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Why Vindman’s testimony undercuts White House explanation for freezing Ukraine funds

President Donald Trump’s refusal to sign an August memo releasing funds for Ukraine offers the latest evidence that the money was paused not as part of a security review — as administration officials previously claimed — but instead solely at the discretion of the President.

Officials at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget have said that Trump tapped Defense Secretary Mark Esper and then-national security adviser John Bolton to review the money. Once the review was completed, administration officials said the funds were released.

But witnesses in the impeachment inquiry and other sources familiar with the matter contradict that version of events. Bolton was prepared to release the money in August. Esper was inclined to do so even earlier. And still, the money languished until nearly mid-September.

Rather than being held up for a security review, it appears the funds were being withheld at Trump’s demand as he pressed officials in Ukraine to investigate the 2016 US presidential election and his potential 2020 presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. The President’s rationale for pausing the aid, and then for releasing it, are both of interest to impeachment investigators. Multiple witnesses, including the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, have testified that they believed Trump was withholding money from Ukraine in exchange for political investigations.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. It has previously said that the President did nothing wrong, that he simply wanted to ensure Ukraine was cracking down on corruption and that US allies were doing their fair share to support Ukraine.

The President’s decision to freeze aid to Ukraine in June unnerved officials from the White House to the US embassy in Kiev.

Bolton instructed Vindman to craft a memo by August 15 to restart security assistance for Ukraine, sources told CNN. Bolton had been in favor of the aid for Ukraine from the get-go. But the memo offers further corroboration that Bolton was not the one holding up the security aid.

Over at the Pentagon, officials were puzzled as to why Trump froze the money and ordered a review. The State Department and the Pentagon had already assessed the funds in May, before Trump ordered the freeze. The Pentagon responded to the request for a second review within a day, urging the White House to release the funds.

At the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was facing questions about the hold up from diplomats working for him and was eager for the White House to green light the assistance.

Bolton made the case in a meeting with Trump on August 16, alongside Pompeo and Esper. The President still refused to release the funds.

Instead, the money remained on hold for three and a half more weeks. The President did not relent and release the funds until the evening of September 11, under mounting pressure from lawmakers and other officials in the administration.

Investigators hoping to follow the money are hitting a roadblock at both OMB and the State Department.

A number of State Department officials have agreed to testify before congressional committees, despite the administration’s efforts to block them. But the State Department has refused to hand over documents related to the impeachment inquiry, leaving a valuable paper trail just out of reach for investigators.

The documents would reveal conversations among diplomats discussing the hold on funds for Ukraine. Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, discussed the hold with Trump. He also told Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, that “everything” with regard to US policy toward Ukraine was dependent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announcing investigations into the 2016 election and Burisma, the energy company on whose board Biden’s son served.

OMB has also refused to hand over documents that the impeachment committees have subpoenaed. Both acting OMB Director Russ Vought and OMB Associate Director of National Security Programs Mike Duffey have also snubbed the committees’ requests for voluntary testimony.

“We are not going to be a part of any sham process that is designed to relitigate the last election,” Vought recently told Fox News.

Both Vought and Duffey have been subpoenaed for their testimony. So far, there is no indication either of them plans to comply.

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