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3 takeaways from Mark Sandy’s and Philip Reeker’s testimony on Ukraine

Mark Sandy, a career employee in the White House Office of Management and Budget, testified Nov. 16. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Impeachment investigators released transcripts Tuesday from two depositions in their investigation: Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget.

Transcript: Philip Reeker’s deposition

Full transcript: Mark Sandy’s deposition

Here are three takeaways from their testimony.

1. More evidence that Trump’s hold on Ukraine assistance wasn’t because of concern over general ‘corruption’

Not one but two officials in the Office of Management and Budget resigned as tensions rose over why Ukraine’s military aid was held up. Congress approved the money and the Pentagon signed off on it. It was OMB’s job to administer the aid, and Sandy, a top career official there, testified he didn’t understand why they couldn’t give to Ukraine. They were told the president wanted it paused.

We don’t know who resigned, but Sandy testified that at least one of them worked in the legal department. And as OMB worried about violating federal law by not giving the money to Ukraine within a certain window, he confirmed this person resigned in part over frustration about the aid being held up.

Q: So this person who worked at OMB Legal expressed concerns about the hold on Ukraine Security assistance and resigned from OMB. And did that person tell you that he or she resigned from OMB at least in part because of concerns with security assistance? …
A: Yes, in terms of how — yes, in terms of that process, in part.

Then, in August, several divisions at OMB wrote a joint memo recommending the military aid go to Ukraine as soon as possible. The memo’s rationale, according to Sandy, was that it was good for the region to spend this money in this way:

The assistance to Ukraine is consistent with the national security strategy … in terms of supporting a stable, peaceful Europe. Second was the benefit from the program in terms of opposing Russian aggression. Another argument pertained to bipartisan support for the program.

Finally, Sandy said he didn’t get an answer for why the aid was frozen until September. That’s also conspicuously when the existence of the whistleblower complaint became public.

2. Evidence the hold was spurred by media reports, not policy

The process for giving the money to Ukraine was going smoothly until June 19. That’s when Sandy testifies Trump asked for information about the money, and he says the question came after media reports that the money was going to be spent.

He doesn’t specify what media reports, but perhaps it was something like this: “Pentagon to send $250 million in weapons to Ukraine,” a headline in the Washington Examiner on that day.

There wasn’t anything particularly revelatory in the report. But it raises the question: Did a news story — as opposed to a policy dispute — prompt Trump to put the hold on?

We know from other witnesses that Trump declined to hold an Oval Office meeting with Ukraine’s new president in May. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani urged them to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Democrats soon after.

The decision to hold the aid came later. This Trump inquiry about the aid on the same day as a news report about it could pinpoint when a new pressure point was identified.

3. And more testimony backs up Sondland — except on one key part

At this point, Sondland is the Democrats’ star witness for saying there was a quid pro quo. So any testimony to underscore that bolsters what he said last week.

Reeker, one of the top diplomats overseeing Europe and Eurasia affairs, testified Sondland said he had a “script” for Ukraine’s president. And that Sondland said he was being directed by the president.

That squares with Sondland’s explosive testimony that he told Ukraine it had to announce investigations into Democrats to get an Oval Office meeting, and that he was acting “at the express direction of the President of the United States.”

But unlike Sondland, Reeker is yet another witness to testify that it was obvious to him that Giuliani wanted Trump’s potential 2020 opponent investigated:

I don’t recall anybody mentioning the Bidens, per se. You know, it was just one of those things it was always out there, because, of course, Giuliani was talking about it and the press was writing about it all the time. And George [Kent] too, you know, we, in our general discussions, as I have alluded to now many times, he had these four strands of narrative that were coming out, some of these sort of conspiracy theories, and one of them was that.

It was already hard to believe Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who said they didn’t know that when Trump wanted a Ukraine investigation into “Burisma,” it was really into Biden, whose son had served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company. Especially with so much other testimony that it was obvious to everyone else.