Facing potential impeachment for pressuring Ukraine to help him secure re-election next year, President Donald Trump has pivoted to a new defense, saying his efforts were apolitical and solely motivated by his good-faith desire to root out “corruption.”
But Trump’s latest defense doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. New documents unearthed from the impeachment inquiry, along with many of Trump’s past comments, undermine his claim that his efforts to spur a Ukrainian investigation into Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden was “not about politics.”
Trump mounted this new “anti-corruption” defense in a series of tweets, campaign commercials and at an impromptu gaggle with reporters Friday morning on the White House lawn, where he repeated the word “corruption” 29 times in 23 minutes.
“Let me tell you, I’m only interested in corruption,” Trump said. “I don’t care about politics. I don’t care about Biden’s politics…. I don’t care about politics. But I do care about corruption, and this whole thing is about corruption… This is about corruption, and this is not about politics.”
Facts First: Even though Trump said, “this doesn’t pertain to anything but corruption,” the facts tell another story. Trump showed little interest in fighting corruption before Biden launched his campaign, and official government records suggest Trump was motivated by politics.
To be clear, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son regarding their activities in Ukraine. Here are six key pieces of context about Trump and his fight against “corruption.”
- Government records undermine Trump’s claims. Trump never mentioned the word “corruption” in his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to the White House transcript. Congressional Democrats released a series of text messages from State Department officials describing the fallout from Trump’s decision to block military aid to Ukraine. The discussion is about the Biden issue, not about a broad effort to fight corruption.
- Trump hasn’t publicly raised these issues before with Ukraine. Trump met twice in 2017 with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and never mentioned anything about corruption during their two public appearances. Official White House readouts of their private meetings did mention US support for Ukraine getting tough on corruption. But with Trump, there is often a big difference between a diplomatic readout and what he actually says.
- The anti-corruption campaign is only focused on Biden. So far, Trump’s effort to end foreign corruption is only focused on one family: the Bidens. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney pointed out that this is no coincidence, noting that “it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.” Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine began around the time Biden launched his campaign and Zelensky was elected, according to a whistleblower complaint.
- Trump defended Manafort, who made millions from Ukraine. Trump has defended and expressed sympathy for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who spent a decade working for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. After Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, the new government accused him of looting billions of dollars from Ukrainian coffers. Manafort is currently in prison for tax fraud after hiding his Ukraine income in offshore accounts.
- The State Department hasn’t boosted anti-corruption spending. Within the State Department, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs is tasked with fighting international corruption. Trump now says he is ramping up the fight against foreign corruption, but his State Department is trying to reduce funding for these efforts. They spent $5 million in 2018 but only requested $3 million for 2019 and again for 2020.
- Trump has praised others mired by corruption scandals. It’s difficult to take Trump’s comments about Biden at face value because he has cozied up to other leaders who are facing real allegations of corruption. Trump has routinely praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been linked to a clandestine network of corruption exposed in the Panama Papers. Trump has also closely aligned with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who could soon be indicted for bribery and breach of trust stemming from multiple corruption probes.
CNN’s Olanma Mang and Giulia McDonnell contributed reporting.