speech.
“It was very politically challenging thing for Poroshenko,” Kahl said. “You could see he was not happy” about not getting the loan guarantee.
Biden next met on Jan. 20 with Poroshenko on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when he also pressed “the need to continue to move forward on Ukraine’s anti-corruption agenda,” according to a White House statement. Kahl said Biden at that meeting reinforced the linkage between the loan guarantee and the necessary reforms.
Then a series of calls followed.
Feb. 11: Biden spoke to Poroshenko by phone. “The two leaders agreed on the importance of unity among Ukrainian political forces to quickly pass reforms in line with the commitments in its IMF program, including measures focused on rooting out corruption,” the White House said.
Feb. 16: Poroshenko announced he had asked Shokin to resign. “This morning I have met and had a serious conversation with the prosecutor general. I have suggested Viktor Mykolayovych [Shokin] should write a letter of resignation,” the president said in a statement. Shokin agreed to do so.
Feb. 18: Another call took place between Biden and Poroshenko. “The Vice President also commended President Poroshenko’s decision to replace Prosecutor General Shokin, which paves the way for needed reform of the prosecutorial service,” the White House said in a statement. “The Vice President urged President Poroshenko to continue on this positive trajectory, to include successful implementation of the new legislation and continued visible progress on anti-corruption reforms, noting this will require unity and stability.”
Feb. 19: Poroshenko announced he has received Shokin’s resignation letter. It still required parliamentary approval, and Shokin did not go away quietly.
That same day, Biden spoke separately to Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. “He urged Ukraine’s leadership to unite and rebuild popular trust around a strong governing coalition and reform program, and to accelerate Ukraine’s efforts to fight corruption, strengthen justice and the rule of law, and fulfill its IMF requirements,” the White House said.
March 16: Reports emerged that Shokin was back at work after having been on vacation. He later fired a reformist deputy who had called for his removal from office.
March 22: Biden and Poroshenko spoke again by phone, mainly about Russia’s conviction and sentencing of Ukrainian pilot and member of parliament Nadiya Savchenko, who had been captured by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
March 29: The Ukrainian parliament, in a 289-to-6 vote, approved Shokin’s dismissal.
On March 31, Poroshenko met with Biden during a trip to Washington, and Biden emphasized that the loan guarantee was contingent on further reform progress beyond Shokin’s removal. “The Vice President welcomed the efforts of President Poroshenko to form a stable, reform-oriented government, and stressed that this step, as well as the enactment of needed reforms, are critical to unlocking international economic assistance, including the third $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee,” the White House said.
President Barack Obama originally was not expected to meet with Poroshenko but a meeting was arranged on April 1. “President Obama confirmed willingness to provide the third tranche of loan guarantees in the amount of $1 billion upon completion of the formation of a new government in Ukraine," the Ukrainian press service reported.
On April 14, Biden and Poroshenko had another call. Biden congratulated the president on his new cabinet and “stressed the urgency of putting in place a new Prosecutor General who would bolster the agency’s anti-corruption efforts and strongly support the work of its reformers,” a White House statement said. The Ukrainian press service reported “the parties agreed that an agreement on the issue of the third tranche of credit guarantees in the amount of $1 billion will soon be signed.”
May 12: Poroshenko nominated Yuriy Lutsenko as the new prosecutor general.
On May 13, in a phone call, Biden told Poroshenko he welcomed Lutsenko’s appointment and creation of an inspector general in the prosecutor’s office. “The Vice President informed President Poroshenko that the United States was prepared to move forward with the signing of the third $1 billion loan guarantee agreement, which will support continued progress on Ukrainian reforms,” a White House statement said.
The loan guarantee was finally signed on June 3, with Pyatt representing the United States.
The Bottom Line
As we demonstrated, Biden was never in Kiev in March 2016, as many news organizations have reported. The tying of $1 billion in loan guarantees to needed reforms, including the ouster of Shokin, was a policy pursued over many months, but Biden’s explicit linkage was made during his trip to Kiev in December — three months earlier.
Biden’s overly dramatic foreshortening of events has confused many reporters, including here at The Fact Checker. We’ve corrected our mistake, and we urge other news organizations to do so as well.
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