The fact that Trump ultimately released the aid without getting anything in return from Ukraine has been a key point made in his defense by supporters, most recently Nikki Haley. How can Trump’s motive to arrange a quid pro quo have been improper when, in the end, there wasn’t a quid pro quo? Ukraine got the dough before it had to do anything about Burisma or CrowdStrike.
The answer — it appeared — was that Trump had given in and finally released the aid in early September only after political pressure and media scrutiny mounted. Congress was asking about it, the press was looking into it, the whistleblower was complaining about it, and so holding onto it suddenly became more trouble than it was worth. Better to hand over the aid and say, “look, no quid pro quo,” to critics than to cling to it until Zelensky said something publicly about the Bidens.
But now here comes Bloomberg with new information: Trump may have never ordered the aid released at all. He may in fact have been willing to cling to it until Zelensky delivered what he wanted, even as members of Congress and his own administration pressed him to cough up the funds. In reality, it appears, the State Department took it upon itself to release the aid on September 9, citing a classified memo that Mike Pompeo had received earlier this year. According to the memo, Mick Mulvaney’s OMB office had no legal authority to put a hold on the money. State was free to release it whenever it liked. So State finally did, three weeks before the end of the fiscal year, at which point the appropriation would have lapsed, and just a few days before the deadline the department faced to provide formal notice to Congress.
Two questions, then. Why has Trump claimed that he ordered the money released on September 11? And who would dare defy Mulvaney and possibly Trump himself by telling Pompeo and State to hand the money over to Zelensky after the White House had held it up for so many months?
The first question remains unanswered, although one can speculate about why Trump would have lied. (Better to pretend that he gave the order than admit that he’s being undermined by his own deputies, right?) Bloomberg’s sources think they know who told State to hand over Ukraine’s money, though,. You’ll never guess.
The memo to Pompeo had determined that State had the authority to spend the money — regardless of what Trump was saying through the OMB — and would start the process by Sept. 7. But State officials were also wary of provoking a confrontation with OMB and Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff who still leads the budget office, whose team argued they could block the money through a process known as apportionment…
What they didn’t know, according to one of the people, was that shortly before Sept. 9, [John] Bolton had relayed a message to the State Department that the funding could go ahead. It’s not clear whether Bolton, who resigned from the job a week later, did so with Trump’s approval.
Bolton’s handling of the funding struck officials in the White House as violating protocol and caught Mulvaney by surprise, according to another person familiar with the matter.
An OMB spokeswoman denied that characterization, saying Bolton had done no such thing and didn’t have the authority to do so. Nonetheless, Bolton at the time was waging a battle with senior-level OMB officials over the funding and opposed putting any conditions on the aid.
Two of Bloomberg’s sources claim that State obtained “top-level guidance” to finally release the aid. Did that guidance come from the National Security Advisor, as “top-level” as it gets?
And is this the real reason why Bolton finally resigned/was fired, because he had gone over Trump’s head in authorizing the release of aid that Trump was using as leverage on Burisma? Bolton is a hawk whose top priority would have been bolstering Ukraine’s military resistance to Russia, not enabling Trump’s quid pro quo. Maybe he figured that he was destined to leave the administration soon one way or another given how sour his relationship with Trump had become and figured an act of insubordination that would at least make life harder for Putin was one way to go.
Relatedly, is this the new information Bolton’s lawyer was hinting at in his letter to congressional investigators on Friday? Bolton “was personally involved in many of the events, meetings, and conversations about which you have already received testimony, as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far,” his attorney claimed. Imagine Bolton waltzing into the hearing room and telling Adam Schiff that not only was there an improper quid pro quo, Trump was so determined to see it through in the name of forcing Zelensky to say something about the Bidens that he would have continued to delay the Ukraine aid — if John Bolton himself hadn’t foiled the scheme.
Having Bolton testify against him under oath would be bad for the president. But it could get worse:
Mick Mulvaney works only about 50 steps from the Oval Office as he runs the White House staff but rather than simply obey President Trump’s order to not cooperate with House impeachment investigators, he sent his lawyers to court late Friday night asking a judge whether he should or not…
In effect, Mr. Mulvaney hopes the court will tell him whether to listen to his own boss, who wants him to remain silent, or to comply with a subpoena from the House, which wants his testimony. That put Mr. Mulvaney at odds with some other current White House and administration officials who had simply defied the House, citing the president’s order not to cooperate with what he called an illegitimate “witch hunt.”
Mr. Mulvaney did not explain why he chose a different course, but his decision focused renewed attention on his relationship with Mr. Trump; it has been increasingly strained as House Democrats prepare to open public hearings into whether the president should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
As chief of staff, a member of the president’s innermost circle, Mulvaney presumably has a strong defense to a congressional subpoena on grounds of executive privilege. He could simply ignore a Democratic demand that he show up and dare them to sue him. They might not even bother, figuring that the need for speed in wrapping up impeachment won’t permit them a long court fight with Mulvaney to get him to testify. Instead here’s Mulvaney joining a suit *against Trump* (and against the House) asking the courts for clarity on whether he needs to comply with a subpoena or not. Does he … want to testify but is afraid of angering Trump and MAGA Nation by doing so without an order from a court demanding that he do so? The Times is right to note how “strained” his relationship with Trump is, with the president refusing to clearly say last week when asked that he’s happy with Mulvaney’s performance.
Maybe Mulvaney, like Bolton, no longer feels particularly loyal to Trump and is willing to tell what he knows, especially with chatter lately that he, Giuliani, and Gordon Sondland are being lined up as “fall guys” for the president. If worse comes to worst, Trump could always claim that he had nothing to do with the hold on the Ukraine aid, that it was Rudy’s idea, facilitated by Mulvaney and OMB and used by Sondland as leverage in his negotiations with the Ukrainians, all without the president’s authorization. (Ironically, if Bolton really did defy Trump by ordering the military aid released, that would support Trump’s claim that his top aides sometimes do important things without him knowing about it — like, er, organizing a quid pro quo.) Does Mick Mulvaney want to get hung out to dry and blamed as the “real mastermind” of the Ukraine deal? Maybe he’s worried about it and that’s why he’s suddenly interested in testifying.