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The ad mixes present events, referring to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, with actions Lee took years ago.
Lee voted in 2017 against sanctions against Russia.
The ad is misleading in saying Lee’s votes over several years against large spending bills were evidence that he specifically opposed spending provisions in them to aid Ukraine.
Utah's U.S. Senate race is so unusual that some leading Democrats, believing no Democrat can defeat two-term Republican Sen. Mike Lee, are urging support for independent candidate Evan McMullin.
McMullin, a former Republican who made news by raising more campaign money than Lee in the latest reporting period, attacked Lee with a TV ad over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The McMullin-narrated ad, which also ran on Facebook, opens by showing an undated NBC News headline that says: "Russia launches invasion of Ukraine."
Mixing the present tense and the past tense, McMullin said:
"As the world rallies around Ukraine, Mike Lee was one of only two senators to oppose sanctions on Putin. Then he flew to the Kremlin and discussed dropping sanctions. Lee even opposed arming Ukrainians fighting for their lives."
Russia’s invasion is less than two weeks old, while Lee’s actions cited in the ad occurred years ago. Moreover, the ad mischaracterizes some of Lee’s actions.
After participating in a March 5 video call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Lee said Zelensky is "concerned not only about his own people, but he’s concerned about his neighbors, he’s concerned even about the Russians. Now, this is something that really differentiates him from Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin has never once indicated any degree of sympathy for the people of Ukraine or for perhaps anyone other than himself."
In a statement to PolitiFact, Lee’s campaign said Lee "stands with the people suffering from Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. He condemns this senseless, unprovoked violence and he is committed to keeping Americans safe."
The context is the February 2022 invasion, but the ad alludes to a vote Lee took five years ago.
To back up the ad, McMullin’s campaign cited a 2017 vote by Lee and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., against imposing financial sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The measure also condemned Russia's interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and allowed Congress to block the president from unilaterally lifting existing sanctions against Russia. The amendment became law.
Lee said at the time: "The Russian sanctions amendment included funding for programs and support of policies that I believe are not effective at addressing problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship and have promoted progressive policies unrelated to countering Russia at the expense of American taxpayers."
This refers to a trip Lee made more than three years before the invasion.
The ad cites news reports about Lee’s September 2019 trip to Moscow to meet with Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Lee told an NPR reporter in Moscow during the visit that he wanted to maintain an open dialogue with Russia and said about U.S. sanctions against Russia: "We need to assess from time to time how they're doing, what impact they're having."
The Russian state-affiliated news agency Tass reported at the time that Lee discussed removing sanctions, leading the Salt Lake Tribune to run this headline: "Report: Sen. Mike Lee discussed loosening sanctions against Russia during Moscow visit."
Lee’s office said at the time that he and the Russian official discussed "trade, security and religious liberty issues." After returning from Moscow, Lee told the Deseret News that the official "didn’t waste much (time) in getting to some of the grievances that he’s got. He complained almost right off the bat about Russian sanctions."
In a statement to PolitiFact in response to McMullin’s ad, Lee’s campaign said the Russian official advocated for a reduction in sanctions, and that Lee "summarily dismissed this request and stated significant improvements in Russian policy, diplomacy and behavior would be required before a reduction in sanctions would be considered."
Lee’s campaign also pointed out that in January 2022, Lee voted for a Russia sanctions bill in connection with Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline that failed in the Senate.
McMullin’s campaign cited seven no votes Lee cast — in 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 (two votes) and 2020 to back this part of the claim. The campaign said that each measure contained financial aid for Ukraine.
But none of the votes was a specific vote for or against aid to Ukraine.
Rather, each measure contained numerous expenditures for a variety of purposes. For example, Lee’s 2020 vote was on a consolidated appropriations act that appropriated much more than foreign assistance; it included money for the U.S. departments of agriculture, commerce, justice, defense, energy and more.
Voting no on an omnibus bill does not indicate opposition to each expenditure in the bill.
Over the years, Lee has struck different tones on Ukraine.
In August 2014, six months after Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimea region, Lee advocated for increased production of U.S. oil and natural gas, paired with sanctions. Putin "would never have dared do what he did if we were aggressively producing and exporting oil and natural gas. He would never have gotten away with it," Lee said. "So, yeah, economic sanctions, we have to go there," but paired with the increased energy production.
In September 2019, after it was revealed that then-President Donald Trump, while withholding millions in aid to Ukraine, urged Zelensky on a call to investigate political rival Joe Biden, Lee downplayed the call. Lee said he didn’t think the call was "a problem" and argued it "certainly doesn’t serve as the basis for impeaching and removing" Trump.
McMullin, a former CIA operative, was a Republican before running as an independent for president in 2016. He made news in February with reports showing he raised more campaign money than Lee in the final quarter of 2021.
Lee is also being challenged in Utah’s June 28 primary. The leading Republican challengers are former Utah state lawaker Becky Edwards and communications strategist Ally Isom.
McMullin said: "As the world rallies around Ukraine, Mike Lee was one of only two senators to oppose sanctions on Putin. Then he flew to the Kremlin and discussed dropping sanctions. Lee even opposed arming Ukrainians fighting for their lives."
The context is Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but Lee’s actions cited in the ad occurred years earlier, and the ad mischaracterizes some of those actions.
Lee did vote in 2017 against sanctioning Russia. In 2019, he had talks with a Russian official in Moscow, but Lee suggested the discussion of dropping sanctions was fairly minimal. Seven votes cast by Lee dating back to 2014 were on spending bills with numerous provisions and are not evidence that Lee opposed specific provisions in the bills to provide aid to Ukraine.
McMullin’s statement contains only an element of truth. We rate it Mostly False.
AdImpact.com, Evan McMullin "Opposition" ad, accessed March 3, 2022
Facebook, Evan McMullin "Opposition" ad, ran March 4, 2022, to March 6, 2022
Interview, Evan McMullin campaign spokesperson Joshua Karp, March 4, 2022
Email, Ben Burr, Mike Lee campaign consultant, March 4, 2022
Twitter, Mike Lee tweet, March 5, 2022
C-SPAN, Mike Lee remarks, Aug. 17, 2014
NPR, "U.S. Sen. Lee's Visit To Russia Stirs Controversy," Sept. 9, 2019
U.S. Senate, "Question: On the Amendment (Crapo Amdt. No. 232 As Modified)," June 14, 2017
Deseret News, "How did Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s talks with government leaders in Russia go?", Sept. 13, 2019
Salt Lake Tribune, "Sen. Mike Lee doesn’t see Trump phone call ‘as a problem,’" Sept. 26, 2019
Salt Lake Tribune, "Utah's Sen. Mike Lee votes against Russia sanctions, says they're costly, ineffective and push progressive policies," June 16, 2017
Salt Lake Tribune, "Sen. Mike Lee heads to Russia as the Kremlin denies visas for two Senate colleagues who backed sanctions," Sept. 4, 2019
Salt Lake Tribune, "Report: Sen. Mike Lee discussed loosening sanctions against Russia during Moscow visit," Sept. 6, 2019; updated Sept. 7, 2019,
New York Times, "Senate Backs Measure Limiting President’s Power to Lift Sanctions," June 14, 2017
CNN, "Senate approves new Russia sanctions," June 15, 2017
U.S. Senate, "On the Motion (Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 133 )," Dec. 21, 2020
U.S. Senate, "On the Motion (Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 1865 )," Dec. 19, 2019
U.S. Senate, "Question: On the Conference Report (Conference Report to Accompany H.J. Res. 31 )," Feb. 14, 2019
U.S. Senate, "Question: On the Motion (Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 1625 )," March 23, 2018
U.S. Senate, "Question: On the Motion (Motion to Concur in the House Amendments to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 2029 )," Dec. 18, 2015
U.S. Senate, "Question: On the Motion (Motion to Concur in the House Amendment to the Senate Amendment to H.R. 83 )," Dec. 13, 2014
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