Editor’s note: At the end of every year, Poynter-owned PolitiFact reviews all of its fact-checks and decides on the Lie of the Year. “Lie” isn’t a word that PolitiFact uses often or lightly, explained editor-in-chief Angie Drobnic Holan in a column last year. The 2019 Lie of the Year is republished with permission, and originally appeared here.
President Donald Trump started the morning of Sept. 20 dismissing headlines about someone who blew the whistle on a phone call he had with the president of Ukraine. The call, he tweeted, was “pitch perfect.”
Later that morning, Trump and first lady Melania opened the White House for a day of ceremony with Australia’s prime minister and his wife. Before their dinner of sunchoke ravioli and Dover sole, the four sat in the Oval Office as reporters asked Trump about the whistleblower’s account
“It’s a ridiculous story. It’s a partisan whistleblower,” Trump said, though he added he didn’t know who it was and hadn’t read the complaint.
Since the Sept. 26 release of the whistleblower complaint about his call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump has insisted more than 80 times that the whistleblower’s account is fake, fraudulent, incorrect, “total fiction,” “made up,” and “sooo wrong.”
On Oct. 5 he tweeted that the “second hand information ‘Whistleblower’ got my phone conversation almost completely wrong.”
“Everything he wrote in that report, almost, was a lie,” Trump told reporters Nov. 8.
“The whistleblower defrauded our country, because the whistleblower wrote something that was totally untrue,” he said to the approval of supporters at a rally Dec. 10 in Hershey, Pa.
Despite what Trump claims, the whistleblower got the call “almost completely” right.
We know this from the very record of the call the president released. We know this from testimony under oath from career diplomats and other officials. And the president and his allies have told reporters that Trump did what the whistleblower suggested — urged the Ukrainian president to investigate political rival Joe Biden. Their argument is that there was nothing inappropriate or unreasonable about it. Trump on Oct. 3 asked China to look at Biden and his son, Hunter, too.
Every year, PolitiFact editors review the year’s most flagrant inaccuracies in search of a significant false claim that can be elevated to Lie of the Year.
The distinction is awarded to a statement that is more than ridiculous and wrong. The Lie of the Year — the only time PolitiFact uses the word “lie” — speaks to a falsehood that proves to be of real consequence and gets repeated in a virtual campaign to undermine an accurate narrative.
The whistleblower, who to Trump’s consternation remains unidentified, raised the concern that the president’s actions leading up to and on that phone call amount to interference in the coming presidential election. Agree or disagree with the conclusion, or whether the president’s conduct warrants impeachment, the actions described in the complaint stand up to factual scrutiny.
The claim that the whistleblower got his phone call “almost completely wrong” is PolitiFact’s 2019 Lie of the Year.
At the heart of the whistleblower complaint: a historic phone call
The whistleblower filed the now famous complaint on Aug. 12. It is nine pages long. The description of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky takes up two pages. That section is the backbone (though not the entirety) of the impeachment inquiry of the president.
Trump started the call after 9 a.m. from the residence of the White House. The purpose for the leaders’ phone call, as suggested by the National Security Council, was for Trump to congratulate Zelensky on his political party winning control of Ukraine’s parliament.
The call started with pleasantries and lasted half an hour. The whistleblower was not listening in but cited “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call.” The complaint says Trump “pressured” Zelensky to:
- Investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden
- Look into allegations that interference in the 2016 election, attributed to Russia, originated with Ukraine and a Democratic server
- Speak with Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr about those issues.
The day before the whistleblower’s complaint was public, the White House released a memo about the conversation that serves as a rough transcript of the call. Over the ensuing 80 days, the nation has watched Trump and his allies dispute the meaning of the core concerns, even as three officials who were listening have confirmed and elaborated on what was said in congressional testimony.
Those officials are Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman of the National Security Council; Jennifer Williams, adviser on Russia and Europe for Vice President Mike Pence; and Tim Morrison, who resigned his post as the top Russia expert on the National Security Council in October.
Investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden
While Joe Biden was vice president, his son, Hunter, accepted a directorship on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings.
The whistleblower said Trump wanted Zelensky to “initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.”
Confirmed. Page 4 of the White House partial transcript quotes Trump as saying, “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it… It sounds horrible to me.”
The readout is supported by firsthand accounts of officials listening from the Situation Room. Vindman told House members he was concerned by the request of a foreign government to scrutinize a U.S. citizen.
“I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play, which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained,” he said in his deposition before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29. “This would all undermine U.S. national security.”
Both Vindman, the security council’s top expert on Ukraine, and Williams said their notes show Zelensky brought up “Burisma” by name, even though it does not appear in the call record.
Investigate Ukrainian interference
The whistleblower claimed Trump urged Zelensky to “assist in purportedly uncovering that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election originated in Ukraine, with a specific request that the Ukrainian leader locate and turn over servers used by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and examined by the U.S. cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike, which initially reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the DNC’s networks in 2016.”
This is confirmed on page 3 of the White House call record. It quotes Trump as saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation, they say Crowdstrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
The officials who testified confirmed this, too.
To Williams, the CrowdStrike reference was “noteworthy” because she had never heard of it before.
To others, it was a red flag. The president was raising a theory that had been discredited.
Morrison, Vindman’s former boss, testified that hearing Trump’s mention a server reminded him that his predecessor at the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, had warned him to stay away from those pushing for investigations of the Bidens and a server. Hill later testified that theories about Ukraine election interference were a “fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Speak with Rudy Giuliani, William Barr
The whistleblower said Trump told Zelensky to “meet or speak with two people the President named explicitly as his personal envoys on these matters, Mr. Giuliani and Attorney General Barr, to whom the President referred multiple times in tandem.”
Trump dropped their names multiple times, and with particular endorsement for meeting with Giuliani. This from the White House’s transcript: “Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General. Rudy very much knows what’s happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great.”
The rest of the complaint details events that came before the call and some that followed, concluding with a brief mention of a sudden hold on military aid to Ukraine. The hold had “come directly from the President,” and White House budget staff didn’t know why.
That would become central to the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Facts are facts. Politics are politics
Where the complaint and the president veer apart is on what the events mean. The whistleblower writes: Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” That’s also how House Democrats have framed it in the first article of impeachment.
Republicans dispute that interpretation of Trump’s call. They point out that there is no explicit mention of either 2020 or the re-election campaign in the White House summary of the Trump-Zelensky call. They say the whistleblower made a sensational leap in word choice (none more so than “Trump pressured”) that unfairly shaped media coverage of Trump’s handling of Ukraine.
Given the history of corruption in Ukraine and Hunter Biden’s involvement there, Trump asking about it was legitimate.
Said Vindman in his deposition: “I guess, look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the gain would be for the president in investigating the son of a political opponent.”
This month Trump and Republicans have expanded their argument that the president’s language on the call has been mischaracterized.
RELATED: See the previous 10 Lies of the Year
“When I said, in my phone call to the President of Ukraine, ‘I would like you to do US a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.’ With the word ‘us’ I am referring to the United States, our Country,” Trump tweeted Dec. 4.
Trump has not let up on his attacks of the whistleblower, asking repeatedly about the person’s whereabouts and saying he wants to uncover the identities of those who spoke with the person. Trump says he deserves the right to question his accuser.
“I wouldn’t mind a long process, because I’d like to see the whistleblower, who’s a fraud,” he said Dec. 13 of a Senate impeachment trial.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, questioned the value of the whistleblower’s testimony at this point.
“It’s a very strange thing that’s going on here right now,” Demings said. “The whistleblower complaint has been corroborated multiple, multiple, multiple times.”
Do the motivations of the complaint matter?
“The whistleblower can have the worst possible motives in the world. The whistleblower can hate their boss. And the law doesn’t really take that into account,” said Dan Meyer, an attorney who was executive director for Intelligence Community Whistleblowing and Source Protection from 2013 to 2017.
No matter the motivations or the political outcome, testimony from the whistleblower would not change the underlying facts of what Trump said. The whistleblower’s account is verified by the same set of facts supplied by Vindman, Williams and Morrison, and others who were in the know.
And one more source: Trump.
Katie Sanders is the managing editor of PolitiFact. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.