The White House’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine without explanation last year concerned top Pentagon officials, who unsuccessfully attempted to press President Trump to lift the funding freeze, CNN reported on Wednesday.
According to emails and other internal documents reviewed by the network, defense officials were worried by the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) direction to halt the congressionally approved dollars, wrote that the aid was at “serious risk,” and wondered if the move was legal.
“Placing a hold on security assistance at this time would jeopardize this unique window of opportunity and undermine our defense priorities with a key partner in the strategic competition with Russia,” John Rood, under secretary of Defense for policy, wrote in an email to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on July 25, hours after Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
That call is at the heart of impeachment proceedings against Trump that are focused around whether the president acted illegally in pressuring Zelensky to “look into” the son of Joe Biden. The former vice president is Trump’s potential 2020 presidential election rival. The president has repeatedly made unfounded claims that the Bidens acted corruptly in Ukraine.
Prior to the call, defense officials were in the midst of speeding up the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, emails show.
Lara Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, requested in a July 15 email that the Pentagon speed up the missile request to Ukraine to “as soon as next month,” suggesting that the Pentagon was moving as planned to fulfill the aid request to Ukraine.
But three days later, on July 18, OMB had placed a hold on the $115 million in foreign military funding. The same day, the White House notified the State and Defense departments of Trump’s decision to stop the $391 million in aid to Kyiv.
Pentagon official Catherine Sendak, who attended a meeting that day about the hold, sent an email to the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noting that the talk was “dominated by ambiguity” about the OMB-directed freeze, which was “based on their interpretation of Trump’s reported views on Ukraine corruption.”
In the days after, Pentagon officials scrambled to make sense of the aid’s freeze and hoped Esper — who had been confirmed as Pentagon head just two days prior to the delay — would be able to convince Trump to lift the hold, according to the emails and internal documents.
Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton met Trump in late August to discuss the aid, but were unable to push him to lift the freeze, according to The New York Times.
By Sept. 9, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security and Security Assistance Greg Kausner emailed Rood that the continuing OMB hold created a “serious risk” of not meeting congressional requirements to dole out millions in Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds by Sept. 30.
“I wish I had some better news. I have been vocal for weeks about the need to address this hold and meet Congressional intent,” Rood wrote back that day. He noted that he had spoken with Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, Department of Defense general counsel Paul Ney and top Pentagon budget official Elaine McCusker about the issue.
Trump finally lifted the hold on the Ukraine aid on Sept. 11.
He is expected to be acquitted by the Senate in the impeachment trial on Wednesday.