During the last few weeks of impeachment hearings, Republicans liked to cite a number — 55 — the number of days they thought the military aid for Ukraine was withheld.
According to their timeline, the clock begins on July 18, a date that a number of witnesses said they first learned of the hold.
But the clock really began a month earlier. On June 18, the Pentagon publicly announced it would release its portion of the money: $250 million.
According to documents reviewed by Just Security, the Office of Security Assistance at the State Department sent the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a routine congressional notification for its Foreign Military Financing program that same day: June 21. The State Department needed OMB to green light the document, which described the congressionally appropriated funding, including more than $100 million in funding for Ukraine.
Soon after submitting the congressional notification, the State Department was made aware that the White House had concerns about the Ukraine funding, and so State Department officials started inquiring about what exactly was going on. Was it just the State Department’s money that had been frozen or had the Defense Department’s program also been stopped? And, if the money was really being held, why? Emails flew back and forth from State to OMB to the White House chief of staff’s office between July 10 and 12, as officials tried to clarify what was happening.
Meanwhile, across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, Laura Cooper, who oversees Ukraine policy at the Defense Department (DoD), was also being told that the White House had questions about DoD’s military assistance for Ukraine.
She testified that days after the Pentagon made its June 18 announcement, her office received a set of questions about the funding from the White House. She was told the questions came out of a meeting with the president, so Cooper presumed they were directly from Trump. The questions were: 1) Is U.S. industry providing any of this equipment? 2) What are other countries doing to contribute? 3) Who gave this funding?
Cooper said her office responded to those questions with a set of fact sheets. They explained that the vast majority of companies providing the equipment were American. Her office also told the White House that the United Kingdom, Canada, Lithuania and Poland all contribute training and equipment to Ukraine. As for the third question, it was the trickiest to answer because of its “strange phrasing,” Cooper said. “It was something along the lines of who provided this funding, or where did this funding come from?” So, her office answered: It comes from Congress and it has strong bipartisan support.
After her office responded to the questions, Cooper never heard anything back. She had no inkling at the time that the president wanted to put a hold on the money, but behind the scenes that’s what had happened. And word started getting out.
Army Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, who oversees Ukraine policy on the National Security Council, testified that by July 3, he “was concretely made aware of the fact that there was a hold placed by OMB.”
News of the hold was also making its way to the Ukrainians.
“On July 25, a member of my staff got a question from a Ukraine embassy contact asking what was going on with Ukraine security assistance,” Cooper testified. “Because at that time we did not know what the guidance was … I was informed that the staff member told the Ukrainian official that we were moving forward but recommended that the Ukraine embassy check in with State.”
Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden that same day.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale’s public testimony, in which he corrected when he first learned of the hold on military assistance: “In the deposition that I did, the closed hearing, I misspoke. I was confused and I confused June 21st, which was when State first sent the CN up to – the Congressional Notification – to OMB for clearance. It was only after about July 18 and I think the 21st was when I heard that there was a potential hold.”