The unorthodox steps were carried out in connection with Michael Duffey, associate director of national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget. Duffey was involved in approving orders to hold back nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine, according to people familiar with what transpired.
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the process. Even though some career staffers raised concerns about the way the money was being withheld, some other career staffers said the move did not violate any protocols.
White House and OMB officials had discussions on whether their holds were violating the act, and eventually decided that they were not, according to people familiar with the matter. Both acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and acting OMB director Russell T. Vought said the move was acceptable.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that Duffey was the political official in charge of freezing Ukraine funding. Earlier this year, Duffey took over all national security apportionment decisions, administration officials said, a significant change from previous years and administrations.
The White House ordered budget officials at OMB to freeze military aid to Ukraine in mid-July, a week before President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by phone on July 25. The substance of that call, which was released by the White House late last month, prompted an intelligence community whistleblower to file a formal complaint detailing what he said was an effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to conduct investigations into Trump’s political rivals, and then cover it up.
That complaint, along with revelations about the timing of when aid money to Ukraine was frozen, was a key factor galvanizing House Democrats to launch an impeachment inquiry against Trump. But House investigators are also focused on Duffey’s role in carrying out the president’s orders.
The White House’s move to freeze the money frustrated officials at the State and Defense departments tasked with disbursing the military assistance to help Ukraine fend off Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces, who had pledged to lawmakers earlier in the year that the assistance would be provided to the government in Kiev.
Investigators on the House Appropriations and Budget committees suspected that Duffey was the force behind efforts to freeze Ukraine funds because of an Aug. 3 letter he signed, informing deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and deputy U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Bonnie Glick of a “reapportionment” of over a dozen different funding categories, including Ukrainian military aid, and ordering an “accounting” of the unobligated balances in each account.
The letter served as warning to the agencies that the administration planned to review and could potentially cancel any aid money not yet on its way out the door — which at the time, included the entirety of the military aid Congress had authorized for Ukraine.
It was the second year in a row that the administration had contemplated a rescissions package, relying on the administration’s right under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act to freeze congressionally authorized funding for 45 days. When exercised at the end of the fiscal year, that power can effectively mean billions of aid dollars are never used for their intended purpose.
In the weeks that followed, according to people familiar with the matter, OMB continued to put short-term holds on Ukraine aid, with little explanation as to why. The administration only decided to release military aid to Kiev on the evening of Sept. 11 — barely two days before the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) subpoenaed the whistleblower’s complaint.
In recent weeks, Duffey’s role inside OMB has only grown. He plays a key role in a range of disbursement decisions, not just aid to Ukraine. Duffey is a former leader of the Wisconsin Republican Party and had worked at the Pentagon before joining OMB.