The House Intelligence Committee released the transcripts of two more witnesses on Tuesday.
Amber Phillips of the Washington Post breaks down 3 takeaways from Mark Sandy’s and Philip Reeker’s testimony on Ukraine:
Here are three takeaways from their testimony.
1. More evidence that Trump’s hold on Ukraine assistance wasn’t because of concern over general ‘corruption’
Not one but two officials in the Office of Management and Budget resigned as tensions rose over why Ukraine’s military aid was held up. Congress approved the money and the Pentagon signed off on it. It was OMB’s job to administer the aid, and Sandy, a top career official there, testified he didn’t understand why they couldn’t give to Ukraine. They were told the president wanted it paused.
We don’t know who resigned, but Sandy testified that at least one of them worked in the legal department. And as OMB worried about violating federal law by not giving the money to Ukraine within a certain window, he confirmed this person resigned in part over frustration about the aid being held up.
Q: So this person who worked at OMB Legal expressed concerns about the hold on Ukraine Security assistance and resigned from OMB. And did that person tell you that he or she resigned from OMB at least in part because of concerns with security assistance? …
A: Yes, in terms of how — yes, in terms of that process, in part.
Then, in August, several divisions at OMB wrote a joint memo recommending the military aid go to Ukraine as soon as possible. The memo’s rationale, according to Sandy, was that it was good for the region to spend this money in this way:
The assistance to Ukraine is consistent with the national security strategy … in terms of supporting a stable, peaceful Europe. Second was the benefit from the program in terms of opposing Russian aggression. Another argument pertained to bipartisan support for the program.
Finally, Sandy said he didn’t get an answer for why the aid was frozen until September. That’s also conspicuously when the existence of the whistleblower complaint became public [on September 9].
2. Evidence the hold was spurred by media reports, not policy
The process for giving the money to Ukraine was going smoothly until June 19. That’s when Sandy testifies Trump asked for information about the money, and he says the question came after media reports that the money was going to be spent.
There wasn’t anything particularly revelatory in the report. But it raises the question: Did a news story — as opposed to a policy dispute — prompt Trump to put the hold on?
We know from other witnesses that Trump declined to hold an Oval Office meeting with Ukraine’s new president in May. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani urged them to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Democrats soon after.
The decision to hold the aid came later [on July 18]. This Trump inquiry about the aid on the same day as a news report about it could pinpoint when a new pressure point was identified.
3. And more testimony backs up Sondland — except on one key part
At this point, Sondland is the Democrats’ star witness for saying there was a quid pro quo. So any testimony to underscore that bolsters what he said last week.
Reeker, one of the top diplomats overseeing Europe and Eurasia affairs, testified Sondland said he had a “script” for Ukraine’s president. And that Sondland said he was being directed by the president.
That squares with Sondland’s explosive testimony that he told Ukraine it had to announce investigations into Democrats to get an Oval Office meeting, and that he was acting “at the express direction of the President of the United States.”
But unlike Sondland, Reeker is yet another witness to testify that it was obvious to him that Giuliani wanted Trump’s potential 2020 opponent investigated:
I don’t recall anybody mentioning the Bidens, per se. You know, 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. And George [Kent] too, you know, we, in our general discussions, as I have alluded to now many times, he had these four strands of narrative that were coming out, some of these sort of conspiracy theories, and one of them was that…
It was already hard to believe Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who said they didn’t know that when Trump wanted a Ukraine investigation into “Burisma,” it was really into Biden, whose son had served on the board of the Ukrainian energy company. Especially with so much other testimony that it was obvious to everyone else.
This follows earlier reporting over the weekend that White House review turns up emails showing extensive effort to justify Trump’s decision to block Ukraine military aid:
A confidential White House review of President Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine has turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal, according to three people familiar with the records.
The research by the White House Counsel’s Office, which was triggered by a congressional impeachment inquiry announced in September, includes early August email exchanges between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for withholding the funds after the president had already ordered a hold in mid-July on the nearly $400 million in security assistance, according to the three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.
One person briefed on the records examination said White House lawyers are expressing concern that the review has turned up some unflattering exchanges and facts that could at a minimum embarrass the president.
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People familiar with the Office of Management and Budget’s handling of the holdup in aid acknowledged the internal discussions going on during August, but characterized the conversations as calm, routine and focused on the legal question of how to comply with the congressional Budget and Impoundment Act, which requires the executive branch to spend congressionally appropriated funds unless Congress agrees they can be rescinded.
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In the early August email exchanges, Mulvaney asked acting OMB director Russell Vought for an update on the legal rationale for withholding the aid and how much longer it could be delayed. Trump had made the decision the prior month without an assessment of the reasoning or legal justification, according to two White House officials. Emails show Vought and OMB staffers arguing that withholding aid was legal, while officials at the National Security Council and State Department protested. OMB lawyers said that it was legal to withhold the aid, as long as they deemed it a “temporary” hold, according to people familiar with the review.
A senior budget lawyer crafted a memo on July 25 that defended the hold for at least a short period of time, an administration official said.
Mulvaney’s request for information came days after the White House Counsel’s Office was put on notice that an anonymous CIA official had made a complaint to the agency’s general counsel about Trump’s July 25 call to Zelensky during which he requested Ukraine investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as an unfounded theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
This official would later file a whistleblower complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general, which ignited the impeachment push when its existence became public.
The White House released the funding to Ukraine on Sept. 11. The timing has drawn scrutiny because it came two days after the House was formally alerted to a complaint by a whistleblower, who raised concerns about the call and whether the president was using his public office for personal political gain.
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Mulvaney is a critical player in the Ukraine saga, as he has acknowledged that he asked the OMB to block the release of congressionally approved aid to Ukraine — at the president’s request — in early or mid-July 2019.
The emails revealed by White House lawyers include some in which Mulvaney urges Vought to immediately focus on Ukraine’s aid package, making clear it was a top priority for the administration.
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Also included in the review are email communications between OMB and State Department officials and others discussing why the White House was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid and whether the hold might violate the law, one person said. In December 2018, months before the Ukraine issue surfaced as a top priority for the president, the Government Accountability Office had warned the OMB it was not following the law in how it chose to disburse and withhold congressionally approved funds.
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While some officials from State and Defense have testified publicly about their concerns over whether the administration was seeking to leverage the aid and a White House visit for the political investigations, only one OMB official has appeared before the congressional committees.
Mark Sandy (see above) has testified that the decision to delay aid to Ukraine was highly unusual, and senior political appointees in his office wanted to be involved in reviewing the aid package. Sandy testified that he had never seen a senior political OMB official assume control of a portfolio in such a fashion, according to the people familiar with his testimony.
Sandy told impeachment investigators he had questions about whether it was legal to withhold aid Congress had expressly authorized to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia, but OMB lawyers told him it was fine as long as they called it a temporary hold, according to a person familiar with Sandy’s account. Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at the OMB, signed formal letters to freeze the funds, but top political appointees were unable to provide him with an explanation for the delay.
Last Friday Politico reported, State Dept. documents reveal contact between Pompeo and Giuliani:
The State Department released a cache of records Friday night revealing communication between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Rudy Giuliani, even as the Trump administration continues to stonewall the House impeachment investigation.
The 100 pages of documents show repeated contact in March between Pompeo and Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, with the help of White House officials. They were released at the eleventh hour of a court-ordered deadline as part of a lawsuit by the non-profit watchdog American Oversight to uncover records concerning Trump’s actions on Ukraine.
A March 27 email in the released records revealed Trump’s former personal assistant Madeleine Westerhout helped put Giuliani in contact with Pompeo after Giuliani’s team had “been trying and getting nowhere through regular channels.”
The documents back up bombshell testimony from Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland this week alleging senior administration officials were in the loop on Trump and Giuliani’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s family.
Other witnesses — including Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy for the Ukraine peace talks, and David Hale, the top career diplomat at the State Department — also told House investigators that Pompeo had communicated with Giuliani.
Volker offered the caveat that Pompeo didn’t always support the lawyer’s dealings in Ukraine. He told House investigators he expressed concern to Pompeo about Giuliani’s work involving Ukraine, specifically that he was spreading a false narrative about the country to Trump.
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The documents also reveal Rep. Devin Nunes, an ardent Trump ally and the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, was on Pompeo’s call list only a few days after Giuliani.
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Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said in a statement that the records released Friday offer more damning evidence in the impeachment inquiry and called the administration’s continued efforts to blockade the investigation tantamount to obstruction of justice.
“We can see why Mike Pompeo has refused to release this information to Congress,” Evers wrote. “It reveals a clear paper trail from Rudy Giuliani to the Oval Office to Secretary Pompeo to facilitate Giuliani’s smear campaign against a U.S. ambassador.”
This was a conspiracy to shake down Ukraine for foreign interference in the U.S. election to benefit Donald Trump, and then a cover up after the crime was revealed by the whistleblower complaint. As Ambassador Sondland testified, “everyone was in the loop.” All the president’s men and Donald Trump need to be prosecuted and held accountable for their actions. We are still a nation of laws.