If that was the case, though, no one who’s offered public testimony about the hold on aid was aware of it. And at no point before Wednesday was there any suggestion that such an extended, formal review was underway.
There were two tranches of aid that had been appropriated for Ukraine, one from the Defense Department and one from the State Department. The former pool, totaling $250 million, was finalized in May after defense officials certified that necessary safeguards against waste had been met. That aid was announced publicly June 18 in a news release.
That turns out to have been a mistake. Trump, who in 2018 had signed into law the bill allocating that funding, saw a news article about the impending release of the aid and slammed on the brakes. On June 19, OMB political appointee Michael Duffey emailed the Defense Department and cc’d Mark Sandy, deputy associate director for national security programs, who reported to Duffey. In the email, Duffey indicated that Trump had seen coverage of the aid and wanted to learn more about the program. The Defense Department provided the requested information the next day, but Duffey continued to ask questions about the program for a period afterward.
On July 3, OMB halted a notification to Congress that aid was going out, the first hint that the assistance would be stopped. The hold was in place July 12 and messaged broadly in a meeting July 18.
Sandy had been on vacation and came back to the office to learn about the hold. He asked Duffey why the hold was in place, to which Duffey replied, “I don’t know.”
No one else who spoke with the House impeachment inquiry seemed to, either. Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, testified that no reason was given July 18.
“The only thing that I heard about it — but this is, again, you know, second-, third-hand, I’m — was that the president was concerned about corruption, but that was all I ever heard,” Cooper testified.
Acting ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. testified that he was asked by the Ukrainians after the hold became public why it was in place, prompting him to answer that he, too, didn’t know.
Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Pence, testified that she was told only that “OMB was reviewing the assistance to ensure it was in line with administration priorities, but it was not made more specific than that.”
After the hold was announced internally, there were repeated conversations within the administration where government agencies, including Defense, pushed for the aid to be released. During a meeting July 25 — the same day as Trump’s call with Zelensky — a number of staffers from various departments met and discussed the aid.
Each “endorsed the resumption of military aid, or they spoke of their own aid programs and indicated they wanted their programs to continue, as well,” according to Undersecretary of State David Hale. He later added that “the lone objection came from the — directly from the representative of OMB.”
At another point, George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state, testified that while he hadn’t been informed of a reason for the hold, he knew that the “Defense Department did a review and responded that they felt that the conditions and concerns that we had had been met and that the programming should go forward.”
When the hold became public Aug. 28, that was stated publicly by a Defense representative.
A senior administration official told Politico, which broke the story, that Trump “wants to ensure U.S. interests are being prioritized when it comes to foreign assistance, and is seeking assurances that other countries are ‘paying their fair share.’ ”
An unnamed Pentagon official told Politico that “the department has reviewed the foreign assistance package and supports it.” The aid was held for two more weeks after that point.
To hold the aid, OMB had to go through a formal process involving the creation of a memo in which the hold was indicated in a footnote with a designated duration. Between July and Sept. 11, the hold was extended multiple times, requiring the issuance of different iterations of the document. One document, released in August, failed to update the end date for the hold properly, meaning that there was a period of about a week in which the aid technically wasn’t on hold at all.
Were the aid not allocated by the end of the fiscal year — Sept. 30 — OMB officials were concerned about a potential violation of a law called the Impoundment Control Act. The footnote therefore indicated that the Defense Department could continue to plan as though the aid was moving forward. Early iterations of the memo also indicated that the Pentagon agreed that the hold wouldn’t prevent it from getting all the money out the door by the end of the fiscal year. That provision was removed in the middle of August, when the Defense Department indicated that it no longer had that confidence.
That detail, which comes from Sandy’s testimony, seems to be obviously at odds with the Wednesday memo from OMB. The memo rationalized the hold in part by arguing that Defense had never planned on releasing security funds until September in the first place — a claim that’s hard to reconcile with the department’s sudden revocation of its confidence in getting the money out the door.
Even before that point, individuals within OMB were arguing internally for the release of funds.
“I think you testified at least as of early August, Mr. Duffey, and you, as well as your staff, all believed that the hold should be lifted. Is that correct?” Sandy was asked in his closed-door deposition.
“Yes, we supported the continuation of a USAI program,” Sandy replied, referring to the military aid.
His team drafted a memo in early August articulating three reasons that the aid should be released.
“One was that the assistance to Ukraine is consistent with the national security strategy in terms of supporting a stable, peaceful Europe,” Sandy — who, again, is a senior OMB staffer — testified. “Second was the benefit from the program in terms of opposing Russian aggression. Another argument pertained to the bipartisan support for the program.”
Duffey signed off on the memo and transmitted it to acting OMB director Russell Vought (who declined to testify before the impeachment inquiry). The argument was apparently not effective, despite addressing the foreign policy concerns outlined by OMB in the Wednesday memo. The distinction? The memo expresses concern about a conflict with “the President’s foreign policy” — perhaps a distinct consideration from the broader foreign policy of the government.
Or perhaps it’s just the current excuse. Over at the White House in the same period that Sandy was drafting his memo, officials were communicating in an effort to create a justification for the hold on the aid, as The Washington Post reported last month.
“Trump had made the decision the prior month without an assessment of the reasoning or legal justification, according to two White House officials,” The Post’s Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Tom Hamburger reported.
“Can you recall another time in your duties at the Office of Management and Budget where a significant amount of assistance was being held up, and you didn’t have a rationale for as long as you didn’t have a rationale in this case?” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked Sandy during his testimony.
“Not that I recall,” Sandy replied.
In early September, he got a reason, receiving “an email that attributed the hold to the president’s concern about other countries not contributing more to Ukraine.”
That was one of three reasons offered in that time period.
Another came from Pence, who told Zelensky in a meeting Sept. 1 that the United States had “great concerns about issues of corruption.”
“To invest additional taxpayer in Ukraine,” Pence told reporters, “the president wants to be assured that those resources are truly making their way to the kind of investments that will contribute to security and stability in Ukraine.”
On that same day, though, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland spoke with Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak, telling Yermak that the hold would be lifted only once Ukraine agreed to undertake investigations that Trump sought that would benefit the president politically. This conversation was conveyed to other administration officials at the time.
The aid, as mentioned above, was released by the president Sept. 11, after Trump, Pence and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) had a phone conversation. There’s no indication that there was a specific policy trigger for the release. Pence had spoken with Zelensky, but if Trump was waiting to hear from the vice president, he could have released the hold after the two had lunch together the previous day. The Defense Department’s review was complete by late August, according to the Politico article, and testimony indicates that the Pentagon was increasingly concerned about its ability to disburse the money. OMB officials advocated for the release in early August; other agencies did so well before that.
Not that there weren’t apparent triggers. House Democrats, alerted to questions about the withholding of the aid by a Post editorial linking it to Trump’s desired investigations, announced a probe into Ukraine on Sept. 9. On Sept. 10, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote to the acting director of national intelligence asking for a whistleblower complaint centered on Ukraine to be released to Congress as stipulated by law.
The next day, the aid was released.