Trump said Democratic senators threatened Ukraine. That’s misleading

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP)
President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP)

Defending his discussions with the president of Ukraine, President Donald Trump said at a Sept. 25 press conference that it was Democrats who at least twice threatened to withhold aid for the eastern European country.

Sen. Chris Murphy. D-Conn., "literally threatened the president of Ukraine that, if he doesn’t do things right, they won’t have Democrat support in Congress," Trump said.

Trump also suggested a letter written by Sens. Robert Menendez, Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy to Ukraine’s prosecutor general was threatening. "In the letter, they implied that their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake and that if they didn’t do the right thing, they wouldn’t get any assistance. Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?"

Trump then took a broad swipe at unnamed senators, comparing their actions with his own, "especially when the senators and all of these other people have actually done what they’re accusing me of doing, which I didn’t do," he said. 

The Democratic-led House has launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump for threatening aid to Ukraine while asking the government there to look into his political rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. 

Trump’s statement that Murphy "literally threatened" the president of Ukraine poses a challenge for fact-checkers because no public transcript has emerged of Murphy’s meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. That means we are largely left with statements by Murphy recapping what he said he told Zelensky. Based on those statements, we found no literal threats. His comments about the senators who wrote the letter is also misleading, but in that case the letter is a matter of public record.

A White House spokesman referred us back to the senators’ letter.

Trump seems to be trying to build a defense that suggests equivalence between what he has been accused of doing related to Ukraine and the statements by the senators. He lacks evidence to make such a comparison. 

Sen. Murphy’s visit to Ukraine

Trump said Murphy "literally threatened" the president of Ukraine. 

On Sept. 5, Murphy of Connecticut and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., met with Zelensky in Ukraine

Among other topics, the senators and Zelenksy discussed U.S. aid to Ukraine. Shortly before their meeting, the Trump administration delayed around $400 million in aid for Ukraine. The senators showed interest in the United States continuing to support Ukraine.

Murphy did say he raised concerns about overtures by Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s private attorney, into Ukraine. (In May, Murphy called for a Senate query into Giuliani’s planned trip to Ukraine.)

Murphy said he "just made the point that if the Ukrainian government gets requests from the embassy, that’s different than getting requests from a political actor in the United States…In order to keep the United States-Ukraine relationship strong, it was much better for the (Ukraine) president to rebuff any pressure he's getting from political campaigns in the United States to conduct investigations."

In an interview on CNN Sept. 20, Murphy made similar statements recapping what he told Zelensky about Giuliani.

And earlier in September, Murphy told the New York Times that Zelensky seemed confused about why U.S. aid was being withheld.

The Times wrote that "Mr. Murphy said he urged Mr. Zelensky not to heed the requests from Mr. Giuliani, warning that to do so could threaten bipartisan support for Ukraine in Washington, which Mr. Murphy called Ukraine’s "most important asset."

"I told Zelensky that he should not take orders from Trump’s campaign and that his credibility would be greatly compromised if he interfered in the 2020 election. That’s common sense, and I stand by what I said 100%," Murphy tweeted Sept. 25.

The letter by three Senate Democrats

On May 4, 2018, Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Bob Menendez of New Jersey wrote a letter to Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko.

The letter urges Ukraine to cooperate with the then-ongoing special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller, and asked if Trump officials were trying to impede any Mueller-related investigations in Ukraine. The letter is available publicly for anyone to read.

"We are writing to express great concern about reports that your office has taken steps to impede cooperation with the investigation of United States Special Counsel Robert Mueller," stated the letter. "As strong advocates for a robust and close relationship with Ukraine, we believe that our cooperation should extend to such legal matters, regardless of politics."

The letter goes on to reference a May 2 New York Times article. It reported that Ukraine stopped four investigations that may have assisted the Mueller special counsel probe amid fears that investigations would jeopardize U.S. financial and military aid to Ukraine. 

In response to Trump’s press conference, the senators wrote in a press release that their letter "in no way calls for the conditioning of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine."

Trump said the letter "implied that their support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine was at stake." He wants voters to come to a conclusion ⁠— although it isn’t stated in the letter ⁠— that the senators were hinting they would cut off support. But a literal reading of the letter does not support that conclusion. The senators are not stating any threats to cut off aid but instead want Ukraine to cooperate with the Mueller probe.

On Sept. 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee, which includes Leahy and Durbin, voted for $448 million for Ukraine, an increase compared to fiscal years 2019 and 2018. The funding will ultimately go to the full Senate.