In her testimony, Cooper went a long way in knocking down defenses that President Trump was not involved in the extortion gambit (release of aid for investigating a political opponent) or that the concern was based on corruption generally, not simply of creating dirt to throw at former vice president Joe Biden.
Trump obviously had to be involved, given that his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was directing the halt in aid. In the July 23 meeting, Cooper recalled, “there was just this issue of the White House chief of staff has conveyed that the President has concerns about Ukraine and Ukraine security assistance. That was how it was conveyed in the meeting on the 23rd. So I walked away from the meeting on the 23rd thinking okay, we know that this is, you know, a larger issue.” One would have to believe that on a crucial issue of national security the acting chief of staff would not make up such a directive out of thin air. It could have come from only one person: The president.
Moreover, this was not about reform in Ukraine more generally, as these exchanges illustrated:
Q: But suffice to say that this certification memorializes that Ukraine had met all the necessary anticorruption requirements as well as other benchmarks that you described earlier under U.S. law in order to obtain this second tranche of USAI [Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative] funding?A: That is correct....Q: Okay. But DOD did not conduct any sort of review following this statement about whether Ukraine was making any sort of progress with regard to its anticorruption efforts in July or August or beginning of September. Is that right?A: That is correct.Q: Okay. And that’s because, as a matter of process and law, all of those events took place precertification, pre-May?A: That is correct. And in the interagency discussions, DOD participants affirmed that we believed sufficient progress has been made.Q: Okay. And it wasn’t just DOD participants who believed that these funds should flow to Ukraine during these interagency meetings, correct?A: That’s correct. It was unanimous with the exception of the statements by OMB representatives, and those statements were relaying higher level guidance.
In short, there was no issue and no further review of compliance with anti-corruption requirements; this was not about U.S. policy. It was about Trump’s reelection.
Moreover, the hold seemed to be illegal:
Q: In the first meeting where you described — a question was raised about what are the legally available mechanisms to actually suspend this aid, or hold this aid, did someone raise that issue in a different — using different terminology as in, is this lawful? Can this be done lawfully? Is this a violation of law?A: So that was in the deputies’ meeting that that first conversation that I recall arose, and I don’t remember that exact phraseology being used. But, I mean, there were many affirmative statements that the Congress has appropriated this, we need to obligate it.Q: Under the law?A: Again, I don’t remember that exact phrase, but yes.…Q: So, to your knowledge, the only legal ways to adjust funding provided by Congress were not being pursued in relation to USAI?A: I just want to caveat that, that those legally available means relate to the question of whether or not all the funds can be obligated by the end of the fiscal year. So as long as the funds can be obligated, you do not have to avail yourself of these mechanisms. You can have a hold in spending. It’s once you get to the point where it’s clear that you cannot obligate all the funds by the end of the fiscal year that those two mechanisms, one of the two would have to be used.Q: Because otherwise, you’d be in violation of the Impoundment Control Act. Is that right?A: That is my understanding, yes.
This is a powerful piece of the Ukraine puzzle. Military aid was critical to Ukraine and, in turn, to U.S. national security. The order to hold it came from Mulvaney, who logically could only have received authorization from the president. There was no issue of compliance with anticorruption measures; Ukraine had passed the review in May. When funds were eventually released, it was not because of any new anticorruption review. (“DOD did not conduct any sort of review following this statement about whether Ukraine was making any sort of progress with regard to its anti-corruption efforts in July or August or beginning of September. Is that right? A: That is correct.”)
Two aspects of the testimony deserve emphasis.
First, circumstantial evidence can be the most powerful evidence there is, and plenty of criminal convictions are obtained without direct, eyewitness testimony. The notion that circumstantial evidence is of lesser weight is false. In this case, what is evident is that the hold in aid came from the White House, was not based on Ukraine’s failure to meet anticorruption standards and was not lifted based on any finding regarding Ukrainian compliance.
Second, the best eyewitness testimony on this issue would come from Trump and Mulvaney. Trump could provide both of those, agreeing to testify under oath and to make Mulvaney available. That he chooses not to should certainly be taken as evidence that the testimony would have been disadvantageous to Trump.
In short, the proof of extortion — withholding vital aid for political ammunition — is irrefutable.