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Fact check: Trump falsely claims Democrats' letter made threat to Ukraine

CNN logo CNN 9/26/2019 By Daniel Dale

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Under fire for asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, President Donald Trump argued at a Wednesday press conference that Democratic senators were the actual guilty parties.

Trump spoke of a letter that three Democratic senators wrote in 2018 to Ukraine's prosecutor general, claiming, "In the letter they implied that their support for US 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?"

He accused Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of having "literally threatened" Zelensky during a recent trip to Ukraine, alleging that Murphy said "that if he doesn't do things right they won't have Democratic support in Congress."

Later in the press conference, Trump said: "I just told you about senators that threatened him with votes and no money coming into Ukraine if they do things. That's really what people are trying to say that I did. But the only difference is I didn't do it...There was no quid pro quo. But there was with Biden and there was with these senators. And they threatened -- they said, 'You do this, you do that. We're not going to give you votes.' That's the real deal."

We fact checked Trump's claims about Biden and Ukraine here. This time, let's start with the letter.

A request, not a threat

Facts First: The 2018 letter from Sens. Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin and Bob Menendez did not include any threat at all, about US assistance to Ukraine or anything else; it did not even mention US assistance.

Rather, it expressed concern about a New York Times article that said Ukraine had -- with the aim of avoiding Trump's anger -- stopped cooperating with the Robert Mueller investigation and frozen investigations into the Ukraine-related activities of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman.

Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani are posing for a picture © Getty Images It urged Ukraine to "reverse course" if the Times story was accurate.

Manafort, a longtime lobbyist, had worked as an adviser to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, receiving millions of dollars for his work. He was subsequently convicted of multiple financial crimes related to payments he received from Ukraine, which he laundered to avoid paying taxes.

It is difficult to conclusively fact check Trump's claim that the Democrats' letter "implied" that assistance to Ukraine was at stake; different people read between the lines differently. But the plain language of the senators' letter does not appear to even hint at withdrawing aid to Ukraine, and the senators say they were not doing so.

"The Senators' letter was written in response to a New York Times report that the Ukrainian Prosecutor General was considering not cooperating with the Mueller Probe out of concern that President Trump would cut off aid as punishment. The Senators' letter in no way calls for the conditioning of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine," the senators said in a joint statement on Wednesday.

The letter was written while Petro Poroshenko was president of Ukraine. It said the senators were "disappointed" that "some in Kiev" appeared to have cast aside principles of their shared relationship like "respect for the rule of law and accountable democratic institutions" in an attempt to "avoid the ire of President Trump."

"If these reports are true, we strongly encourage you to reverse course and halt any efforts to impede cooperation with this important investigation," the letter said.

Slideshow by Reuters

The letter concluded with three questions to Ukraine's prosecutor general. It asked whether his office had indeed taken steps to stop cooperating with Mueller, whether anyone acting for the Trump administration had asked Ukraine to do so, and whether the Mueller probe had been raised during previous bilateral meetings between the two countries.

Urging an investigation?

Trump was not the only prominent Republican to wrongly describe the letter. In a tweet earlier on Wednesday, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said, "In 2018, Democrat Senators wrote a letter to Ukraine, urging them to investigate @realDonaldTrump."

On Thursday morning, Trump retweeted a tweet from his son Donald Trump Jr. that amplified another Twitter user's claim that the Democrats' letter had asked Ukraine to "investigate Trump."

Facts First: The letter did not call for any investigating of Trump. Again, the senators urged the prosecutor not to stop existing investigations and not to stop cooperating with Mueller because they were worried about Trump's reaction, and they asked if the Trump administration had encouraged Ukraine to stop cooperating.

The claim about Murphy

We don't know exactly what Murphy said to Zelensky during their meeting three weeks ago, which Murphy said was attended by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, so we can't call Trump's claim true or false.

Murphy said on Twitter that his comments to Zelensky had been unobjectionable.

"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%," he said.

Murphy also said in a written statement that he had also told Zelensky "that his government should communicate with the State Department, not the president's campaign."

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