This isn’t proof that Trump intended to use the money as leverage to get the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens, but obviously it’s something one would do *if* one intended to use it that way. Turn off the foreign-aid spigot, make a polite request of Zelensky about corruption and the Biden/Burisma matter, then wait to see how he reacts. If the probe is opened, the spigot reopens too. If not, then not.
The most notable detail in these stories from WaPo and the NYT — apart from the fact that it was Trump himself who ordered that the Ukraine aid be withheld — are how many U.S. officials were reportedly surprised to see the money suddenly and mysteriously bottled up. There are various non-sinister excuses offered by different sources in the two stories for why Trump may have wanted to delay it:
— he wanted to reduce foreign aid generally;
— he wasn’t sure about the “effectiveness” of new aid to Ukraine;
— he couldn’t tell yet if Zelensky was pro-western or pro-Russian;
— he was concerned about domestic corruption;
— he resented that Europe hadn’t done more to provide its own aid to Ukraine, a claim he made this morning at the UN.
The countertheory to all of that is that he was hoping to muscle Zelensky into going after the Bidens and wanted to hold onto the money until he saw some action on the Ukrainians’ part. Either way, notes WaPo, various Americans who were part of the aid process were concerned about the mysterious delay.
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…
Besides [John] Bolton [who wanted the money released to help combat Russia], several other administration officials said they did not know why the aid was being canceled or why a meeting was not being scheduled…
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.
That’s a new angle for impeachment-minded Democrats to chew on. Was it even legal for Trump to have OMB intervene to block aid that had already been appropriated?
The Times’s account makes the sequence of events sound even more suspicious:
The decision to hold back the aid, which had been approved by Congress, came at a time when the president was looking for ways to curb a variety of foreign assistance programs, and some aides at least initially saw it in that broader context. But Mr. Trump singled out Ukraine as a place he considered corrupt and railed about wasting money there, according to people who heard him discuss the matter, and he questioned the aid package for weeks…
It soon became clear that the Ukraine aid freeze was different from the hold placed on other programs. Even after other foreign aid was restored, the money for Ukraine remained blocked.
American government officials were left in the dark, as well. When staff members at the State and Defense Departments who work on issues related to Ukraine learned of the holds in July, they were puzzled and alarmed, according to current and former government officials familiar with the situation.
Pentagon officials tried to make a case to the White House that the Ukraine aid was effective and should not be looked at in the same manner as other aid. But when those arguments were ignored, and when the other aid was allowed to move forward, the Pentagon officials began to wonder about the White House’s skepticism, a former official said.
The U.S. government doles out a lot of money to a lot of corrupt regimes, yet somehow Ukraine drew Trump’s special attention. Eventually members of Congress began sniffing around the aid delay, notes the Times, with some Republicans and Democrats sending a letter to Mick Mulvaney earlier this month pressing him to release the funds. Republican Rob Portman called Trump about it too. Still nothing from the White House. Eventually Dick Durbin played hardball with Trump by warning that he would block the appropriation of $5 billion in money for the Pentagon unless Trump released the money. Trump buddy Lindsey Graham allegedly told the president that he was prepared to support Durbin’s amendment. That’s how alarming and unusual this was — even one of Trump’s friendliest Republican allies were prepared to join with Democrats to force his hand.
Trump eventually released the money on September 11. Which raises a question: How long was he prepared to withhold Ukraine’s aid if Congress hadn’t twisted his arm to fork it over? Was he hoping to keep it in his pocket until Zelensky formally opened an investigation into the Bidens? Because that would look an awful lot like extortion.
The Times notes that Zelensky hadn’t realized yet when he spoke to Trump on July 25 that the aid package had been delayed. That’s a good fact for Trump in that it means POTUS must not have issued any ultimatums to Zelensky during the call. He did, however, allegedly press Zelensky repeatedly to speak to Rudy Giuliani, who was his point man on the Biden matter. And Zelensky figured out soon enough that there was a hold up in American military aid — and, if you believe Dem Sen. Chris Murphy, he also figured out the likely reason. From WaPo:
Murphy, who spoke with Zelensky during an early September visit to Ukraine, said Monday that the Ukrainian president “directly” expressed concerns at their meeting that “the aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence” of his unwillingness to launch an investigation into the Bidens.
Trump himself admitted today at the UN that he put “pressure” on Zelensky about the Biden matter during their call, although he continues to insist that there was no threat involving the military aid tied to that pressure. (Watch below at around 1:25.) His problem from the standpoint of impeachment is that Democrats aren’t looking for evidence of an explicit quid pro quo demand here. The fact that he was leaning on a foreign government to use state power to investigate an American political rival will be grounds enough for them to act, whether or not Trump dangled the aid that Ukraine was owed — although, if he did, obviously that would make the abuse-of-power case even easier.
It’s interesting to see Bolton’s name pop up in all of this, incidentally, particularly as portrayed in the WaPo piece as the man of rectitude who wanted to do the right thing by releasing the aid ASAP and making life harder for the Russians while Trump dithered. Is Bolton a source for the papers on the Ukraine story? He’s one of the few people who was high enough up in the administration to have been in the room for some of these conversations *and* who’s incentivized to settle scores with the president.
Trump confirms he withheld military aid from Ukraine before his call with Ukrainian President Zelensky.
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) September 24, 2019