The Pentagon is caught squarely in the middle of the roiling controversy that has led House Democrats to announce the start of impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
The president has conceded that he halted the delivery of nearly $400 million in congressionally-mandated security assistance funds to Ukraine over the summer, at the same time that he pressed the new Ukrainian president to investigate one of Trump’s potential 2020 rivals. Trump has offered shifting explanations for the freeze, at times claiming he delayed the funds because European countries were not giving enough aid to Ukraine and on other occasions blaming the freeze on broad concerns about corruption in Ukraine.
“We want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said again on Tuesday. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
On Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., claimed that the Pentagon specifically was “concerned about the package going to a new administration we didn’t know anything about.” The new Ukrainian president, former TV star Volodymyr Zelensky, “came from nowhere, and there was a lot of concern would this aid wind up being beneficial to the Russians,” Graham said.
That same day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke to reporters at the Pentagon. “I will tell you that corruption is a very serious issue for the services, for DOD,” he said. “It was a concern of the interagency, and it was a concern of Congress.” Corruption in Ukraine, he said, is “just one of the many things that I think we have to continue to assess.”
But there doesn’t appear to be any public evidence of showstopping concerns before or during the freeze. In May, Defense Undersecretary for Policy John Rood wrote to Congress and “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption [and] increasing accountability.” That letter was legally required to release the $250 million of the aid package managed by DOD, and Defense officials publicly announced its upcoming release the following month. (The remaining $141 million in assistance flowed through the State Department.)
Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that corruption was “never a concern I’ve heard” as a justification for withholding aid from Ukraine. A House Armed Services Committee aide said that the Pentagon had raised no formal concerns with that panel about providing the support to the new Zelensky administration, either.
Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is now calling for the Pentagon inspector general to investigate whether the department had a role in withholding the funds.
Reed said he has no reason to believe that Pentagon officials recommended the holdup.
“I think they were caught completely unawares,” he said. “There’s so far been no indication that they were even consulted. If this was a recommendation by a Department of Defense, I would think the administration would put it out as evidence that they were reacting to concerns.”
Congress approved both pots of money for Ukraine — State and DOD — to help push back on Russian aggression. It was to be spent in 2019 for weapons and equipment such as sniper rifles, ammunition and counter-artillery radar systems, as well as training and interoperability support. (Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and Ukraine is still battling Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.) Congress was notified twice this year, on Feb. 28 and May 23, that the administration intended to release the aid.
But by August, the money had not been released.The Office of Management and Budget had taken over decision-making for the funds, issuing a series of short-term notices that the money would be delayed.
At that point, lawmakers of both parties were frustrated. Giving military aid to Ukraine had widespread bipartisan support. “We’re trying to get Ukraine to look west,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a fierce ally of the White House, told Defense One in early September. The administration was “a little bit vague on” why it was delaying the funds, he said. “I can’t quite figure out what it is they’re objecting to.”
Graham said Thursday that it was during this period that he called the Pentagon — “I can’t remember, I talked to the people in charge of aid, whoever they are” — and urged them to release the funds.
“I called them and I said, ‘Do your due diligence, but we need to send a clear signal to Russia and the Ukrainian people that we’re on your side’,” he said. “But the president is not the only one who had concern about corruption and about how the aid would be used for the new president, because nobody knew anything about him.”
Of course, there were and are ongoing concerns about corruption in Ukraine, Armed Services aides said. In the years since the Russian invasion of Crimea, Pentagon officials tasked with supporting Ukraine have frequently urged Kyiv to rid its government of corruption. In 2016, then-defense secretary Ash Carter appointed former CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid as a senior defense advisor to provide “authoritative advice” to Ukrainian officials on military reforms—including reducing corruption, according to a readout from the time.
But those concerns do not appear to have outweighed the policy imperative to send weapons to Ukraine in the summer of 2019, at least as far as Congress and the Pentagon was concerned. On Aug. 29, a senior defense official told Politico that “the department has reviewed the foreign assistance package and supports it.”
Under pressure, the White House finally released both tranches of funds on Sept. 12. By then, a whistleblower had filed a complaint alleging that Trump had sought to use the power of his office to pressure Zelensky into investigating 2020 candidate Joseph Biden and his son Hunter. That complaint and the summary memo of a July phone call between Trump and Zelensky were made public this week. They describe the president touting the amount of aid the United States gives to Ukraine, then asking for the investigation.
In the call, Zelensky also pressed Trump for an in-person meeting.
“According to [U.S.] officials, it was ‘made clear’ to them that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelensky until he saw how Zelensky ‘chose to act’ in office,” the whistleblower wrote in his complaint.
“I do not know how this guidance was communicated, or by whom. I also do not know whether this action was connected with the broader understanding, described in the unclassified letter, that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelensky would depend on whether Zelensky showed willingness to ‘play ball’” on the Biden issue.
Democrats see the conversation as seeking a clear quid pro quo: Trump wants an investigation of a domestic political rival, Ukraine gets the aid and a meeting. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday tapped the Intelligence Committee to lead impeachment proceedings into Trump focused on the allegations in the whistleblower complaint.
Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill firmly deny that there was anything inappropriate about his interactions with the Ukranian president.
“I don’t know who led who” to the freeze, Graham said, referring to the Pentagon and OMB. “But I do know the people I talked to had concerns.”