AP FACT CHECK: GOP presses empty Ukraine meddling theory

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Republicans pressed the discredited theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election in defending President Donald Trump in Wednesday’s impeachment hearings.

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A look at some of the remarks in the House Intelligence Committee proceeding:

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REP. DEVIN NUNES, top Republican on the panel: “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.”

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. And 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 Hillary Clinton’s, as the conspiracy theorists and Trump have it.

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REP. ADAM SCHIFF, committee chairman, responding to Nunes’ claim that the Democrat knows the identity of the whistleblower and his staff has spoken with that official: “That’s a false statement. I do not know the identity of the whistleblower.”

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.

In fact, 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.

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REP. JIM JORDAN, Ohio Republican, on why the hold on military aid to Ukraine doesn’t amount to a quid pro quo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr “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.”

THE FACTS: It’s true that the aid was released without Trump’s demand for a Ukrainian probe of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter 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.

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NUNES: “The whistleblower was acknowledged to have a bias against President Trump.”

THE FACTS: That may or may not be so. Whatever the whistleblower’s political beliefs, though, that official’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 Biden and his son, as a “favor.”

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NUNES, on the Trump administration’s military aid to Ukraine: “This was a very strong message that Americans are willing to provide more than blankets. This was the Obama administration’s approach.”

THE FACTS: He’s exaggerating.

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.

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WHITE HOUSE: “Don't rely on second, third, and fourth-hand accounts. Read the transcript for yourself.” — tweet Wednesday.

NUNES: “Officials' alarm at the president's actions was typically based on second-hand, third-hand, and even fourth-hand rumors and innuendo.”

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.

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 EU, about investigations into Democrat Joe Biden one day after his call with Zelenskiy — was based on what he learned from staff.

But key elements of his account have been subsequently confirmed by Sondland, including in an addendum Sondland filed last week. In addition, text messages of Taylor’s discussions with Sondland and Kurt Volker, another envoy, lay out the contours of a quid pro quo.

Both Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a top Trump national security adviser who listened in on Trump’s call, are scheduled to testify next week.

Meanwhile, the White House has sought 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.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — A look at the veracity of claims by political figures