President Trump told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold back almost $400 million in military aid for Ukraine at least a week before a phone call in which Trump is said to have pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the son of former vice president Joe Biden, according to three senior administration officials.
Officials at the Office of Management and Budget relayed Trump’s order to the State Department and the Pentagon during an interagency meeting in mid-July, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. They explained that the president had “concerns” and wanted to analyze whether the money needed to be spent.
Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an “interagency process” but to give them no additional information — a pattern that continued for nearly two months, until the White House released the funds on the night of Sept. 11.
Trump’s order to withhold aid to Ukraine a week before his July 25 call with Volodymyr Zelensky is likely to raise questions about the motivation for his decision and fuel suspicions on Capitol Hill that Trump sought to leverage congressionally approved aid to damage a political rival.
According to administration officials, discussions about Ukrainian aid began in June. Withholding aid from foreign governments is something the president has frequently requested, such as with Central American countries when he said they were not doing their part to help the United States with immigrants amassing at the southern border.
Former national security adviser John Bolton wanted to release the money to Ukraine because he thought it would help the country while curtailing Russian aggression. But Trump has said he was primarily concerned with corruption.
“It’s very important to talk about corruption,” Trump told reporters. “If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
Besides Bolton, several other administration officials said they did not know why the aid was being canceled or why a meeting was not being scheduled.
The decision was communicated to State and Defense officials on July 18, officials familiar with the meeting said.
By mid-August, lawmakers were acutely aware that the OMB had assumed all decision-making authority from the Defense and State departments and was delaying the distribution of the aid through a series of short-term notices. Several congressional officials questioned whether the OMB had the legal authority to direct federal agencies not to spend money that Congress had already authorized, aides said.
Spokespeople for the Pentagon and the State Department declined to comment.
Mid-August is also when a whistleblower from the intelligence community filed a complaint regarding Trump and Ukraine to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson.
Wow -- CNN put together this clip highlighting how Trump changed his public rationale for withholding aid to Ukraine from yesterday to today pic.twitter.com/25QJ8VPsnU— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 24, 2019