Fact check: Did Trump send Ukraine weapons that Obama and Biden withheld? (2024)

Former President Donald Trump called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy "the greatest salesman" who repeatedly gets billions of dollars from the United States.

"It never ends," Trump said at a June 15 campaign rally in Michigan.

On June 16 on CNN’s "State of the Union," host Jake Tapper asked Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., about Trump’s recent comments on Ukraine.

Cotton praised Trump’s position on Ukraine and criticized Democrats.

"The weapons that Ukraine used in the early days of this war to fend off the Russian invasion are the weapons that Donald Trump sent, that Barack Obama and Joe Biden had refused to send," Cotton said.

Cotton spokesperson Patrick McCann told PolitiFact that Cotton was referring to Javelins, antiarmor missiles provided by the Trump administration. In 2014, Obama rejected a request by Ukraine for those weapons. Biden was Obama’s vice president.

Trump reversed Obama’s policy; in 2018, the Trump administration approved a plan to sell Ukraine Javelin missiles for $47 million.

"As you can see, it is clear that this form of lethal aid was both important and provided by the Trump administration and not the Obama-Biden one," McCann said.

However, Cotton’s comments don’t tell the full story about military aid to Ukraine under Obama, Trump and Biden.

Cotton’s "comment is correct in the sense that Obama never approved transfer of lethal weaponry but Trump did," said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in the foreign policy program of the Brookings Institution, a think tank. "I would not implicate Biden heavily in the policy of the Obama years; he was just one voice at the table then. He did far more than his former boss ever did for Ukraine, and far more (from February 2022 onward) than Trump ever did, either."

As the president during Russia’s invasion, Biden has signed off on Ukrainian aid that included Javelins.

Obama rejected Ukraine’s request for lethal aid in 2014, Trump provided it

Experts on Ukraine military assistance said that the Obama administration rejected Ukraine’s 2014 request for lethal aid.

The decision came as Russian forces invaded the eastern territory of Crimea in 2014 and pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine. U.S. officials were concerned that providing Javelins to Ukraine would escalate their conflict with Russia.

"In this sense, Cotton’s claim has some truth to it," said Brendan Green, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati's School of Public and International Affairs.

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However, Obama’s White House approved other aid. In total, from 2014 to 2016, the United States committed more than $600 million in security assistance to Ukraine. Under Obama, the federal government started the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which sent other kinds of U.S. military equipment to the country. From federal fiscal years 2016 to 2019, which overlap with Obama and Trump, Congress appropriated $850 million.

Trump also withheld aid when trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. During a July 2019 phone call, Zelenskyy told Trump he was almost ready to buy more Javelins from the U.S. Trump replied by asking for "a favor," which was to collect dirt on Biden, a potential 2020 presidential race opponent at the time.

In January 2020, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that Trump abused his power by telling Zelenskyy the U.S. would provide Ukraine with security assistance and he would grant Zelenskyy a White House meeting only if Zelenskyy announced investigations into Trump’s political rivals. The House impeached Trump for this matter in 2019; the Senate acquitted him in 2020.

Biden administration has supported billions in aid for Ukraine

Cotton said that Trump provided "the weapons that Ukraine used in the early days of this war." Russia’s invasion started in February 2022 when Biden was president.

During the Biden administration, the U.S. has provided extensive military aid to Ukraine, including weapons. Some of that military aid was sent before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and some followed the invasion.

Every new president inherits the spending that was approved under the previous president. In Biden’s case, when he took office in January 2021, he was working with the last spending approved by Trump; this ran through September 2021.

But the Biden administration went beyond this Trump-enacted spending and used the Presidential Drawdown Authority to send aid to Ukraine multiple times. That authority allows the president to provide military assistance during crisis situations. The State Department secretary exercised authority delegated by the president to direct 44 "drawdowns" since August 2021, according to a June statement from the department.

In March 2021, the Defense Department announced a $125 million package for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative that included equipment. On Sept. 1, 2021 the federal government announced a new $60 million security assistance package.

A Congressional Research Service report said that in federal fiscal year 2021, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development allocations to Ukraine totaled about $464 million, including $115 million in the Foreign Military Financing program.

In January 2022, Biden authorized the State Department to allow transfer of U.S.-provided equipment already in the hands of allies, Defense One reported based on information it received from the National Security Council.

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The State Department in January 2022 also cleared three NATO allies to rush antiarmor missiles and other U.S.-made weapons to Ukraine, Politico reported. The Biden administration also began shipping $200 million worth of antiarmor missiles, ammunition and other equipment to Ukraine, Politico wrote.

In February 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden authorized $350 million of military assistance from Defense Department inventories, including antiarmor, small arms, munitions and body armor. It was the third time Biden expedited emergency security assistance for Ukraine’s defense in the months leading up to the invasion using the Presidential Drawdown Authority, the Defense Department said.

We wrote after the war’s first year that Congress had approved four separate measures that allocated money to benefit Ukraine, totaling $113 billion. About $50 billion was for direct military aid.

Lance Janda, a military historian at Cameron University, said that the aid to Ukraine since 2022 "has included all of the really significant lethal weapon systems sent by the U.S., including artillery, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and rocket systems. And much of that aid was opposed by Republicans in Congress and by former President Trump."

Ultimately, both the Trump and Biden administrations sent Ukraine "weapon systems that helped during the 2022 invasion," Janda said.

Steven Pifer, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, agreed that Cotton has a point that the Obama administration did not provide the Javelin antiarmor missiles to Ukraine and that the Trump administration provided a limited number of Javelin missiles.

"However, he is incorrect as regards the Biden administration," Pifer said, noting Biden’s provision of sophisticated weapons including rocket systems, fighting vehicles and missiles.

"Since the war, Biden has sent the Ukrainians just about everything and the kitchen sink," Green said.

PolitiFact ruling

Fact check: Did Trump send Ukraine weapons that Obama and Biden withheld? (3)

Cotton said, "The weapons that Ukraine used in the early days of this war to fend off the Russian invasion are the weapons that Donald Trump sent, that Barack Obama and Joe Biden had refused to send."

The Obama administration in 2014, while Biden was vice president, did reject Ukraine’s request for lethal Javelin missiles, although it supplied other aid. Trump reversed that policy and approved a plan to sell Javelins.

Cotton stretches this claim by tying Obama’s policy to Biden, who as president has built on Trump’s assistance and more. Biden’s administration shipped $200 million worth of antiarmor missiles, ammunition and other equipment to Ukraine before Russia’s invasion. The Biden administration also authorized $350 million of military assistance from Defense Department inventories, including antiarmor, small arms, munitions and body armor immediately after the invasion.

We rate this statement Half True.

Fact check: Did Trump send Ukraine weapons that Obama and Biden withheld? (2024)

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