“We have an obligation to investigate corruption. And that’s what it was.”

— President Trump, in an interview on “Hannity” on Fox News, Oct. 21, 2019

“There were two reasons that we held up the aid. We talked about this at some length. The first one was the rampant corruption in Ukraine. Ukraine by the way, Chris, it’s so bad in Ukraine that in 2014, Congress passed a law making it, making us, requiring us, to make sure that corruption was moving in the right direction. So, corruption is a big deal, everyone knows it. The president was also concerned about whether or not other nations, specifically European nations, were helping with foreign aid to the Ukraine as well.”

— White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Oct. 20, 2019

Trump and Mulvaney say they held up $250 million in security assistance for Ukraine this year because of concerns about corruption.

Congress approved the aid in September 2018. A top Defense Department official certified to congressional committees on May 23 that Ukraine had made sufficient progress on anti-corruption efforts to merit the security funds. The Pentagon announced the $250 million aid package June 18.

That’s how it typically works. But, on Trump’s orders, the White House informed the Pentagon on July 18 that Ukraine’s aid was being frozen, and didn’t release the funds until Sept. 11, weeks before the deadline.

If the Defense Department certified in May that Ukraine had made enough progress on corruption to merit the security assistance funds, what was left for the White House to investigate?

The Facts

Trump didn’t raise corruption concerns in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the rough readout released by the White House. He made two requests. First, Trump asked Zelensky to look into a conspiracy theory involving Ukraine, the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike and a Democratic National Committee server. Second, Trump asked for an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden, a potential Democratic opponent in the 2020 election, and his son Hunter Biden, who had business dealings in Ukraine.

No evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden has surfaced. The CrowdStrike conspiracy theory — as it goes, Ukrainians secretly hacked into the DNC’s servers in 2016 and then framed Russia for the intrusion — has been roundly debunked. But Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, this year pushed to get Ukraine to investigate both the Biden and CrowdStrike claims.

An ongoing impeachment inquiry in the House is focused on whether Trump abused his office by making these requests of Zelensky, and whether Trump conditioned the security assistance funds, or a meeting Zelensky was seeking with the U.S. president, on the CrowdStrike or Biden probes. Trump has denied a quid pro quo. The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., testified to lawmakers in the House impeachment inquiry Oct. 22 that Ukraine’s security assistance was withheld “for domestic political reasons.”

Rooting out corruption in Ukraine is a security issue for the United States and Western allies: Anti-corruption reforms check Russian influence, and economic reforms facilitate more ties with Western nations. The $250 million aid package included funds for counter-artillery radar and secure-communication equipment, tactical vehicles and ambulances, sniper rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition, and military training. The White House also froze a separate $141 million aid package through the State Department. And the Trump administration has been seeking budget cuts for U.S. programs that combat corruption in Ukraine.

“Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe, ranked 130 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index,” USAID said in a report outlining its Ukraine strategy from 2019 to 2024. “The abuse of entrusted power for private gain is endemic in the kleptocratic misuse of public resources, which has eroded the GOU [government of Ukraine] resource base for self-reliance, threatens the democratic state, and increases Ukraine’s vulnerability to external manipulation.

“Indeed, a 2015 corruption assessment found that tax avoidance is widespread, a symptom of viewing the state as incapable of using public funds for the benefit of society, and has bankrupted state budgets. This keeps state officials’ salaries low, incentivizing civil servants to live off bribes; in response, citizens continue to pay bribes in order to get things done, and are reassured that they should seek to avoid paying taxes. The continued participation of most Ukrainians in such exchanges serves to paralyze reforms seeking to change the status quo.”

But Trump didn’t mention any of that in his call with Zelensky. He doesn’t bring up Ukraine’s well-documented corruption in his public remarks; he focuses on Biden and the CrowdStrike-DNC server tale.

“They want to have more corruption in Ukraine,” said Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist at the Atlantic Council who is heavily involved in Eastern European market reforms. Aslund said the claim that Trump held up Ukraine’s security aid because of corruption concerns didn’t make sense because Giuliani’s pressure campaign ended up ousting the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, “because she was fighting corruption.”

Congress has sent more than $1.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, but the $250 million package this year appears to be the first one delayed by the White House.

For each year since 2017, the National Defense Authorization Act has required “a certification by the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms … for purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by assistance.”

The law also says, “The certification shall include an assessment of the substantial actions taken to make such defense institutional reforms and the areas in which additional action is needed.” So, the Defense Department is required to review Ukraine’s progress on corruption before security assistance funds are released each year and note where there’s room for improvement.

The Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, John C. Rood, sent a letter May 23 to congressional committees certifying that “the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.”

Rood said the Defense Department made this certification after “persistent U.S. engagement with Ukraine,” including high-level meetings. He listed these milestones:

The Ukrainian Government adopted legislation to authorize the Ministry of Defense to conduct direct procurement from international manufacturers, including through the Foreign Military Sales program. Furthermore, to strengthen civilian control of the military, the ministry is making progress toward increasing civilian staff, as most prominently illustrated by the fact that the Minister of Defense is now a civilian. Minister Poltorak also initiated an ambitious program to reform the command and control system in line with Euro-Atlantic principles, which will improve the management of Ukraine’s forces. Lastly, Ukraine committed in writing to defense industry reforms and requested a Senior Defense Industry Advisor to improve the ability of Ukraine’s domestic industry to provide critical material to the Ukrainian armed forces and transform the state-owned enterprise.

In its report for 2018, USAID said its partnership with Ukraine yielded “several notable achievements” on the anti-corruption front, including “systemic reforms that created three new [health] ministry agencies and initiated a new ‘money follows the patient’ health system finance model” and “a new five-year, $85 million Energy Security Project that will enhance Ukraine’s energy security by: (1) helping key government agencies and the energy regulator meet European Union requirements; (2) supporting unbundling transmission and distribution from generation and supply in both the gas and electricity sectors; and (3) establishing competitive energy markets in the electricity, natural gas, and district heating sectors; and (4) advancing renewables.”

USAID’s report says it trained Ukrainian judges on spotting corruption in 2018, fostered more decentralization and local government control, and “helped automate many standard government processes, thus making corrupt practices more difficult.”

“The Government of Ukraine (GOU) has laid the foundations of a new system to fight corruption; it is working to reform comprehensively the police and law enforcement systems; and it is advancing constitutional reforms and decentralization, including by steadily incorporating a vibrant civil society into policymaking and reform processes,” the U.S. government says on its foreign-aid website, ForeignAssistance.gov. “U.S. assistance has played an indispensable role in supporting reform in these and other critical areas.”

As required by the NDAA, Rood in his May 23 letter also listed areas in which Ukraine could improve. That list includes implementing a “modern human resources management system” and better procedures “to ensure technology security, proper accountability, and end-use controls for U.S.-provided equipment.”

We asked the White House how its Ukraine review differed from the Defense Department’s, but we received no response.

Aslund said he doubted there was a formal review. A Democratic congressional aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told us: “We’ve seen no evidence that there was a ‘White House review’ of corruption in Ukraine. … State/DoD never identified any concerns in this case. In addition, we have seen no evidence that the White House seriously requested any kind of information on corruption in Ukraine as part of its hold on security assistance.” The White House has not held up assistance funds for other countries as it did with Ukraine’s, the aide said.

On June 18, the Defense Department announced the $250 million in Ukraine security assistance.

On July 18, a week before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, White House “officials at the Office of Management and Budget relayed Trump’s order to the State Department and the Pentagon during an interagency meeting,” The Washington Post reported. “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 New York Times reported that Trump “issued his directive to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, who conveyed it through the budget office to the Pentagon and the State Department, which were told only that the administration was looking at whether the spending was necessary.”

Mulvaney also said the White House held up the security assistance funds while it reviewed how much other European countries contribute to Ukraine. Such figures are public and readily available. We ran them down while reporting this fact check:

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.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Mulvaney said: “Once we were able to satisfy ourselves that corruption was actually — they were doing better with it, we got that information from our folks from the conversation with Minister [President] Zelensky and once we were able to establish we had the Office of Management and Budget do research on other countries’ aid to Ukraine, it turns out they don’t get any lethal aid, but they do give a considerable sum of money and nonlethal aid. Once those two things were cleared, the money flowed. There was never any connection between the flow of money and the server.”

The Pinocchio Test

There’s simply nothing that shows the White House conducted a review of corruption in Ukraine while it withheld the $250 million in aid through the Defense Department or the $141 million in aid through the State Department. How was the review done? What did it find? How was it different from the Pentagon’s legally mandated review? Mulvaney’s bare-bones description on Fox News cited “information from our folks” and Trump’s conversation with Zelensky, in which corruption was not discussed but the Bidens and CrowdStrike were.

The most recent detailed accounts from U.S. government officials say Ukraine is making progress in stemming corruption, including a certification from a top Defense Department official in May and a report from USAID covering 2018.

They show that Trump and Mulvaney’s stated rationale for withholding the $250 million in security aid from Ukraine flies against the facts. The White House isn’t rebutting the Defense Department’s finding that Ukraine made sufficient progress on corruption to merit the security funds. It hasn’t offered a counterargument to the U.S. agencies and officials detailing Ukraine’s progress on corruption. As far as we can tell, Trump’s concern is limited to Joe Biden and the DNC server.

So, without any evidence in support, and much evidence to the contrary, we give Trump and Mulvaney’s claim Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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