Trump Knew Of Whistleblower Complaint Before Lifting Hold On Ukraine Aid
New revelations punch a big hole in Republican defenses of the President.
Late yesterday, The New York Times reported that President Trump was aware of the whistleblower complaint that started the investigation of the Ukraine scandal before he authorized the release of the hold on military aid to the Eastern European nation:
WASHINGTON — President Trump had already been briefed on a whistle-blower’s complaint about his dealings with Ukraine when he unfroze military aid for the country in September, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Lawyers from the White House counsel’s office told Mr. Trump in late August about the complaint, explaining that they were trying to determine whether they were legally required to give it to Congress, the people said.
The revelation could shed light on Mr. Trump’s thinking at two critical points under scrutiny by impeachment investigators: his decision in early September to release $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine and his denial to a key ambassador around the same time that there was a “quid pro quo” with Kyiv. Mr. Trump used the phrase before it had entered the public lexicon in the Ukraine affair.
Mr. Trump faced bipartisan pressure from Congress when he released the aid. But the new timing detail shows that he was also aware at the time that the whistle-blower had accused him of wrongdoing in withholding the aid and in his broader campaign to pressure Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to conduct investigations that could benefit Mr. Trump’s re-election chances.
The complaint from the whistle-blower, a C.I.A. officer who submitted it to the inspector general for the intelligence community in mid-August, put at the center of that pressure campaign a July 25 phone call between the presidents, which came at a time when Mr. Trump had already frozen the aid to the Ukrainian government. Mr. Trump asked that Mr. Zelensky “do us a favor,” then brought up the investigations he sought, alarming White House aides who conveyed their concerns to the whistle-blower.
The White House declined to comment
The timing of the President’s knowledge of the whistleblower’s complaint is significant because it tends to undercut a significant part of the Administration’s defense to the underlying changes in the Ukraine scandal. Specifically, the President and many of his supporters have pointed to a conversation testified to by Gordon Sondland, Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union, in which the President repeatedly said he wanted “No quid pro quo” from the Ukrainians and he just wanted President Zelensky to do the “right thing.” This clearly contradicts both the summary of the President’s phone call with Zelensky a month and a half earlier and the testimony of several officials, including Sondland himself, who made clear that the military aid, as well as progress in the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship that could include an invitation to the White House, was linked to Ukrainian cooperation on the Biden investigation and other issues. The fact that he knew about the complaint at the time he talked to Sondland, though, suggests that he was trying to reset the narrative prior to the whistleblower complaint becoming public:
Trump’s August knowledge about the whistle-blower complaint sheds new light on the possible motivations behind some of the key events in the whole Ukraine saga—namely the fact that Trump knew about the whistle-blower when foreign aid to Ukraine was eventually released on September 11, after previously being held up by Trump for unknown reasons. Republicans have pointed to the aid’s eventual release as a key defense against impeachment, saying that there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo plot if the White House ultimately gave Ukraine the funds without a public declaration that Ukraine would investigate the president’s rivals. The fact that Trump was well aware that his dealings with Ukraine were about to get him into trouble pokes a hole in this defense, instead playing into House Democrats’ theory that the president was acting not out of benevolence to Ukraine, but rather as a way to save himself amid mounting concerns. (The whistle-blower wasn’t the only one raising alarms about Ukraine at the time; three House committees opened an investigation into Trump’s Ukraine dealings on September 9.)
This also means that Trump was aware of the whistle-blower’s allegations when the president started vehemently denying the existence of a quid pro in conversations with his allies—and once again calls into question the motivation behind those statements. Just days after the president learned of the whistle-blower complaint, the Times reports, Trump denied extorting Ukraine in a conversation with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Johnson asked Trump “whether there was some kind of arrangement where Ukraine would take some action and the hold would be lifted,” the senator wrote in a letter to House investigators, and Trump responded, “(Expletive deleted)—No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?” Trump then made a similar denial in an early September phone call with Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. “He was not in a good mood. And he just said I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing,” Sondland testified Wednesday. “Something to that effect.”
In addition to this news, the House Intelligence Committee released the closed-door depositions of two Trump Administration officials with direct knowledge of the circumstances under which the hold on the aid was placed and later released:
Two officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget recently resigned in part over concerns about the holdup on Ukraine aid, a career employee of the agency told impeachment investigators, according to a transcript of his testimony released Tuesday.
Mark Sandy, the only OMB official to testify in the impeachment inquiry, did not name the employees in question. He said one worked in the OMB legal division and described that person as having a “dissenting opinion” about how the security assistance to Ukraine could be held up in light of the Impoundment Control Act, which limits the ability of the executive branch to change spending decisions made by Congress.
Sandy, the agency’s deputy associate director for national security programs, testified on Nov. 16, and his remarks revealed some of the White House’s internal maneuverings relating to blocking the aid. Other White House officials, including Sandy’s superiors at the budget office who are political appointees, have defied congressional subpoenas to participate in the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Sandy was asked specifically about whether the official who worked in the OMB’s legal office quit “at least in part because of their concerns or frustrations about the hold on Ukraine security assistance.” Sandy replied, “Yes, in terms of that process, in part.”
He said the other official, who resigned in September, “expressed some frustrations about not understanding the reason for the hold.”
The release of Sandy’s testimony came as House Democrats on Tuesday took steps forward in their impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s actions, with the judiciary panel scheduling its first hearing for Dec. 4 and the budget panel releasing a report alleging that the White House broke the law when it withheld money from Ukraine.
Sandy’s testimony is the first public confirmation that the dispute at the OMB over the handling of the Ukraine aid became so intense that it contributed to resignations from the agency. In the transcript released Tuesday, Sandy said that he had voiced concerns within the agency about whether holding up the Ukraine aid comported with the law.
“I just made a general reference to the Impoundment Control Act … and said that we would have to assess that with the advice of counsel before proceeding,” Sandy said in describing a conversation he had with a political appointee at the agency who was his superior.
Ultimately, that political appointee, Mike Duffey, took over the process of signing off on the documents that held up the Ukraine money. Sandy told impeachment investigators that until that time, Duffey had voiced no interest in the process of approving apportionments.
Sandy said that his own staff was “surprised and they were concerned” about the apportionment authority being removed from him and that he was not aware of such a step happening before.
He testified that Duffey’s explanation was he wanted to learn more about the “accounts and the programs” at OMB but that Sandy thought there were better ways to do this. But “I took him at his word,” Sandy said.
In findings based on documents turned over by the OMB, the Democratic-led House Budget Committee cites unusual steps the OMB took over the summer as it moved to hold up nearly $400 million of State Department and Pentagon assistance for Ukraine that had been approved by Congress, including several discussed by Sandy in his testimony to congressional investigators.
These included putting Duffey in charge of signing off on spending in late July, after Sandy raised concerns, and delaying funds in a way that limited agencies’ ability to spend congressional appropriations by the end of the fiscal year.
The latter move would be a violation of the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which was passed in response to actions by President Richard M. Nixon. This was the law that Sandy told investigators an OMB legal division officer had voiced concerns about when resigning. Sandy said the official, whom he did not name, did not agree with the position of the OMB’s general counsel that withholding the money was legal.
On the morning of July 25, Trump and Zelensky spoke by phone, and Trump mentioned the possibility of Zelensky’s working with the U.S. government on an investigation into Biden and his son, according to a transcript released by the White House. Later that day, at 6:44 p.m., according to the Budget Committee report, an OMB career official signed a document formally withholding $250 million in Pentagon funds intended for Ukraine.
After this point, political appointees took over the process of approving the funds. The frozen aid was not released until Sept. 12, after House lawmakers were notified of a whistleblower report regarding the Trump-Zelensky call.
Sandy’s testimony isn’t earthshattering but it does show the extent to which the Administration was willing to go to put the screws to Ukraine in an effort to make domestic political gains. This is perhaps best shown by the fact that, contrary to normal Office of Management and Budget procedure, responsibility for the process of approving the military funds to Ukraine was turned over to political appointees presumably acting at the President’s direction. This was contrary to established procedure and, as Sandy noted in his deposition, potentially contrary to the letter and spirit of a 1974 law passed in response to President Nixon having used Executive Branch control over the dispersal of funds to get around funding programs that had been specifically authorized by Congress. This is exactly what happened with the Ukraine military funding, indicating yet another law that the Administration may have violated in this process.
How Republicans can deny reality at this point is beyond me.