President Trump asked his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to ensure Ukraine did not receive the $391 million in military aid Congress had approved — at least one week ahead of the phone call he made to that country’s leaders that now sits at the center of a whistleblower’s complaint.
Officials at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) told the Pentagon and State Department in mid-July to freeze the aid over “concerns” that the money didn’t need to be spent.
The funds were finally released on September 11, but the timing of that request — not to mention Trump’s personal involvement — is drawing extra scrutiny as the whistleblower complaint roils Washington.
That complaint, which reportedly includes concerns about Ukraine, has led many to suspect Trump attempted to coerce Ukraine’s president to investigate a potential political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, by threatening to withhold the funds unless an investigation was launched.
This has led some lawmakers to fear the president may have used the power of his office to attempt to influence a foreign country to meddle in the 2020 election.
Trump has admitted to discussing Biden on the call but maintains he did nothing wrong and that he “had every right to” bring up the former vice president because “we don’t want a country that we’re giving massive aid to to be corrupting our system.”
But the Washington Post’s reporting — corroborated later Monday night by the New York Times — casts further doubt on that reasoning and lends support to those concerned that the president hoped to create some kind of quid pro quo agreement in which Ukraine investigated Biden in exchange for the money.
Acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, will testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
Trump’s rationale for why he withheld congressionally approved aid to Ukraine changed overnight.
On Monday, Trump told reporters that his decision to withhold aid to Ukraine — a decision seemingly at the heart of a whistleblower complaint roiling Washington — was over his concerns to ensure that the country’s new government was doing everything possible to root out corruption.
But asked a similar question today, Trump’s talking point suddenly changed to his frustrations about European countries not spending enough on foreign aid.
“My complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again, and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine, because they’re not doing it,” Trump told reporters, ahead of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
The change from Monday to Tuesday was captured in this clip put together by CNN.
Wow — CNN put together this clip highlighting how Trump changed his public rationale for withholding aid to Ukraine from yesterday to today pic.twitter.com/25QJ8VPsnU
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 24, 2019
Though the full $391 million aid package to Ukraine was ultimately delivered, the reasons for Trump’s initial move to withhold the payment have come under scrutiny following news that an intelligence community whistleblower filed a complaint about Trump’s dealings with the Ukrainian president.
News surrounding the complaint, which the administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal, has raised concerns that Trump used congressionally approved military aid as leverage to pressure a foreign country to investigate his potential political opponent.
Both Trump and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have tried to get ahead of the whistleblower story by acknowledging that they encouraged the Ukrainian president to undertake a “corruption” investigation that could implicate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, but they have denied that the aid money was used as leverage.
There’s another way in which the “corruption” rationale Trump presented on Monday is in tension with the “Europe should spend more on foreign aid” rationale he advanced 24 hours later.
After all, if Trump really had such grave concerns about corruption in Ukraine, and doesn’t think corrupt governments should receive foreign aid, then it doesn’t make sense that he would want European countries to give more money to them.
Even Trump may have realized that arguably the most personally corrupt president in US history expressing concerns about corruption abroad was a pretty hard pill to swallow, and he changed his talking points accordingly.
But the fact they shifted so dramatically in such a short period of time suggests that the public will need to see the whistleblower’s complaint to figure out the truth of the matter.