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The fired Ukrainian prosecutor is not a reliable narrator

Fox News presented a rare interview this weekend with the man at the center of Republicans’ attempts to claim that President Biden did something wrong regarding Ukraine when he was vice president: former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin.

The hyped interview with Shokin — Fox spent hours hours covering it, and one House Republican says it should be “the headline in every news outlet in America” — again demonstrated that Shokin is not a particularly reliable narrator.

Shokin is the man whom Biden, whose portfolio as vice president included Ukraine, helped oust in 2016. Biden and Western allies alleged that Shokin was turning a blind eye to corruption and wanted him out. Republicans have spent years suggesting that Biden’s motives were actually the opposite — that this was an effort to insulate Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm that his son Hunter Biden worked for, from an investigation by Shokin.

The evidence for that claim remains meager, years after then-President Donald Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, first pushed it in 2019. There is little to suggest that Shokin was actively investigating Burisma at the time, and even prominent Republicans had raised significant concerns about how his office was operating.

Perhaps the most well-trafficked quote from Shokin’s interview this weekend involves the threat that Biden conveyed in seeking Shokin’s dismissal. Biden said two years later that he had threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine unless Shokin was removed.

To hear Shokin tell it, regardless of Biden’s motives, this threat in and of itself was corrupt.

“The fact that Joe Biden gave away $1 billion in U.S. money in exchange for my dismissal, my firing, isn’t that alone a case of corruption?” Shokin said through an interpreter.

No, it’s not. U.S. foreign aid is often conditioned on countries taking official actions that the U.S. government regards as important. That’s especially the case, as it was in Ukraine, with rooting out corruption.

Indeed, this was precisely the defense that then-acting Trump White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney offered back in 2019 regarding Trump’s having sought to use foreign aid for leverage with Ukraine.

“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said. “We were holding money at the same time for — what was it? The Northern Triangle countries. We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries so that they would change their policies on immigration.”

Mulvaney was right. But the issue with Trump was whether he was leveraging Ukraine for personal gain — and there was more evidence that this was true of him than of Biden. Trump wanted Ukraine to announce it was investigating Hunter Biden at a time when Joe Biden was Trump’s likeliest 2020 election opponent. Against that backdrop, Mulvaney’s seeming confirmation that this was a quid pro quo was damaging. (Mulvaney later backed off his apparent confirmation of the quid pro quo.)

Fox News host Brian Kilmeade, who interviewed Shokin this weekend, declined to push back on his misstatement about how foreign aid works — even though Kilmeade once offered a defense similar to Mulvaney’s.

Kilmeade said after Mulvaney’s comments in 2019: “Saying you’ve got to show to me that [the aid is] not going to go into a rabbit hole, or a sinkhole, and you have a history of corruption, show me that’s not corrupt — that’s normal.”

Also in this weekend’s interview, Shokin sought to downplay concerns about his own softness on corruption.

“This is how it was: There were no complaints whatsoever, no problems with how I was performing at my job,” Shokin said. “But because pressure was repeatedly put on President [Petro] Poroshenko, that is what ended up in him firing me.”

Kilmeade, to his credit, later referenced American newspaper reports alleging Shokin was enmeshed in a culture of corruption in Ukraine.

Shokin responded: “I would appreciate if any of these highly respectable publications could come up with a single instance, or a single example of my personal corruption or any offense whatsoever, allegedly committed by me.”

Kilmeade didn’t delve deeply into the subject, but there were in fact plenty of allegations and “complaints” about Shokin’s tenure — and not just from the United States or other Western countries. Shokin reportedly had not prosecuted any members of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, which was rife with corruption, nor did he aggressively seek punishments after the deaths of more than 100 people during protests against Yanukovych’s regime. Within months of his appointment, many reform-minded members of Ukraine’s parliament began seeking his ouster.

Elsewhere in his interview, Kilmeade asked Shokin whether he was a “threat” to Burisma, which Shokin agreed he was.

The claim was centered on recent testimony and public comments by former Hunter Biden business partner Devon Archer. But Archer qualified the idea that Shokin was a “threat” by saying that “everyone in government is always a threat.” He has also said, including under oath, that he was told Burisma’s allies in Washington didn’t want Shokin fired.

“No, we were told that it was bad, and we don’t want a new prosecutor, and Shokin was taken care of,” Archer recently told former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Shokin also repeated his previous claim that he was ousted because he was investigating Burisma — one of the few data points Republicans use to ostensibly legitimize their assertions about Biden.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler offered another fact check of this claim last month, noting that there remains little behind it, and that Republicans have mischaracterized the key timeline:

Vitaliy Kasko, a Shokin deputy, told Bloomberg News in 2019 that he had pushed Shokin without success throughout 2015 to pursue the pending [Burisma founder Mykola] Zlochevsky case. But coincidentally, as Biden and Poroshenko hammered out a deal, it appeared as if the prosecutor general’s office was finally acting against Zlochevsky. News reports suggested certain assets — personal property attributed to Zlochevsky but legally owned by his family, including a mansion, a luxury car and plots of land — had been seized in February 2016.
But working with our colleagues in Ukraine, The Fact Checker determined this was largely a technical reinstatement of a court order that had been in place for at least a year. The case — which began in 2014 — was transferred in December 2015 away from Shokin’s oversight to another prosecutorial entity, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), which is funded with U.S. and European aid and received technical support from the FBI. Zlochevsky’s lawyers took advantage of the gap in oversight to win court approval to cancel the seizure, but after a public outcry, the order to seize assets was reinstated on Feb. 4. So what had appeared to be new action was in fact the status quo.
Biden’s efforts to oust the prosecutor only plausibly benefited Zlochevsky if Shokin had moved aggressively against Zlochevsky. But documents and interviews instead show Shokin had failed to act — which was a key reason the international community, led by the United States, sought his removal in the first place.

None of this was broached in depth with Shokin, the man who seemingly could have shed light on the evidence that calls his claims into question.

Yet again, the claim that he was actually investigating Burisma was thrown out there into the conservative-media ether for people to draw their own conclusions about President Biden’s actions. Shokin even lent credence to the idea that Hunter Biden and Joe Biden engaged in bribes, despite saying, “I do not want to deal in unproven facts,” and offering no substantiation. (There remains no firm evidence of any bribes, months after Republicans first raised this suggestion.)

Yet again, the fact that this is coming from someone of dubious credibility wasn’t readily apparent in Fox’s handling of the interview.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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