Just months before Joe Biden forced his firing, Ukraine's chief prosecutor was told by U.S. State Department officials that they were "impressed" with his anti-corruption plan and fully supportive of his work, according to newly released memos that cast doubt on a key Democrat impeachment narrative.
During former President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial two years ago, House Democrats alleged that Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was fired in March 2016 because State officials were widely displeased with his anti-corruption efforts and not because Shokin's office was investigating the Ukrainian gas firm that had given then-Vice President Biden's son Hunter a lucrative job.
But the memos obtained by Just the News and the Southeastern Legal Foundation under a Freedom of Information Act request show senior State Department officials — including then-Secretary of State John Kerry — were sending the opposite message to Shokin the summer before his firing.
"We have been impressed with the ambitious reform and anti-corruption agenda of your government," then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland personally wrote Shokin in an official letter dated June 9, 2015 that was delivered to the prosecutor two days later by then-U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.
Nuland, now President Biden's undersecretary of state, wrote that "Secretary Kerry asked me to reply on his behalf" to let Shokin know he enjoyed the full support of the United States as he set out to fight endemic corruption in the former Soviet republic.
"The ongoing reform of your office, law enforcement, and the judiciary will enable you to investigate and prosecute corruption and other crimes in an effective, fair, and transparent manner," Nuland added. "The United States fully supports your government's efforts to fight corruption and other crimes in an effective, fair and transparent manner."
The letter stands out, according to Republican congressional investigators and Trump's former impeachment defense lawyers, because it was sent just six months before Joe Biden began his pressure campaign to oust Shokin in December 2015 and appears to conflict with testimony given to Congress.
They also told Just the News they have no record the memo was produced to Trump's impeachment defense team or to a Senate investigation that concluded the Bidens' business dealings in Ukraine created a conflict of interest that undercut U.S. anti-corruption efforts.
"We did not receive this. We should have received it. President Trump's defense attorneys also should have received it," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who led a detailed investigation in 2020 into Hunter and Joe Biden's business affairs, told the Just the News television show on Real America's Voice on Monday night.
"This just underscores how congressional oversight has really diminished over the years mainly because we don't have enforcement powers," he added. "Administration officials realize this bureaucrats realize this so they just thumbed their nose at congressional investigators that they run off the clock."
Nuland's memo was sent about six months before The New York Times in December 2015 reported that Hunter Biden's role as a board member and consultant to Burisma Holdings "undermined" U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine because Shokin's office had an ongoing corruption investigation into that Ukraine gas company.
The story broke just before Vice President Biden visited Ukraine as President Barack Obama's handpicked designee to oversee U.S.-Ukraine policy, and it caused consternation both for the Biden family and State Department officials, according to emails obtained by Just the News last year.
Aides to both Hunter Biden and the State Department each prepared talking points to counter the Times article.
That same month, according to U.S. and Ukraine officials, Joe Biden began a pressure campaign to remove Shokin as chief prosecutor.
The then-vice president eventually succeeded in getting Shokin fired in March 2016 after the then-vice president personally threatened Ukraine's then-president Petro Poroshenko he would withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees if the prosecutor wasn't removed.
A series of columns by this reporter in The Hill newspaper in spring 2019 exposed Biden's threat and revealed some U.S. officials feared it had created the appearance of a conflict of interest. Trump subsequently asked Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in summer 2019 to investigate whether anything untoward occurred in Shokin's firing.
Democrats subsequently launched impeachment proceedings against Trump, arguing his request to Zelensky was an abuse of power because it targeted Biden, a potential 2020 election opponent. Trump defended the request as perfectly normal.
During the House impeachment proceedings in fall 2019 and the Senate trial in January 2020 that led to Trump's acquittal, House Democrats repeatedly argued Trump had no basis to request an investigation and that Biden's effort to fire Shokin was legitimate because U.S. officials and the whole of U.S. government believed Shokin was either corrupt or ineffective fighting corruption.
"His reputation is one of a prosecutor general who was protecting certain interests rather than prosecuting them," former State official Kurt Volker told impeachment prosecutors during his testimony when asked about Shokin.
Nuland, in 2020 testimony to the Senate, claimed she and other State officials were frustrated by summer 2015 that Shokin wasn't doing enough to fight corruption, making no mention of her June 2015 missive that actually praised Shokin.
"So the initial expectation, when we began talking about the third loan guarantee, which I believe was in the summer of 2015, was that Prosecutor General Shokin make more progress than we had seen to clean up corruption inside the Prosecutor General's Office itself," she testified.
By December 2015, when Biden was heading to Ukraine for his visit, U.S. officials who were part of an interagency task force had decided Shokin must go, Nuland testified.
"So by the time we get to December 2015, we've concluded that the PGO is not going to get cleaned up under Shokin and that there needs to be — and to encourage Poroshenko to demonstrate his commitment by replacing Shokin," she explained.
Nuland's testimony of widespread frustration with Shokin, however, is undercut by another State Department document obtained by Just the News. It shows that in October 2015 a U.S. multiagency task task force on Ukraine had concluded Ukraine had made good progress in fighting corruption and deserved the loan guarantee.
"The IPC concluded that (1) Ukraine has made sufficient progress on its reform agenda to justify a third guarantee and (2) Ukraine has an economic need for the guarantee and it is in our strategic interest to provide one. As such, the IPC recommends moving forward with a third loan guarantee for Ukraine in the near‐term," an Oct. 1, 2015 email from the task force stated.
State officials have repeatedly declined to comment on multiple occasions dating to 2020 about Nuland's memo or to explain why State officials had praised Shokin shortly before seeking his dismissal. "Thanks for reaching out," the department's press office responded to Just the News on one occasion. "However, we will decline comment."
Sen. Johnson said the Nuland letter and the task force email call into the question the testimony that State Department witnesses gave during impeachment and the subsequent Senate investigation Johnson conducted.
"I know we didn't get a straight story. I knew that at the time," he said in an interview. "But we couldn't prove it. I often got criticized, well, why don't you bring these people in before your committee and put them under oath and start asking them,questions. What do you do when you don't have the documents? You don't even know what questions to ask? And as they say, you know, they drag their feet. We didn't get the documents, obviously."
Defense lawyers for Trump also raised concerns Monday they weren't told about the Nuland memo before his trial, saying it should have been produced as exculpatory material under the legal doctrine known as the Brady rule.
"Withholding exculpatory material during an impeachment trial violates the spirit if not the letter of the Brady decision," said famed Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, who was a defense team member for Trump's first impeachment. "It also denies the American people the right to evaluate all the evidence."
Nuland's letter to Shokin supports part of the story Shokin told to a court and in series of interviews in 2019 and 2020.
Shokin told this reporter in 2019 and 2020 that State Department officials gave no inkling to him that he was doing a bad job and in fact had praised him in the summer of 2015. He said he suddenly was whipsawed in September 2015 when Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador, gave a speech in Odessa criticizing his office for not pursuing the corruption case against Burisma owner Mykola Zlochevsky.
Shokin said his team was, in fact, investigating Burisma at the time and took several steps publicly to demonstrate that, including fighting an effort by Zlochevsky to unfreeze assets that had been seized by Ukrainian officials.
He said the U.S. officials began pressuring his boss, Poroshenko, to fire the prosecutor after the New York Times story surfaced about Hunter Biden in December 2015. Shokin said U.S. officials never offered any proof to Poroshenko that he committed any wrongdoing.
In a court declaration filed in 2019 in an unrelated case involving the oligarch Dmitri Firtash, Shokin declared he believed he was fired for pursuing Burisma because it angered the Biden family.
"The truth is that I was forced out because I was leading a wide-ranging corruption probe into Burisma Holdings, a natural gas firm active in Ukraine, and Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, was a member of the Board of Directors," Shokin said in the affidavit.
"On several occasions President Poroshenko asked me to have a look at the case against Burisma and consider the possibility of winding down the investigative actions in respect of this company but I refused to close this investigation," Shokin added.
State officials and the Bidens have repeatedly denied Shokin's firing had anything to do with Burisma, but they offered only vague explanations for what specifically justified such action.
Nuland testified officials were concerned more corruption cases weren't being brought and that civil society activists in Ukraine were upset charges weren't filed against government officials who had killed protesters during the Maidan revolution of 2014.
She also mentioned concerns that a regional prosecutor in Shokin's office had been found with diamonds at his home, saying the episode involved "obvious corruption somewhere down the line" though no evidence ever emerged that Shokin himself was involved.
But when asked who came up with the idea to fire Shokin and tie his termination to the loan guarantee, the official who oversaw Ukraine policy could not give a specific answer. "Frankly, I don't remember," Nuland testified.
Likewise, the man who delivered the Nuland note of praise to Shokin on June 11, 2015, Ambassador Pyatt, made no mention of the memo in his 2020 Senate testimony and suggested the decision to seek Shokin's firing was driven by a "layered process" involving an interagency task force.
"I don't actually recall the exact date or even the exact month," Pyatt explained. "What I can tell you is that there was a gradual evolution in the thinking of the interagency community about these issues."
But Pyatt did offer one tantalizing observation, saying for a period of time U.S. officials did not intend to fire Shokin.
"What I will tell you is at the beginning, it was not our expectation that Shokin's removal would be necessary to achieve our policy goals," he said.
Whatever the case, the compact story of Shokin's firing that House Democrats offered at Trump's impeachment trial has gotten more complicated with the belated revelation that U.S. officials were sending praise to Shokin and offering their assistance shortly before Joe Biden intervened.
"The challenges you face are difficult but not insurmountable," Nuland wrote in her June 2015 letter. "You have an historic opportunity to address the injustices of the past by vigorously investigating and prosecuting corruption cases and recovering assets stolen from the Ukrainian people."
Just a few months later that historic opportunity — which included an ongoing probe of Burisma, where Hunter Biden was working — was stripped from Shokin's hands under pressure from Joe Biden.