New memos undercut Biden-Ukraine narrative Democrats sold during 2019 impeachment scandal

Newly disclosed State Department memos conflict with the narrative Democrats crafted since 2019 impeachment.

Published: August 21, 2023 8:27pm

Updated: August 21, 2023 10:56pm

Just weeks before then-Vice President Joe Biden took the opposite action in late 2015, a task force of State, Treasury and Justice Department officials declared that Ukraine had made adequate progress on anti-corruption reforms and deserved a new $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee, according to government memos that conflict with the narrative Democrats have sustained since the 2019 impeachment scandal.

“Ukraine has made sufficient progress on its reform agenda to justify a third guarantee,” reads an Oct. 1, 2015, memo summarizing the recommendation of the Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) – a task force created to advise the Obama White House on whether Ukraine was cleaning up its endemic corruption and deserved more Western foreign aid.

The recommendation is one of several U.S. government memos gathered by Just the News over the last 36 months from Freedom of Information Act litigation, congressional inquiries and government agency sources that directly conflict with the long-held narrative that Biden was conducting official U.S. policy when he threatened to withhold a $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee to force Ukraine to fire Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, the country’s equivalent of the American attorney general.

At the time the threat was made in December 2015, Shokin’s office was conducting an increasingly aggressive corruption investigation into Burisma Holdings, an energy firm the State Department deemed to have been engaged in bribery and that employed Hunter Biden and paid him millions while his father was vice president.

New details on the impact of that probe have emerged in recent days.

Shokin's pursuit was rattling Burisma, and the firm was putting pressure on Hunter Biden to deal with it, according to recent testimony and interviews with Devon Archer, Hunter Biden's former business partner and fellow Burisma board member.

The memos obtained by Just the News show:

  • Senior State Department officials sent a conflicting message to Shokin before he was fired, inviting his staff to Washington for a January 2016 strategy session and sent him a personal note saying they were “impressed” with his office's work.
  • U.S. officials faced pressure from Burisma emissaries in the United States to make the corruption allegations go away and feared the energy firm had made two bribery payments in Ukraine as part of an effort to get cases settled.
  • A top U.S. official in Kyiv blamed Hunter Biden for undercutting U.S. anticorruption policy in Ukraine through his dealings with Burisma.

During Trump's first impeachment in late 2019, State officials testified that Hunter Biden's acceptance of a job at Burisma at a time when his father was vice president created the appearance of a conflict of interest but did not materially impact U.S. policy in Ukraine.

But in a private, classified email shared with Just the News, one of the top U.S. officials in the Kyiv embassy told then-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch at the end of the Obama administration that Hunter Biden had, in fact, impacted the U.S. anti-corruption agenda in Ukraine.

"The real issue to my mind was that someone in Washington needed to engage VP Biden quietly and say that his son Hunter's presence on the Burisma board undercut the anti-corruption message the VP and we were advancing in Ukraine b/c Ukrainians heard one message from us and then saw another set of behavior with the family association with a known corrupt figure whose company was known for not playing by the rules," embassy official George Kent wrote to Yovanovitch in the Nov. 22, 2016, email marked "confidential."


Joe Biden’s role in pressuring then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in December 2015 to fire Shokin has been a searing controversy since April 2019, when the lead author on this story, as a columnist for The Hill, unearthed a 2018 videotape of the former vice president bragging about his role to a foreign policy think tank.

At the time Shokin was investigating Burisma for corruption, the company was paying Hunter Biden and Archer, $83,333 a month as board members.

“I said, ‘You’re not getting the billion.’ I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money,’” Biden recounted in the speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Well, son of a bitch, he got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”

The disclosure prompted then-President Donald Trump to ask Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate.

Democrats howled and eventually impeached Trump in late 2019. The Senate acquitted the former president. Today, the original column that prompted the controversy is preserved in the official records of Congress.

Evidence would show during impeachment and afterward that Biden’s conversation with Poroshenko occurred during a trip to Kyiv in December 2015. Under withering pressure from U.S. and Western officials, the Ukrainian president eventually buckled and persuaded Shokin to resign a few months later in March 2016. Poroshenko would tell Biden there was no evidence Shokin had done anything wrong but he forced the resignation anyway to appease the president.

“Despite of the fact that we didn’t have any corruption charges, we don’t have any information about him doing something wrong, I especially asked him … No, it was the day before yesterday. I especially asked him to resign,” Poroshenko told Biden in an audio tape call from March 2016 that was eventually released by a Ukrainian lawmaker in 2020.

The narrative from Biden’s defenders and government officials who testified at Trump’s first impeachment was that Biden’s action in withholding the U.S. loan guarantees had nothing to do with his son’s role at Burisma and that officials across the West and inside the U.S. government were clamoring to fire Shokin because he was deemed corrupt.

Kent, for instance, answered "he did" when he was asked during his impeachment testimony whether Biden acted consistent with U.S. policy when he used the loan guarantee as leverage to force Shokin's firing.

"I did nothing wrong,” Biden said during 2019 CNN-New York Times debate. “I carried out the policy of the United States government in rooting out corruption in Ukraine. And that’s what we should be focusing on.”

Multiple lawyers who worked on Trump's impeachment defense as well as some of the GOP House impeachment members told Just the News they did not recall ever seeing the documents unearthed by Just the News and said they would have made a significant difference to the impeachment case.

"This new evidence being uncovered and reported by Just The News is incredibly significant," said former New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin. "It directly undercuts multiple false narratives that were being pushed by Congressional Democrats, some of their key impeachment witnesses, and Democrat allies in the media."

Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who helped lead Trump's legal team during the impeachment, said he did not believe the defense had access to such memos.

"The fact of the matter is none of these documents were handed over to us," he said. "Our legal team never received documents from the House impeachment. So of course, they're not obligated to in the sense of like in a courtroom. But when you have exculpatory documents, you would think that under just a good faith standards of the House of Representatives would have said, 'You know, here's what we've got.'"

Sekulow continued: "But of course, they weren't going to do that. Because as soon as they did that, everyone knew their narrative was false."

Some, but not all, of the memos were turned over in late 2020 to the Senate Homeland Security Committee during its probe of the Biden family finances, but they arrived too late to impact most of the interview the panel did or to make it into the panel's final report, Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson's office said.

In 2020, current Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, then State’s top expert on Ukraine, gave Johnson’s investigators a more specific timetable on when her department determined Shokin had to go, saying the concerns dated to summer of 2015 and involved the failure of Shokin's office to prosecute former members of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

“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 – I'll now refer to that as the PGO – and that he make more progress in mounting big corruption cases, including against Yanukovych cronies, that he make more progress in investigating the hundred dead on the Maidan by snipers during 2013-2014,” she told Senate investigators in the deposition.

“So the first press was to see him make the Prosecutor General's Office, the PGO, clean and effective, so that's what we started pressing in August, September, October.

"You see that pressed in the speech that Ambassador Pyatt gives in Odessa. You see it in my testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October of 2015. ... It was a policy that was coordinated tightly with the Europeans, with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank. But not only did we not see progress, we saw the PGO go backward in this period,” she also said.

Another element of the Democrat-fed, media-driven narrative was that Shokin wasn’t really investigating Burisma and there was no threat to the company.

But key elements of that narrative have now been challenged since Archer told Congress that Burisma hired Hunter Biden in 2014 to gain access to a family “brand,” including his father, that would scare away prosecutors trying to investigate the company for corruption.

“People would be intimidated to mess with them,” Archer testified, describing the value Hunter brought to the company.

In a separate interview with TV host Tucker Carlson, Archer said that at the time Biden forced Shokin’s firing because he was posing a major threat to Burisma by going after the assets of the owner Mykola Zlochevsky.

“He was a threat," Archer said. "He ended up seizing assets of Mykola – a house, some cars, a couple properties. And Mykola actually never went back to Ukraine after Shokin seized all of his assets.”

Archer told Carlson that while pressure was being applied to Hunter Biden, the Burisma board was being told that Shokin was being dealt with and could stay in the job. But Archer added that he now doubts the story being told to the board.

The GOP-led House Oversight and Accountability Committee said Archer’s testimony and other evidence it has gathered shows that by late 2015 Burisma was pressuring Hunter Biden to do something about Shokin, who had stepped up his probe of the energy company after then-U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt gave a speech in September 2015 in Odessa, Ukraine, urging more action against the firm.

"In December 2015, Mykola Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma, and Vadym Pozharski, an executive of Burisma, placed constant pressure on Hunter Biden to get help from D.C. regarding the Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin," the committee stated in a memo in late July.

Government memos obtained by Just the News also directly conflict with the narrative, showing the State Department was actually sending a different message to Shokin, the Ukrainian government and to Joe Biden before a sudden pivot in late November 2015.

For instance, Nuland sent a letter to Shokin in June 2015 on behalf of then-Secretary of State John Kerry congratulating Shokin and suggesting they were “impressed” about the job he was doing on corruption reforms. The letter was so important it was hand-delivered by Pyatt, according to the memos Just the News gathered.

“Secretary Kerry asked me to reply on his behalf to your letter of May 13, 2015, discussing Ukraine 's efforts to address corruption, including through implementation of the new anti-corruption strategy and reform of the Prosecutor General's Office,” Nuland wrote in the June 11, 2015, memo obtained through a FOIA lawsuit.

“We have been impressed with the ambitious reform and anti-corruption agenda of your government,” Nuland continued. “The challenges you face are difficult, but not insurmountable. 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. 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.”

Those upbeat sentiments remained strong heading into fall 2015 inside the IPC task force charged with monitoring Shokin and determining whether Joe Biden should deliver new U.S. aid to Ukraine at the end of the year.

In its September 2015 meeting, the IPC affirmed that Shokin’s reform effort – including the creation of a new independent inspector general watchdog to police prosecutors’ behavior – was advancing enough to warrant the new loan guarantee

“All, thank you for a productive meeting yesterday. Please find a SOC below. It was agreed: 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,” Christina Segal-Knowles, the Obama White House director of International Economic Affairs, wrote to top officials from the NSC, DOJ, Treasury and State who advised the task force.

“As such, the IPC recommends moving forward with a third loan guarantee for Ukraine in the near‐term, noting State/F’s preference to issue the guarantee as late as possible to allow more clarity on the budget context and Embassy Kyiv and Treasury’s assessment that Ukraine needs the guarantee by end‐2015,” she also said.

The task force identified some deliverables to be ironed out in the weeks before the loan guarantee, including strengthening procurement and other policies inside Shokin’s office.

“State (including via consultation with State/INL) and DOJ will explore options to further strengthen the PGO CP and submit a revised proposal (State and DOJ by October 6),” Segal-Knowles wrote.

In addition to urging the billion dollar loan guarantee be approved, the task force memo made no suggestion to fire Shokin or list any failures to pursue corruption.

By early November 2015, the task force had crafted a draft agreement for the loan guarantee. In a document titled “Third U.S. Loan Guarantee: Proposed Conditions Precedent," officials laid out what Shokin’s office had agreed to do and made made no demand or even suggestion that the prosecutor be fired.

“Ukraine shall provide to USAID a copy of the comprehensive regulation, adopted by the Prosecutor General, which ensures the independent operations of the Office of Inspector General (IG) of the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO),” the memo explained. “The regulation shall clearly define the PGO IG’s jurisdiction, powers, and authority, to enable it to perform its functions in a manner that is effective and credible, and that increases the accountability of the PGO to the public. The regulation shall be endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

A month later, Joe Biden appeared to be synced with the task force recommendations.

In a call to Poroshenko on Nov. 5, 2015, Obama’s vice president delivered the message that Ukraine was about to get the massive new loan guarantee, while cheering on more reforms in Shokin’s office and the country’s elections, according to a State Department memo summarizing the phone conversation.

“Vice President Joe Biden spoke today with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about implementation of the Minsk agreements, economic reforms, and anti-corruption initiatives,” the department’s “readout” of the call recounted. “The Vice President congratulated President Poroshenko on the conduct of Ukraine's local elections, which represent another milestone in the country's democratic development.

“Regarding economic reforms, the Vice President reiterated the U.S. willingness to provide a third $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine contingent on continued Ukrainian progress to investigate and prosecute corruption and ensure that Ukraine's tax reform is consistent with its IMF program,” the memo stated.

In the weeks that ensued, State and Justice officials proceeded with their plan laid out in the October memo, even inviting the senior leadership of Shokin’s office to come to Washington in January 2016 for further collaboration.

When those prosecutors arrived in Washington, according to the State Department memos, word leaked out that Biden had in December 2015 changed the U.S. message. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv reported the leak in the Ukrainian press, prompting a new thread among the IPC task force members that once again affirmed that they were “super impressed” with Shokin’s team.

“According to Dzerkalo Tyzhnya news website, ‘the U.S. State Department has made it clear to the Ukrainian authorities that it links the provision of a one billion dollar loan guarantee to Ukraine to the dismissal of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin,” the Kyiv embassy wrote members of the IPC task force.

“Buckle in,” Pyatt wrote in a cryptic response to the leak on Jan. 21, 2016.

Eric Ciarmella, a CIA official assigned to the Obama White House for Ukraine issues who would later emerge as the whistleblower whose allegations prompted Trump’s impeachment, seemed surprised by the leak.

“Yikes. I don’t recall this coming up in our meeting with them on Tuesday, although we did discuss the fact that the PGO IG condition has not yet been met,” Ciarmella wrote the IPC task force members. “I’ve been meaning to write to you about our meeting – we were super impressed with the group, and we had a two-hour discussion of their priorities and the obstacles they face.”

A few days earlier, the Obama White House circulated the latest conditions for the loan guarantee, again signaling the task force was prepared to provide the loan guarantee, though there were still some undelivered promises inside Shokin's office.

“Here’s nearly the latest CP document. We’ve made some very minor tweaks since this version, which I will dig up and send to you tomorrow but wanted to get something to you tonight,” Segal-Knowles wrote State Department official Rachel Goldbrenner on Jan. 15.

The attached document was identical to the conditions memo crafted in November for Biden’s call with Poroshenko. Remarkably, it made no demand for Shokin’s removal from office.

In fact, none of the documents provided to Just the News or to Sen. Johnson’s exhaustive investigation in 2020 show any recommendation by the IPC to withhold the billion dollar loan guarantee or to demand Shokin’s firing. If they exist, they have not been provided to date.

Now, the story of how Joe Biden pivoted in late November 2015 to withhold the loan guarantee and forced Shokin's firing is captured in two sets of emails that chronicle a tumultuous six weeks for the vice president’s office and for Hunter Biden’s relationship with Burisma.

They’ll be divulged in tomorrow’s second installment, including the Joe Biden talking points that provided the first documented mention of seeking Shokin's dismissal. Those talking points, however, were not even shared with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

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