The Office of Management and Budget was fully aware about concerns flagged by numerous officials at the Pentagon about President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold aid from Ukraine and attempted to hide their concerns from the Government Accountability Office about the circumstances surrounding the freeze, according to new emails obtained by Just Security.
The new disclosures support reporting from CNN last week that detailed how the July 18th decision to hold the military aid stunned officials, who had already assessed Ukraine deserved to receive it and were preparing a Javelin anti-tank missile order to the country. Officials grew so concerned over the deferrals by OMB that they noted the aid was at “serious risk,” and questioned if the move was illegal, according to the emails and documents reviewed by CNN.
CNN was able to independently confirm some of the details of the report from Just Security which is a website focusing on reporting and analysis of national security law and policy.
The reports by Just Security and CNN underscore the standoff that took place between the Pentagon and OMB over the decision to withhold the Ukraine funding, and paint a broad picture of bureaucrats scrambling to understand and push back against a sudden, unexplained White House directive that disrupted months of careful planning, contradicted Pentagon decisions based on US national security concerns and undermined Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russia.
The emails obtained by Just Security confirm that OMB, including its general counsel’s office, was apprised of Pentagon concerns and took steps to bury them. They also expose the extent to which OMB misled, and even lied to the GAO, a congressional investigative body, as it sought to investigate the circumstances surrounding the funding hold.
A spokesperson for OMB said, “This reporting and this report are inaccurate and reckless.”
In January, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reviewed the holdup of the Pentagon’s aid to Ukraine and determined that it violated the Impoundment Control Act, which established procedures to prevent the President and other government officials from substituting their own funding decisions for those of the Congress.
During Trump’s Senate impeachment trial Democratic House impeachment investigators repeatedly highlighted OMB’s refusal to turn over any documents when subpoenaed during the probe and suggested that emails may exist showing acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s role in passing along the President’s order to halt the aid to Ukraine.
The Senate didn’t subpoena the Trump administration or any other documents or witnesses in Trump’s Senate trial and the President was acquitted on both articles of impeachment last week.
According to Just Security, some of the emails illustrated pushback by OMB to issue a new apportionment footnote – the technical process being used to withhold the money. The Pentagon wanted to underscore, in writing, that the delays were putting the full $250 million for Ukraine at risk because the delays had made it increasingly difficult for the Pentagon to spend all of the money by the end of the fiscal year, September 30 – particularly if the President changed his mind and decided to release the aid.
The report includes an email to Mark Paoletta, the OMB’s general counsel, from Edwin Castle, the Defense Department’s principal deputy general counsel, and copying DoD counsel Paul Ney. Under redacted lines, Just Security noted email references to a need for expediting the interagency review of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative to help the Pentagon “fully and prudently obligate all $250 million appropriated for the initiative by September 30th, the date on which the funds expire.”
Specifically, Pentagon officials were concerned about $61 million of that money, which had to be spent by Aug. 12 or it would be lost, not the full $250 million that had been allocated for that fiscal year.
By failing to spend the money, Pentagon officials believed they would be violating the Impoundment Control Act.
However, according to the report, Paoletta believed that if the new footnote was issued, it shouldn’t mention concerns about the delay, or the fact that the funds were at risk, and he took his concerns to acting OMB Director Russell Vought, according to the emails.
OMB ultimately prevailed in this dispute because the notice about the extension on the hold that followed this exchange did not contain the Pentagon’s warning.
Just Security said it obtained the email without the redactions under the condition that they not be reprinted.
In a December letter to the GAO, Paoletta laid out the OMB’s legal rationale for the hold, saying that temporarily blocking hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to Ukraine for months was justified, and that the office was under no obligation to tell Congress about the pause. “Pauses in obligational authority are necessary for proper stewardship of taxpayer funds,” Paoletta said, adding that pauses like this are different from “deferrals,” which the President is prohibited from doing without notifying Congress.
The letter did not address concerns by officials at the Pentagon that such deferrals risked violating the law, although the emails released by Just Security showed OMB officials acknowledging those concerns.