Top Pentagon Official: White House Asked Mysterious Questions About Ukraine Aid

Erin Banco, Sam Brodey

After the Pentagon announced in June it would give Ukraine $250 million, defense department officials received a list of eyebrow-raising questions that appeared to originate from President Donald Trump regarding details of the military aid, including which U.S. companies were involved in supplying equipment to the country. 

Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official with oversight into Ukraine policy, appeared on Capitol Hill last month and told House impeachment investigators that the Pentagon published the Ukraine announcement on its website June 18 which prompted a series of phone calls from officials in Kyiv thanking the department. “They had been looking for a public acknowledgement of the assistance,” Cooper said. 

Meanwhile, inside the White House officials were holding court with Pentagon officials resulting in three questions that were then forwarded to Cooper’s team at the Department of Defense, Cooper told House investigators. 

“We got a question from my chain of command forwarded down from the chief of staff, I believe, from the Department of Defense, asking for a follow-up on a meeting with the President,” Cooper said. “The way the email was phrased, it said follow-up from POTUS meeting, so follow-up from a meeting with the President. So, you know, I'm thinking that the questions were probably questions from the President. That's how I interpreted that subject line.”

The questions included whether U.S. companies were providing military aid to Ukraine, how many other countries were contributing aid to Ukraine and who was responsible for sending the $250 million to Ukraine, Cooper said in her October deposition.

Cooper’s team answered the questions by email, telling senior Pentagon officials that a host of countries provided similar military aid to Ukraine, including the U.K., Canada, Lithuania and Poland. Cooper’s team also produced a list of U.S. companies that provide aid to Ukraine under the Pentagon’s authority. 

Cooper said the series of queries from the White House was not particularly unusual, but in hindsight they highlight President Trump’s thinking about the Ukraine aid nearly a month before his call with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Cooper told House investigators that she didn’t find out until later that delivery of Ukraine military aid that she oversaw was held up until the day of the now infamous Trump-Zelensky call. But she said she had concerns about its fate as early as mid-July when she learned that the White House had decided to hold up the State Department Ukraine aid.

Mulvaney’s OMB Held Up Lethal Ukraine Aid in 2017 for Fear of Russian Reaction

On July 18, officials at the Pentagon attended an interagency meeting on Ukraine policy, Cooper said in her deposition. 

“There was discussion in that session about the—about OMB [The White House Office of Management and Budget] saying that they were holding the Congressional Notification related to FMF [the State Department aid],” Cooper said. “We tried to clarify, there's no guidance for DOD at this time. Is this correct? And they did not have specific guidance for DOD at the time.”

Cooper said her team was “concerned” that the Pentagon aid, then, would also be held up. Her testimony corroborates that of Lt. Colonel Alexander Vidnman, a top State Department official for Europe, who said in his deposition that he learned of the first hold on the military aid in July. That is significantly earlier than previously understood or communicated by other Trump administration officials.

Still, Cooper said, it wasn’t until July 25 that her team officially heard from the White House Office of Management and Budget about the hold on Pentagon aid to Ukraine. That news prompted a meeting at the Pentagon about if what the President was doing was legal.

“The expression in the room that I recall was a sense that there was not an available mechanism to simply not spend money that has been in the case of notified to Congress,” Cooper said. “So the senior leaders were expressing that they didn’t see how this was legally available.”

Cooper testified that OMB acknowledged formally for the first time in late August that the aid might not fully go through, when they struck language from a document saying it would be executed in a “timely” fashion. 

Cooper told House investigators that she was surprised when the hold on the aid was finally lifted Sept. 11.

“It really came quite out of the blue,” Cooper said. “It was quite abrupt. I believe we got an email. And it just said, OMB has lifted the hold,” Cooper said, adding that the Pentagon was told it could start delivering funds the following day. 

“Ukraine, and also Georgia, are the two front-line states facing Russian aggression. In order to defend further Russian aggression, we need to be able to shore up these countries’ abilities to defend themselves,” Cooper said. “That’s, I think, pure and simple, the rationale behind our strategy of supporting these countries. It’s in our interest to deter Russian aggression elsewhere around the world.”

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