Lawmakers on Capitol Hill couldn’t figure out over this past summer why nearly $400 million in aid they’d voted to go to Ukraine still wasn’t in the country’s coffers.
There was growing speculation by the end of August. Congressional leaders, their aides and members of key committees – including the Appropriations, Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees – were scrambling to figure out why money that had been appropriated by Congress months before still hadn’t been disbursed. Outreach by lawmakers to key agencies left few clues other than the delay was coming from the White House and no one could pinpoint exactly what the reason was.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got involved, reaching out to both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper as other members urged action with letters, public statements, floor speeches and staff outreach.
“I have no idea what precipitated the delay, but I was among those advocating that we needed to stick with our Ukrainian friends,” McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said about his outreach last week.
The comment came in a week in which a redacted, whistleblower complaint was released alleging that Trump was trying to elicit dirt from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky about his political rival, Vice President Joe Biden (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe Biden or his son, Hunter). Earlier this month, the White House also released a transcript a July phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump touts the US support for Ukraine while Trump later asks Zelensky for a favor.
In more than a dozen interviews with members of Congress and aides in recent days, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that while they don’t remember the exact timeline of when they became aware there was an issue with Ukraine funding, there was a growing sense at the end of August that Congress needed to push the administration harder when it returned from its Augusts recess to release it. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN he talked to the Pentagon about the funding multiple times.
“I called the Pentagon. The Pentagon said that they were worried about the new administration, they were doing their due diligence, they were worried about corruption, they were worried about military aid. They wanted to figure out what was what. I said, ‘Fine, just figure it out,’ ” Graham said, adding that it wasn’t unusual for President Donald Trump not to be keen on foreign aid.
“As to the President, he wants to withhold aid across the board to get people to pay more,” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican and key congressional ally to Trump, arguing there is no connection between the money and the President trying to get dirt on his potential political opponents.
Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill and at the White House have denied there was any quid pro quo. Instead, Trump’s supporters have argued the delay in military funding came out of a fear the administration had about corruption in Ukraine.
Over the summer, Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had his staff making regular phone calls to the State Department while Menendez himself applied public pressure.
In a statement on August 29, Menendez said “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.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, who planned to travel to Ukraine in the first week of September also released a statement urging the administration to release the money.
“Everything I had heard was that this was a decision made by the President. It was his decision and it was his decision alone,” Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told CNN.
Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rob Portman of Ohio each spoke directly with the President about it as well.
Earlier in the summer, most members and aides hadn’t raised a red flag on Ukraine aid. The money hadn’t been sent out, but given this was an administration where key players had made no secret of how they felt about foreign aid, it wasn’t particularly unusual.
The President had been open he detested how much the US government sent to countries abroad. It was a refrain of his campaign. And Mick Mulvaney, the President’s acting chief of staff and OMB director, who had earned a reputation from his colleagues on the Hill as a take-no-prisoners budget slasher, had been pushing for a rescissions package throughout the summer that would have cut roughly $4 billion in foreign aid. Many members and aides assumed a holdup on Ukraine funding could have something to do with the package.
On August 22, news reports indicate Mulvaney and the administration had relented on rescissions, however. And, it was after that fight was over, members began to wonder why military aid to Ukraine still had not gone out. At the end of August, Politico reported millions in military aid to Ukraine was still being slow-walked.
A bipartisan priority
Lawmakers were struck by the fact that this was money that had already been appropriated with broad bipartisan support. Ukraine military aid was a rare, foreign policy issue that united members of both parties. Supporting the country was widely viewed on Capitol Hill as a way to deter Russian aggression, keep them at bay and secure the region. The fact that the money was being held up and without a clear explanation or briefings about a changing policy prescription in the region, bothered many.
While, it wasn’t unprecedented for an administration to change course or hold back money if there was an evolving situation in a country they were aiding, it was unusual for members of the relevant committees not to be in the loop on those discussions.
“We would have expected congressional notification that in fact monies were being held, and that would have elicited from us a briefing and normally we would have gotten a briefing,” Menendez told CNN.
He added, “This is emblematic of this administration in so many ways.”
There were two separate lines of money being held up. There was $250 million in military aid that was appropriated to come from the Department of Defense that had yet to be dispersed and another $140 million that was supposed to come from the State Department. A Democratic Senate aide told CNN last week that the Defense Committees had been alerted by the Department of Defense that they were prepared to send off $125 million in February and then another $125 million in May.
A top Pentagon official sent a letter to Congress in May certifying Ukraine was making progress in the fight against corruption justifying the US provide Ukraine with a $250 million military assistance.
On June 18, the Pentagon announced plans to provide $250 million to Ukraine in security cooperation funds for additional training, equipment and advisory efforts to build the capacity of Ukraine’s armed forces.