As the summer wore on, and President Donald Trump would not budge on his decision to withhold almost $400 million in military aid for Ukraine, the Pentagon warned the White House: If its portion of the money wasn’t released quickly, the Defense Department would not be able to spend it before the fiscal year ended on September 30.
The Pentagon even gave the White House a deadline. In late July, as panic spread within the administration over the president’s worrisome decision, the National Security Council led a series of interagency meetings to discuss what to do about the military assistance to Ukraine. At one of these meetings, Defense Department officials told the White House that if the $250 million in security assistance was not released by August 6, it would not be able to spend it all by the end of the fiscal year, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations.
The Defense Department’s message was clear: If the White House didn’t act, the Pentagon would be left with unobligated funds — money that would return to the U.S. Treasury and never make its way to Ukraine. And the Pentagon was also clear that providing Ukraine the security assistance was in the national security interests of the United States, on that point Trump’s Cabinet agreed.
“At every meeting, the unanimous conclusion was that the security assistance should be resumed, the hold lifted,” Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, said in his opening statement to House investigators last week.
As for corruption, the pretext being given for why the funding was being withheld, the Pentagon had certified in May that the “Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption [and] increasing accountability.” When asked over the summer to perform an analysis of the effectiveness of the military aid, the Defense Department took one day to conclude the assistance was effective and should be resumed, Taylor testified.
In late July, the Pentagon also alerted the White House that if the funding wasn’t released in time, the Pentagon would be at risk of violating the Impoundment Control Act, which punishes the executive branch when it doesn’t spend money that Congress has appropriated, the sources said.
But, the White House did not heed the Pentagon’s warnings. It continued to withhold the money through August and into September.
But the pressure was mounting. Behind the scenes, the White House could see a storm brewing over Trump’s decision. On August 12, a whistleblower inside the Intelligence Community filed a complaint, flagging Trump’s disturbing phone call with Ukrainian President Vlodomyr Zelenskyy and raising questions about why the security assistance was being delayed. On August 26, the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, having determined that the complaint was credible and met the legal definition of an “urgent concern,” forwarded it to acting Director Of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, expecting him to transmit it to Congress. Instead, Maguire consulted with the Justice Department and the White House, which, at some point before September 9, directed Maguire not to share the complaint with the congressional intelligence committees.
In the meantime, POLITICO broke the news on August 28 that Trump was withholding the Ukraine money, immediately prompting outcry on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers from both parties asking: What is going on? On September 9, the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight and Reform committees announced they were investigating the “Trump-Giuliani Ukraine Scheme,” including Trump’s decision to “withhold security assistance to Ukraine in defiance of explicit congressional direction.” And, in the Senate, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was reportedly threatening to withhold $5 billion in Pentagon funding for next year unless the Ukraine money was released.
With Congress growing irate and the fight over the whistleblower complaint about to break into the open, Trump finally gave permission to release the Ukraine funding. On September 11, the State Department notified Congress that $141 million worth of military equipment for Ukraine would resume, and the next day, it was reported that the hold on the $250 million of military assistance from the Defense Department had also been lifted.
At the time, a senior administration official told the Washington Post that “the determination to release the money was motivated by the fiscal year’s looming close on Sept. 30.”
At this point, it was widely assumed that with Trump’s granting of permission, the funding had been fully restored. But, the Pentagon knew the White House had waited too long, ignoring its August 6 deadline. Halfway through September, there was no way the Pentagon was going to be able to get all of the funding out the door before the fiscal year ended.
“The White House had time to resolve any issues, but apparently ignored the deadline, putting the funding at risk,” said Sam Berger, who served at the Office of Management and Budget during the Obama administration and is now vice president for democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. “This is further evidence that the aid was withheld for political reasons, not policy concerns.”
With time running out, the Defense Department had to rely on Congress for help. The best opportunity to address the problem was with the seven-week Continuing Resolution (CR) spending bill, which was being drafted on Capitol Hill to avert a government shutdown.
“In response to inquiries made by appropriators while the CR was being drafted, the Pentagon alerted Congress that it would not be able to spend all of the money by September 30,” Evan Hollander, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee, told Just Security.
Appropriators worked with the Defense Department on crafting last-minute legislation that could be added to the CR that would extend the deadline the Pentagon would have to spend the Ukraine money and prevent it from running afoul of the law.
The final CR included language that essentially rescinded the money the Pentagon was unable to spend and then re-appropriated it, putting time back on the clock for the Pentagon to supply Ukraine with what it needed. The Defense Department did not provide a precise amount at that time, but $35.2 million was rescinded and re-appropriated, Hollander said.
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.
In the end, and only with congressional help, the Pentagon appears to have avoided violating of the Impoundment Control Act. However, the release of the funding in September did not address all of the potential legal violations at play. The very act of holding the money in the first place could have also violated the Impoundment Control Act, because the White House did so without congressional approval or notification.
“The Trump administration did not follow the Impoundment Control Act’s notification requirements when they held up Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding, and actions to delay this and other international assistance funding appear to be clear violations of the law,” Hollander said.
In the end, it’s clear that the Pentagon’s warning to the White House over the summer went ignored, revealing just how much the White House was willing to risk with its Ukraine pressure campaign.