Long Read: The 84-Day Hold On Aid To Ukraine

This is an important article. The broad story it tells isn’t new: Donald Trump held back Congressionally appropriated funds for Ukraine, in contravention of law and recommdations by the Departments of Defense and State. What is new is the detail of how that was done, an attempted legal justification, and who was eager to help him.

News reports about the administration now usually give information about the sources the reports are based on. In this case, it was

Interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials, congressional aides and others, previously undisclosed emails and documents, and a close reading of thousands of pages of impeachment testimony[.]

Here’s a short summary. Lots more details in the article. Basically, Trump decided to withhold the money; White House lawyers tried to construct a justification; civil servants and even some of Trump’s appointees tried to talk him out of it; his messenger boys went to the departments to work it out; and, when the whistle was blown, Trump gave it up. All this time, Rudy Giuliani was meeting with Ukrainian officials and others; this was not known to all participants at the time.

Robert Blair, Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, was a key player along with Mulvaney. Mulvaney brought him along when he moved to the White House. On December 23, he was named Special Representative for International Telecommunications Policy, although he will also continue to serve in his previous role.

On June 19, Blair called Russell T. Vought, the acting head of the Office of Management and Budget, and told him to hold up the aid. Trying to understand the reason for the holdup, Vought’s staff searched the internet and found an article in the Washington Examiner that might have set off the President. In a normal White House, a decision like this would have been made in consultation with experts from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury. In fact, State and Defense had already certified sending the funds to Ukraine as appropriate.

The career official in the budget office in charge of the funds was Mark Sandy. He phoned other officials in the budget office and Defense Department to try to understand what was happening. It was not a normal request. He was concerned that it might violate the Impoundment Control Act, which prohibits the President from holding up money Congress has appropriated.

A month later, on July 18, William Taylor, acting Ambassador to Ukraine, and other officials learned about the hold in a meeting. Taylor testified to Congress that he was astonished. On the same day, administration sources called four Congressional staffers and urged that they look into the hold.

A week later, Trump famously telephoned Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelinsky and asked for a favor. Ninety minutes after the call, the budget office sent an email to the Pentagon saying not to spend the money. Ukrainian officials were beginning to get word that something was up.

In late July, Sandy’s authority over the funds was removed and given to his boss, a political appointee. Defense Department officials were becoming impatient. Deadlines were approaching by which portions of the money had to be spent, or it would be lost.

Backed by a memo saying the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department all wanted the aid released, Mr. Bolton made a personal appeal to Mr. Trump on Aug. 16, but was rebuffed.

On Aug. 28, Politico published a story reporting that the assistance to Ukraine had been frozen. After more than two months, the issue, the topic of fiery internal debate, was finally public.

Mr. Bolton’s relationship with the president had been deteriorating for months, and he would leave the White House weeks later, but on this front he had powerful internal allies.

On a sunny, late-August day, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Esper and Mr. Pompeo arrayed themselves around the Resolute desk in the Oval Office to present a united front, the leaders of the president’s national security team seeking to convince him face to face that freeing up the money for Ukraine was the right thing to do.

Through this time, White House lawyers were trying to develop a legal justification for the hold. Then came the whistleblower’s report, at the end of August. Shortly after, the hold was lifted.

Many questions remain unanswered, like who knew about Giuliani’s activities and when they knew; how long the shakedown was in progress before the hold; and how Trump came to his ideas about Ukraine. Once again, it was civil servants who tried to hold firm against inappropriate actions.

In addition to Trump’s corrupt use of government funds to force Zelensky into helping his election campaign, holding up those funds and causing uncertainty in the Ukrainian government benefits Russia.

The specifics in this article will be helpful in making a case that Mulvaney and other officials must be called as witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial.

Cross-Posted to Balloon Juice

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