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Why The Trump Decision To Delay Aid To Ukraine Is Under Scrutiny

Dec 6, 2019
Originally published on December 7, 2019 1:40 pm

Why the Trump administration delayed nearly $400 millions of dollars in security aid to Ukraine is the question at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

Democrats say the president tried to coerce an ally to help him take down a political opponent. Republicans argue it's a routine use of presidential power.

Interviews with current and former officials show how the Trump administration's hold-up of aid to Ukraine was irregular and likely violated U.S. law, and has far-reaching consequences at home and overseas.

Tim Rieser, who has decades of experience with foreign aid, had a front row seat to the process that unfolded this summer. He is a staff director of the Senate subcommittee that handles funding for State Department programs. He also serves as senior foreign policy adviser to Democratic Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont.

Rieser usually works behind the scenes advising lawmakers. His Republican counterparts on the House and Senate committees declined to speak with NPR.

The 1974 Impoundment Control Act says a U.S. president can't unilaterally withhold funds designated for spending by Congress.

"They can't just simply decide even though Congress appropriated money for X, we're going to spend it for Y," he explains.

The way the process typically works, Rieser says, the White House can ask for a delay or to halt funding altogether — but it has to tell Congress.

"We recognize that things do change. Elections happen, governments are overthrown. Policies fail, and it makes sense to revisit them," Rieser says.

In July, the White House delayed Ukraine's aid package.

Tim Rieser is the Democratic clerk for the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations. The White House "never expressed concerns to us about corruption in Ukraine, or frankly anywhere," he says.
Sam Gringlas / NPR

Meanwhile, although the Defense Department had certified that the country was making good on anti-corruption benchmarks, the some $250 million in security assistance the Pentagon had slated for Ukraine hadn't gone through.

Rieser wondered if that meant State Department aid to Ukraine — another $140 million or so — might be frozen as well. Turns out, it was.

When it comes to congressional funds, it's "use it or lose it." So when September arrived, the White House was skirting close to the deadline by which they were legally required to alert Congress to an official reason for the freeze.

Then, someone filed a whistleblower complaint.

The White House released the funds shortly after, on Sept. 11. And by the end of the month, that complaint was public.

In October, Trump explained the delay this way: "We have an obligation to investigate corruption. And that's what it was."

Rieser says this is actually part of a broader trend with the current administration. Trump White House budgets consistently tried and failed to slash foreign aid. And the president is not afraid to use diplomatic assistance as leverage.

For instance, when the president worried about migrant caravans at the border, he stopped payment to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador earlier this year.

"We were paying them tremendous amounts of money," Trump said in April. "And we're not paying them anymore. Because they haven't done a thing for us."

But Rieser says the delay on aid to Ukraine was unusual because it involved military assistance that had bipartisan support.

And after seeing the notes from President Trump's phone call in which he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a "favor," Rieser says it was clearly "fundamentally different" from other situations.

"It was to try to obtain information that could be advantageous in a political campaign, which has nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy or national security," Rieser says.

He doesn't buy the idea that Trump's team was essentially vetting the new Ukrainian leader.

"It was laughable. They've never expressed concerns to us about corruption in Ukraine, or frankly anywhere," Rieser says. "To the contrary, we've watched as they've welcomed to the White House, leaders who are known to be corrupt and ruthlessly repressive."

There are ways for a White House to express concerns about corruption. And Trump's isn't the first Republican administration skeptical of how foreign aid is spent.

In 2002, President George W. Bush announced the Millennium Challenge Account, an initiative to monitor and score countries who received special grant funding from the U.S.

Brad Parks helped run the program from 2005 to 2010.

"We documented over 200 instances of anti-corruption reforms that were encouraged or otherwise incentivized by the U.S. government," he says. "And I'm not aware of a single instance in which the U.S. government made an ask for a government to investigate or prosecute a particular politician for abuse of power."

Today, Parks runs AidData — a research lab at the College of William and Mary that tracks foreign aid more broadly.

Over the last 15 years, he says, the U.S. has developed a framework for withholding foreign aid — especially those struggling with corruption.

In 2005, for instance, the U.S. withheld aid from Yemen when the country appeared to be backsliding on reforms. But everyone — Congress and the White House — was in agreement.

"And they would ensure that all the different parts of the U.S. government are singing from the same sheet of music," Parks says, "trying to reinforce the importance of funding anti-corruption agencies and safeguarding the independence to investigate abuses of power without fear or favor."

Yemen followed through, strengthening its anti-corruption commission and making government contracts transparent.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions during a press conference on Oct. 17.
Win McNamee / Getty Images

Parks says Trump's handling of Ukraine sends the wrong message abroad.

"One of the things I'm paying close attention to, is whether the signal that other countries around the world will get, is that the U.S. is principally concerned with strength of anti-corruption policies, or if parts of the U.S. government use anti-corruption institutions as tools to be used for very specific political purposes — which could undermine efforts underway for better part of the last decade to encourage clean government."

That's why a press conference held in October by Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, raised alarms.

When asked whether it was a quid pro quo for the White House to hold up aid unless Ukraine agreed to launch an investigation that might help Trump politically, Mulvaney replied: "We do that all the time with foreign policy. ... Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy."

Sam Berger was among those who were shocked by Mulvaney's comments.

Berger used to work as a lawyer for OMB under the Obama administration.

From his perspective, the White House did violate the budget law by delaying assistance to Ukraine. (OMB did not respond to NPR's request for comment.)

Berger says if you look at the testimony from OMB officials during the impeachment inquiry, they say staffers raised concerns about the freeze on Ukraine aid. Two quit, in part because of it.

As for the White House, Berger says, it had a political appointee sign off on the Ukraine aid delay through the summer.

For Berger, this shows the "irregular process" undertaken to "route around career officials."

"You don't do that because you're doing something straightforward legal that you can justify to everyone. You do that because you're trying to cover up what it is that you're getting at," he says. "And so we saw in an irregular foreign policy process led by Rudy Giuliani and others here, we have an irregular budget process."

"It's not that the violation of the budget law itself is an impeachable offense. But it's what it was used for," he continues. "It was used to extort a foreign power to interfere in our elections."

Extortion. Bribery. These are the terms that can land a president under threat of impeachment.

But Andrew Natsios, a Republican who headed USAID during the George W. Bush administration, says he does not think that is what Trump has done.

Now at Texas A&M University, Natsios says there are plenty of times he's disagreed with how Trump handles foreign aid — like withholding support for those Central American countries over migrant policies.

"Did he have the right to do it? Absolutely," Natsios says. "Was it wise policy? Absolutely not."

When it comes to the Ukraine aid, Natsios says a crucial factor is the president's intent. Was the hold on assistance used to personally benefit him?

"You can't just say you think he did that for this purpose. He can argue, which is what he's been doing, that he was worried about the level of corruption in the Ukrainian government. You can be skeptical about his reasoning," he says. "But that is a legitimate question. Whether he had other motives for doing it is a debatable question. Is it impeachable? I don't think so."

Ultimately, though, that's for the Senate to decide.

Sam Gringlas produced and Courtney Dorning edited this story for broadcast. Maureen Pao edited the story for the web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Why did the Trump administration delay nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine? That is the question at the heart of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Was it because, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says, the president tried to coerce an ally to help him take down a political opponent?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NANCY PELOSI: The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Or was it, as Republicans like Congressman Jim Jordan argue, a routine use of presidential power?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM JORDAN: President Trump was still skeptical of giving hard-earned tax dollars to Ukraine, right?

KURT VOLKER: Yes.

JORDAN: You said that in your testimony as well. And the reason he's skeptical is - let's be honest - the guy doesn't like foreign aid.

KELLY: Our co-host Audie Cornish has been digging into that question and takes it from here.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: This story isn't going to start in a smoky back room in the Ukrainian embassy or a grand hall at the State Department. Instead, we're going to the bowels of Capitol Hill to get help explaining from someone who usually has a front-row seat to how foreign aid gets spent - Tim Rieser.

TIM RIESER: Hi. How are you?

CORNISH: Rieser is a staff director of the Senate subcommittee that handles funding for State Department programs. He works for Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy. And Rieser's office is covered with keepsakes from around the world.

RIESER: This wooden bell from Somalia - you know, just to remind me of why we're here.

CORNISH: He usually works behind the scenes. His Republican counterparts on the House and Senate declined to speak with us. We found Rieser's office after following this Byzantine path of Post-Its that landed at a fortress of file cabinets.

RIESER: Oh, my God. That is a tiny fraction of it (laughter).

CORNISH: Now, a '70s-era law says a U.S. president can't unilaterally withhold funds designated for spending by Congress.

RIESER: They can't just simply decide, even though Congress appropriated money for X, we're going to spend it for Y.

CORNISH: Rieser says, the way it typically works - the White House can ask for a delay or even ask to halt funding altogether, but it has to tell Congress.

RIESER: We recognize that things do change, elections happen, governments are overthrown, policies fail, and it makes sense to revisit them.

CORNISH: In July, the White House delayed Ukraine's aid package. Meanwhile, the Defense Department had certified that the country was making good on anti-corruption benchmarks, and yet the security assistance the Pentagon had asked for hadn't gone through. Rieser wondered if that meant the State Department aid to Ukraine might be frozen as well. Turns out, it was. When it comes to congressional funds, it's use it or lose it. So by the time September came around, the White House was skirting close to the deadline by which they were legally supposed to alert Congress to an official reason for the freeze. Then someone filed a whistleblower complaint. The White House released the funds shortly after. And by the end of the month...

RIESER: The whistleblower complaint became public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We've got breaking news as we come on the air in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Just moments ago, the House Intelligence Committee released a declassified complaint from that whistleblower against President Trump.

CORNISH: Here's how President Trump explained it all in an October interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SEAN HANNITY SHOW")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have an obligation to investigate corruption.

SEAN HANNITY: Faithfully execute.

TRUMP: And that's what it was. In my opinion, that's what it was - is corruption.

CORNISH: But Rieser says this is actually part of a broader trend with this administration. Trump White House budgets have tried and failed to slash foreign aid, and the president isn't afraid to use diplomatic assistance as leverage. Think back to when Trump worried about migrant caravans at the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We stopped payment to Honduras, to Guatemala and to El Salvador. We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we're not paying them anymore because they haven't done a thing for us.

CORNISH: But Rieser says the delay on aid to Ukraine was unusual because it involved military assistance that had bipartisan support. And after seeing the notes from President Trump's phone call and that line, do us a favor...

RIESER: It's just fundamentally different. It was to try to obtain information that could be advantageous in a political campaign, which has nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy or U.S. national security.

CORNISH: Rieser doesn't buy the idea that Trump's team was essentially vetting the new Ukrainian leader.

RIESER: It was laughable. They've never expressed concern to us about corruption in Ukraine, not this White House - or, frankly, anywhere.

CORNISH: There are ways for a White House to express concerns about corruption, and this isn't the first Republican administration skeptical of how foreign aid is spent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH: As you can see, I'm traveling in some pretty good company today - Bono.

CORNISH: This is President George W. Bush back in 2002. The Irish pop star was at his side, and Bush was announcing a program to monitor and score countries that received special grant funding from the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUSH: So the Millennium Challenge Account will reward nations that root out corruption, respect human rights and adhere to the rule of law.

CORNISH: Brad Parks helped run it.

BRAD PARKS: Is this Audie?

CORNISH: Yeah. How are you?

PARKS: I'm doing quite well.

CORNISH: I hear if there's one person who knows about aid to countries that might, like, be dealing with corruption, it's you.

PARKS: Guilty as charged.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Today Parks runs AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary that tracks foreign aid.

PARKS: At the government agency where I worked, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we documented over 200 instances of anti-corruption reforms that were encouraged or otherwise incentivized by the U.S. government. And I'm not aware of a single instance in which the U.S. government made an ask for a government to investigate or prosecute a particular politician for abuse of power.

CORNISH: Parks says over the last 15 years, the U.S. has actually developed a pretty good framework for foreign aid to countries struggling with corruption. For example, in 2005, the U.S. withheld aid from Yemen when it looked like that country was backsliding on reforms. But everyone - Congress and the White House - they were all in agreement.

PARKS: And they would ensure that all of the different parts of the U.S. government are singing from the same sheet of music, trying to reinforce the importance of adequately funding anti-corruption agencies and safeguarding their independence to ensure that they can investigate and prosecute abuses of power without fear or favor.

CORNISH: Yemen followed through, strengthening its anti-corruption commission, making government contracts more transparent. Parks says Trump's handling of Ukraine this summer sends the wrong message abroad.

PARKS: You know, one of the things that I'm paying close attention to is whether the signal that other countries around the world will get is that the U.S. government is principally concerned with the strength of countries' anti-corruption policies and institutions or if parts of the U.S. government view anti-corruption institutions as tools to be used for very specific political purposes, which I think could undermine these broader efforts that have been underway for the better part of the last decade to encourage clean government.

CORNISH: OK, so with that in mind, let's go back to this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Can you explain to us now, definitively, why was funding withheld?

CORNISH: The October press conference with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB. Mulvaney told the press the White House was worried about corruption in Ukraine and worried other countries weren't doing their part to contribute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICK MULVANEY: Those were the driving factors. Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that's it. That's why we held up the money.

CORNISH: But when pressed...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: What you just described is a quid pro quo. It is - funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happened as well.

MULVANEY: We do that all the time with foreign policy.

CORNISH: And Mulvaney didn't stop there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MULVANEY: And I have news for everybody - get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.

SAM BERGER: We were all a little bit shocked.

CORNISH: Sam Berger was watching, too. He used to work as a lawyer for OMB but under the Obama administration.

BERGER: Always happy to talk OMB.

CORNISH: And from his point of view, the White House did violate budget law in delaying assistance to Ukraine. We asked OMB to comment. They did not respond. Berger says if you look at the testimony from OMB officials during the impeachment inquiry, they say staffers raised concerns about the freeze on Ukraine aid; in fact, two quit in part because of it. And the White House, Berger says, carried on, having a political appointee sign off.

To you, why does this matter? I mean, are budgetary concerns like this impeachable offenses?

BERGER: Well, also, it shows the irregular process that they undertook in order to route around career officials. You don't do that because you're doing something straightforward, legal that you can justify to everyone. You do that because you're trying to cover up what it is that you're getting at. And so we saw, in a regular foreign policy process led by Rudy Giuliani and others, here we have an irregular budget process. So it's not that the violation of the budget law itself is an impeachable offense, but it's what it was used for, right? It was used to extort a foreign power to interfere in our elections.

CORNISH: Extortion, bribery - these are the terms that can land a president under threat of impeachment. But Andrew Natsios, the former head of USAID under George W. Bush, says he does not think that's what Trump has done.

ANDREW NATSIOS: I'm a Republican - not a Trump Republican. I'm a Reagan-Bush Republican.

CORNISH: Natsios is now at Texas A&M University. Oh, and he's writing a book on the topic.

NATSIOS: Guns are not enough foreign aid in the national interest.

CORNISH: He says there are plenty of times he's disagreed with how the president handles foreign aid, like withholding support from those Central American countries.

NATSIOS: Did he have the right to do it? Absolutely. Was it wise policy? Absolutely not.

CORNISH: I asked Natsios about the president's hold this summer on aid to Ukraine. Was that, to him, an impeachable offense?

NATSIOS: Should Jimmy Carter be investigated because he provided a generous aid package to Egypt and Israel to get them to sign the Camp David Accords? Is that bribery? I don't think so. I agreed with him doing it.

CORNISH: Is there something particular about a request that would personally benefit the president?

NATSIOS: Yes. The question is you'd have to prove intent. He can argue, which is what he's been doing, that he was worried about the level of corruption in the Ukrainian government. You can be skeptical about his reasoning, but that is a legitimate question. Whether he had other motives for doing it is a debatable question. Is it impeachable? I don't think so.

CORNISH: And that decision will have consequences; consequences that extend far beyond the halls of Congress.

KELLY: That's our co-host, Audie Cornish, and that piece was produced by Sam Gringlas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.