WASHINGTON - Two senior U.S. officials told House impeachment investigators that Ukrainian leaders were aware nearly $400 million in congressionally approved security assistance had been frozen well before that information became public, undercutting a key point of President Donald Trump's "no quid pro quo" defense.
Trump's defenders have argued that the administration could not have leveraged the security assistance to procure a pledge from Kyiv to investigate his political rivals because, they say, Ukrainian officials did not know the money was being withheld before late August, when that information first surfaced in U.S. media reports.
But according to Catherine Croft, a Ukraine specialist at the State Department, the Ukrainians "found out very early on" that the funds had been frozen - a decision the Office of Management and Budget made at Trump's behest and circulated to other government officials on July 18.
A transcript of Croft's closed-door testimony from October was released by the House Intelligence Committee on Monday along with those of Laura Cooper, a Ukraine expert at the Pentagon, and Christopher Anderson of the State Department.
Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, told impeachment investigators that Croft's boss at the time, Kurt Volker, had led Cooper to make a "very strong inference" that the Ukrainians knew there was a hold on the military aid long before that information was made public.
Volker, who resigned in September as Trump's special envoy to Ukraine, also told Cooper during a meeting on or around Aug. 20 that he was working through a "nontraditional" diplomatic channel to get the Ukrainian government to commit to prosecuting people involved in U.S. election interference - and that the aid could be released if he were successful, according to her sworn testimony to impeachment investigators.
Cooper did not know many details about Volker's effort, but Anderson noted in his testimony that Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, were involved in what many impeachment inquiry witnesses have said appeared to be a shadow effort to shape Ukraine policy.
Sondland, a Trump donor turned diplomat, was "taken more seriously" than career State Department officials, Anderson testified, and appeared to have a "connection to the White House." Anderson also recalled hearing then-national security adviser John Bolton note that "every time Ukraine is mentioned, Giuliani pops up and that the President was listening to Giuliani about Ukraine," according to the transcript of his deposition.
Cooper testified that Ukrainian leaders would not have entertained the request Volker told her he was making - for a public statement denouncing election interference and promising to prosecute anyone implicated - unless they were doing so in exchange for "something valuable."
"There were two specific things that the Government of Ukraine wanted during this time frame," Cooper told impeachment investigators. "One was . . . a hosted visit at the White House. And the other was Ukraine security assistance."
Cooper noted that the acting ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, also was sounding "alarm bells . . . that there were Ukrainians who knew" about the freeze in aid, though she did not specify exactly when.
Together, the three transcripts released Monday depict how Trump, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and the Office of Management and Budget - the agency Mulvaney led before his current White House posting - worked against the advice, expertise and counsel of every other U.S. governmental agency involved in Ukraine policy when it came to delivering the congressionally approved money.
Croft and Cooper testified that they learned on July 18 that Ukraine's funds had been frozen, but "the only reason given was that it came at the direction of the President," Croft recalled.
Croft testified that the OMB intervened once before to temporarily block Ukraine security assistance over the objections of other U.S. agencies. In late 2017, the OMB objected to interagency plans to provide the government in Kyiv with lethal aid in the form of Javelin antitank missiles.
That hold, while "highly unusual," came up during a regular review process and was lifted after "a week or two" - after she and a senior National Security Council official met with Mulvaney, Croft recalled.
The "unanimous view" then among senior officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council at the time was "that Javelins would help Ukraine in its defense against Russia and would, therefore, be in the U.S. national security interest," Croft testified.
Cooper used similar language to describe how OMB officials appeared to be working out of step from the rest of the government when it came to freezing aid for Ukraine this year. The Pentagon gave its final approval for dispensing the security assistance in May, Cooper testified, adding that the vested U.S. departments were unified in their view that this financial assistance was "essential."
Officials at those agencies also were united in "trying to find ways to engage the president" and encourage him to let the money flow, Cooper said, noting that her counterparts at other agencies were concerned about "how this could legally play out."
Officials, she said, were concerned about running afoul of the law if the funds were not released, and that if they delayed the funding too long, it could handicap efforts to provide Ukraine all the approved funds.
Cooper testified that U.S. officials outside of the OMB also resisted efforts to reexamine Ukraine's performance on anti-corruption activities - a reason Mulvaney cited publicly last month part of the administration's rationale for withholding the military aid.
The Pentagon never performed additional anti-corruption reviews in July, August or September, Cooper said, because officials "affirmed that we believed sufficient progress has been made" in those areas.
The positive impression of Ukraine's anti-corruption work was "unanimous" among the other agencies involved with Ukraine funding, Cooper added, "with the exception of the statements by OMB representatives."
- - -
The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.
This article was written by Karoun Demirjian, Elise Viebeck and Rosalind S. Helderman, reporters for The Washington Post.