As the House impeachment hearings move forward, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., argued that Ukraine tried to undermine Donald Trump in the 2016 election, so Trump had good reason to be wary of Ukraine and delay nearly $400 million in military aid.
There’s no question that some Ukraine officials publicly objected to comments then-candidate Trump made about Russia annexing Crimea, about 10,000 square miles of what had been Ukrainian territory. Trump cast the Russian land grab essentially as a done deal.
But Kennedy said the Ukrainian response went beyond a few officials. He said the Ukrainian anti-Trump effort came from the very top.
"Russia was very aggressive, and they're much more sophisticated," Kennedy told NBC’s "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd Dec. 1. "But the fact that Russia was so aggressive does not exclude the fact that (former) President Poroshenko actively worked for Secretary Clinton."
Todd pushed back, noting the only person pushing that theory is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Wait a minute, Senator Kennedy, you now have the president of Ukraine saying he actively worked for the Democratic nominee for president," Todd said. "I mean, now come on."
Kennedy invited Todd to read news reports, especially articles from The Economist magazine.
"Do you believe The Economist magazine is a reputable journal?" Kennedy said. "It's been around, I think, since 1843."
Kennedy’s office sent us a list of eight articles to support Kennedy’s claim.
None of them back him up.
Given Kennedy’s focus on the work of The Economist, it’s noteworthy that little in The Economist’s coverage matches Kennedy’s words.
An Oct. 12 article about the U.S.-Ukraine relationship and corruption in Ukraine said, "President (Poroshenko), who had favoured Hillary Clinton in the American elections of 2016, was keen to patch things up with Mr. Trump."
The rest of the article does the Republicans no favors, laying out the political work of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort in Ukraine, and corruption under the previous president.
"We are a bit puzzled by Sen. Kennedy citing us to the effect that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 elections," the Economist’s U.S. editor John Prideaux told us.
Prideaux said Poroshenko and others trusted Clinton to be tougher on Russia than Trump. In the campaign, Trump often talked about building closer ties to Russia, and warned at rallies that undoing Russia’s hold on Crimea could trigger World War III.
"Mr. Poroshenko did not make his feelings secret in Ukraine," Prideaux said. "But nor did he direct any government agencies to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, which is what Mr. Putin did."
Kennedy mentioned The Economist three times in his interview, but he also listed other news organizations.
"It's been well documented in the Financial Times, in Politico, in The Economist, in the Washington Examiner, even on CBS, that the prime minister of Ukraine, the interior minister, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, the head of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption League, all meddled in the election on social media and otherwise," he said.
None of those stories put Poroshenko at the heart of a plan to interfere in the U.S. election.
They do paint a picture of leaders fearful of Russia and of Trump’s comments that took a more conciliatory stance on Russian aggression.
The Financial Times focused on Ukrainian lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko, who revealed over $12 million in secret payments to Manafort from Ukraine’s pro-Russia party. The Mueller special counsel investigation did not cite those records, but Manafort is now in prison for hiding his foreign income.
Leshchenko told the Financial Times that in addition to exposing corruption, it was important to show that Trump was a "pro-Russian candidate who can break the geopolitical balance in the world.’"
But Financial Times editor Edward Luce said there was no overlap between Kennedy’s sweeping claims and the newspaper’s coverage.
"I’ve been racking my brain, as have my colleagues, as to which Financial Times reporting Senator Kennedy’s referring to," Luce said Dec. 2 on MSNBC.
In January 2017, Politico covered some of the same ground, but focused more on the work of a Democratic political contractor who tried to dig up dirt on Trump and his advisers. Republicans frequently mention that article. We vetted it and found that the GOP has used its findings selectively.
The article specifically said there was little evidence of a top-down effort in Ukraine.
The Washington Examiner published many opinion and analysis pieces that put Ukrainians’ actions in a dark light, but its straight reporting pieces tracked with the accounts in other publications.
Kennedy’s office also cited Daily Beast and New York Times reports of a 2018 court ruling that the disclosure of payments to Manafort represented "meddling" in the American election. But that ignores that the ruling was later overturned.
Kennedy said that former Ukraine President Poroshenko actively worked on behalf of Clinton. The publications he cited don’t back that up, nor does any of the other available evidence.
Poroshenko, and many other Ukrainian leaders, opposed Trump’s policies on Russia and its annexation of Crimea, and preferred Clinton’s tougher stance toward their giant neighbor to the east. They were openly critical of Trump.
No article cast Poroshenko as a key player in those responses, nor do three of the news organizations he cited see those responses as election meddling.
We rate this claim False.