AP FACT CHECK: Impeachment hearings and that Trump tweet
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said he was just exercising his right to free speech. Democrats said he was intimidating a witness.
Whichever is the case, Trump’s Twitter assault on an ex-ambassador’s record came with a heavy dose of distortion.
He portrayed her, in a few choice words, as a wrecking ball in every country where she served U.S. interests in a long diplomatic career that has spanned danger zones and emerging democracies.
The tweet jolted impeachment hearings where Marie Yovanovitch was already testifying to the personal threat she has been feeling from the president.
Over two days, the hearings by the House Intelligence Committee featured a variety of statements at odds with the known facts.
Each day, the committee’s top Republican wrapped into his opening statement the provocative claim that Democrats went on a hunt for naked pictures of the president in a flailing attempt to come up with dirt on him. The lawmaker didn’t tell the story straight.
A look at some of the claims from the first round of public hearings and the larger political arena from the week:
TRUMP: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” – tweet Friday.
THE FACTS: The notion that countries “turned bad” when Yovanovitch went to them has no credence.
Yovanovitch served as a low-level diplomat in Somalia in her first foreign tour after joining the foreign service in her 20s. She had nothing to do with the 1984 famine that preceded her arrival in Somalia and contributed to that country’s unraveling, nor anything to do with the government’s collapse and the onset of anarchy after she left.
“I don’t think I have such powers,” she said pointedly when asked about Trump’s tweet during Friday’s hearing.
Of the seven countries where Yovanovitch served, five were designated hardship posts. In that sense, they were “bad” before she got there.
Mogadishu, Somalia, was her first tour after she joined the foreign service in 1986. She was a general-services officer with little clout, before she moved to other countries in increasingly senior positions.
The Somali civil war began in earnest in 1988, leading to a collapse in law and order by 1990, the overthrow of the government in 1991 and eventually to the ill-starred, U.S.-led U.N. peacekeeping intervention in 1992.
By then, she had moved on. After several years in Somalia, she went to Uzbekistan to help open the post-Soviet-era U.S. Embassy in Tashkent.
After a series of promotions from both Republican and Democratic administrations, Yovanovitch worked from 2001 to 2004 as the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Ukraine before being named ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, then to Armenia. She returned to Ukraine after President Barack Obama nominated her to be U.S. ambassador in 2016.
TRUMP: “Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.” – tweet Friday.
THE FACTS: His description of appointment powers is problematic – ambassadors must be confirmed by the Senate. But he’s correct that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy criticized Yovanovitch in his July 25 phone call with Trump.
He did so after Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news.”
“It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%,” said the eager-to-please Zelenskiy, according to the rough White House transcript.
Trump followed up by saying, “Well, she’s going to go through some things.”
Yovanovitch testified that she took those remarks, made two months after she had left the post, as a threat against her by the president.
On Trump’s other point, presidents do not have the “absolute right” to appoint ambassadors. The Senate must approve them. But presidents can fire them at will.
REP. DEVIN NUNES, R-Calif.: “When you find yourself on the phone like the Democrats did with Russian pranksters offering you nude pictures of Trump and after you ordered your staff to follow up and get the photos, as the Democrats also did, then it might be time to ask yourself if you’ve gone out too far on a limb.” – from opening statement Friday.
NUNES on Democrats: “In the blink of an eye, we’re asked to simply … forget about them trying to obtain nude pictures of Trump from Russian pranksters who pretended to be Ukrainian officials. – from opening statement Wednesday.
THE FACTS: His assertion that Democrats were hunting down nude photos of Trump is misleading.
Nunes’ oft-made claim refers to a 2017 phone call that Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., took from Russian pranksters who claimed to be a member of Ukraine’s parliament. The pranksters said they had “compromising materials” on Trump, including “pictures of naked Trump” from his 2013 visit to Moscow, along with information and recordings on questionable conversations.
While Schiff told the pranksters the information was helpful, his questions focused on the audio recordings and the nature of the meetings, not the prospect of nude photos. Schiff made clear he would be referring the matter to the FBI to investigate.
“I’ll be in touch with the FBI about this,” said Schiff, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “We would welcome a chance to get copies of those recordings, so we will try to work with the FBI to figure out, along with your staff, how we can obtain copies.”
His office later told The Atlantic magazine it had alerted U.S. law enforcement both before and after the call and had conveyed the view the offer was probably bogus.
WHITE HOUSE: “Don’t rely on second, third, and fourth-hand accounts. Read the transcript for yourself.” – tweet Wednesday.
NUNES: “They saw us sit through hours of hearsay testimony about conversations that two diplomats, who’d never spoken to the President, heard second-hand, third-hand, and fourth-hand from other people–in other words, rumors. The problem of trying to overthrow a president based on this type of evidence is obvious.” – hearing Friday.
STEPHANIE GRISHAM, White House press secretary: “Dems star witnesses can’t provide any first hand knowledge.” – tweet Wednesday.
THE FACTS: The White House and GOP allies are incorrect in suggesting the impeachment inquiry is based purely on secondhand and thirdhand information. Many allegations have been corroborated by witnesses with firsthand knowledge, some of whom are scheduled to testify in the coming week.
It is true that William Taylor, the highest-ranking U.S. official in Ukraine, who testified Wednesday, was not on the call at the center of the whistleblower complaint and that his account relies in great part on what he learned from other witnesses. Even the most sensational aspect of his testimony – that Trump spoke with Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, about investigations into Democrat Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter one day after Trump’s call with Zelenskiy – was based on what Taylor learned from staff.
But key elements of Taylor’s account have been subsequently confirmed by Sondland, including in an addendum Sondland filed after his closed-door congressional testimony. In addition, text messages of Taylor’s discussions with Sondland and Kurt Volker, another U.S. envoy, lay out the contours of a quid pro quo.
Yovanovitch, who testified Friday, was ousted from her position before Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s leader. But Trump had brought her up during that call in which he called her “bad news” and praised a Ukrainian prosecutor unhappy with her efforts to root out corruption in the country.
Both Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a top Trump national security adviser who listened in on Trump’s call, are scheduled to appear before the House committee this coming week.
The White House has tried to prevent those closer to Trump from appearing before the House committee, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
More broadly, the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s leader does not clear Trump. It is largely in sync with the whistleblower’s complaint and the words of a succession of career civil servants and Trump political appointees brought before Congress.
Together they stitched an account that shows Trump pressing for a political favor from a foreign leader and, as key testimony has it, conditioning military aid on getting what he wanted.
SCHIFF, the committee chairman, responding to Nunes’ claim that the Democrat knows the identity of the whistleblower and that Schiff’s staff has spoken with the whistleblower: “That’s a false statement. I do not know the identity of the whistleblower.” – hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: Nunes is correct about one part of that statement: Schiff’s staff has been in touch with the whistleblower.
Schiff may not know the whistleblower’s identity himself, but someone on his committee staff very well could.
Schiff wrongly stated in September that his committee had not communicated with the whistleblower before that official’s complaint was filed.
Schiff spokesman Patrick Boland said the whistleblower contacted the committee for guidance, speaking to an aide who counseled the official to contact the inspector general and get his own counsel.
NUNES: “The whistleblower was acknowledged to have a bias against President Trump.” – hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: That may or may not be so. Whatever the whistleblower’s political beliefs, though, the whistleblower’s complaint was deemed credible by the inspector general who received it.
Moreover, the July 25 phone conversation described by the whistleblower closely tracked the account later released by the White House.
It was during that call that Trump pressed Zelenskiy to investigate Democrats, along with Joe and Hunter Biden, as a “favor.”
NUNES: “The Democrats cooperated in Ukrainian election meddling. … Officials showed a surprising lack of interest in the indications of Ukrainian election meddling that deeply concerned the president at whose pleasure they serve.” – hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: The theory that Ukrainians interfered in the U.S. election and that Democrats cooperated in that effort is unsubstantiated. If U.S. officials showed a lack of interest in pursuing the matter, it’s because they considered it “fiction,” as one put it.
Trump himself was told by his officials that the theory was “completely debunked” long before the president pressed Ukraine to investigate it anyway, according to Tom Bossert, Trump’s first homeland security adviser. In testimony at the closed-door hearings that preceded Wednesday’s public session, Fiona Hill, former special assistant to Trump on the National Security Council, said it was bogus.
“It is a fiction that the Ukrainian government was launching an effort to upend our election,” Hill testified. “I’m extremely concerned that this is a rabbit hole that we’re all going to go down in between now and the 2020 election, and it will be to all of our detriment.”
Broadly, the theory contends that a hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 was a setup designed to cast blame on Russia but actually cooked up by or with the help of Ukrainians. But the evidence points conclusively to Russia, not Ukraine.
Based on a security firm’s findings that Russian agents had broken into the Democrats’ network and stolen emails, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 members of Russia’s military intelligence agency and concluded that their operation sought to help Trump’s candidacy, not Democrat Hillary Clinton’s, as the conspiracy theorists and Trump have it.
REP. JIM JORDAN, R-Ohio, on why the hold on military aid to Ukraine doesn’t amount to a quid pro quo: “Zelenskiy had to commit to an investigation of the Bidens before the aid got released. And the aid got released, and he didn’t commit to an investigation.” – hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: It’s true that the aid was released without Trump’s demand for a Ukrainian probe of the Bidens being met. But Jordan and other Republicans who made this point ignored a key detail about the failure of the this-for-that deal to be consummated: The administration got caught holding up the aid to Ukraine.
According to the hearing, the aid that Congress had approved months earlier and Trump had frozen was finally freed Sept. 11.
That was days after congressional committees had begun looking into the matter, aware that the assistance had been sidelined and that a whistleblower had a complaint in motion.
The fact that this episode was coming to light also got Zelenskiy off the hook from having to decide between announcing the investigation Trump wanted or defying the U.S. president.
According to testimony to the committee, Zelenskiy was planning to go on CNN to announce the probe – satisfying Trump’s wish to have him commit to one publicly – when the disclosure of the pressure campaign by Trump and his underlings relieved him of that need.
NUNES: “The president approved the supply of weapons to Ukraine, unlike the previous administration, which provided blankets as defense against invading Russians.” – hearing Wednesday.
THE FACTS: He’s exaggerating the disparity in aid given to Ukraine by the Obama and Trump administrations.
While the Obama administration refused to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons in 2014 to fight Russian-backed separatists, it offered a range of other military and security aid – not just “blankets.”
By March 2015, the Obama administration had provided more than $120 million in security aid for Ukraine and promised $75 million worth of equipment, including counter-mortar radars, night vision devices and medical supplies, according to the Defense Department. The U.S. also pledged 230 Humvee vehicles.
The U.S. aid offer came after Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014 annexed Crimea and provided support for separatists in eastern cities near Russia’s border.
Ultimately between 2014 and 2016, the Obama administration committed more than $600 million in security aid to Ukraine.
In the last year of the Obama administration, the U.S. established the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provided U.S. military equipment and training to help defend Ukraine against Russian aggression. From 2016 to 2019, Congress appropriated $850 million for this initiative.
The Trump administration in 2017 agreed to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, later committing to sell $47 million in Javelin anti-tank missiles.
WHITE HOUSE: “President Trump signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, making it easier to identify problems within the VA and improve the quality of service for veterans.” – news release Monday.
TRUMP: “To think I signed the Whistleblower Protection Act!” – tweet Monday.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: “To end an era of heartbreaking abuse and neglect, President Trump also signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to ensure that our veterans receive the highest quality of care in the VA system. And under our administration, we’ve fired more than 8,000 employees for negligent behavior.” – Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery.
THE FACTS: The new law has failed in its core mission of protecting whistleblowers who reported potential harm to veterans, according to a government watchdog.
A report released last month by the VA inspector general found that the accountability office established under the 2017 law did not consistently conduct sound and unbiased investigations and may not have protected identities of whistleblowers reporting wrongdoing.
It said the office had “significant deficiencies,” like poor leadership, shoddy training of investigators and a failure to push out underperforming senior leaders.
Just one senior manager out of the 8,000 employees fired by VA had been removed by an office created to help keep senior-level managers accountable, according to the findings by inspector general Michael Missal.
The VA acknowledged many of the findings and said it was working to make changes.
TRUMP: “We have delivered on our promises and exceeded our expectations by a very wide margin. … We have launched an economic boom the likes of which we have never seen before.” – remarks Tuesday to the Economic Club of New York.
THE FACTS: He hasn’t delivered on all his promises to boost the economy. Growth in the most recent quarter slowed to an annualized 1.9% – far short of the gains of “4%, 5% and even 6%” that Trump said his 2017 tax cuts would make possible.
The longest expansion in U.S. history has been sustained under Trump. That’s generally viewed as a positive for a president seeking reelection, though the gains are not at the levels that Trump promised when seeking office in 2016.
In the late 1990s, growth topped 4% for four straight years, a level it has not reached on an annual basis under Trump. Growth reached 7.2% in 1984. The economy grew 2.9% in 2018 – the same pace it reached in 2015 under Obama – and hasn’t hit historically high growth rates.
It is true that unemployment is near a five-decade low of 3.6%, defying the forecasts of many government economists who anticipated less hiring due to an aging population. But the proportion of Americans with a job was higher in the 1990s, and wages were rising at a faster pace back then, too.
More Americans are now out of the workforce, taking care of children or relatives, or going to school, while others became discouraged about their job prospects and stopped looking. The government doesn’t count people as unemployed unless they are searching for jobs.
— Associated Press writers Matthew Lee, Lynn Berry, Eric Tucker, Josh Boak and Kevin Freking in Washington and Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this report.