When the White House finally released $400 million in defense assistance it had withheld from Ukraine while pressuring its government to investigate President Trump’s political opponents, Republican and Democratic lawmakers had mere days to ensure millions of dollars for military equipment would not expire.
Even as the first stages of what became an impeachment inquiry got underway, key lawmakers in both parties raced over a frantic week last month to move the complex levers of the federal government’s spending process to save the aid for Ukraine, according to interviews and official communications.
Bipartisan pressure from Congress and officials within the administration prompted the White House to lift its hold on the defense assistance on Sept. 11. With a mandated 15-day wait period, that left less than a week to secure the money before the legal authority to spend it expired Sept. 30.
“Fifteen days to cut the checks and do all the paperwork and so forth,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to Ukraine in mid-September to meet with military and foreign ministers. “That’s a big issue.”
Ultimately, lawmakers quietly tucked an extension into a stopgap spending bill to allow the State and Defense departments to use the money past the end of the month.
Trump signed the bill into law Sept. 27, three days before the deadline.
Despite those efforts, roughly $40 million of the money Congress originally appropriated for Defense Department aid to Ukraine still hasn’t been transferred to or contracted for the Ukrainians, according to the Pentagon, but will be over the coming weeks. That shortfall represents critical military equipment, including rocket-propelled-grenade launchers and gear for secure communications and to detect electronic warfare.
The scramble to save the Ukraine aid underscores how the administration’s freeze on the money raised alarm across party lines, and across the government, even before a whistleblower complaint first disclosed that Trump had been putting pressure on Ukrainian leaders to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
Republican lawmakers shared Democrats’ concerns about the holdup in aid, as did Pentagon and State Department officials. Some of those GOP lawmakers are among Trump’s staunchest public defenders against the impeachment inquiry.
Trump administration officials and Republican allies are downplaying the effect of the holdup. Defense Department officials have been careful to say publicly that “at no time or at any time has any delay in this money, this funding, affected U.S. national security,” as Defense Secretary Mark Esper put it. But in the meantime, the Trump administration’s actions have left Ukraine militarily and politically vulnerable.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned a desire to purchase Javelin antitank weapons to Trump in their now-infamous July 25 phone call, to which Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor though,” according to the White House account of the call.
Trump asked for Ukraine’s government to investigate the Bidens, as well as the origins of the U.S. investigation into foreign meddling in the 2016 election.
“The United States has been very good to Ukraine,” Trump told Zelensky, complaining the relationship had not been “reciprocal.”
The Javelins, which the Ukrainians say they need amid continued clashes with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, have yet to arrive.
The congressional trip that Garamendi led to Kyiv and Lviv in September had been planned months in advance. But since the whistleblower complaint became public a few days before the delegation arrived in Ukraine, the visit quickly became focused on the on-the-ground effects of the delay in military aid, Garamendi said.
The two-month freeze in aid forced the Ukrainian military to deplete its stockpiles, military and government officials told lawmakers, and raised internal concerns about whether the U.S. would remain a reliable ally.
“We’re talking bullets and guns and ammunition and artillery and so forth, all these things, and so any delay could change a battle if it doesn’t show up,” Garamendi said.
The aid is part of a program known as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, created by Congress in 2015 after the Crimea annexation. Along with the Countering Russian Influence Fund and other State Department programs, these accounts serve as a signal of political will in the U.S. to stand up to Russian influence.
Many Republican Russia hawks had criticized the Obama administration for not approving the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine. The Trump administration approved the sales in 2017 despite resistance from some Trump allies who had pushed to take references to lethal assistance out of the GOP platform in the 2016 presidential campaign — including now-convicted former Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort.
Congress approved the $250 million in military aid and an additional $141 million in assistance from the State Department last fall with bipartisan support.
At the end of February, the Pentagon told defense and foreign affairs committees on Capitol Hill that it was coordinating with the State Department to transfer $125 million in aid and equipment to Ukraine. Then, in May, the Pentagon notified the panels it would send the other $125 million, certifying that Ukraine had made progress on corruption, as lawmakers had required when they approved the funds.
That certification, two months before the president’s call with Zelensky, undermines one explanation Trump and his allies have offered for holding up the money — that it was because of broader concerns about corruption.
“Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?” Trump said at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, while suggesting there would have been nothing wrong with tying the aid to a request to investigate an American political figure.
In July, before Trump’s call with Zelensky, the president told Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, to hold the aid, an order then relayed to the Defense and State departments. Officials expressed concern they were potentially running afoul of the law by holding money appropriated by Congress.
It wasn’t until mid-August, days after the whistleblower submitted his complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general, but a month before it became public, that congressional committees that handle defense issues learned the aid was being held up. In late August, after news reports that the assistance had been frozen, the Defense Department confirmed to the defense committees that the Office of Management and Budget had put a hold on the assistance, without explanation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly got involved, reaching out to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Esper as senators and representatives began writing letters, making public statements and speeches criticizing the holdup.
“I have no idea what precipitated the delay, but I was among those advocating that we needed to stick with our Ukrainian friends,” McConnell told reporters.
On Sept. 9, the intelligence community inspector general notified the House and Senate intelligence committees, as required by law, that a “matter of urgent concern” had been raised by a whistleblower. The notice did not specify that the matter involved Ukraine.
Two days later, the Pentagon and State departments sent lawmakers official notification that the money was being disbursed, setting off the scramble to ensure it was committed before it expired at the end of the month. How the aid came to be withheld, and why, is expected to be a focus of the impeachment inquiry.
At least one Republican senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, had been told in August that aid was being withheld from the Ukrainians amid pressure on the Kyiv government to launch investigations related to 2016. He said he did not recall mention of the Biden family.
Johnson said he was told the reason for the delay by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who is scheduled to testify as part of the impeachment inquiry this week. According to Johnson, he called the president the next day, and Trump denied a connection between the holdup and a push for Ukraine to open investigations.
“He said, ‘Expletive deleted — No way. I would never do that,’ ” Johnson told the Wall Street Journal. “Who told you that?”