WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper demanding answers regarding the Trump Administration’s improper withholding of military aid to Ukraine and the Defense Department’s role in the process.
The senators are seeking information from Secretary Esper regarding President Trump’s decision to manipulate national security assistance for his own political gain by halting the delivery of Congressionally-mandated security assistance funds to Ukraine; what role Pentagon officials played in the hold up; and who directed them to do so.
The bipartisan Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) has been essential for building the capacity of the Ukrainian security forces to counter Russia and help Ukraine defend its sovereignty against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. On May 23, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood informed members of Congress that he had assessed Ukraine’s anti-corruption actions and reforms and “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption [and] increasing accountability.” On June 18, the Department of Defense announced plans to provide $250 million to Ukraine in security cooperation funds for additional training, equipment, and advisory efforts to build the capacity of Ukraine’s armed forces. But the military aid was subsequently blocked by the White House, and during a July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump pressured Ukraine’s leader to dig up damaging information on a political rival that would boost Trump’s re-election prospects. The Ukrainian leader did not comply, and the military aid was withheld until it was released, without explanation, on September 11, shortly after White House lawyers were informed that a member of the intelligence community had filed a formal whistleblower complaint about President Trump’s actions with respect to Congressionally appropriated and authorized funds for Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself from Russia and Russian-backed separatists.
Earlier this month, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney acknowledged that military assistance to Ukraine was withheld in part because of President Trump’s politically-charged demand for Ukraine to investigate one of President Trump’s potential 2020 rivals.
Given the Trump Administration’s shifting explanations for the freeze, Senators Reed and Durbin are seeking answers from Secretary Esper about: the timeline of events; who directed the freeze and how it was communicated throughout the chain of command; whether anyone within the Department of Defense raised concerns about the freeze and how those concerns were handled; and why the Trump Administration failed to inform Congressional oversight committees of the delay in the execution of the Ukraine security assistance in a timely manner.
“The withholding of those funds raises serious concerns about the Department’s management of security assistance and the Administration’s compliance with its statutory obligations, potentially including the Impoundment Control Act of 1974,” Reed and Durbin wrote. “We are deeply concerned that the Administration decided to delay execution of this critical military aid to Ukraine and failed to inform the committees of this decision or provide a reason for the delay.”
Full text of the letter follows:
October 29, 2019
The Honorable Mark Esper
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301-1000
Dear Secretary Esper:
United States support to Ukraine has been vital to enabling Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity against Russian aggression. The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) has been essential for building the capacity of the Ukrainian security forces to counter Russia and Russian-backed separatists and encourage the Ukrainian Government to institute necessary defense reforms. The withholding of those funds raises serious concerns about the Department’s management of security assistance and the Administration’s compliance with its statutory obligations, potentially including the Impoundment Control Act of 1974.
For fiscal year 2019, Congress authorized and appropriated $250 million for the USAI. On February 28th and May 23rd, 2019, the Department of Defense (DOD) notified the relevant congressional oversight committees of its plans for delivering this military assistance to Ukraine in two tranches, each estimated at $125 million. DOD officials briefed committee staff on the details of each of those tranches within weeks and the committees approved release of those funds promptly following each briefing.
Given the expeditious process between the Department and the congressional committees in approving the tranches of USAI funding, we are deeply concerned that the Administration decided to delay execution of this critical military aid to Ukraine and failed to inform the committees of this decision or provide a reason for the delay. It has been reported that around July 18th the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), at the direction of the President, directed the Departments of Defense and State to withhold security assistance funds for Ukraine. Yet, it was not until mid-August that in response to congressional inquiries, Defense and State officials told congressional staff that OMB had directed the funds be held up pending an “interagency review,” without providing any explanation of the purpose of that review. These funds were not released until mid-September, resulting in the expiration of $34 million in DOD assistance to Ukraine – funds that would have been returned to the Treasury unspent had not Congress intervened to preserve the funding in the current continuing resolution.
In light of these events, we request that you provide us the following information in writing, no later than November 11th, 2019:
1) Provide a timeline of the Department of Defense’s execution of the February 28 and May 23 tranches of USAI, starting on the date of submittal of the notifications to Congress and including:
a. The date the Department received approval from all the relevant committees of jurisdiction;
b. The date by which the Department had completed its efforts to execute the funding for each of the tranches;
c. The date and process by which the Department was directed to hold the execution of the USAI funds;
d. The date or dates of any meetings as part of the interagency review of the USAI funds;
e. The date and process by which the Department was informed of the release of the USAI funds for execution;
f. The date by which the Department was able to complete execution of the USAI funds in both tranches.
2) Who directed the Department to hold up execution of the USAI funds? Was this direction provided directly to the Comptroller’s office from the Office of Management and Budget? How did the Comptroller inform other offices within the Department of the hold on USAI funds? What was the understanding of Department officials as to why the USAI funds were being held up?
3) Did the Department review military assistance to Ukraine in the summer of 2019, as indicated by press reports? What issues were examined, and what were the Department’s recommendations?
4) Did any Department officials raise concerns with the OMB, the White House, or other Administration officials about the decision to hold up execution of the USAI funds? If so, what was the nature of those concerns, to whom were they conveyed, and what answers did the Department receive in response to these concerns?
5) Did Department officials ever raise concerns over the delay in execution of the USAI funds with the DOD Office of the General Counsel (DOD/GC)? If so, what was the nature of those concerns and what was the advice of the DOD/GC in this regard?
6) Why did it take so long for the Department to inform congressional oversight committees of the delay in the execution of the Ukraine security assistance? Was the Department directed not to immediately inform Congress of the delay?
7) At the time of the hold up, had the Department negotiated contracts with suppliers for the equipment to be provided under the two tranches of USAI funds? When did the Department inform suppliers of the delay in the contracts for this equipment?
8) Who informed the Department that the hold on the execution of USAI funds had been released? What was the understanding of Department officials as to why the USAI funds were released at that time?
9) Please provide any written documents relating to the hold, any policy reviews, and subsequent release of the USAI funds.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this request.
Senator Jack Reed
Senator Richard J. Durbin