One of the big advantages to Nancy Pelosi's strategy to delay sending over Trump's impeachment to the Senate is that white Trump and McConnell are busy complaining and lying, vulnerable GOP senators are sweating while more information about Ukraine is coming out as investigations continue.
One of the GOP’s chief talking points in its impeachment defense of President Trump has been this: The U.S. military aid to Ukraine was withheld, yes, but it was released without any quid pro quo being satisfied. Ipso facto, nothing to see here.
That already-strained talking point suffered a significant blow on Thursday.
Just Security’s Kate Brannen was able to view unredacted emails in which the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department discussed the withholding of military aid. The big new takeaway is that there was significant concern within the Pentagon about the legality and sustainability of the hold. Despite that, according to one email from top OMB official Michael Duffey on Aug. 30, there was “clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.”
The even-bigger takeaway, though, may be how much this fact was obscured. The emails were previously released in redacted form, but many of the redaction choices are puzzling and even suspicious. The redactions include repeated references to legal problems with withholding the aid, basic questions about that subject, and warnings that waiting until too late in the fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) might mean that some of the funds would never get to Ukraine.
That latter fact appears to have been doubly obscured — including in an official communication. OMB general counsel Mark Paoletta wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Dec. 11 that suggested that the Defense Department hadn’t flagged such a risk.
“In fact, at no point during the pause in obligations did DOD [Office of General Counsel] indicate to OMB that, as a matter of law, the apportionments would prevent DOD from being able to obligate the funds before the end of the fiscal year,” Paoletta wrote.
In fact, though, there are at least three concrete examples of a Defense Department official flagging something similar to OMB:
On Aug. 12, with the hold being renewed, acting Defense Department comptroller Elaine McCusker offered proposed language for the hold to Duffey. It stated that “this additional pause in obligations may not preclude DOD’s timely execution of the final policy direction but that execution risk increases with continued delays.”
On Aug. 27, McCusker sent Duffey a draft letter that the Pentagon was preparing to send OMB. In the letter, the deputy defense secretary was to say, “As a result, we have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond Aug. 19, 2019 jeopardize the Department’s ability to obligate USAI funding prudently and fully, consistent with the Impoundment Control Act.”
After Politico on Aug. 28 broke the story that the funds were being withheld, emails were exchanged establishing talking points, including one similar to the statement that eventually found its way into Paoletta’s letter: “No action has been taken by OMB that would preclude the obligation of these funds before the end of the fiscal year.” McCusker, though, explicitly told Duffey that wasn’t the case. “I don’t agree to the revised TPs — the last one is just not accurate from a financial execution standpoint, something we have been consistently conveying for a few weeks,” she said.
All three of these were redacted from the initially released emails by the Justice Department, according to Just Security, and the proposed language from No. 1 wasn’t used by OMB for some reason. Another redaction came in an Aug. 26 email, in which McCusker told Duffey that Paoletta “appears to continue to consistently misunderstand the process and the timelines we have provided for funds execution.” McCusker also told Defense Department officials internally in an email that “OMB continues to ignore our repeated explanation regarding how the process works.”
The coverup of the Ukraine "favor" and Trump's withheld aid was impossible because it involved the White House, the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Justice, and the Pentagon. There's too much paper trail there to bury, and it was only a matter of time before the documents the White House is trying to bury came to light like they did today.
And what these documents prove is that Trump ordered the Ukraine aid block personally.
It's going to get harder and harder for the Senate not to call witnesses, and it's pressure and leverage that Pelosi should continue to use until she gets them. I don't believe it'll make a micron's difference in the guaranteed outcome of a Senate acquittal of Trump, but it'll sure be some nasty footage for campaign ads in 2020.