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Why talking to Ukrainian officials disproves the Trump narrative on Biden

Ukraine lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, who has urged the country’s new president to investigate the Biden family. Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky, who has reported from the country for years, returns there to speak with officials and activists about what really happened with Joe and Hunter Biden, U.S. aid and Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Returning now to our main story, the Eastern Country of Ukraine lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

    Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has reported from Ukraine for years. And we sent him back to try to find out what's true and what isn't in the actions of Hunter and Joe Biden.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    How did Ukraine find itself suddenly in the middle of an American impeachment investigation?

    At the heart of the matter are events that took place in 2016, when former Vice President Joe Biden threatened to pull a billion dollars in loan guarantees from the struggling post-Soviet nation if its prosecutor general wasn't fired, echoing demands of other allies and the International Monetary Fund, who wanted Ukraine's judicial system rid of corruption.

    But President Donald Trump alleges that Biden did this in order to stop an investigation into a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma, which his son Hunter served on the board of.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden's statement, because it was disgraceful.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    It all centers on this man, Viktor Shokin, Ukraine's former prosecutor general, a bureaucrat who had spent over 35 years as a state's attorney, first under Soviet rule and then in an independent Ukraine.

    It has emerged as a central narrative in Trump's 2020 reelection campaign.

  • Narrator:

    Joe Biden promised Ukraine a billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son's company.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    And the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has been deeply involved in pushing U.S. officials to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens and another theory that alleges Hillary Clinton's e-mail server and those famous missing e-mails are actually in Ukraine.

    To deflect from Russia's 2016 interference, Mr. Trump has repeatedly called that attack on America's election process a hoax.

    But then came the CIA officer whistle-blower complaint that resulted from the summary of a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where the American president repeatedly asked Ukraine to investigate his main political opponent, Joe Biden.

    I'm here in Kiev to speak to Ukrainians who were key players in the lead-up to the dismissal of prosecutor general Shokin to find out if Trump's theory about why he was fired holds any water.

    I started with the man who then at the top, Ukraine's former President Petro Poroshenko, who personally faced the pressure from Biden to dismiss his own prosecutor. He told me it was never about Biden or his son's business with Burisma.

  • Petro Poroshenko:

    We are talking only about the reform of the prosecutor office, to make it independent, to make it more transparent.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Ukraine's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, was the epicenter of mass protests that toppled the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 and led to Poroshenko's election. It was also the site of mass killings of protesters by security forces.

    The former prosecutor Shokin's shadow is felt here acutely. In the eyes of many Ukrainians, his biggest failure was that nobody from the former regime was prosecuted for the killing of protesters here on Independence Square.

    Parliamentarian Yehor Soboliev was the first official to demand the prosecutor's dismissal.

  • Yehor Soboliev:

    It was time when people strongly hoped that murders here on Maidan will be investigated. It was time when people strongly hoped that great corruption in Yanukovych's presidency will be punished.

    In 2015, I personally initiated the resignation of general prosecutor Shokin.

  • (through translator):

    Come up and sign for the resignation of Viktor Shokin.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    What Soboliev did was ask members of Parliament to sign a document calling for a no-confidence vote in Shokin.

    So, you're saying it wasn't Joe Biden who asked for the prosecutor to be fired; you asked for the prosecutor to be fired first?

  • Yehor Soboliev:

    Yes, we were campaigning for his resignation more than half-a-year.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    One campaigner was Daria Kaleniuk. She heads the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kiev, and has been a leading voice against corruption here since before the revolution that overthrew Ukraine's pro-Russian leader Yanukovych.

    She demanded Shokin's ouster for attacking reformers in his office, and:

  • Daria Kaleniuk:

    Another reason was failure to investigate grand corruption of Yanukovych. Ukrainian prosecutor general's office didn't want to help to provide evidence.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So, in 2015, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine took the unprecedented step of telling the country it should fire prosecutors who were blocking an investigation of the owner of Burisma, where Hunter Biden was reportedly earning $50,000 a month.

    Here's the former vice president speaking about his efforts to get Ukraine to fire Shokin a year later.

  • Joseph Biden:

    We will be leaving here, I think it was, what, six hours.

    I looked at him. I said, we're leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money.

    Well, son of a bitch, he got fired.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So, was Biden holding back the billion to get rid of a corrupt prosecutor or to stop an investigation into Burisma?

    I asked Ukraine's finance minister, who was a deputy minister at the time.

  • Oksana Markarova:

    Well, we had three guarantees that were extended to us by the U.S. government, which were a big help. There were some conditions with regard to the corporate governance reform. All the conditions were reform- and market-oriented.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Fast-forward to 2019, and it's easy to understand why Ukraine's current government is unwilling to criticize Trump's narrative of the Shokin dismissal, or anything else, for that matter.

    Ukraine depends on the United States for financial support for its economy and for its security in Eastern Ukraine, where it's fighting Russian troops and Russia-backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.

    So, when President Volodymyr Zelensky was asked this week if Mr. Trump temporarily froze nearly $400 million of military and security aid in order to press Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, he was visibly flustered, and did his best to steer clear of the political controversy gripping Washington.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    Nothing was explained to me. We didn't talk about this issue. I asked a question. I wanted — I really wanted to support our army. That's why I spoke about it strongly, and not just with the president of the United States.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So what of Mr. Shokin himself? He failed to appear in court on Thursday in his own lawsuit claiming he was unfairly sacked.

    For Ukraine, a country reliant on the U.S. for support in its war with Russia, this political storm that's putting it between an American president and his reelection drive couldn't come at a worse time.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky in Kiev.

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