Pentagon officials stunned by White House decision to block Ukraine aid, new emails show
Posted February 5, 2020 12:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 5, 2020 12:01 p.m. EST
CNN — Days before the July 2019 call between President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, US officials were still working to expedite the delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to the country, according to emails and other internal documents reviewed by CNN.
The new information underscores how the July 18th decision to hold the military aid stunned officials, who had already assessed Ukraine deserved to receive it and were preparing a Javelin missile order as well. The decision reverberated across the government for weeks. Officials grew so concerned over the deferrals by the Office of Management and Budget that they noted the aid was at "serious risk," and questioned if the move was illegal.
In an email to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who was in his first week on the job, a top Defense official communicated his concern over Trump's "reported view that the US should cease providing security assistance" to Ukraine and its impact on national security.
Defense officials hoped Esper might be able to persuade the President to drop the hold, and included their rationale in briefing notes provided to him for an August meeting at the White House.
The documents reviewed by CNN -- none of which revealed classified information on military operations or sensitive personnel matters -- are linked to communications and meetings from July and August last year related to the aid freeze that was at the center of efforts to impeach Trump. The documents paint a broad picture of bureaucrats scrambling to understand and push back against a sudden, unexplained White House directive that disrupted months of careful planning, contradicted Pentagon decisions based on US national security concerns and undermined Ukraine's efforts to defend itself against Russia.
The revelations follow a refusal by the Department of Justice last week to disclose two dozen emails which it said should remain confidential because they describe "communications by either the President, the Vice President, or the President's immediate advisors regarding Presidential decision-making about the scope, duration, and purpose of the hold on military assistance to Ukraine."
Democratic House impeachment investigators have repeatedly highlighted OMB's refusal to turn over any documents when subpoenaed during the probe and suggested that emails may exist showing acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney's role in passing along the President's order to halt the aid to Ukraine.
Revelations come as impeachment trial about to end
The documents were obtained ahead of an almost-certain acquittal by the Senate in Trump's impeachment trial, expected Wednesday.
Among the documents is a July 15th email from Defense Department official Laura Cooper, who testified as a witness in the House impeachment inquiry, to Lieutenant General Charles Hooper, Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Cooper requested help on expediting the Javelin request to Ukraine as a potential deliverable for an anticipated Trump-Zelensky bilateral "as soon as next month." The email suggested that conditions were normal, and given strong ties between the US and Ukraine, they were looking to speed up the request.
Three days later, that plan abruptly changed. During an interagency Policy Coordination Committee meeting - discussed by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former Amb. Bill Taylor in their testimonies before the House -- an OMB official revealed that the office had placed a hold on Congressional notification for $115 million in foreign military funding pending guidance from their leadership on whether funding for Ukraine was still a priority for the administration.
An official readout written by Vindman from the July 18th meeting noted that OMB conveyed its view that the hold on security assistance could be broadly applied to other security assistance funds, but that no official instructions to hold other funding has been issued.
That was the same day Trump's decision to withhold nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine was communicated to the State and Defense departments.
A separate readout, shared with various agencies, noted that Mulvaney is "suspending all US security assistance to Ukraine," reportedly at the direction of POTUS.
Department of Defense official Catherine Sendak sent an email that day to a division of the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff describing the meeting as having been "dominated by ambiguity" surrounding an attempted hold by OMB "based on their interpretation of Trump's reported views on Ukraine corruption."
The US had been slated to provide $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine in two tranches -- the first, $250 million allocated by the Pentagon for combat equipment and another $141 million controlled by the State Department for other military needs. That money had already been appropriated by Congress, making it hard for the administration to stop it from being spent by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The President's lawyers assert that Trump has the authority to withhold aid based upon the constitutional commander in chief powers that give him authority over diplomacy.
The news continued to reverberate for days. On July 23, the NSC's then-head of Europe and Russia, Timothy Morrison, noted in a readout of a Policy Coordination Committee meeting he chaired, that Defense and State Department officials raised concerns about the OMB hold. OMB by then said it would not clear any new assistance based upon its understanding of Trump's views on Ukraine corruption, the readout said. Morrison's report concluded by noting that a legal review was underway to determine whether the administration could also freeze ongoing aid.
Hours after Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Defense Department official John Rood emailed Mark Esper -- who had been in the job two days -- informing him about an upcoming deputies meeting, scheduled for July 28 under Deputy National Security Adviser Charlie Kupperman, "to discuss the President's concern about endemic corruption in Ukraine and his reported view that US should cease providing security assistance."
Zelensky reiterated his interest in acquiring Javelins from the US on the call. Trump asked him to "look into" former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter. Trump's attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden and Joe Biden, his potential 2020 general election rival, are at the center of the President's impeachment trial.
Trump and his allies have repeatedly made unfounded and false claims to allege that the Biden's acted corruptly in Ukraine.
Rood notes in his email to the Secretary that "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."
The order to "cease" funding was used repeatedly in late July to describe the President's directives. The order left the NSC, State Department and the Defense Department scrambling to determine the rationale for the abrupt move, with officials raising concern about its legality for weeks to follow.
By July 29, Cooper began pressing fellow Defense Department officials about the delay, telling Rood in an email, filled with bold and underlined font, that if the administration decided not to execute Ukraine funds, the President would need to transmit a special message to Congress to request withholding the funds, or the Defense Department would have to send reprogramming requests to four relevant Congressional committees.
Defense officials hoped Esper would convince Trump to change mind
Defense officials noted this in background materials provided to Esper for a briefing he'd been scheduled to give the President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on August 15. The notes communicated that DoD received two apportionments from OMB and had not obligated any new funds, the second of which had expired on August 12, the documents show.
Defense officials hoped Esper would be able to convince Trump the aid was critical to US national security interests but it's unclear whether the secretary communicated the message as written in his briefing notes.
According to the New York Times, Esper, Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton met Trump in late August to discuss the aid, but they couldn't convince him to lift the freeze at that time.
Cooper emailed Rood again on August 21 to note that another OMB apportionment was in place until August 26. Here, she warned about potential violation of the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which established procedures to prevent the President and other government officials from substituting their own funding decisions for those of the Congress.
"Our previous understanding was that any further halt to obligations would be a deferral under ICA," she wrote, questioning its legality. "Trump expressed concern about corruption in Ukraine and Zelensky's ability to deal with it, indicating to OMB officials that we should freeze our security assistance," Cooper's email to Rood added.
An OMB official, when asked by CNN about the emails, flatly denied that a deferral was ever on the table, saying that OMB's pausing of the money in order to run a policy process did not constitute a deferral.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reviewed the holdup of the Pentagon's aid for Ukraine and determined that it violated the Impoundment Control Act.
But concerns escalated by September 9. Greg Kausner, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Security and Security Assistance, emailed Rood to note a "serious risk" of failing to meet Congressional requirements to obligate a portion of the $225 million Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds by September 30 due to ongoing OMB hold. Rood replied that same day, saying, "I wish I had some better news. I have been vocal for weeks about the need to address this hold and meet Congressional intent." He added that he discussed the issue with Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, DoD General Counsel Paul Ney and Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon's top budget official.
Trump relented and lifted the freeze on September 11.
Cooper's lawyer declined to comment on the content of the emails. Other officials didn't respond to requests for comment.
The White House and Pentagon didn't respond to a request for comment.