A career budget official undercut one of the White House’s arguments for freezing $400 million in security aid to Ukraine, according to a newly released transcript.
Mark Sandy, a career official in the Office of Management and Budget, said that the White House did not tell his office that the aid was being frozen over concerns about other countries’ contributions until months after the hold was put in place. Sandy described deep dissatisfaction within the OMB after the hold was put in place, including questions being raised about the legality of the freeze and the resignations of officials who expressed concerns about the move.
White House officials – including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney – have said that one of the key reasons US security assistance to Ukraine was held up in July was because other countries in Europe were not providing enough assistance to Kiev. But Sandy testified that he was only given that explanation in September, when the White House first asked OMB for information about what other countries were contributing, according to a transcript of the closed-door deposition released by House Democrats on Tuesday.
“I recall in early September an email that attributed the hold to the President’s concern about other countries not contributing money to Ukraine,” Sandy said, adding that the email came sometime before September 9, when he was asked to “puIl together the data” on the contributions.
Prior to that, Sandy testified, the White House rationale for the hold “was an open question over the course of late July and pretty much all of August, as I recall.”
Sandy’s testimony, which was released by House Democrats Tuesday along with State Department official Philip Reeker, adds to the understanding of the timeline surrounding the freezing of US aid to Ukraine. While Sandy, the only OMB official to testify before House impeachment investigators, wasn’t involved with the effort for Ukraine to announce investigations into the President’s political rivals, his testimony fills in key context about what was going on inside the administration while the aid was frozen.
Sandy said he learned about the hold on Ukraine aid on July 19, and that he raised concerns about the legality of the move. He was in charge of signing off on the official hold on the assistance on July 25, the same day as Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and said he expressed concerns, but then-OMB political appointee Michael Duffey took over the process on July 30, he testified.
Sandy explained that the President’s interest in Ukraine aid dated back to June. Sandy testified he was told by Duffey, OMB’s associate director for national security programs, that the President “had seen a media report and he had questions about the assistance” to Ukraine, specifically that there was “an interest in getting more information from the Department of Defense.”
Sandy did not know which news report Trump had seen, but said that Trump wanted to learn more about the aid program. The email was forwarded onto the Pentagon, Sandy said, and he received some information one day later.
With the release of the Sandy and Reeker transcripts, House impeachment investigators have now made public all of the 17 closed-door depositions that took place over the past eight weeks in the impeachment inquiry.
The transcripts come as Democrats move on to the next phase of the impeachment proceedings against Trump. The Intelligence Committee is preparing a report summarizing its findings, which will be sent to the Judiciary Committee soon after Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess next week, shifting the impeachment proceedings into that committee.
Sandy says freeze may have violated law
Sandy said that when he learned the aid was withheld on July 19, after returning from a vacation, he raised legal concerns because the funds had to be obligated by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, under the Impoundment Control Act. The law, passed in the 1970s, prohibits a sitting US president from unilaterally withholding funds that were appropriated by Congress. Some liberal-minded scholars have opined that Trump broke the law when he froze the aid, because the $390 million in military help for Ukraine had been appropriated by lawmakers.
Sandy said he asked why the US aid was frozen in July and August, but did not receive a response from the White House, which directed the hold at the President’s request, until September. Sandy said that Duffey told him he was interested in getting to the bottom of things.
“He certainly said that if he got additional information he would share it with us,” Sandy said of Duffey. Duffey was subpoenaed by House Democrats to testify in the inquiry, but like most political appointees, he ignored the subpoena.
It wasn’t until early September when Duffey got back to Sandy with more information.
Republicans have pointed to Sandy’s testimony to argue it showed there was no quid pro quo linked to the push for Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals.
“The ONLY reason he was ever given why there was a hold on $ to Ukraine was ‘the President’s concern about other countries not contributing more to Ukraine.’ NOT bribery. NOT quid pro quo or any other WACKY Schiff conspiracy!” tweeted Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican.
By the time Sandy was given the explanation, however, the Trump White House already knew about the Ukraine whistleblower and public news reports had revealed the freeze in military assistance. Later in September, after the whistleblower complaint was released, Trump and other White House officials publicly said one reason for the holdup was because European nations weren’t giving enough money to Ukraine.
Mulvaney offered that explanation in a news conference last month, when he admitted that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate conspiracy theories about election meddling before he would unlock the nearly $400 in military and security assistance.
“I was involved with the process by which the money was held up temporarily, OK? Three issues for that: the corruption of the country, whether or not other countries were participating in the support of the Ukraine and whether or not they were cooperating in an ongoing investigation with our Department of Justice,” Mulvaney said. “That’s completely legitimate.”
Sandy said he and other OMB staff sent a memo on August 7 to Duffey recommending that the funds for Ukraine be released, because blocking the funds undermined US national security interests.
Two officials who left OMB expressed frustration with Ukraine aid, Sandy said
Sandy testified that he believed two officials left OMB in part because of concerns over the Ukraine security assistance.
One of the officials was working in the legal division, Sandy said.
“This person expressed to me concerns about actions vis-à-vis the Impoundment Control Act,” Sandy said. Asked if that was in the context of Ukraine security assistance and the hold, Sandy responded, “Yes,” though he added the caveat that he would “never want to attribute that as the, you know, sole purpose for an individual’s actions.”
But he said that he was “aware of their frustrations in that area, yes,” later adding: “the individual did note a disagreement on this topic.”
Sandy also referenced another colleague who had left OMB in September. He said he was “reluctant to speak to someone else’s motivations,” but confirmed the person “expressed some frustrations about not understanding the reason for the hold” on security assistance to Ukraine.
Neither official is named.
A senior administration official disputed the notion that OMB officials resigned over the hold on Ukraine assistance, insisting that none of the officials who left OMB during that time frame did so because of the security assistance hold.
The legal official who was referenced by Sandy departed OMB for a position at the Government Accountability Office, according to a GAO spokesperson.
Reeker details push to protect Yovanovitch
Reeker testified last month that he was under the impression that US security assistance to Ukraine was “being held by Mr. Mulvaney, the White House acting Chief of Staff.” Reeker, however, said he did not have “definitive knowledge that Mulvaney was behind the holdout.”
Reeker also said he has never met Mulvaney.
Reeker’s testimony provided more details on the efforts inside the State Department to defend former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from her post earlier this year amid a smear campaign led by the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Reeker testified that on March 21 he issued a “stern demarche” to the deputy chief of mission at the Ukrainian embassy in Washington, saying it “was unacceptable, to have Government of Ukraine figures maligning our Ambassador in this way,” referring to unfounded attacks in the press against Yovanovitch. A demarche is a formal diplomatic message conveying concern.
Those government figures included a Ukrainian prosecutor who alleged that Yovanovitch created a “do-not-prosecute list” – a claim he later recanted. This appears to be a reference to former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, who other witnesses have said met with Giuliani in February 2019 to “throw mud” at Yovanovitch.
Reeker also testified that former US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker told him that he was planning to reach out to speak with Giuliani to try and tamp down the negative narrative Giuliani was relaying to Trump about corruption in Ukraine.
Reeker threw cold water on the suggestion from some witnesses they weren’t aware what Giuliani was up to in trying to investigate the Bidens through Burisma, saying, “It was just one of those things it was always out there, because, of course, Giuliani was talking about it and the press was writing about it all the time.”
Reeker testified that when he raised the idea of State Department leadership issuing a formal defense of Yovanovitch to Undersecretary of State David Hale, he suggested in a March 23 email the embattled diplomat should “reaffirm her loyalty as an ambassador” to Trump and the Constitution.
During the week of March 25, Reeker testified, State officials tried to get the department to issue a formal statement of support for Yovanovitch but received no response to his queries on the matter, as FOX News hosts like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity continued to amplify the unfounded allegations against her.
“And, you know, queries continued to come in following, for instance, the – specifically on some of the FOX News programs of Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, we got a lot of questions about the allegations there,” Reeker said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Philip Mattingly, Sara Murray, Manu Raju, Clare Foran, Alex Rogers, Zach Cohen, Marshall Cohen, Meagan Vazquez, Jamie Crawford and Michael Conte contributed to this report.