White House ‘appalled’ by Axios article on Ukraine

The White House spent much of Friday frustrated with a Axios report which she said was based on a fabricated letter allegedly written by Ukraine’s top national security official.

The Axios story, written by journalist Zachary Basu, said Oleksiy Danilov asked the United States earlier this month “to go beyond traditional military aid and provide the country with the funding, training and weaponry necessary to support a long-term resistance movement”. But Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova later told Axios she believed the letter was “forged”. And National Security Council officials also told Axios that they had no record of receiving such a letter from Danilov.

Here’s what I understood after speaking to a senior administration official with knowledge of the matter: White House and CIA officials unofficially told Axios on Thursday that they had no record of receipt of Danilov’s supposed letter and that they could not confirm its authenticity. In other words, they tried to wave Basu away from it. When Basu released his report anyway, the White House connected the outlet to Markarova so she could convey that she believed he was inauthentic. Markarova did it on Friday. Meanwhile, the White House has repeatedly asked Axios to withdraw its story – to no avail.

“We were appalled that Axios apparently had no time to check with Ukrainian officials whether or not this letter was a forgery, but did make sure to contact a former Trump official with no knowledge of the situation to a ‘gotcha’ quote,” the senior administration official told me. “And then we were even more appalled that it sat on all day despite our repeated requests to delete the story when it became clear the letter was a fake – which Axios should have unearthed before publishing in first place.”

Shortly after reaching out to Axios for comment Friday night, the outlet updated its story. Axios changed the headline – which originally read “Scoop: Ukraine Seeked Long-Term Funding for Resistance” – to “Ukrainian Ambassador Challenges Letter Asking US for Resistance Support”. The new story, which included Markarova saying the document appeared “forged”, quoted a “former senior Ukrainian official close to Danilov” who told Axios “that they received the letter from Danilov’s office, and that it had also been circulated to Ukrainian American groups and think tank experts in Washington.” Crucially, however, the source also told Axios that he couldn’t confirm that the letter had officially made it to the US government — essentially the crux of the initial story.

Notably, at the time, the article didn’t include a correction or retraction, despite apparently having no real legs to stand on. Later that evening, a proper correction was finally added to the top of the story. It said, in part, “This corrects an original version of this story which stated that the Ukrainian government had ‘requested’ additional assistance from the US government, while Axios was unable to confirm that the letter had indeed been sent.” Still, given that Axios now admits it was “unable to confirm” the main point of its original story, it’s surprising that a more forceful correction or full retraction hasn’t been released.

NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne went public with the entire episode. In a statement she gave me, she said, “We told Axios that we had not received this letter and were unable to verify its authenticity. the extra time to check reports is even more essential than usual.”