The chaos and infighting in the Trump administration over the release of military assistance to Ukraine and under what conditions was worse than initially thought, according to a new report from Bloomberg News.
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Citing five people in the administration with knowledge of the events at hand, Bloomberg reports that, although Donald Trump claims that he authorized the release of the already congressionally-appropriated funds on September 11th of this year, the State Department had discretely released $141 million of the money several days earlier after receiving a message from then-National Security Advisor John Bolton giving them the go-ahead.
The story behind the decision by the State Department to release the funds begins with a ruling by State Department attorneys earlier this year that found that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and consequently the president himself, had no legal authority to block the distribution of the Ukraine aid after it was appropriated by Congress.
The previously unreported legal finding was sent in a classified memo to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, but State Department officials were still nervous about the reaction of Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff and still the head of the OMB, whose team insisted that they had the right to block the funds through its powers of “apportionment” — or distribution, as it is referred to outside government circles.
With the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry focusing on the Trump administration’s extortionary withholding of those duly appropriated funds from Ukraine in exchange for a public declaration that their government would launch an investigation into the president’s best-polling political rival, former Vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, the who, how, and why of the withholding of the military aid has become a central focus of their investigations.
Bloomberg reports that many in the administration pushed Trump to release the funds in a mid-August meeting, including Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, and Bolton.
Yet the clash between this faction and Mulvaney’s OMB grew to the point where attorneys for both the State and Defense Departments were determined that “they were going to move forward with this assistance anyway, OMB notwithstanding,” according to the recent congressional testimony of William Taylor, Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine.
The sense of urgency in the two departments came from the fact that legal requirements surrounding the budget require that appropriated funds be spent by the end of the fiscal year which was just weeks away on September 30th or else be returned to the treasury. With an additional requirement to notify Congress two weeks before sending the assistance money, in practice they had only a month left to get the process completed.
As the end of August approached, members of both parties in Congress were looking for explanations as to the holdup in distributing the aid. Their inquiry of August 29th went unanswered by the administration, but when they reiterated their question on September 9th, “the State Department’s Legislative Affairs office told them there was no hold on the $141 million,” according to Bloomberg News.
“What they didn’t know, according to one of the people, was that shortly before Sept. 9, 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,” the news organization reports
“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,” Bloomberg’s reporting continued.
While subsequent testimony before Congress by people who worked with Bolton on the National Security Council indicate that he was staunchly opposed to the administration’s plans to hold the military assistance hostage for its quid pro quo goals, the Trump administration’s official story is that Trump decided to release the money only after Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) called him and practically begged him to do so.
“He called up, ‘Please let the money go,’” Trump said. “I said ‘Rob, I hate being the country that’s always giving money. He said, ‘You know what? But it’s important …’ I gave the money because Rob Portman and others called me and asked. But I don’t like to be the sucker, and European countries are helped far more than we are.”
Whether Trump’s explanation was based on an actual conversation or an excuse made up to avoid embarrassment after the subject became subject to such detailed scrutiny is difficult to determine at this point, but with many of the principles in the debate due in Congress to testify pending the president’s legal battles to claim a novel constitutional defense of complete and total privilege when it comes to executive branch actions, a few more hours of testimony from the participants should help reveal the truth of what happened, with the how and the why following in synch.
Either way, the defiance of the State and Defense Department attorneys towards the Office of Management and Budget shows how deeply the issue of extortionary pressure on a nominal ally divided the Trump administration. As the Ukraine envoy William Taylor testified, the decision to work around the OMB was extraordinary.
“I don’t know if they’ve ever done that before,” Taylor said. “This was a big decision for them,” Taylor said.
Stay tuned for further developments as the impeachment inquiry continues in the weeks ahead.
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Original reporting by Nick Wadhams and Saleha Mohsin at Bloomberg News.