The same morning in July when President Donald Trump had his fateful call with Ukraine’s president, White House officials were working behind the scenes to impose the freeze sought by the president on military assistance to Ukraine, reviewing the legal wording they would use to implement the hold, emails released late Tuesday night show.
The emails were released as a result of a Freedom of Information lawsuit, even as the Senate was rejecting a series of resolutions introduced by Democrats intended to force the disclosure of some of these same materials from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget and other agencies involved in the aid freeze.
The 192 pages of documents, released just before a midnight deadline to nonprofit group American Oversight, do not contain major new revelations in terms of the participants in the aid freeze or the sequence of events beyond what had been detailed by The New York Times in the last month based on interviews and documents.
But it does offer new evidence of the friction between the Defense Department and the White House as the aid freeze dragged on through the summer, and the confusion and surprise when members of Congress, including some prominent Republicans, learned that the military assistance to Ukraine had been held up.
An aide to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leader of a group that promotes Ukraine’s interests in the Senate, wrote Aug. 23 to Michael Duffey, a political appointee from the Office of Management and Budget who instituted the freeze.
The aide noted that Portman “is very interested in ensuring Ukraine has the military capabilities it needs to defend itself against Russian aggression,” adding that “I would appreciate if you could lay out for me the reason behind the OMB hold and what the process is for getting the funding released.”
Calls and emails for an explanation also had come in from Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, emails show.
White House aides, in the documents, did not offer an explanation for the aid freeze and instead simply worked to figure out who should respond.
The friction with the Pentagon was obvious in email exchanges between the Office of Management and Budget and a senior Pentagon official, Elaine McCusker, a deputy under the secretary of defense who oversees spending.
On Aug. 20, Duffey wrote to McCusker to notify her that the aid freeze was going to be extended again, long past the deadline when the Pentagon had said it needed the hold to be lifted if it was going to be able to spend all of the money before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
“It is our intent to add the following footnote to the Ukraine apportionment this afternoon to take effect immediately,” Duffey said in his email to McCusker, explaining the technical process the White House was using to impose the aid freeze.
“Mike,” McCusker wrote back several hours later to Duffey and other senior officials at the Office of Management and Budget, “Seems like we continue to talk (email) past each other a bit. We should probably have a call.”
William Castle, principal deputy general counsel at the Pentagon, got involved in the debate, reaching out to the budget office’s top lawyer at McCusker’s request to question him on the hold. Mark Paoletta, general counsel at budget office, sent a lengthy response.
But other than about a dozen words — the greeting and the closing of the email — the entire contents of the response were blacked out before being released under the Freedom of Information Act suit.
“Hi Scott,” the email said, followed by four large blacked-out areas of text that the White House declined to make public. “Please let me know if you have any questions, Thanks.”
The White House cited a provision of the Freedom of Information Act that allows the federal government to withhold “deliberative communications, the disclosure of which would inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views that is necessary for effective government decision-making.”
The emails from July 25 — the same morning Trump had his phone call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine and asked him to look into issues related to the 2016 election in the United States and to former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — show that administration aides were preparing to carry out Trump’s order for the aid freeze.
Trump had first raised the issue in June after he learned the Defense Department was about to release $250 million of military assistance to Ukraine. But it was not until July 25 that the money that had been allocated for the Pentagon was formally frozen, using a legal provision called an apportionment.
“Did GC send the footnote?” Duffey wrote at 9 a.m. July 25, just as the call between Trump and Zelenskiy was getting underway, referring to the agency’s general counsel and a footnote that would be applied to the apportionment document to freeze the funding.
“Mike, here’s the OGC-approved, revised footnote,” Mark Sandy, a career official at the budget office, wrote back to his boss in response to the question that same morning.
About 90 minutes after Trump’s call with Zelenskiy, Duffey told the Pentagon to keep quiet about the aid freeze because of the “sensitive nature of the request,” according to a message released last month by the Defense Department.
The emails released to American Oversight as well as the Center for Public Integrity and details about correspondence shared with the Times have led Democrats in Congress to push the White House to release copies of all these exchanges, without the redactions. The Senate voted repeatedly Tuesday night to block proposals by Democrats to require the release of these documents.