An official from the White House budget office directed the Defense Department to “hold off” on sending military aid to Ukraine less than two hours after President Trump’s controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to internal emails.Michael Duffey, a senior budget official, told Pentagon officials that Trump had become personally interested in the Ukraine aid and had ordered the hold, according to the heavily redacted emails, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity on Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. He also asked the Pentagon not to discuss the hold widely.
You might say that while these emails give us some more detail about how this policy was implemented, it doesn’t change the basic story. But let me emphasize this in particular:
“Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction,” Duffey wrote in a July 25 email to Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker and others.
This directly undermines the justification Trump’s defenders have so often offered for holding up the aid: that it was not to coerce Ukraine into helping Trump’s reelection campaign but was merely a product of Trump’s passionate commitment to fighting corruption (please stop laughing).
If that were true, the White House would have wanted to make sure that every relevant official in the government was informed about the suspension of aid and why it was being undertaken. The White House might even have wanted to talk about it publicly. Instead, the White House treated the suspension of aid as a secret so dangerous that if if were discovered it would be a disaster.
So officials in the Pentagon couldn’t figure out what was going on, and many of them feared that since the aid had been appropriated by Congress, withholding it was against the law. Why were they kept in the dark? Because of the way those close to Trump treated what he was doing on Ukraine. They acted as though the president was up to something so problematic that it had to be kept secret even from other officials in the government, let alone Congress or the public.
That’s what Duffey surely meant when he talked about how “sensitive” the withholding of aid was. That’s how National Security Council lawyers reacted when they saw that Trump had strong-armed Zelensky on that infamous phone call; in a panic, they hid the transcript in a special server so it could be accessed by as few officials as possible to keep people from knowing what Trump had done. The common reaction when those around Trump learned of his moves on Ukraine seems to have been: Oh, my God. We have to keep this from getting out.
And they were right. When it finally did become public, the result was the impeachment of the president.
These new emails will make it even more difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to justify staging the kind of Senate trial he and the White House would obviously prefer: one as brief as possible, with no witnesses. And while the president himself might like to create an absurdist spectacle by forcing Joe Biden or his son to testify, Trump doesn’t have a single witness he could call whose testimony would support the idea of his innocence.
That’s Trump’s problem, which is now McConnell’s problem, in a nutshell. If there are going to be any witnesses at all, they would have to include at a minimum Duffey, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton, all of whom have refused to testify before the House. And who would the witnesses for Trump’s defense be? They’ve got nothing.
So revelations such as these new emails — and they won’t be the last — will actually make McConnell even more determined to hold a perfunctory trial without witnesses. The more obvious it becomes that there is more to learn about Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine to help his reelection, the less willing he’ll be to open that can of worms. And the less likely it will be that the public gets to see the whole sordid story laid out in Trump’s trial.