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Trump ordered hold on military aid days before asking Ukrainian President for Biden probe, officials say
[WASHINGTON] US President Donald Trump told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold back almost US$400 million in military aid for Ukraine at least a week before a phone call in which Mr Trump is said to have pressured the Ukrainian President to investigate the son of former vice-president Joe Biden, according to three senior administration officials.
Officials at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) relayed Mr Trump's order to the State Department and the Pentagon during an inter-agency meeting in mid-July, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
They explained that the President had "concerns" and wanted to analyse whether the money needed to be spent.
Administration officials were instructed to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an "inter-agency 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.
Mr Trump's order to withhold aid to Ukraine a week before his July 25 call with Mr Volodymyr Zelensky is likely to raise questions about the motivation for his decision and fuel suspicions on Capitol Hill that Mr Trump sought to leverage congressionally approved aid to damage a political rival.
The revelation comes as lawmakers clash with the White House over a related whistleblower complaint made by an intelligence official alarmed by Mr Trump's actions, and as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, is said to be exploring whether it's time to allow impeachment proceedings.
Republican senators on the Senate Appropriations Committee said on Sept 12 that the aid to Ukraine had been held up while the Trump administration explored whether Mr Zelensky, the country's new President, was pro-Russian or pro-Western.
They said the White House decided to release the aid after Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, threatened to freeze US$5 billion in Pentagon funding for next year unless the money for 2019 was distributed.
One senior administration official said on Monday that Mr Trump's decision to hold back the funds was based on his concerns about there being "a lot of corruption in Ukraine" and that the determination to release the money was motivated by the fiscal year's looming close on Sept 30.
There was concern within the administration that if they did not spend the money, they would run afoul of the law, this official said, noting that, eventually, Mr Trump gave the OMB's acting director, Russell Vought, permission to release the money.
The official emphatically denied that there was any link between blocking the aid and pressing Mr Zelensky into investigating the Bidens, stating: "It had nothing to do with a quid pro quo."
But on Capitol Hill, Democrats were calling for an investigation of what they viewed as potential "extortion", as Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Democrat, put it on Monday.
Mr Trump, he said, is trying to "reshape American foreign policy" to advance his personal and political goals.
"I don't think it really matters... whether the President explicitly told the Ukrainians that they wouldn't get their security aid if they didn't interfere in the 2020 elections," said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.
"There is an implicit threat in every demand that a United States President makes of a foreign power... That foreign country knows that if they don't do it, there are likely to be consequences."
Mr Trump on Monday repeated his denial of doing anything improper and insisted that his July 25 conversation with Mr Zelensky was "a perfect phone call". He also hinted that he may release a transcript of it.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said late on Monday that the allegations were false.
"But because the media wants this story to be true so badly, they'll once again manufacture a frenzy and drive ignorant, fake stories to attack this president," Mr Gidley said.
It appears the Ukrainian leader came away from the discussion with a different impression.
Mr Murphy, who spoke with Mr Zelensky during an early September visit to Ukraine, said on 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.
Mr Hunter Biden served for nearly five years on the board of Burisma, Ukraine's largest private gas company, whose owner came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment.
Mr Hunter Biden was not accused of wrongdoing in the investigation. As vice-president, Mr Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Mr Viktor Shokin, who Mr Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases - at one point, threatening to withhold US$1 billion in loan guarantees.
At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and US officials.
Mr Trump's allies have frequently said he has been better about distributing military aid, and specifically lethal aid, to Ukraine than his predecessor.
Yet according to Democratic and Republican aides, no administration has withheld funds as long and as mysteriously as the Trump administration did this year since the United States began helping Ukraine fend off Russian-backed separatists in the country's eastern provinces.
Congressional officials were notified twice this year, on Feb 28 and again on May 23, that the administration intended to release large tranches of military aid to Ukraine.
Congress approved two large pots of military aid for Ukraine during fiscal 2019: US$250 million, to be managed by the Pentagon, for equipment such as sniper rifles, counter-artillery radar systems, ammunition and grenade launchers; and US$141 million, to be funnelled through the State Department, for maritime security, Nato interoperability and various initiatives to help Ukraine's military fend off Russian aggression.
Despite those notifications, the money was not transmitted until this month.
According to administration officials, discussions about Ukrainian aid began in June.
Withholding aid from foreign governments is something the President has frequently requested, such as with Central American countries when he believed they were not doing their part to help the United States with immigrants amassing at the southern border.
Former national security adviser John Bolton wanted to release the money to Ukraine because he thought it would help the country while curtailing Russian aggression. But Mr Trump has said he was primarily concerned with corruption.
"It's very important to talk about corruption," Mr Trump told reporters. "If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"
Besides Mr Bolton, several other administration officials said they did not know why the aid was being cancelled or why a meeting was not being scheduled.
The decision was communicated to State and Defence officials on July 18, officials familiar with the meeting said.
By mid-August, lawmakers were acutely aware that the OMB had assumed all decision-making authority from the Departments of Defence and State, 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 authorised, aides said.
Representatives for the Pentagon and the State Department declined to comment.
Mid-August is also when a whistleblower from the intelligence community filed a complaint regarding Mr Trump and Ukraine to Intelligence Community Inspector-General Michael Atkinson.
Mr Atkinson informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the complaint's existence on Sept 9 - the same day three House committees launched an investigation to determine whether Mr Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani had improperly pushed Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
Capitol Hill has not been briefed on the details of the whistleblower complaint, on orders of the acting director of national intelligence, Mr Joseph Maguire, who after consulting with the Justice Department and the White House declined to transmit the complaint to lawmakers.
On Thursday, Mr Maguire is set to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee and in a closed session before the Senate Intelligence Committee.