White House review details extensive effort to justify Trump's decision to hold Ukraine military aid

Confidential review of White House discussion on Ukraine aid turns up hundreds of documents, wide debate

By Shira Tarlo
Published November 25, 2019 1:10PM (EST)
Donald Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

A confidential White House review of President Donald Trump's decision to withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine has turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to justify the decision after the fact, The Washington Post reported Sunday, citing three people familiar with the review.

The research by the White House counsel's office was prompted by the House impeachment inquiry announced in September. It unearthed emails from early August between acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for the decision to block the aid, which had been previously approved by Congress. Trump had decided to withhold the aid the prior month without an assessment of the reasoning or legal justification, the Post reported, citing two White House officials.

One person familiar with the document search told the Post that White House lawyers have expressed concern that the review could, at minimum, embarrass the president.

In the emails, Mulvaney asked acting Office of Management and Budget director Russell Vought how much longer the aid could be legally delayed, as well as the OMB's progress on developing a legal rationale for the hold, according to the Post. OMB lawyers reportedly argued it was legal to withhold the aid, as long as it was considered a "temporary" hold, while officials at the National Security Council and State Department protested.

One administration official told the newspaper that a senior budget official defended the hold for a short period of time in a memo drafted July 25 — the same day Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as an unfounded theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.

Mulvaney's request for information came days after the White House counsel's office learned that an anonymous CIA official had filed a complaint to the intelligence community's inspector general about Trump's July 25 call with Zelensky. The explosive whistleblower complaint prompted Democrats to accuse Trump of imposing a "quid pro quo" on Ukraine and eventually set off an official impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.

The White House released the funding to Ukraine on Sept. 11. That timing has drawn criticism because it came two days after the House was formally alerted to the whistleblower complaint, which raised concerns about whether Trump was using his office for personal political gain, as well as whether the White House had attempted to cover up those efforts.

Trump has admitted ordering the hold on military aid and also urging Ukraine's president to investigate the Biden family. But he has insisted that the release of the funds was not conditioned on Ukraine opening any investigations. He has repeatedly called his call with Zelensky "perfect," and assailed the impeachment inquiry as a "hoax."

OMB, meanwhile, has argued that "there was a legal consensus at every step of the way that the money could be withheld to conduct the policy review."

"OMB works closely with agencies on executing the budget. Routine practices and procedures were followed, not scrambling," OMB spokeswoman Rachel K. Semmel told the Post.

Shira Tarlo

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