Newly released documents show the White House ordered a freeze on aid to Ukraine less than two hours after President Donald Trump’s now-infamous July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. The documents were obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization, through a Freedom of Information Act request. Among the heavily redacted documents that the Center for Public Integrity received after a legal battle, there is a memo that sheds new light on the timeline of the actions that are at the heart of impeachment proceedings.
A mere 91 minutes after the call that ended at 9:33 a.m., Michael Duffey, a political appointee at the Office of Management and Budget, sent an email to the deputy secretary of defense, David Norquist; the acting secretary of defense’s chief of staff, Eric Chewning; and a Pentagon comptroller, Elaine McCusker, telling them that all aid to Ukraine should be halted. “Based on guidance I have received and in light of the Administration’s plan to review assistance to Ukraine, including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, please hold off on any additional DoD obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process,” Duffey wrote at 11:04 a.m.
Duffey seemed to know that calling for the hold on the aid could raise questions, and he sought to limit the amount of exposure the order would receive. “Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute direction,” he wrote. The Center for Public Integrity explains that while “a formal notification would be sent later that day,” this email “was the first clear sign that the aid was being held, and it came immediately after the phone call.”
The question, of course, becomes who exactly gave Duffey the “guidance” that he wrote about in the email. As some were quick to point out, Sen. Chuck Schumer has demanded Duffey be called as a witness in the impeachment trial. Duffey wrote another email on Sept. 11 explaining that the aid would be released. He was asked what happened, and the first part of his response is redacted but goes on to say he was “glad to have this behind us.”
The Center for Public Integrity points out that the heavily redacted emails show many government officials were worried that the White House was “asking the officials involved to take an action that was not merely unwise but flatly illegal.” The law in question is known as the Impoundment Control Act and “says that once Congress appropriates funds—like the Ukraine assistance—and the president signs the relevant spending bill, the executive branch must spend those funds,” the organization explains. For the funds to be withheld, Congress must be informed and must approve, which obviously did not happen in this case. Government officials were worried that delaying the aid would make it difficult to make sure all the money was spent by the deadline of Sept. 30. Officials at both the OMB and the Pentagon were so concerned about the freeze in aid that they tried to think of ways to convince Trump to let the aid flow. None of their efforts seem to have worked.