Laura Cooper, a senior Defense Department staffer, testified during the impeachment inquiry that Ukraine quickly expressed its appreciation for the announcement.
“The Ukraine Embassy and the Ukraine government thanked us for making that public,” Cooper said. “They had been looking for a public acknowledgment of the assistance, not because this was unusual, just — they appreciate it when allies publicly note what kind of support we’re providing Ukraine.”
The timeline here is important. One of the defenses of Trump in the impeachment inquiry has been that aid was not used as leverage to force Ukraine to launch investigations that would aid Trump politically. The argument relies on assertions that Trump never directly used aid as a point of pressure in his interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and that the aid was released without Ukraine announcing the desired investigations. But the established facts and the fleshed-out timeline — including a new revelation about when Ukraine knew about the hold — strongly suggest that aid was an effective, deliberate point of pressure for Trump and his team.
The day after the Defense Department announcement, which received some media coverage, senior OMB official Mark Sandy first heard rumblings that the aid might not go out.
“I heard that the president had seen a media report, and he had questions about the assistance,” Sandy testified in a closed-door deposition as part of the impeachment inquiry. He had been informed in an email from Michael Duffey, a Trump political appointee and former chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, that the president “had questions about the news report and that he was seeking additional information” from the Defense Department. The next day, the department offered the requested information. Duffey followed up with other questions, handled by Sandy’s staff.
Two weeks later, administration officials began to hear that the aid would not move forward.
“It’s possible I had some earlier indications in late June as the departments would alert me to the fact that they were getting queries from the Office of Budget and Management, you know, asking questions that, in their view, you know, were abnormal on something of that nature,” Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, director for European affairs on the National Security Council, testified last month. “But by JuIy 3rd, that’s when I was concretely made aware of the fact that there was a hold placed by OMB.”
Cooper offered similar testimony: Her staff received an email from the State Department on July 3 “stating that they had heard that the [congressional notification of disbursement] is currently being blocked by OMB.” (The State Department had sought the notification on June 21, according to the testimony of Undersecretary of State David Hale.) The halt in aid wasn’t announced broadly within the administration until two weeks later, during a conference call on July 18. That’s when most officials learned that it wasn’t moving forward.
Meanwhile, the effort to force Ukraine to launch investigations that would be of political benefit to Trump was moving forward separately. On July 10, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told Ukrainian officials in two separate meetings that a White House meeting desired by Zelensky would be predicated on the announcement of new investigations. Sondland’s explicitness spurred frustration from other U.S. officials in the room, but he was clearly reflecting a mandate he had been given by the president in May to engage with Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on Ukraine. Giuliani had been publicly agitating for investigations for months, arguing in a New York Times interview that they would aid his client.
For Ukraine, the message was apparently clear. On July 20, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. spoke with Zelensky’s national security adviser, Oleksandr Danyliuk. According to Taylor, Danyliuk said Zelensky “did not want to be used as an instrument in a U.S. reelection campaign.” Taylor had assumed his post only a few weeks earlier, arriving in Kyiv carrying a letter from Trump in which the president invited Zelensky to the White House.
Trump and Zelensky spoke for the second time on July 25 (after speaking in April after Zelensky’s election). Zelensky raised the prospect of buying Javelin antitank missiles from the United States, a central part of an initial aid package delivered earlier in the Trump administration. Trump’s now-infamous reply was that he wanted “a favor though” — an investigation centered on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Before the call, the Ukrainians had been reminded in a text-message exchange that a White House meeting depended on agreeing to investigations. That exchange derived from a conversation Sondland had with Trump, according to Sondland’s later testimony.
Later that day, administration officials got hints that Ukraine was aware of the hold on assistance. Cooper testified that her staff received two emails indicating that Ukraine was — to at least some extent — aware that aid had been put on hold.
On Monday, the New York Times’s Andrew Kramer reported that top-level Ukrainian officials were aware of the hold at some point that month. Former Ukrainian deputy foreign minister Olena Zerkal told Kramer that “she read a diplomatic cable from Ukrainian officials in Washington about the hold and asked for a meeting with a senior aide to Mr. Zelensky to discuss it on July 30. The cable had been sent the previous week, she said, but she could not confirm the precise date it had been transmitted.”
“This information caught my attention,” Zerkal said to Kramer. “Without your clear support and stance against Russian aggression we won’t be able, alone, to protect ourselves” — a message that echoes the response Cooper got after the Defense Department announced the aid in June.
Over the course of August, Sondland worked with other officials to get Ukraine to announce the investigations and, in exchange, line up a meeting in D.C. for Zelensky. That effort soon refocused on a proposed CNN interview with Zelensky in early September.
During this period, Ukraine didn't reveal publicly that it knew aid was on hold. In her closed-door testimony, the State Department's Catherine Croft explained why.
“If this were public in Ukraine it would be seen as a reversal of our policy and would, just to say sort of candidly and colloquially, this would be a really big deal,” she testified. “It would be a really big deal in Ukraine, and an expression of declining U.S. support for Ukraine. … As long as they thought that in the end the hold would be lifted, they had no reason for this to want to come out.”
In an interview with Time published Monday, Zelensky described that sentiment in abstract terms.
“The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone. … Everyone hears that signal,” he said.
On Aug. 28, the hold became public with an article in Politico. A senior Zelensky aide, Andriy Yermak, texted several officials to discuss it.
It’s important to note that officials interviewed as part of the impeachment inquiry consistently indicated that they hadn’t received any information about why the aid was being held. An anonymous official told Politico that it was under review — but another anonymous official from the Defense Department told the reporters that the agency had completed its review and supported the aid.
In the absence of an explanation, Sondland testified that he assumed it, like the meeting, was predicated on the investigations. He conveyed that connection explicitly in a conversation with Yermak in Poland on Sept. 1 and later told Taylor that he had made a similar suggestion to Zelensky — leading to Zelensky agreeing to announce probes in the CNN interview.
David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, testified that the Ukrainians probably made the same connection that Sondland did: aid for investigations.
“Zelensky had received a letter, a congratulatory letter from the president saying he would be pleased to meet him following his inauguration in May,” Holmes said during a public hearing last month. “We hadn’t been able to get that meeting — and then the security hold came up with no explanation. And I’d be surprised if any of the Ukrainians — you said earlier, we discussed earlier, you know, sophisticated people — when they received no explanation for why that hold was in place, they would have drawn that conclusion.”
Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman, questioning Holmes, sought more clarification.
“Because the investigations were still being pursued?” Goldman asked.
“Correct,” Holmes replied.
“And the hold was still remaining without explanation?” Goldman continued.
“Correct,” Holmes said.
Sondland spoke with Trump shortly after the meeting with Yermak. Trump insisted that he sought no quid pro quo from Ukraine but that Zelensky should announce the new investigations. Even if the intent in halting the assistance had simply been Trump's irritation with foreign aid, it was clearly something that was generally understood to be useful in getting Ukraine to comply with that goal.
By then, though, the aid issue was becoming an enormous liability for Trump. He had already been briefed on a whistleblower complaint raising questions about the withholding of aid, and The Post published an editorial on Sept. 5 in which the aid stoppage was linked to an effort to force an investigation that was useful to Trump politically. House Democrats soon after announced an investigation of their own into Giuliani’s efforts on Ukraine and the aid stoppage.
The hold was lifted on Sept. 11. According to Holmes, though, that wasn't the end of the pressure.
“Although the hold on the security assistance may have been lifted, there were still things they wanted that they weren’t getting, including a meeting with the president in the Oval Office,” Holmes said of Ukraine’s concerns. “Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted, and they still wanted important things from the president. So I think that continues to this day. I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward.”
In that interview with Time, Zelensky described the frustration he and his government felt about the aid being withheld.
“Look, I never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo,” Zelensky said. “That’s not my thing. … I don’t want us to look like beggars. But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness.
“It’s not about a quid pro quo,” he continued. “It just goes without saying.”