President Trump gave ‘clear direction’ to withhold Ukraine aid: report

News, Politics 3 January, 2020

President Trump gave “clear direction” to federal officials to withhold a nine-figure military aid package from Ukraine after asking that nation’s leader to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, according to newly leaked emails between administration officials.

The purported order was detailed by Michael Duffey, the associate director of national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget, to Elaine McCusker, the acting Pentagon comptroller, in an Aug. 30 email that was viewed by national security news site Just Security.

On that date, Trump met with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss the congressionally approved $391 million aid package, which was at the time in limbo following a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In what Democrats have alleged to be a quid pro quo, Trump requested that Zelensky investigate the Bidens over Hunter Biden’s lucrative gig at a Ukrainian energy company during his dad’s tenure as vice president, as the aid hung in the balance, leading to the president’s impeachment in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.

Leading Republican lawmakers contend, however, that the president has the authority to withhold such foreign aid when there is suspicion of corruption in the receiving country, as there had been over notoriously corrupt Ukraine. Among them is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who made the case for such a defense during a November appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

That argument is expected to be part of the defense presented by the GOP in an eventual impeachment trial in the Senate.

Hours after the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, Duffey wrote to top defense officials: “Based on guidance I have received and in light of the Administration’s plan to review assistance to Ukraine, including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, please hold off on any additional [Department of Defense] obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process,” according to Just Security.

“I understand that DOD will continue its planning and casework during this period and that this brief pause in obligations will not preclude DOD’s timely execution of the final policy direction,” Duffey continued. “Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction.”

Then, following Trump’s August huddle with Esper and Pompeo, Duffey passed word to McCusker: “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold,” in another unredacted email viewed by Just Security.

The cash flow was eventually restored to Ukraine in September without a probe being launched into the Bidens.

In December, a court ordered the government to release almost 300 pages of emails to the Center for Public Integrity in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit. The document dump included Duffey’s emails, but they were heavily redacted.

In its report, Just Security —  an outlet based at NYU’s School of Law focusing on legal and national security issues — said it had viewed unredacted copies of those emails, which begin in June and end in early October. Just Security does not clarify how it came to see them.