Democrats call out McConnell over "rigged" trial as unredacted Ukraine documents implicate Trump

“Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold,” a top White House official wrote

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 3, 2020 11:08AM (EST)

Donald Trump; Mitch McConnell   (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Zach Gibson)
Donald Trump; Mitch McConnell (Getty/Chip Somodevilla/Zach Gibson)

Democrats slammed the push from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for a trial with no witnesses after a cache of internal administration documents directly implicated President Donald Trump in ordering a freeze on aid to Ukraine, which administration officials worried was illegal.

The documents, reviewed by Just Security, a national security outlet based at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at the New York University School of Law, revealed that Pentagon officials were concerned the aid freeze violated federal law.

An email reviewed by the outlet shows Michael Duffey, the associate director of national security programs at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), informing acting Pentagon budget chief Elaine McCusker that Trump ordered the aid to be frozen.

“Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold,” he wrote.

The emails were previously released in redacted form to the Center for Public Integrity. They showed that Duffey first ordered the aid to be frozen about 90 minutes after Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The emails also showed Duffey asking McCusker to keep the the freeze quiet.

The emails were blocked from being turned over to Congress by the Trump administration.

The unredacted documents reviewed by Just Security revealed that Pentagon officials worried that the freeze would violate the Impoundment Control Act, which bars the president from overriding Congressional funding decisions. Officials were also concerned that the administration did not notify Congress of the hold. The emails also showed that no justification was given for why the aid was frozen and why it was lifted.

None of the officials appeared to support Trump’s position, according to the report. Officials hoped that Vice President Mike Pence’s September meeting with Zelensky would resolve the issue, but the aid freeze was not lifted until Sept. 11.

An OMB spokesperson denied in a statement to NBC News that there was internal tension over the aid freeze.

"There was agreement every step of the way between DOD and OMB lawyers, who were responsible for working out the details of the hold, in line with the President’s priorities,” the official said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement that the emails "exposed" the need for the Senate to call witnesses at Trump’s impeachment trial.

"The newly-revealed unredacted emails are a devastating blow to Sen. McConnell’s push to have a trial without the documents and witnesses we’ve requested,” Schumer told NBC News. “These emails further expose the serious concerns raised by Trump administration officials about the propriety and legality of the president’s decision to cut off aid to Ukraine to benefit himself.”

Schumer said the documents raised questions that can only be answered by Duffey, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton and national security aide Robert Blair.

"Importantly, that Mr. Duffey said there was 'clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold' only further implicates President Trump and underscores the need for the Senate to subpoena the witnesses and documents we’ve requested at the onset of a trial," Schumer said. "The American people deserve a fair trial that gets to the truth — not a rigged process that enables a cover-up."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement that the new documents "undermine any claim that the hold on military aid was ordered by the President for some unknown but legitimate reason."

“Trump engaged in unprecedented, total obstruction of Congress, hiding these emails, all other documents, and his top aides from the American people,” added House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Twitter. “His excuse was a phony complaint about the House process. What’s the excuse now? Why won’t Trump & McConnell allow a fair trial?”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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