President Donald Trump says he lifted his freeze on aid to Ukraine on Sept. 11, but the State Department had quietly authorized releasing $141 million of the money several days earlier, according to five people familiar with the matter.
The State Department decision, which hasn’t been reported previously, stemmed from a legal finding made earlier in the year, and conveyed in a classified memorandum to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. State Department lawyers found the White House Office of Management and Budget, and thus the president, had no legal standing to block spending of the Ukraine aid.
The White House freeze on assistance to Ukraine — including a separate $250 million package of military aid from the Defense Department — has become a central issue in House impeachment hearings, where witnesses say Trump ordered the assistance halted to force Ukraine to announce investigations into Joe Biden and other Democrats.
The words “investigation, Biden and Clinton” were to be required elements in a public announcement by Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the new Ukrainian president, to get the aid, State Department official George Kent testified in the Democratic-led impeachment probe. Ukraine ultimately didn’t make the announcement, and Trump says there was never a quid pro quo.
The freeze on funds Ukraine sought for its continuing war against Russia-backed separatists was opposed by many in the administration. Alexander Vindman, director of European affairs on the National Security Council, has testified that he understood Pompeo, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Defense Secretary Mark Esper all recommended releasing the funds in an Aug. 15 meeting with Trump. [Continue reading…]