President Donald Trump is seriously considering a plan to block $250 million in military assistance to Ukraine, a move that would further ingratiate him with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has directed senior officials to review the aid package.
Trump’s decision to order the review comes after the White House publicly lost a battle to slash foreign aid spending across the board. After scrapping the plan to slash $4 billion in foreign aid, Trump said his team would look to find cuts elsewhere in the aid budget.
“The President has made no secret when it comes to foreign assistance that US interests abroad should be prioritized and other foreign countries should also be paying their fair share,” a senior administration official told CNN.
Specifically, Trump has directed Defense Secretary Mark Esper and national security adviser John Bolton to oversee the process, the senior administration official said.
The President has not yet made a final decision on whether to permanently block the funds, an administration official told CNN. The review process, however, has effectively paused disbursement of the funds, which are set to expire on September 30 if they are not used.
The Pentagon has already recommended to the White House that the hold on military assistance to Ukraine be lifted, an administration official and a US defense official told CNN Thursday.
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on the matter on Thursday.
“We do not publicly comment on internal budget deliberations. For further inquiries, I direct you to the White House Office of Management and Budget,” said spokesperson Lt. Col. Carla Gleason.
However the hold on the aid remains in place, as it is the White House’s call whether to lift it, the administration official said, fueling uncertainty within the administration about what will happen to the spending after the review is formally completed.
In the meantime, agencies are authorized and encouraged to execute all processes to prepare for the obligation of those funds but must wait to obligate them until the policy review is complete and the President has made a final determination, the senior official said.
If Trump ultimately decides to block the aid package, a possibility first reported by Politico, it would likely prompt a bipartisan uproar from members of Congress who believe US military support is essential to countering Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine.
Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced his strong opposition to that idea in a tweet Thursday: “This is unacceptable. It was wrong when Obama failed to stand up to Putin in Ukraine, and it’s wrong now.”
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez released a statement accusing the administration of circumventing Congress and “undermining a key policy priority that has broad and deep bipartisan support.”
“In willfully delaying these funds, the Trump Administration is once again trying to circumvent Congress’ Constitutional prerogative of appropriating funds for U.S. government agencies. It is also undermining a key policy priority that has broad and deep bipartisan support,” he said.
“Enough is enough. President Trump should stop worrying about disappointing Vladimir Putin and stand up for U.S. national security priorities,” Menendez added.
What will Trump do?
Multiple sources familiar with the issue tell CNN that the President has floated the idea of halting the funding program for weeks. The White House has recently notified relevant agencies and congressional committees of its intent to block the aid to Ukraine, one source said.
However, sources say that there are still questions about what Trump will ultimately do.
The push to block the aid package has been supported by Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney but opposed by some within the State Department and national security council, according to another source. National security adviser John Bolton was in Kiev Wednesday, where he met with Ukrainian officials, but there is little indication he raised the possibility of blocking the funding.
“It was great to meet with my Ukrainian national security and defense colleagues in Kyiv. The discussions clearly show that we share a common commitment to preserving Ukraine’s security and sovereignty, and to ensuring it is not subject to Chinese economic exploitation,” Bolton tweeted Wednesday.
A US Department of State official told CNN on Thursday that the policy on Ukraine has not changed, adding the US remains committed to a robust partnership between the two countries.