Biden in front of a Ukraine flag

Molly Butler / Media Matters; Biden photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons

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27 facts dismantling the Ukraine disinformation at the heart of the GOP impeachment push

On Thursday, House Republicans will convene the first hearing of an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden that is based in large part on a long-debunked right-wing media conspiracy theory. 

Then-Vice President Biden, who played a lead role in U.S. policy toward Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of that country in 2014, warned its leaders including then-President Petro Poroshenko that the U.S. would withhold $1 billion in promised loan guarantees if they did not dismiss Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, during a December 2015 visit to Kyiv. Shokin was subsequently forced from office in March 2016.

Right-wing media’s bogus narrative is that Biden went “rogue,” defying U.S. policy and interests for the corrupt benefit of his son, Hunter Biden. They claim Shokin had a “great reputation” as a diligent prosecutor and an effective force against corruption, and that Joe Biden sought his termination because Shokin was conducting a probe into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company controlled by the pro-Russian oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, on whose board Hunter Biden sat at that time.

But virtually every part of that narrative is wrong, according to the testimony of U.S. officials appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, government documents, and contemporaneous and more recent reporting. In reality, U.S. policy called for firing Shokin, who was viewed as unwilling to prosecute corruption by U.S. diplomats, foreign governments, international bodies, and Ukrainian anti-corruption groups, and his office had not been actively investigating Burisma at the time Vice President Biden sought his removal.

Right-wing media outlets have trumpeted this conspiracy theory for more than four years in the face of numerous debunkings and its fundamental implausibility. (The narrative requires that all of the following were witting or unwitting participants in a scheme designed to financially benefit Hunter Biden: U.S. diplomats at all levels, based in both D.C. and Ukraine, including some appointed under Donald Trump’s presidency; U.S. senators of both parties; Western governments, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund; Poroshenko; Ukrainian reformers; and U.S. and foreign journalists.)

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, conservative fabulist John Solomon, and their associates first concocted the story in 2019, in an effort to hamstring Biden’s presidential bid. Trump adviser Sean Hannity and his Fox News colleagues heavily promoted the tale (even as Fox’s own internal research department described it as “disinformation”), ultimately setting in motion Trump’s first impeachment. They revived the story this year, and it is now the heart of the right’s long-sought Biden impeachment probe.

The right’s disinformation campaign depends on creating a cloud of scandal around Joe Biden by confusing the public with unrelenting demagoguery and abject lies about a sprawling array of characters, accusations, and shiny objects that can’t be followed without a doctorate in Hannity Studies. But the core of their story is refuted below with 27 pieces of evidence.

  • Seeking Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin’s ouster was U.S. policy, and officials of both parties viewed him as unwilling to fight corruption

  • Geoffrey Pyatt, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, called Shokin’s office “an obstacle” to fighting corruption in a September 2015 speech. Pyatt spoke of “one glaring problem” undermining the fight against corruption, adding: “That obstacle is the failure of the institution of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to successfully fight internal corruption. Rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the Prosecutor General’s office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform.” [Pyatt remarks at the Odesa Financial Forum, 9/24/15

    State Department briefing memo prepared for Biden’s visit stated he should call for the “removal of Prosecutor General Shokin” in meetings with Ukraine’s leaders. The memo, generated for Biden’s meeting with Poroshenko during the December 2015 Ukraine trip, reads in part under the heading “Background” that anti-corruption reform requires the “removal of Prosecutor General Shokin, who is widely regarded as an obstacle to fighting corruption, if not a source of the problem.” Under “Talking Points,” the document states that “anti-corruption efforts … will also require changing the Prosecutor General who is damaging your credibility and obstructing the fight against corruption.” Similar language appears in a separate memo for Biden’s meeting with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. [State Department memo, 11/22/15; Media Matters, 9/18/23]

    Pyatt testified that leveraging aid to oust Shokin was “U.S. government policy.” Pyatt said in a 2020 congressional deposition that “it wasn’t Vice President Biden who conditioned the assistance” but rather “our interagency policy” based on information provided by Ukraine civil society contacts and the U.S. intelligence community and Justice Department. He further described it as “U.S. government policy” and agreed that “the condition to remove Shokin had been conveyed to Ukrainian officials prior to December 2015, and then it was reiterated by Vice President Biden in December 2015, on this trip.” [Pyatt deposition, 9/22/20; Media Matters, 9/18/23]

    Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in 2015-16, testified that leveraging aid to dismiss Shokin was “U.S. government policy.” Nuland, who oversaw diplomacy in Ukraine at the time, agreed during a 2020 congressional deposition that it was U.S government policy “to condition a loan guarantee on the removal of Prosecutor General Shokin” and that the policy “was developed through the interagency process.” [Nuland deposition, 9/3/20; Media Matters, 9/18/23]

    Three GOP senators signed a February 2016 letter calling for “urgent reforms to the Prosecutor General’s office.” CNN reported that a letter sent by members of the Senate Ukraine Caucus to Poroshenko urged him to “press ahead with urgent reforms to the Prosecutor General’s office and judiciary” to combat corruption. It was signed by five Democrats and three Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). [CNN, 10/3/19]

    Bush-appointed diplomat John Herbst testified to widespread support for ousting Shokin and praised Biden for helping to push him out. Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine in the George W. Bush administration, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shortly before Shokin’s dismissal that in 2015, Ukrainian reformers had begun describing Shokin as a “compromised figure” and that “by late fall of 2015, the EU and the United States joined the chorus of those seeking Mr. Shokin’s removal as the start of an overall reform of the Procurator General’s Office.” He praised Biden and referenced his December 2015 meeting with Ukraine’s leaders, saying, that the vice president“has devoted a great deal of time to promoting reform in Ukraine, and he has not been reluctant to tell Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk when they have shirked the hard choices that need to be made. This was evident in the conversations regarding Mr. Shokin and the Office of the Procurator General.” [Senate transcript, 3/15/16]

    New York Times report contemporaneous with Shokin’s removal said U.S. “had for months called for” Shokin’s dismissal over corruption. The Times reported after Ukraine’s parliament voted to remove the prosecutor general, “the United States … 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.” The paper also referred to Shokin’s “visible signs of corruption” and reported that he was seen by Ukrainian reformers and Western diplomats “as a worrying indicator of a return to past corrupt practices.” [The New York Times, 3/29/16]

    Alina Romanowski, a diplomat later appointed by Trump, testified that Shokin had been “widely seen as corrupt.” Romanowski, then the State Department’s coordinator of U.S. assistance to Europe and Eurasia and subsequently the Trump administration’s ambassador to Kuwait, testified during a June 2016 subcommittee hearing that “in Ukraine, President Poroshenko and the Rada replaced a Prosecutor-General widely seen as corrupt.” [CNN, 10/3/19]

    George Kent, Pyatt’s deputy in Kyiv, testified that pushing for Shokin’s dismissal was the “consensus view.” Kent, who served as deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, Ukraine, from 2015 to 2018 and then oversaw U.S. foreign policy in the country as deputy assistant secretary of state, testified during Trump’s 2019 impeachment inquiry that “what former Vice President Biden requested of former President of Ukraine [Petro] Poroshenko was the removal of a corrupt prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who had undermined a program of assistance that we had spent, again, U.S. taxpayer money to try to build an independent investigator unit to go after corrupt prosecutors.” He also stated in his deposition, “it was the consensus view that Shokin needed to be removed so that the stated goal of reform of the prosecutor general system could move forward.” [Kent testimony, 11/13/2019; Kent deposition, 10/15/19; Media Matters, 9/13/23]

    Kent further testified that Pyatt and Nuland had originated the idea to leverage the aid to get Shokin fired. “To the best of my knowledge, the idea came from Pyatt in discussion with Assistant Secretary Nuland and then was pitched to the Office of the Vice President,” Kent said in his deposition. [Kent deposition, 10/15/19; Media Matters, 9/13/23]

    Trump appointee Kurt Volker testified that Biden “was representing U.S. policy” when he pushed for Shokin’s firing. Volker, a former diplomat who served in the Bush administration and then as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations during the Trump administration, said in a deposition for Trump’s impeachment inquiry, “When Vice President Biden made those representations to President Poroshenko he was representing U.S. policy at the time.” He went on to say that Shokin’s “reputation is one of a prosecutor general who was protecting certain interests rather than prosecuting them” and reiterated that Biden had been “executing U.S. policy at the time and what was widely understood internationally to be the right policy, right.” [Volker deposition, 10/3/19; Media Matters, 9/13/23]

    Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified that the U.S. and Western consensus was that “Mr. Shokin as prosecutor general was not doing his job.” Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, similarly testified that “Vice President Biden, the IMF, pretty much every country that is present in Ukraine all felt that Mr. Shokin as prosecutor general was not doing his job,” leading to calls for his firing. [Yovanovitch deposition, 10/11/19; Media Matters, 9/13/23]

  • Ukrainian reformers, allied governments, and international institutions denounced Shokin, sought or applauded his removal

  • European diplomats said they were trying to force Shokin out before Biden got involved. “EU diplomats working on Ukraine at the time have, however, told the FT that they were looking for ways to persuade Kiev to remove Mr Shokin well before Mr Biden entered the picture. The push for Mr Shokin’s removal was part of an international effort to bolster Ukraine’s institutions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in the eastern part of the country. ‘All of us were really pushing [former Ukrainian president Petro] Poroshenko that he needs to do something, because the prosecutor was not following any of the corruption issues. He was really bad news,’ said an EU diplomat involved in the discussions. ‘It was Biden who finally came in [and triggered it]. Biden was the most vocal, as the US usually is. But we were all literally complaining about the prosecutor.’” [Financial Times, 10/3/19

    European nations had pressured the Ukrainian government for months to fire Shokin. In 2016, The New York Times reported: “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.” [The New York Times, 3/29/16]

    “More than 100 members” of Ukraine’s Parliament had called for Shokin’s removal. [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2/11/16]

    International Monetary Fund condemned corruption in Ukraine, called for new emphasis on reform. “Without a substantial new effort to invigorate governance reforms and fight corruption, it is hard to see how the IMF-supported program can continue and be successful,” Christine Lagarde, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said in a February 10, 2016, statement. “Ukraine risks a return to the pattern of failed economic policies that has plagued its recent history.” [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2/10/16]

    Shokin’s reformist deputy Vitaliy Kasko resigned and excoriated Shokin’s support for corruption. Kask “cited corruption and sabotage by General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin in combatting corruption and instituting the rule of law” and “said that Shokin had turned his office into a completely corrupt institution” at a February 15, 2016, press conference announcing his resignation, the Kyiv Post reported. “The current leadership of the prosecutor’s office has once and for all turned it into a body where corruption dominates, and corrupt schemes are covered up,” he said in his letter of resignation. [Kyiv Post, 2/15/16]

    Ukrainian anti-corruption leader Daria Kaleniuk responded to Kasko's resignation by “begging” international community to force Shokin’s removal. Leading Ukrainian reformers praised Kasko and condemned Shokin, including “Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, [who] wrote on Facebook she was ‘begging’ Ukraine’s international partners to pressure Poroshenko to have Shokin and Kononenko dismissed as ‘a must-do condition prior to any further financial support of the Ukrainian government.’” [Kyiv Post, 2/15/16]

    The European Union praised Shokin’s removal. Jan Tombinski, the EU's envoy to Ukraine, said in the wake of Shokin’s firing: “This decision creates an opportunity to make a fresh start in the prosecutor general's office. I hope that the new prosecutor general will ensure that [his] office … becomes independent from political influence and pressure and enjoys public trust.” He added, “There is still a lack of tangible results of investigations into serious cases … as well as investigations of high-level officials within the prosecutor general’s office.” [The Irish Times, 3/29/16]

    Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: Shokin is “a completely crazy person.” Poroshenko was asked on Fox News about Shokin’s claim that “Poroshenko fired me at the insistence of the then-Vice President Biden because I was investigating Burisma.” He responded that Shokin is a “completely crazy person, there is something wrong with him.” He went on to say that “there is not one single word of truth” to Shokin’s allegations, adding that “he played [a] very dirty game, unfortunately.” [Fox News, One Nation with Brian Kilmeade, 9/23/23]

  • Shokin did not actively investigate Burisma or its owner, Mykola Zlochevsky

  • Ukrainian documents reportedly show Shokin oversaw, but did not pursue, a case involving Burisma as a deputy prosecutor. In 2014, after the United Kingdom sought information from Ukraine for a money laundering probe into Zlochevsky, “Ukrainian prosecutors opened their own case, accusing Zlochevsky of embezzling public funds. … The case against Zlochevsky and his Burisma Holdings was assigned to Shokin, then a deputy prosecutor. But Shokin and others weren’t pursuing it, according to the internal reports from the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reviewed by Bloomberg.” The U.K. seized Zlochevsky’s assets but they were unblocked after “a British court determined there wasn’t enough evidence to justify the continued freeze, in part because Ukrainian prosecutors had failed to provide the necessary information.” [Bloomberg, 5/7/19]

    Former Shokin deputy Vitaliy Kasko said the Burisma probe had been “shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.” Bloomberg further reported that at the time Biden sought Shokin’s removal, the Burisma probe “had been long dormant, according to” Kasko. He told Bloomberg, “There was no pressure from anyone from the U.S. to close cases against Zlochevsky. … It was shelved by Ukrainian prosecutors in 2014 and through 2015.” Bloomberg further reported: “Shokin took no action to pursue cases against Zlochevsky throughout 2015, said Kasko, who was Shokin’s deputy overseeing international cooperation and helping in asset-recovery investigations. Kasko said he had urged Shokin to pursue the investigations.” [Bloomberg, 5/7/19]

    Pyatt called out Shokin’s office for having “undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” including the U.K.’s Zlochevsky probe. Pyatt said in his September 2015 speech that Shokin’s office “not only did not support investigations into corruption, but rather undermined prosecutors working on legitimate corruption cases,” citing its failure to cooperate with U.K.’s Zlochevsky investigation. He added that “those responsible for subverting the case … should – at a minimum – be summarily terminated.” [Pyatt remarks at the Odesa Financial Forum, 9/24/15

    Ukrainian anti-corruption group said Shokin “worked to bury” Burisma investigation. “Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), told RFE/RL that Shokin ‘dumped important criminal investigations on corruption associated with [former President Viktor] Yanukovych, including the Burisma case.’ ... Kaleniuk and AntAC published a detailed timeline of events surrounding the Burisma case, an outline of evidence suggesting that three consecutive chief prosecutors of Ukraine -- first Shokin’s predecessor, then Shokin, and then his successor -- worked to bury it. ‘Ironically, Joe Biden asked Shokin to leave because the prosecutor failed [to pursue] the Burisma investigation, not because Shokin was tough and active with this case,’ Kaleniuk said.” [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 9/24/19]

    Nuland testified the U.S. government had been “dissatisfied” with Shokin’s lack of effort investigating Burisma. Nuland criticized Shokin in her deposition for failing to “reopen that case” into Zlochevsky and open one into those who “protected” him. She further stated the U.S. government had at the time been “dissatisfied that past investigations of Burisma had not been brought to conclusion,” and that Shokin’s removal thus “would be counter to Burisma's interests, because not only was he not pursuing the Burisma case, he was responsible for protecting those who had helped get the case dismissed.” [Nuland deposition, 9/3/20; Media Matters, 9/18/23]

    Devon Archer, Hunter Biden’s business partner and fellow Burisma board member, testified Shokin’s firing was bad for the company because Shokin was “under control.” Archer told congressional investigators that his impression was that the “firing of Shokin was bad for Burisma because he was under control.” Archer further testified that he had been unaware of any Ukrainian probe into Burisma. [Archer deposition, 7/31/23; Media Matters, 8/3/23]

    Kent testified he had been unaware of a Shokin probe of Burisma. Kent said that any possible Shokin investigation into Burisma “was not something that I recall ever coming up or being discussed” and that he was unaware of any probe into that company at the time. [Kent deposition 10/15/19; Media Matters, 9/13/23]