Republican Lawmakers Questioned Trump’s Withholding of Ukraine Aid, Documents Show
Newly released emails and other documents show that some of those now sitting as jurors in Trump’s impeachment trial were also unhappy about his move to freeze aid last year.
Newly released documents show senior Republican lawmakers were privately questioning President Donald Trump’s administration over the withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine last year, indicating that concerns about the policy extended well beyond senior Trump advisors such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Some of those Republican lawmakers, such as Sens. Jim Inhofe and Rob Portman, are now sitting as jurors in Trump’s ongoing impeachment trial, which is largely focused on the question of whether the president abused his power by withholding military aid in a bid to force Ukraine into investigating his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
While much of the focus of the impeachment investigation has been on officials in the executive branch—including the State and Defense departments and the White House—these documents shed new light on how key Republican lawmakers and Trump allies were also concerned about the aid being withheld. Despite months of depositions and new revelations about why Trump withheld the aid to Ukraine, so far no Republican lawmakers appear convinced that Trump committed any impeachable offenses.
On Tuesday evening, as the first day of the trial dragged on past midnight, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released 192 pages of documents, including heavily redacted emails of exchanges between OMB officials and counterparts at the Pentagon. The documents were released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by American Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog.
The release adds new documentation to the timeline of events in which Trump ordered the delay of military aid to Ukraine to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, allegations that are central to the impeachment trial.
The documents also underscore how, despite the fierce partisan disputes over impeachment, Democrats and Republicans alike still overwhelmingly back supplying military aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists.
After the Pentagon approved nearly $250 million in security-related funds for Ukraine last June, the aid was temporarily withheld for months before being released in September. The newly released emails show a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how Republican lawmakers and their staffers were pressing the White House to release the aid in the intervening months.
The emails show that as early as August, staffers for top Republican lawmakers and their staffers were pressing the White House to explain why military aid to Ukraine was being held up. “I heard today that OMB has put a pause on expending funds authorized for Ukrainian security assistance. Is there someone there that I could talk to to understand why?” Josh Martin, the chief of staff to Rep. Mac Thornberry, wrote in an email to OMB officials on Aug. 22. Thornberry is the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
An OMB official in another email said they had received a “similar inquiry” from the office of Inhofe, who is also the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Aug. 23, an aide to Portman also sent his own request asking for an explanation.
Also among the released documents is a letter from Republican Rep. Paul Cook to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, on Aug. 23. “We strongly urge you to direct that all the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) funding proceed to execution as planned,” he wrote.
“Actions by the Office of Management and Budget that delay implementation of this critical funding could undermine our clear national security interests and signal the U.S. Government’s lack of commitment to Ukraine and our Eastern European allies,” he warned in the letter.
Despite mounting pressure from Republican lawmakers in August, it would be weeks before Trump ultimately released the aid. He agreed to do so after discussions with Vice President Mike Pence and Portman on Sept. 11, 2019, which came after a whistleblower complaint was filed and after scrutiny in the media.
OMB declined to comment for the story, but in the past the office has maintained that it acted in accordance with the law and stressed that it directed the Pentagon to continue engaging in all activities related to Ukrainian security assistance short of obligating funds. In a legal memo published by the Washington Post in December, OMB insisted the temporary hold in military aid was legal and done to examine whether the spending was consistent with U.S. policy, rather than being withheld for political reasons. Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and derided the impeachment investigation as a “hoax” and “witch hunt.”
A nonpartisan federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, concluded in a report last week that OMB broke the law by withholding military aid—an assertion that the White House and other top Republican lawmakers sharply dispute.
The newly released emails also show repeated exchanges, albeit heavily redacted ones, between Mike Duffey, a senior Trump appointee overseeing national security programs at OMB, other OMB officials, and Elaine McCusker, the deputy undersecretary of defense and comptroller for the Pentagon.
In one email exchange on Aug. 20, Duffey told McCusker that funds for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative “are not available for obligation until August 26, 2019 to allow for an interagency process to determine the best use of such funds. DOD may continue its planning and casework for the initiative during this period.” Another section of his email was redacted.
McCusker replied that same day: “Seems like we continue to talk (email) past each other a bit. We should probably have a call.”
Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, said the new documents undercut the president and his lawyers’ arguments that handing over documents is not necessary for the impeachment trial. “Despite the Trump Administration’s obstruction and the rhetoric at the trial, the public can now see even more evidence of the president’s corrupt scheme as it unfolded in real time,” he said in a statement.
“The volume of material released, and the volume of material still secreted away, only highlights how much the administration has withheld from the House, the Senate, and the American public.”