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President Donald Trump in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart repeatedly suggested that an ousted Ukrainian prosecutor enjoyed a reputation for fairness when then-vice president Joe Biden in 2015 stepped in to press for the prosecutor’s removal.
A White House summary of a July 25 telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows Trump describing Ukraine’s former prosecutor general Viktor Shokin as a "very good" and "very fair prosecutor."
"A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved," Trump said, according to the readout, later adding, "I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor."
A few moments later, Trump added, "The other thing, There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … ."
We decided to fact-check whether the Ukrainian prosecutor enjoyed the positive reputation Trump claimed. The notion that Shokin was widely seen as a "very good" and "very fair prosecutor" is inconsistent with our findings.
Trump’s claim requires some additional context. In his phone call with Zelenksy, Trump never referred to Shokin by name. But the context of the call, including his remarks about Biden, seems to make clear that Shokin is who Trump had in mind. In fact, by the time he resigned, he was widely considered corrupt and ineffective.
The White House did not respond to our request for comment and for information that would support this positive view of Shokin’s tenure. We also independently looked for affirmative reviews of Shokin’s work and weren’t able to find anything substantive or specific.
Trump and Zelensky discussed the possibility of reviving a dormant Ukrainian government investigation into a Ukrainian energy company that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, served as a board member on while his father was vice president. (See our related fact-check.)
Trump’s reference to the Ukrainian prosecutor being "shut down" is an apparent reference to Shokin’s ouster in 2016, which then-Vice President Joe Biden helped orchestrate.
Biden had assumed a lead role in U.S. diplomacy toward Ukraine amid a popular revolution that in early 2014 led to pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country. Shokin became top prosecutor after Yanukovych went into exile. A frustrated Biden in Dec. 2015 threatened to withhold $1 billion unless Shokin was fired. According to Biden, it worked.
During an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations on Jan. 23, 2018, the former vice president made the following remarks, which at points were accompanied by laughter from the audience:
"I remember going over (to Ukraine), 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 (then Ukrainian President Petro) 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 said, you’re not getting the billion. ... 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."
(We’ll note that this transcript shows that Trump mischaracterized Biden’s remarks when he told Zelensky in their call that "Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution" into the company his son was involved in. Biden bragged about getting rid of an ineffective prosecutor, not stopping an investigation.)
Trump’s boasts about Shokin — that he was widely seen as a "very good" and "very fair prosecutor" — clash with the view of many Western leaders and institutions. Largely, they were united in seeking Shokin’s removal.
When Shokin was sacked on March 26, 2016, press reports explicitly linked his ouster to corruption. Here’s how the New York Times described it:
MOSCOW — 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.
In fairness, the Times’ also said experts on Ukrainian politics said Shokin "had played an important role in balancing competing political interests, helping maintain stability during a treacherous era in the divided country’s history."
But strong Western opposition to Shokin was well established prior to his ouster.
For instance, in early 2016, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said that "it’s hard to see how the I.M.F.-supported program can continue" unless corruption prosecutions accelerate.
Steven Pifer is a career foreign service officer who was ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton and deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs under President George W. Bush. Pifer told PolitiFact that "virtually everyone" he knew in the U.S. government and virtually all non-governmental experts on Ukraine "felt that Shokin was not doing his job and should be fired. As far as I can recall, they all concurred with the vice president telling Poroshenko that the U.S. government would not extend the $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine until Shokin was removed from office."
This view is reflected in a Sept. 2015 speech that then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, delivered in Odessa, Ukraine (emphasis ours):
"There is one glaring problem that threatens all of the good work that regional leaders here in Odessa, in Kharkiv, in Lviv, and elsewhere are doing to improve the business climate and build a new model of government that serves the people," Pyatt said, later 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."
Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, agreed that criticism of Shokin was widespread.
"Shokin was perceived as utterly corrupt and very close to President Poroshenko," Åslund said. "His corruption was exposed by his two young and obviously honest deputies" who were forced out.
The case that attracted the most negative attention to Shokin involved the arrest of a Kyiv city prosecutor, Åslund said. During the arrest, authorities seized several million dollars worth of diamonds at the prosecutor’s home. Not only did Shokin release the prosecutor, but he also returned his diamonds.
"The steady complaint was that Shokin blocked all attempts to have the Yanukovych crooks arrested or any of the billions they had stolen recovered," Åslund said. "Shokin successfully blocked any asset recovery, and he did so in a very blatant fashion."
Domestically, Shokin’s corruption was the cause célèbre of repeated street protests organized by anti-corruption activists.
As news of Trump’s interaction with Zelenksy made headlines in recent weeks, Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a leading anti-corruption voice in Ukraine, began to tweet images and videos of 2015 protests against Shokin.
One photograph she posted, from July 2015, showed a protest before the prosecutor general's office to demand Shokin resign "because of his corruption, attacks on reformers and failure to investigate corruption of Yanukivych associates." (The photograph is similar to photographs in the Associated Press database of the same event on the same date.)
This is July 24, 2015. Jointly with other NGOs we are running protest in front of prosecutors general office demanding Shokin resignation - because of his corruption, attacks on reformers and failure to investigate corruption of Yanukivych associates https://t.co/kv46MavjH3 pic.twitter.com/kr8oELbPpR— Daria Kaleniuk (@dkaleniuk) September 23, 2019
When Shokin was ultimately sacked in early 2016, his reputation was in tatters, according to the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s oldest English language newspaper.
"By the end of his term he was likely one of the most unpopular figures in Ukraine," the Kyiv Post wrote, "having earned a bad reputation for inaction and obstructing top cases."
Trump said "a lot of people are talking about" the removal of a "very fair prosecutor" in Ukraine.
The former Ukrainian prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, whom Trump appeared to be referencing, did not enjoy the sterling reputation Trump claimed. Far from it. Many Western leaders and institutions were largely united in seeking Shokin’s removal. Domestically, he was "likely one of the most unpopular figures in Ukraine" over his reputation for corruption, the subject of popular street protests.
We rate this claim False.
PolitiFact, "Here's the readout of Donald Trump's call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky," Sept. 25, 2019
Kyiv Post, "Trump whistleblower scandal, explained from Ukraine," Sept. 23, 2019
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and Ukraine," May 7, 2019
New York Times, "Ukraine Ousts Viktor Shokin, Top Prosecutor, and Political Stability Hangs in the Balance," March 26, 2019
Washington Post, "The full Trump-Ukraine timeline — as of now," Sept. 25, 2019
Email interview with Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council, Sept. 26, 2019
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