Everyone does ‘quid pro quo’
“I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
— White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, speaking to reporters, Oct. 17
“They’re accusing President Trump of the same thing Joe Biden did, threatening the aid.”
— Sen. Rand Paul, interview on “Meet the Press,” Nov. 10
The key issue is whether Trump, saying “do us a favor” in a July 25 phone call, pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a potential rival in the 2020 election, former vice president Joe Biden. Trump and his defenders have asserted this kind of “quid pro quo” is the normal give and take that takes place between governments.
It’s correct that a U.S. president might use leverage to try to get a foreign country to take certain actions. But the question here is that Trump is alleged to have used the tools of the U.S. government, such as promised military aid, for his own personal benefit, not for the benefit of the United States. Trump not only asked for an investigation of Biden but also a search for a Democratic National Committee server that he appears to believe is in Ukraine, apparently as part of an effort to muddy the waters about Russian interventions in the 2016 election. Interviews have indicated that Trump laid the groundwork for these demands through an irregular channel of communications with the Ukrainian government.
Trump and his allies have falsely claimed that Biden, as vice president, stopped a potential prosecution of his son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, by threatening to withhold a U.S. government loan to Ukraine. This narrative is designed to suggest that Joe Biden is corrupt, or that he did the same thing as Trump or worse.
But the Biden matter is different because his pressure on the Ukrainian government — requesting the ouster of an ineffective prosecutor before the loan would come through — had been a policy developed at the lower levels of the U.S. government and coordinated with U.S. allies, such as the European Union and International Monetary Fund. (Contrary to some reports, the Ukrainian gas company was not under investigation at the time of Biden’s actions.)
Trump, in ordering that military aid be paused, was acting against a policy developed within his administration and thwarting the will of Congress, which had approved the aid. Indeed, transcripts of interviews released by the committee show that government officials were scrambling to understand why the decision was made and seeking to get it reversed before the authority to disburse the money disappeared with the end of the government’s fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The interviews have uncovered that the U.S. government had two different policymaking operations regarding Ukraine — a regular channel that worked through established agencies and an irregular one led by three senior officials who kept in touch with Trump and his personal attorney, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani: Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker. It was the irregular channel that pressed the Ukrainian president to issue a statement that it was opening investigations into Biden and the 2016 election, with reportedly the U.S. aid and/or a White House meeting with Trump as bait.
Zelensky had finally succumbed to the pressure and scheduled an interview with CNN on Sept. 13, at which he was expected to make the announcement, interviews show. But days before the interview, the funds were released after pressure from Congress and the interview was canceled.
The phone call was perfect
“The call to the Ukrainian President was PERFECT. Read the Transcript! There was NOTHING said that was in any way wrong.”
— President Trump, in a tweet, Nov. 10
The White House released a rough transcript of the July 25 call, apparently thinking it would stem the furor, and Trump has relentlessly argued the call was “perfect.” But that’s just self-serving spin.
The initial whistleblower complaint related that several White House officials were disturbed by the call, and as news spread, the transcript was placed in a separate electronic system to store especially sensitive classified information. Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the chief White House specialist on Ukraine, immediately complained to the National Security Council’s top lawyer.
After the rough transcript of the call was released, Volker resigned from his post. He told investigators it was “extremely unfortunate for our policy with Ukraine” and “explosive in our domestic politics.” Fiona Hill, who had been Vindman’s boss but resigned just days before the call, told investigators she was “very saddened” and “very shocked” by the transcript as she found Trump’s demands “pretty blatant.” She added: “I sat in an awful lot of calls, and I have not seen anything like this. And I was there for two and a half years. So I was just shocked.”
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who served in Republican administrations, has also weighed in: “The call is murky, it is really murky. I don’t like for the president of the United States to mention an American citizen for investigation to a foreign leader. I think that is out of bounds.”
It was about corruption
“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 both have claimed that concerns over corruption in Ukraine led them to freeze a $250 million security assistance package for that country, along with a separate $141 million in State Department funds.
But the White House has not said what kind of corruption review, if any, was conducted while the funds were frozen for nearly two months. Experts doubt that any formal review was done. Trump has not articulated any concerns about corruption in Ukraine other than baseless claims about former vice president Joe Biden and an even-more-lurid conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee server and the Internet security firm CrowdStrike (more on this below).
Administration officials have testified to Congress that they understood the aid was frozen by the White House as leverage to get Ukraine to publicly announce investigations into Biden or the DNC server.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is the victim of Russian aggression, and the $250 million in U.S. security assistance had been designated for counter-artillery radar and secure-communication equipment, tactical vehicles and ambulances, sniper rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition, and military training, among other items.
Before releasing the funds, the Defense Department was required by law to certify that Ukraine had made progress in rooting out corruption.
The Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, John C. Rood, sent a letter May 23 to congressional committees certifying “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.”
William B. Taylor Jr., the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified to the House impeachment inquiry that then-national security adviser John Bolton and other officials from the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting with Trump to persuade him to release the money during the summer.
Yet the security assistance package was not released by the White House until Sept. 11, after news reports began to emerge that the funds had been delayed. We gave Four Pinocchios to the president and his acting chief of staff for this claim.
The whistleblower was not an eyewitness
“It’s all hearsay. You can’t get a parking ticket conviction based on hearsay. The whistleblower didn’t hear the phone call.”
— Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Sept. 29
This is a silly complaint. The whistleblower is akin to a tipster, and it’s up to investigators to find out if the tip is credible.
An intelligence officer, as a whistleblower, can file an “urgent concern” report of potential wrongdoing to trigger statutory procedures that require expedited reporting of misconduct to congressional intelligence committees.
In the case of the Ukraine whistleblower, he wrote he “was not a direct witness to most of the events” recounted in the complaint. But Michael Atkinson, the current inspector general for intelligence, said that even without access to the memo of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, Atkinson’s preliminary review found the complaint “appears credible,” including that Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainian president to help with his reelection bid.
The whistleblower wrote a false narrative
“Where is the Whistleblower who gave so much false information?”
— Trump, in a tweet, Nov. 11
At this point, virtually every detail of the whistleblower complaint has been confirmed by additional information, documents and reporting, according to the Fact Checker’s line-by-line analysis. Only a few relatively minor elements remain unconfirmed or in dispute. Trump has earned Four Pinocchios for this claim and a Bottomless Pinocchio as well.
Three conspiracy theories
Some lawmakers may bring up a variety of debunked conspiracy theories advanced by Trump and his allies. Here are some favorites.
Missing DNC server
“I still ask the FBI: Where is the server? How come the FBI never got the server from the DNC? Where is the server? I want to see the server. Let’s see what’s on the server. So, the server, they say, is held by a company whose primary ownership individual is from Ukraine.”
— Trump, remarks at the White House, Oct. 16
“There was a server — the DNC server — that never went to the FBI. The FBI didn’t take it. It was taken by somebody that, I guess, it’s CrowdStrike — that’s what I’ve heard. And referring to that, that’s not for an election that’s going into the future, that’s for a past election that was a catastrophe.”
— Trump, interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, Oct. 21
Trump is fixated on the idea that Ukrainians might have hacked the Democratic National Committee’s network in 2016 and framed Russia for the cyber intrusion.
It’s a debunked conspiracy theory that Trump’s own advisers have dismissed, flying in the face of detailed assessments from the U.S. intelligence community, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the congressional committees that have investigated Russia’s election interference.
The Internet security firm CrowdStrike, based in California, first investigated the DNC hack in June 2016 and traced it to two groups of hackers that “engage in extensive political and economic espionage for the benefit of the government of the Russian Federation and are believed to be closely linked to the Russian government’s powerful and highly capable intelligence services.”
Mueller’s report found that, from April to June 2016, a Russian military intelligence agency called the GRU “compromised more than 30 computers on the DNC network, including the DNC mail server and shared file server.” Russian officials first gained access to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s network, “using the credentials stolen from a DCCC employee who had been successfully spearphished.” Within a week, the Russian officials “gained access to the DNC network via a virtual private network (VPN) connection between the DCCC and DNC networks.”
The Russian officers “stole thousands of documents from the DCCC and DNC networks, including significant amounts of data pertaining to the 2016 U.S. federal elections,” according to the Mueller report, such as “internal strategy documents, fundraising data,” “the DNC’s opposition research into candidate Trump” and apparently “thousands of emails and attachments, which were later released by WikiLeaks in July 2016.”
The U.S. intelligence community assessed in 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the cyber-intrusion campaign to help Trump win; damage his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton; and shake confidence in U.S. democracy.
Nevertheless, Trump often runs with an alternate-reality version of events, involving Ukraine, CrowdStrike and a DNC server, that has caught fire in some corners of the Internet and among right-wing supporters of the president. (Never mind that the DNC’s “server” was a cloud-based network of more than 100 devices.)
As the conspiracy theory goes: A rich Ukrainian owns CrowdStrike, and a DNC server was transported to Ukraine after the 2016 hack, thwarting the FBI from taking possession of it and presumably from establishing conclusively that Russia was behind the intrusion.
But CrowdStrike is a publicly traded American company co-founded by U.S.-born George Kurtz and Dmitri Alperovitch, who was born in Russia, is a U.S. citizen and “has no connection to Ukraine,” as the company said. The DNC server data was copied and submitted to the FBI.
The FBI and DNC disagree on whether the FBI requested access to the DNC’s servers. Former FBI director James B. Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau made “multiple requests at different levels” to access the servers, but the DNC said the FBI never requested access. The DNC had CrowdStrike analyze its network and share findings with the FBI, which Comey called an acceptable substitute.
“What they need to see is how the traffic moves,” said Rid, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. If investigators were surveilling a house, Rid said, they would want to know who goes in and out. The same is true of investigating server traffic, he added. Having the physical object, whether a house or a server, is not nearly as helpful as knowing who goes in and out, Rid said.
Thomas P. Bossert, who served as Trump’s first homeland security adviser, said Sept. 29 that the president has been told the story is “completely debunked.” “The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go,” Bossert said on ABC’s “This Week.” “If he continues to focus on that white whale, it’s going to bring him down.”
Manafort ‘black ledger’
Paul Manafort at one point was Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman. In August 2016, a Ukrainian government agency released ledgers that reportedly showed $12.7 million in cash payments from former president Viktor Yanukovych’s party that were earmarked for Manafort. Reports about these payments prompted Manafort to step down from his position in the Trump campaign, though the Mueller report says he continued to provide advice to campaign officials.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker and former investigative journalist, and Artem Sytnyk, a director of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, publicized these ledgers, which, according to Leshchenko, were found by an anonymous individual in the burned-out ruins of the headquarters of Yanukovych’s party.
“The court concluded that all the charges against me were unfounded, and even obliged my opponents to reimburse me for $100 in legal costs,” Leshchenko wrote in The Washington Post. He added: “Neither Hillary Clinton, nor Joe Biden, nor John Podesta, nor George Soros asked me to publish the information from the black ledger. I wanted to obtain accountability for the lobbyist whose client immersed Ukraine in a blood bath during the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, when Yanukovych called on Russia to send troops.”
While some Republicans have suggested the ledger was fake, Manafort’s defense lawyers did not make that argument as they unsuccessfully defended him on charges that included failing to report on his income taxes millions of dollars he had earned working for Yanukovych.
DNC staff member
Politico in 2017 reported that a Ukrainian American Democratic operative, Alexandra Chalupa, began looking into Manafort’s ties to Yanukovych, who served as president from 2010 until his ouster in 2014. Chalupa was hired as a consultant to the DNC during the 2016 campaign to help mobilize ethnic communities. She left the DNC in July 2016, the DNC said.
She continued her research into Manafort on her own, sometimes with the help of Ukrainian Embassy officials, and she said she sometimes shared her findings with officials at the DNC and Clinton’s campaign. But former Clinton campaign officials said they never received information from Chalupa, and the exact role of embassy officials is unclear.
Even if Chalupa may have worked with some embassy officials, there’s no evidence that the DNC used information gathered by Chalupa or that the Ukrainians coordinated opposition research with the DNC. She vigorously denied the article’s framing when it appeared.
The Politico article was published nearly two years ago, but Republicans still cite from it even though no fresh information has been found to substantiate its suggestion that the Ukrainian government sought to help Hillary Clinton.
Due process concerns
“It was just explained to me that for next weeks Fake Hearing (trial) in the House, as they interview Never Trumpers and others, I get NO LAWYER & NO DUE PROCESS.”
— Trump, in a tweet, Nov. 7
“Adam Schiff wants people from the White House to testify in his and Pelosi’s disgraceful Witch Hunt, yet he will not allow a White House lawyer, nor will he allow ANY of our requested witnesses. This is a first in due process and Congressional history!”
— Trump, in a tweet, Nov. 10
Trump and his allies often claim that the president’s “due process” or “Sixth Amendment” rights are being trampled.
As this argument goes, Trump is being denied his constitutional rights because he can’t call or cross-examine witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry’s closed-door depositions, his attorneys aren’t allowed in the room, and he can’t question the anonymous whistleblower who filed a complaint at the center of the investigation.
This is a good case study in how politicians use legalese to mislead the public. We’ve given these claims Four Pinocchios.
The Fifth and Fourteenth amendments guarantee due process rights, but those rights apply only in court proceedings in which someone may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property.” Impeachment is a different ballgame that turns on congressional votes. The maximum penalty is removal from office.
Under the Constitution, the House has the sole power of impeachment and the Senate the sole power to try impeachment charges, with a two-thirds majority required for conviction. The common analogy is that the House acts as a prosecutor filing charges, and then the Senate holds a trial.
The House and Senate have wide discretion under the Constitution to set up their rules and processes for impeachment. They’re not required by law to afford the president, or any officeholder facing impeachment, the same rights as criminal defendants or litigants in civil cases.
The Sixth Amendment includes bedrock constitutional protections: the right to counsel, to call witnesses, to confront accusers and to a speedy public trial with an impartial jury. But the text of the amendment starts by limiting those rights to defendants facing “criminal prosecutions.” Impeachment is not the same.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter
The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles