WASHINGTON — Welp, there goes another GOP impeachment defense.
President Trump was briefed on the whistleblower complaint against him weeks before he decided to release military aid to Ukraine, the New York Times reported Tuesday, news that undercuts one of the Republicans' central impeachment defenses.
Republicans have claimed throughout the process that there was no “quid pro quo” because Trump eventually released the money to Ukraine without getting anything in return.
That was already a flimsy claim; Trump didn’t release the money until Sept. 11, two days after House Democrats launched a public investigation into the matter and only one day before the House voted to begin what would turn into the impeachment inquiry. And the news suggests Trump kept pushing to extort Ukraine even after he knew people within his administration were raising alarms about his actions.
Other new details paint a picture of inter-agency confusion and unrest over Trump’s move to withhold military aid from Ukraine.
Transcripts released by the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday show that officials at the Office of Management and Budget were kept in the dark for months about why that money was withheld, and that the $390 million in aid was officially blocked on July 25, the same day of Trump’s infamous call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky.
What Trump knew and why it matters
The revelation that Trump was briefed on the whistleblower’s complaint in late August makes his subsequent actions even more problematic.
Trump knew that a whistleblower had raised the alarm about why the aid was withheld for weeks before he released it. Even more troubling: Trump knew of the whistleblower complaint days before U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland explicitly told Ukrainian officials on Sept. 1 that they wouldn’t get the aid unless they announced they were conducting investigations into Trump’s political rivals. Sondland has testified that he assumed that’s what Trump wanted, though he’s claimed he wasn't explicitly told by the president that was the demand.
We already knew that Trump’s attorneys knew of the whistleblower complaint in August, but this is the first time it’s been definitively reported that Trump himself was informed about the complaint. And according to the Times, the White House was still trying to keep Congress from finding about it during this key stretch, even as Trump officials kept pushing Ukraine to announce investigations into Biden and the 2016 election.
The new information also sheds light on Trump’s alleged word choice on a Sept. 9 call with Sondland. When Acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor texted Sondland that day saying "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Sondland followed up hours later with a text saying Trump “has been crystal-clear no quid pro quos of any kind.”
Sondland testified that text came after he had a phone call where Trump explicitly denied a “quid pro quo,” a phrase, as the Times points out, that wasn’t yet in the public lexicon. On that call, Sondland testified, Trump said he wanted Zelensky to “do the right thing” — e.g., to announce the investigations into 2016 and the Bidens that Trump and his allies had been demanding.
It’s been clear for some time, based on multiple witnesses’ testimony, that Trump sought to extort Ukraine for his political ends. But this makes it clear that even when they knew a whistleblower was attempting to sound the alarm about what they were doing, the Trump administration persisted in its pressure campaign.
Administration officials’ alarm
The timing of the whistleblower complaint isn’t the only evidence that bolsters the case against Trump.
Mark Sandy, a top official at the Office of Management and Budget, testified that he wasn’t told that Ukraine aid was being held up because of concerns other countries weren’t doing enough to help Ukraine, another talking point used to defend the president. He said the first time he'd heard that argument was in early September, as the White House retroactively sought to come up with a plausible justification for why the aid was withheld and asked him to pull together data on what European countries had given to Ukraine.
Until then, Sandy said, it was “an open question” within OMB why the money had been held up, one he’d been unable to get answered by the White House. He said some career staff warned that the hold was illegal because the executive branch is required to spend money that Congress has appropriated. And he said that two officials were so frustrated with the hold on aid that they resigned.
Sandy testified that Trump first asked OMB about why Ukraine was getting U.S. military aid after seeing a “media report” about it in late June. Sandy first found out the aid would be held up on July 12, six days before it became widely known within the administration. But he testified that the White House didn’t officially block aid to Ukraine until July 25, the exact same day of Trump’s phone call with President Zelensky, where he asked the leader to “do us a favor” and invoked Biden and 2016.
A transcript of Sandy's testimony was released by the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday evening.
Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a homecoming campaign rally at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)