WASHINGTON ― As U.S. lawmakers grapple with why President Donald Trump froze nearly $400 in military aid for Ukraine, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said he has “no doubt whatsoever” Trump sought a quid pro quo for damaging information about the Bidens, and that he was open with Republican lawmakers about it.
In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Smith alleged Trump told some conservative House Republicans who sought to free Ukraine military aid about Trump’s supposed intent to use it as leverage to convince Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Though Smith acknowledged the allegation was based on hearsay, questions about what Trump told his allies in Congress could further complicate the already complicated House impeachment proceedings that have dominated Capitol Hill for the last few weeks.
“Crucially, I was also told, this is second- and third-hand, that the president was not incredibly shy in saying he was holding up these funds because he wanted the Ukrainians to do these investigations,” Smith, D-Wash., said, acknowledging, “I do not have direct evidence.”
The House’s impeachment inquiry centers on a July 25 call in which Trump discussed the aid with Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and asked him to probe Biden and his son. Trump acknowledged publicly that he made the request but denied wrongdoing, calling the call, “perfect.” On Thursday, Trump went further, publicly calling on China to probe the Bidens.
Smith’s remarks came hours before the revelation that top U.S. diplomats encouraged Zelenskiy to conduct an investigation linked to Biden’s family in return for a high-profile visit to Washington with Trump. It soon escalated into what one feared was a “crazy” swap that risked vital U.S. military aid.
That’s according to a cache of text messages released late Thursday by House investigators which lay out the raw contours of a potential quid-pro-quo exchange — Trump gets his political investigation of a top Democratic rival in return for some price to be paid by the new Ukraine leader — now at the heart of the House impeachment investigation .
Lawmakers said that for past administrations, delaying security assistance funds would trigger a formal briefing to Congress, but even top lawmakers and allies of the president said the administration was playing their cards so closely that they were forced to reach out to the State Department or Defense Department themselves. In the case of more than a dozen lawmakers and aides, the timeline and process for the hold was not made entirely clear, though lawmakers did determine the decision came directly from the president.
“We were not notified by the Pentagon or the executive branch that this decision had been made,” Smith said, adding that this was “very unusual. We found out in a backhanded sort of way ... We called the Pentagon, and when we asked why, they didn’t have an answer.”
Congress orders Pentagon, White House probes
Though Trump released the hold on the the Pentagon and State Department aid on Sept. 11, lawmakers this week were still questioning why the Trump administration, for weeks this summer, held up money that it had requested and Congress had approved.
On Thursday, the Department of Defense’s Office of General Counsel directed all Pentagon offices to provide any “pertinent” information related to the distribution of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Chief DoD Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters the directive was issued to preserve documents for "future use,” which follows a request from Democratic lawmakers that the DoD Inspector General review the role of DoD officials in the delay.
Separately, the chairmen of the House appropriations and budget committees sent a letter asking Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to establish a clear timeline for when, why, and how the president withheld the funding. It’s been widely reported that Trump asked Mulvaney to withhold the Ukraine aid a week before the Zelenskiy call, which was then relayed to the State Department and the Pentagon during an interagency meeting.
“As reports continue to emerge, we have deepening concerns that [the White House Office of Management and Budget] continues to demonstrate a pattern of impeding agencies’ ability to use their enacted appropriations,” the letter says, adding that “recent apportionment actions taken by OMB to withhold military aid and foreign assistance funding administered by the Department of Defense, Department of State, and U.S. Agency for International Development constitute unlawful impoundments.”
Defense News has learned that OMB made the hold official through an apportionment document it distributed internally on July 25, the same day as the controversial call between Trump and Zelenskiy―though a senior administration official on Thursday said the date was a coincidence.
It was earlier that Trump asked then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to look into whether allies are paying their fair share and whether the account was serving U.S. interests, the official said.
Though the Pentagon had already signed off on its portion of the aid by then, the official said, “The president has the final call, and the president was asking for his own policy process to be run.”
Yet top lawmakers appear to have been kept in the dark by that process. Late last month, powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that he was never told the administration’s reason for holding Ukraine aide, though he spoke with Esper twice and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once.
“I have no idea what precipitated the delay, but I was among those advocating that we needed to stick with our Ukrainian friends,” said McConnell, adding: “I was not given an explanation,” and, “The good news was it finally happened.”
Trump’s diverging explanations
Since releasing a rough transcript of his call with Zelenskiy and a whistleblower complaint about the call, Trump has shifted his public explanation for delaying the aid from concerns about corruption in Ukraine to burden sharing with European allies.
“Why is it only the United States putting up the money―and by the way, we paid that money,” Trump said last month, adding, “I think it’s unfair we put up the money, then people called me and said let it go. I let it go.”
Contradicting Trump’s claim about laggardly European donors, European Institutions in 2016-2017 provided more than twice the development aid provided by the United States, which did beat Germany by a narrow margin, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Undermining the corruption argument is a May 23 letter Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood sent to four congressional committees which indicated he “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption [and] increasing accountability."
Zelenskiy, inaugurated in May 2019, is credited with working to clean up government-owned Ukrainian defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom, which had been at the center of a 2015 kickback scheme. Rood’s letter pointed to Ukraine’s commitment to defense industry reforms, but he also hedged, noting that “increased transparency in acquisition and budgeting will require a sustained effort.”
A month after Rood’s letter, the Pentagon announced the assistance, to include sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and counter-artillery radars. Its statement said the aid was enabled by, “Ukraine’s continued progress on the adoption of key defense institutional reforms” as well as America’s commitment to helping Ukraine implement reforms.
Lawmakers get frustrated
As Politico broke the news about the hold in late August, lawmakers concerned about Ukraine’s ability to defend its sovereignty against Russia and the mixed signals sent by the delay stepped up the pressure on the administration with floor speeches, letters and personal phone calls.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ally of Trump’s but an advocate for the Ukraine aid, told reporters on Sept. 24 that he sought and got an explanation about the delay. He spelled out concerns he said Pentagon officials shared with him about Zelenkskiy, though they don’t line up with either of the above Pentagon communications.
“The Pentagon was concerned about the new [Ukrainian] administration, can we trust them to have the weapons, and Trump’s always tried to get others to pay more by withholding aid,” Graham said, adding: “[Pentagon officials] wanted to find out if the new [Ukrainian] administration was reliable.”
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said he sought an explanation from the State Department and came up dry.
“We asked specifically the State Department whether or not they had any policy issues with the money, the answer was no,” Menendez said. “We asked whether they were presented with any policy issues by OMB and the answer was no. As far as I’m concerned, it’s obvious there weren’t policy issues, there were political issues.”
On Aug. 30, Smith and HASC ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, wrote to Mulvaney to demand an explanation for its delay and a timeline for the aid’s release, citing the defense policy law that authorizes the aid. “Now is not the time to withdraw assistance to Ukraine, and to do so goes against Congressional intent,” they wrote.
That day, the co-chairs of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Mike Quigley, D-Ill., condemned the delay in a joint statement as “disturbing, and demonstrates once again [Trump’s] affinity for Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin."
“At the point of presidential transition in a country like Ukraine, whose future is uncertain because of Russia’s invasion, that’s the time you strengthen that president, not weaken him,” Kaptur said last week.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, also wrote to Mulvaney that week to urge the Ukraine aid be made available "without delay.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he called Trump personally sometime in late August to ask that the Ukraine aid be released. On the call, Inhofe played to Trump’s decision last year to provide defensive lethal aid, something Inhofe had advocated when President Barack Obama would only provide non-lethal equipment.
“I said this has been authorized, this has been appropriated, and then I talked to them about how during the administration of Obama, many people died over there because they didn’t have adequate defensive equipment,” Inhofe said, adding that he was not offered an explanation for the hold.
A ‘sucker country’
Senate Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., did get an explanation in a call with Trump ahead of a trip to meet with Zelenskiy in Kyiv. Johnson had hoped in vain to convince Trump to “let the money flow.”
“He’s concerned about corruption, when you’re putting hundreds of millions of dollars into a country,” Johnson said of Trump last week. “Secondly, the same complaint President Trump has had in terms of the level of support of European partners for a country in their backyard, not ours.”
Johnson’s explanation tracked with what Vice President Mike Pence said after he attended a meeting with Zelenskiy in Warsaw, Poland, on Sept. 1. Pence also told reporters that he and Zelenskiy had discussed the White House’s decision to halt the aid.
“As President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption,” Pence said, adding that to invest additional taxpayer money in Ukraine, “the president wants to be assured that those resources are truly making their way to the kind of investments that will contribute to security and stability in Ukraine. And that’s an expectation the American people have and the president has expressed very clearly.”
Johnson was one of a select few lawmakers who said they knew the president’s rationale. The administration, on the other hand, did not clue in Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who traveled with Johnson.
“The process of holding the aid? I don’t have a window into their process,” Murphy said last week. “It caught all of us by surprise, Republicans and Democrats. There didn’t seem to be much, if any, consultations with Congress.”
Days after Pence’s trip, the pressure on Trump ramped up significantly. The Washington Post reported Sept. 5 it was “reliably told” Trump’s decision to delay the aid was part of the effort to get Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens, a report that spurred three House committees―Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Government Reform―to announce they would probe the matter.
On Sept. 9, the day Congress returned from its summer recess, the Intelligence Community Inspector General alerted lawmakers to existence of the whistleblower complaint. It included allegations that the Ukrainian military assistance may have been withheld to pressure Zelenskiy into probing Biden.
Also on Sept. 9, Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a leader in the Senate Ukraine Caucus and a longtime advocate for Ukraine aid, told reporters he believed he had prevailed in his efforts to lobby the administration to release the aid.
“It’s such a critical time for Zelenskiy and it would send the wrong message right now,” Portman said of the delay, adding that the White House and State Department, “understand that Zelenskiy’s an important ally.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Trump credited Portman with swaying him in a phone call. He also said Portman could attest that the release was not conditioned on receiving any favors from Zelenskiy, but over Trump’s concerns about Europe’s lack of financial support for Ukraine.
“Because [Portman] called up―‘Please, let the money go.’ I said, ‘Rob, I hate being the country that’s always giving money. When Ukraine helps Europe and the European countries far more than they help us. They’re like a wall between Russia and Europe. They’re like a wall. They’re like a big, wide, beautiful wall.’
“I don’t like being the sucker country. We were the sucker country for years and years. We’re not the sucker country anymore," Trump said. “But 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, and those countries should pay more to help Ukraine.”
On Sept. 12, Graham announced at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting that the White House had agreed to release the money. At the time, Graham planned to support an amendment from Sen. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, that was aimed at keeping the money from expiring Sept. 30.
“What we did last year at this committee, at this markup was to give $250 million to the Ukrainian Assistance Initiative, a big and important sum of money,” Durbin said of the Pentagon account. “The problem was the administration asked for the money, was given the money and then refused to spend the money until last night, right before the hearing ... Why the delay?”
One appropriator, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford had visited Zelenskiy in Kyiv in May and then a month later hailed the Pentagon announcement for the aid in an announcement of his own. But on Sept. 12, Lankford defended the administration’s delay as “due diligence,” and he has since said U.S. officials in Ukraine raised concerns to him during his trip.
“There were some early moves by the new [Zelenskiy] administration that kind of made the hair stand up on the backs of the necks of our State Department folks and ask, which direction is this going to go,” Lankford said, noting that Zelenskiy was a political neophyte.
“Early on, State Department was pretty nervous, not anxious, but just attentive, I guess,” Lankford said. “As time went on, [Zelenskiy] started to make more appointments, everybody started to relax, that he was pro-Ukraine, pro-West.”
After the Sept. 12 appropriations hearing, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, an ally of the president, said he had engaged in “lots of discussions” with Trump about moving the money. But he said his policy was not to share with the press what was said between him and the president.
“Many of the people in Congress did want to see the money freed up, it was part of the appropriations to start with, so it was part of the natural process,” Risch said of the hold, declining to explain what the delay had been.
“I’ll let you guys dig a little deeper for that," he said. “I’m not going to give you that.”
Leo Shane, III, of Military Times, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.