Two weeks of impeachment inquiry hearings produced little common ground in the testimony from the parade of witnesses, but one thing they all agreed upon was that delaying foreign aid — even military assistance — happens frequently.
The White House’s decision to place a hold on military assistance to Ukraine is at the crux of Democrats’ bribery case against President Trump, who they say withheld the money to extract promises of investigations into political enemies.
That there was a hold on the $391 million is not in doubt, but the reasons for it and whether the Ukrainians even knew about it for most of the time are very much in question. The answers could decide Mr. Trump’s fate.
Mr. Trump is far from the first president to delay assistance approved by Congress, witness after witness told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. They even described it as routine.
“It does occur,” testified David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs at the State Department.
He said the National Security Council, at the president’s insistence, launched a foreign assistance review in late 2018 to look at how U.S. aid was being used. Over the past year, congressionally approved aid was delayed or denied to Pakistan, Lebanon, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Aid was restored to the three Central American countries after they agreed to do more to stem the flow of their citizens to the U.S.
Administration officials use that as an example of quid pro quo dealing that has worked out in the nation’s favor, with the rate of illegal border crossings tumbling.
Witnesses said it was known that Mr. Trump had antipathy to foreign aid in general and liked erecting hurdles.
White House officials felt vindicated by the revelations, saying holds are placed for all manner of reasons. It’s often difficult to tease out what the hurdles are.
“It goes on all the time,” one White House staffer told The Washington Times.
Democrats contend the case was different for Ukraine. They say the aid was contingent on Kyiv investigations of 2016 U.S. election meddling and corruption involving political rival Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter.
Daniel S. Goldman, the Democrats’ chief investigator for the inquiry, asked William Taylor, the charge d’affaires in Ukraine, whether he had seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States.
“I have not,” Mr. Taylor replied.
However, Fiona Hill, a former Russia analyst at the NSC, said political considerations played a factor in the Obama administration’s approach to Ukraine. U.S. security agencies wanted to deliver Javelin missiles to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed forces, but the Obama White House nixed the move.
“I think it was very much made on a political basis about concerns that this would provoke the Russians,” she testified.
Mr. Trump had the same concerns but ultimately signed off on the sale of Javelins in late April 2018 and added anti-tank missiles to the lethal aid already flowing to Ukraine.
Mr. Hale said Mr. Trump directly placed the hold on Ukraine aid this year.
Yet the president never took steps to cancel the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.
“There were only two ways to discontinue obligation of USAI: a president-directed decision or a [Defense Department]-directed reprogramming action, either of which would need to be notified to Congress,” Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Defense, testified. “I never heard that either was being pursued.”
The aid was approved on Sept. 11. Democrats stress that was two days after the inspector general for the intelligence community informed Congress that a whistleblower had complained that Mr. Trump was conditioning the money on Ukraine’s commitment to performing political investigations.
The complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry.
Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, one of the key witnesses against Mr. Trump, stunned lawmakers when he revealed that the National Security Council had ruled Mr. Trump’s hold legal.
“There was opinion rendered that it was legal to put the hold,” he said.
“It was, excuse me?” blurted out Rep. Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat.
“There was an opinion, legal opinion, rendered that the hold was legal,” Col. Vindman repeated.
Mr. Quigley pressed him further: “On the purely legal point of view?”
“Correct,” Col. Vindman said.
The hearings showcased a dozen officials spread across five days of testimony spanning two weeks and produced several revelations beneath the top headlines.
Col. Vindman, who was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. with his parents when he was 3 years old, announced that Ukrainian leaders asked him three times to become that country’s defense minister.
“I think it would be a great honor,” Col. Vindman said before adding “but I am an American. I came here when I was a toddler, and I immediately dismissed these offers. Did not entertain them.”
David A. Holmes, an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, revealed that Mr. Trump’s interest in investigations in Ukraine was about on par with his attempts to help Kim Kardashian get Sweden to release U.S. rapper A$AP Rocky.
Mr. Holmes said he learned that when he overheard a conversation between Mr. Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
He said he heard Mr. Trump ask whether Ukraine would agree to the investigations. Upon being told President Volodymyr Zelensky would do anything Mr. Trump wanted, the president immediately shifted gears to talk about A$AP Rocky, who was being held by Sweden on charges of assault.
Mr. Holmes said Mr. Sondland offered suggestions on how the president could attempt to win the rapper’s release — though Mr. Holmes said he no longer could hear Mr. Trump’s side of the conversation, only Mr. Sondland’s.
The ambassador, Mr. Holmes said, told Mr. Trump, “They should have released him on your word, and you can tell the Kardashians you tried.”
Miss Kardashian has emerged as a curious political force with Mr. Trump. She persuaded him to sign a bill cutting prison sentences for drug offenders.
In another under-the-radar revelation, Ms. Hill said America’s fracking industry has irritated Russian President Vladimir Putin.
She testified that the U.S. advances in fracking — a process to tap previously unavailable oil reserves — is a strategic asset and one that she knows worries Mr. Putin.
“In November 2011, I actually sat next to Vladimir Putin at a conference, in which he made precisely that point,” she said. “He started in 2011 making it very clear that he saw American fracking as a great threat to Russian interests. We were all struck by how much he stressed this issue. And it’s since 2011 and since that particular juncture that Putin has made a big deal of this.”
She agreed with Rep. Michael K. Conaway, Texas Republican, who said Americans should be wary of anti-fracking narratives pushed by Russian-backed media outlets such as RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
⦁ Rowan Scarborough, Alex Swoyer and Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report.