The money at issue comes from two programs: one administered by the Pentagon, and the other by the State Department.
In its past two budget proposals, the Trump administration proposed cutting the State Department program for Ukraine to $20 million. Each time, Congress rejected the cut and appropriated $115 million for Ukraine from the program, called Foreign Military Financing.
As White House officials prepared their 2021 budget request, set to be released Feb. 10, the Ukraine financing program was once again on the chopping block, with officials weighing another attempt to cut it down to $20 million, according to two people with knowledge of the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions.
But after inquiries Wednesday and Thursday from The Washington Post, OMB denied that any cut would be proposed, with a spokesperson saying the budget would extend existing funding levels. That would keep the Ukraine State Department program funded at $115 million for 2021.
The spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of the release of the budget, declined to offer an explanation for why the agency decided not to seek to cut the program as it has in the past.
The Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative will also stay funded at its current level of $250 million, but that’s consistent with what the White House has requested in the past.
The White House has repeatedly sought to cut State Department and other domestic programs only to see Congress restore the money. But a proposal to decrease Ukraine foreign assistance at a time when Trump is facing impeachment proceedings over that very issue would have been certain to draw attention and criticism from congressional Democrats.
House Democrats impeached Trump late last year on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over the Ukraine aid delay. Two OMB officials at the White House resigned last year in part over concerns about the Trump administration’s handling of the matter.
The White House budget request will be part of an annual process when the executive branch lays out its spending priorities for the fiscal year that begins in October. The requests must be approved by Congress, which has consistently rejected many of the changes the White House sought. The Trump administration has long attempted to slash foreign aid, and Trump has argued that the money would be better spent in the United States.
Trump’s Office of Management and Budget has also sought to claw back foreign aid and other domestic spending already approved by Congress through a tool called “rescissions,” but these efforts have run into bipartisan resistance in Congress. In some instances, career staffers in the agency have also voiced opposition to the agency’s moves, as was the case when political appointees overruled concerns voiced by career staff to hold up the Ukraine aid last summer.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently declared the aid holdup violated the law, a finding OMB disputed.
Debate over the Ukraine aid has figured in Trump’s impeachment trial. The House Democratic impeachment managers have called it a blatant “quid pro quo” aimed only at advancing Trump’s personal political interests as he sought a commitment from his Ukrainian counterpart to announce investigations into the Bidens and a discredited conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. The White House legal team has argued repeatedly that the delay was a legitimate foreign policy move by a president concerned with corruption in Ukraine and the question of whether other nations were doing enough to contribute to Ukraine’s military in its conflict with Russia.
In response to questions from senators during the question-and-answer period of the impeachment trial Wednesday and Thursday, the two sides have also debated whether the delay in aid had any real impact. The White House side argued it did not, since the aid ultimately was released in September, though only after some lawmakers got word of a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine. But Democrats said Trump’s decision to block the aid sent a damaging message to Russia that the United States did not stand with Ukraine.
It has been a routine practice for the Trump White House to propose the same spending cuts year after year, even after Congress has made its opposition clear. Under the Trump administration, the spending cuts the White House has proposed to domestic programs typically end up getting traded away in massive year-end spending deals, in which Republicans push for Pentagon spending increases that Democrats agree to in exchange for growth in domestic program budgets.