The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When did Ukraine know that Trump had frozen aid?

Why that timing does — and doesn’t — matter

Pro-Russian militants stand next to a sign reading "Danger mines!" as observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe inspect the situation close to the front line in the Petrivske area of Ukraine on Oct. 10. (Dave Mustaine/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

It took about four hours for President Trump’s newest defense of his efforts to cajole Ukraine into politically useful investigations to collapse.

Early Wednesday, Trump picked up an argument made by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) on Fox News: How could there be a quid pro quo involving aid that Congress had appropriated to Ukraine if Ukraine didn’t know that the aid was being withheld? How, in other words, could Democrats argue that Trump was forcing Ukraine’s hand on starting investigations if Ukraine didn’t know its hand was being forced?

Immediately, it was easy to spot problems with the argument. The United States has a wide range of tools it can use to compel a country like Ukraine. Witnesses testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, for example, have noted that the prospect of a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was itself used as a lure for starting the probes of political rivals Trump wanted to see. What’s more, text messages provided by Trump appointees showed that an aide to Zelensky, Andrey Yermak, knew about the aid stoppage in late August, nearly two weeks before aid was reinstated.

A few hours later, the New York Times blew another hole in the timeline. Its reporting suggests that Ukrainian officials (it’s not clear which) were informed in early August (it’s not clear when) that the United States was withholding aid that had been approved by Congress.

In one sense, that’s a significant shift. Below, we’ve pulled out some important moments leading up and past the halt on aid that should illustrate why.

Zelensky took office May 20. Three days later, in a meeting at the White House, Trump told E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry that they should work through his private attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani to set up a meeting with the new president. Giuliani was already publicly agitating for the investigations Trump sought, including one targeting former vice president Joe Biden.

On June 16, everything was moving forward on aid. The Defense Department even issued a news release detailing a large component of what Ukraine could expect.

A month later, on July 18, government departments (and acting ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr.) learned that the Ukraine aid had been halted on orders of the president, an order transmitted to the Office of Management and Budget by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. The next day, Volker had breakfast with Giuliani and later connected him to Yermak.

On July 25, Trump and Zelensky spoke. Zelensky referred obliquely to aid, saying that Ukraine was nearly ready to buy more antitank missiles. Trump replied by asking for a favor: the initiation of a politically useful investigation. Once Zelensky agreed to also investigate Biden, Trump offered to host Zelensky in Washington. In a text message to Yermak before the call, Volker made clear that a meeting was dependent on investigations.

Yermak and Giuliani, meanwhile, met in Madrid on Aug. 2. The next day, Zelensky announced that he was going to visit Washington in late September. But there’s no evidence that Giuliani informed Yermak that aid had been stopped. Giuliani told the Times last week that he didn’t talk to anyone in the government about it and only found out when the stoppage was made public.

Instead, the Times reports that it was a Pentagon official who had told a member of the Ukrainian government that aid was being held up at the request of Mulvaney. The Times says only that this happened “over several days in early August.”

At some point, the planned meeting between Trump and Zelensky crumpled. Volker and Sondland began working on a statement that Zelensky could release that would announce new investigations — a statement that would bear no American fingerprints — and which was a predicate for any meeting. (Trump “really wants the deliverable,” Sondland wrote of the statement Aug. 9.) Sporadically over the next week or so, Sondland and Volker discussed the statement, at one point also looping in Giuliani. On Aug. 10, Yermak suggested the order be reversed: Meeting set first, then the statement.

On Aug. 16, Yermak also suggested to Volker that the United States formally request an investigation that might target Biden, according to Taylor. This request overlapped with the ongoing discussions about a statement.

It’s this back-and-forth that shifts from shadow to light if Ukraine was aware of the aid stoppage in early August. Yermak was obviously involved in discussions about an announcement centered on Trump’s desired investigations, and the text messages suggest that Zelensky was as well. If a Ukrainian official knew that aid had been halted in this period, it’s hard to believe that Zelensky didn’t — adding context to the statement discussions.

We don’t know that he did, however. In late August, Yermak texted both Taylor and Volker to ask about a public report about the Ukraine aid. According to Taylor, Yermak was “very concerned,” suggesting that his outreach was a function of not knowing about the aid stoppage as opposed to simply trying to manage the fallout of the stoppage being made public.

In short order, Vice President Pence met with Zelensky and discussed the aid. A few days later, The Post’s editorial board wrote that aid had been withheld to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations. On Sept. 9, House Democrats launched an investigation into Giuliani’s work in Ukraine, and two days later, the aid was released.

If Ukraine’s president knew in early August that aid had been stopped, there’s an obvious additional motivation for him to announce the initiation of new investigations. But even if he didn’t know at that point, there still exists a great deal of other evidence showing how Trump staffers and allies pressured Ukraine to take that step.

In other words, the Times report undercuts Trump’s argument about Ukraine not knowing that aid was halted. But that argument from Trump wasn’t particularly robust in the first place.