Trump Resisted Sale of Javelins to Ukraine

Republicans are defending him in the impeachment inquiry by saying he gave more military aid than his predecessor, but it came only after the reluctant president was convinced it would be good for U.S. business.

Presidents of the United States and Ukraine meet in New York
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump meet for talks on the sidelines of the 72nd session of United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017. Mikhail Palinchak/TASS via Getty Images

As U.S. President Donald Trump’s congressional allies seek to defend him from a rapidly escalating impeachment inquiry, they have repeatedly pointed to the fact that it was Trump, not his predecessor President Barack Obama, who signed off on providing Ukraine with lethal weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles.

But current and former officials who were privy to the decision in December 2017 to provide the missiles to Ukraine told Foreign Policy that Trump had been reluctant to go ahead with the move and only did so when aides persuaded him that it could be good for U.S. business.

“He wanted to know if the Ukrainians would pay us back,” said a former senior official with direct knowledge of the decision to provide Ukraine with a grant to buy the powerful anti-tank Javelin missiles. It is not clear what Trump’s views were on other aspects of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. 

Trump is accused by Democrats of withholding military aid to Ukraine in an effort to further his political interests. But his Republican allies have pointed out that aid was held up for only 55 days, and Trump delivered more to the Ukrainians than Obama had. During the second day of public impeachment hearings on Friday, congressional Republicans sat in front of a large black-and-white sign that read, “President Trump gave Ukraine missiles.” 

“The strong support came with this administration, not the Obama administration,” said Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup during the first public hearing on Wednesday. Giving Ukraine lethal weapons had been a red line for Obama, who feared that it could cause Russia to escalate conflict. 

But details of Trump’s reluctance to go ahead with the move appear to undercut one of the key tenets of his defense in the impeachment process, and they reveal how his transactional approach to Ukraine extends well beyond the current allegations that he sought to leverage a U.S. military aid for political gain. 

Trump’s skepticism toward the decision was also detailed in closed-door testimony given before House impeachment investigators by Catherine Croft, who served as Ukraine director at the National Security Council while deliberations about the Javelins were ongoing. 

In a transcript released this week, Croft testified that in response to a request for Javelins made by then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Trump said that Ukraine should pay for the weapons itself. The U.S. president said that Ukraine was capable of being a wealthy country if it wasn’t for corruption.

Current and former officials told Foreign Policy that only when aides persuaded Trump of the business case to give Ukraine the Javelins did he sign off on the decision. They successfully argued that if the United States provided the missiles first as aid paid for by a U.S. grant, then the Ukrainians would come back later to buy more out of their own pockets. 

The officials said they were directed by the White House to keep news of the decision low-key until the weapons were delivered to Ukraine in the spring of 2018. 

During the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader indicated that his country was on the brink of buying more Javelins from the United States. It was at this point in their conversation that Trump said, “I would like you to do us a favor though” and asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that claims that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump then suggested that Zelensky also investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a key 2020 Democratic political rival of Trump’s, and his son Hunter, who once sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. 

While Trump’s relationship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has raised eyebrows, his decision to approve lethal aid to Ukraine has often been held up as evidence that the Trump administration has been, if anything, more hawkish when it came to Russia than its predecessor. 

Croft testified to lawmakers that she had been tasked by then National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to assist in writing a paper to make the case to the president to approve the arms sale to Ukraine. The move was also supported by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Other than the president, the only source of objection to the decision came from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, led by Mick Mulvaney. Croft told lawmakers that Mulvaney had held up the decision by about two weeks out of concern as to how Russia would react. The Ukraine specialist testified that it was unusual for the Office of Management and Budget to raise issues about foreign policy that weren’t purely grounded in budgetary concerns. 

Michael Carpenter, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia under Obama, said that it was “unprecedented” for the Office of Management and Budget to question foreign-policy making, especially when the State Department, Department of Defense, and the National Security Council were on the same page about an issue. 

“It’s unheard of, and it smacks of political influence,” Carpenter, who is now the senior director of the Penn Biden Center, said. 

Daniel Fried, who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under President George W. Bush, said that it was “unusual but not unheard of” for the budgetary office to raise foreign-policy issues. “It’s wrong. It’s not necessarily corrupt,” said Fried, who added that Mulvaney’s concerns about Russia’s reaction echoed arguments put forward by the Obama administration. 

The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Mulvaney is simultaneously serving as director of the Office of Management and Budget and as Trump’s acting chief of staff. He has been drawn into the center of the impeachment investigation after he placed a hold on an almost $400 million military aid package for Ukraine on the orders of the president in mid-July, just a week before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. The hold was later lifted in September. 

During a press conference on Oct. 17, Mulvaney appeared to confirm that the aid package to Ukraine was stalled over the summer in a bid to encourage Ukraine to investigate the Democrats, but he later walked back his comments and said, “There was absolutely no quid pro quo.”

Mulvaney has defied a subpoena to testify as part of the impeachment investigation. His deputy at the Office of Management and Budget, Mark Sandy, is set to give testimony to House lawmakers on Saturday behind closed doors.

Staff writers Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman contributed to this story.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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