OMB: Hold put on Ukraine aid same day as Trump call
The White House budget office’s first official action to withhold $250 million in Pentagon aid to Ukraine came on the evening of July 25, the same day President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke on the phone, according to a House Budget Committee summary of the office’s documents.
That withholding letter, which was among documents provided to the committee, was signed by a career Office of Management and Budget official, the summary states. But the next month, OMB political appointee Michael Duffey signed letters taking over the decision to withhold both the Pentagon and State Department aid to Ukraine from the career official.
A hold was placed on the Ukraine aid at the beginning of July, and the agencies were notified at a July 18 meeting that it had been frozen at the direction of the President, a week before the Trump-Zelensky call.
The career official who initially withheld the aid money was Mark Sandy, according to a source familiar with the matter. Sandy testified before House impeachment investigators in a closed-door deposition, while Duffey defied a subpoena.
The documents to the House Budget Committee provide additional insight into the actions going on inside the White House’s budget office to hold up the US aid to Ukraine, a key part of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. The committee only received a partial production of documents, which are separate from the impeachment inquiry, and it’s unclear what the significance is that the money was officially withheld on the same day as the July 25 call.
Asked about the information, an OMB spokesman said, “OMB has and will continue to use its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President’s priorities and with the law. This is the same old spin from Democrats.”
Trump spoke to Zelensky the morning of July 25 around 9 a.m. ET. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs, testified before Congress that that afternoon there were three interactions from her staff that indicate the Ukrainian government was aware there was an issue with US aid to the country.
An email from the State Department that Cooper said came through at 2:31 p.m. ET said the “Ukrainian embassy and House foreign affairs committee are asking about security assistance.”
Another email from the State Department at 4:25 p.m. ET that day said: “The Hill knows about the FMF (foreign military financing) situation to an extent and so does the Ukrainian embassy.”
“A member of my staff got a question from a Ukraine embassy contact asking what was going on with Ukraine security assistance,” Cooper said.
OMB issued several short-term withholdings of the Ukraine aid in August and September. OMB sent notification that the money would be released on September 11, the summary says, and the remainder of the funds were released on September 27 and September 30, which is the last day of the fiscal year.
The letters from Duffey show that on August 9, OMB said it would begin releasing 2% of the State Department funds each day, which the committee says prevented the normal spending of those funds.
Then on August 29, one day after Politico first reported that the aid had been withheld, Duffey signed another letter releasing 25% of the State Department funds each Sunday between September 1 and 22, according to the summary.
The handling of the Ukraine aid has some legal experts raising the possibility that the Trump administration violated a Nixon-era law called the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, by withholding defense dollars intended for Ukraine in a way that did not allow the Pentagon enough time to spend all of the money.
Cooper testified that in early August she had informed Duffey that the law required the money to be released to meet the September 30 deadline. Cooper testified that if the freeze stretched to late August “they would not be able to obligate all of the funding.”
“The illegal hold happened in August when Duffey was told by DOD that they wouldn’t be able to spend funding by the end of the year if the hold continued and they ignored that. That’s when the illegal action was,” former Senior OMB lawyer Sam Berger told CNN.
Berger added that the Trump administration also failed to explain to Congress in a formal rescission notice why it wanted to withhold funds that Congress had approved. “It’s a formal document that explains the money you want to withhold and why. It’s a formal process and there’s no question they did not do this” Berger said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.