Just Security’s Kate Brannen was able to view unredacted emails in which the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department discussed the withholding of military aid. The big new takeaway is that there was significant concern within the Pentagon about the legality and sustainability of the hold. Despite that, according to one email from top OMB official Michael Duffey on Aug. 30, there was “clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.”
The even bigger takeaway, though, may be how much this fact was obscured. The emails were previously released in redacted form, but many of the redaction choices are puzzling and even suspicious. The redactions include repeated references to legal problems with withholding the aid, basic questions about that subject, and warnings that waiting until too late in the fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) might mean that some of the funds would never get to Ukraine.
And an entire draft letter from the deputy defense secretary to the acting OMB director—warning that "we have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond Aug. 19, 2019 jeopardize the Department’s ability to obligate USAI funding prudently and fully"—was blacked out by DOJ pic.twitter.com/jWEX9J0MzQ— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) January 2, 2020
That latter fact appears to have been doubly obscured — including in an official communication. OMB general counsel Mark Paoletta wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Dec. 11 that suggested that the Defense Department had not flagged such a risk.
“In fact, at no point during the pause in obligations did DOD [Office of General Counsel] indicate to OMB that, as a matter of law, the apportionments would prevent DOD from being able to obligate the funds before the end of the fiscal year,” Paoletta wrote.
In fact, though, there are at least three concrete examples of a Defense Department official flagging something similar to OMB:
- On Aug. 12, with the hold being renewed, acting Defense Department comptroller Elaine McCusker offered proposed language for the hold to Duffey. It stated that “this additional pause in obligations may not preclude DOD’s timely execution of the final policy direction but that execution risk increases with continued delays.”
- On Aug. 27, McCusker sent Duffey a draft letter that the Pentagon was preparing to send OMB. In the letter, the deputy defense secretary was to say, “As a result, we have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond Aug. 19, 2019 jeopardize the Department’s ability to obligate USAI funding prudently and fully, consistent with the Impoundment Control Act.”
- After Politico on Aug. 28 broke the story that the funds were being withheld, emails were exchanged establishing talking points, including one similar to the statement that eventually found its way into Paoletta’s letter: “No action has been taken by OMB that would preclude the obligation of these funds before the end of the fiscal year.” McCusker, though, explicitly told Duffey that wasn’t the case. “I don’t agree to the revised TPs — the last one is just not accurate from a financial execution standpoint, something we have been consistently conveying for a few weeks,” she said.
All three of these were redacted from the initially released emails by the Justice Department, according to Just Security, and the proposed language from No. 1 for some reason wasn’t used by OMB. Another redaction came in an Aug. 26 email, in which McCusker told Duffey that Paoletta “appears to continue to consistently misunderstand the process and the timelines we have provided for funds execution.” McCusker also told Defense Department officials internally in an email that “OMB continues to ignore our repeated explanation regarding how the process works.”
“Repeatedly.” “Continued to.” “Consistently.” The Defense Department seemed to believe this message was being conveyed unmistakably, but Paoletta’s letter would lead you to believe it wasn’t really part of the conversation. Then much of the evidence establishing these internal disagreements was redacted from the emails that were released, for reasons that aren’t terribly clear and raise all kinds of questions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) both highlighted the report as evidence of the need to uncover more.
Trump engaged in unprecedented, total obstruction of Congress, hiding these emails, all other documents, and his top aides from the American people.— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) January 2, 2020
His excuse was a phony complaint about the House process.
What’s the excuse now? Why won’t Trump & McConnell allow a fair trial? https://t.co/S3ZlEJMMDB
What’s more, the internal discord and the worry about the funds never being released seems to have potentially weighed on the decision to release them Sept. 11, less than three weeks before the end of the fiscal year. The GOP’s argument here — that the aid was ultimately released, so there’s no corruption — was already fanciful. First, that’s because there was considerable bipartisan pressure to release the funds, and second, it’s because the whistleblower stuff was starting to break its way into the open, giving Trump plenty of motivation to back down from his gambit. We now know that the longer it went on, the more long-lasting the fallout might have been, according to rather heated internal debates.
Republicans are arguing that there’s simply not much there there and that it’s not even worth calling witnesses in the Senate’s impeachment trial. But a steady trickle of evidence sure suggests otherwise. And real questions need to be asked about these redactions and how OMB was handling this whole thing.