According to records of exchanges between government officials, the Pentagon was ordered to halt military aid to Ukraine shortly after Donald Trump’s now-infamous 25 July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
That call is at the centre of the ongoing impeachment process. In it, Trump asked Zelensky to “look into” the allegations that Ukraine helped Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the role Joe Biden had in firing the chief prosecutor who had investigated the Ukrainian gas company that employed Biden’s son, Hunter.
Redacted documents released on Friday by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Pentagon under a Freedom of Information Act request show that the aid freeze was ordered less than two hours after the 25 July call.
Following that conversation, senior OMB official and Trump political appointee Mike Duffey wrote to select OMB and Pentagon officials: “Based on guidance I have received and in light of the Administration's plan to review assistance to Ukraine, including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, please hold off on any additional DoD obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process.”
Duffey appeared to be aware that the decision would raise questions if made public. He wrote: “Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction.”
The assistance came in two packages: $250 million from the Pentagon and $141.5 million from the State Department. Trump signed related spending bills in September 2018 and in February 2019.
The Pentagon announced on 18 June that it would go ahead with providing its portion of the aid. Released emails suggest that the President inquired about those $250 million the following day after an article in The Washington Examiner.
“The President has asked about this funding release, and I have been tasked to follow-up with someone over there to get more detail,” Duffey emailed to the Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker on 19 July.
The OMB blocked the State Department’s portion of the aid on 3 July, according to congressional testimony. On 12 July, the White House informed the OMB about plans to halt the $250 million from the Pentagon.
The President first claimed he ordered a halt out of concern over bureaucratic corruption in Ukraine, later shifting his explanation to his frustration over other Western nations not contributing enough. The Democrats accuse Trump of attempting to damage his potential rival in the 2020 presidential race and withholding the congressionally-mandated assistance as a bargaining chip.
The Democratic House majority impeached the President on Wednesday on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The latter charge relates to his refusal to cooperate with the Democrats’ inquiry, release documents pertaining to the case, and allow administration officials to testify.
The two parties are now in talks over the rules that will govern the Senate trial, which could begin as early as January. The Democrats want high-profile hearings that would include new witnesses and documents, while the Republicans are insisting on a swift trial without new witnesses. Whichever form is agreed upon, the Dems need a two-thirds majority to remove Trump from office. The GOP, which controls the Senate, has already pledged to exonerate the president.