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Bombshell Report on Emails About Ukraine Aid Freeze Provokes Fresh Calls for Fair Senate Impeachment Trial

"The American people deserve a fair trial that gets to the truth, not a rigged process that enables a cover-up."

redacted email

Just Security on Jan. 2 published a bombshell report on unredacted emails between budget and defense officials about President Donald Trump's demand to withhold millions in military aid from Ukraine. (Image: Just Security)

Top Democrats in Congress are pointing to a bombshell report published Thursday by Just Security about unredacted emails that "tell the behind-the-scenes story of the defense and budget officials who had to carry out the president's unexplained hold on military aid to Ukraine" as the latest evidence of the need for the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate to hold a comprehensive, fair, and transparent impeachment trial.

As Joshua Geltzer, founding executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy at Georgetown University Law Center, summarized on Twitter, the "must-read" report makes two things clear: "The White House was warned by the Defense Department that withholding Ukraine aid was illegal," and President Donald Trump "demanded it be done anyway."

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, released a lengthy statement saying that Just Security's "disclosure of these incriminating documents reinforces the need for all of these materials to be produced, and that a fair trial in the Senate cannot take place without them."

The House's Democratic majority voted on Dec. 18 to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after hours of testimony from diplomats and other government officials about the administration withholding $391 million in congerssionally-approved military aid and trying to use a White House meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pressure Ukraine into publicly announcing a corruption investigation involving former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump's Democratic rivals in the 2020 presidential race.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has declined to say when she will send the two impeachment articles to the upper chamber but, as CNN reported last month, "some progressives have urged Democratic leaders to withhold the articles until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, agrees to the parameters for the Senate trial that Democrats have called for, as well as agreeing to bring in firsthand witnesses like acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to testify."

By holding off on sending the articles to McConnell, who has vowed that the Senate's GOP leadership will work through the impeachment trial in "total coordination" with the White House, Pelosi has allowed more time for damning leaks and reporting like Just Security's exposé, which noted that "getting at that truth hasn't been easy and the Trump administration continues to try to obscure it. It is blocking key officials from testifying and is keeping documentary evidence from lawmakers investigating the Ukraine story."

On the heels of a Dec. 29 New York Times article that delved into the Ukrainian aid freeze and cited some previously undisclosed messages, Just Security reported on emails between officials at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Pentagon from June to October 2019 about Trump's demand to withhold the military assistance. Although a court last month ordered the government to turn over hundreds of pages of emails to the Center for Public Integrity as part of a public records lawsuit, the released communications were substantially blacked out by the U.S. Justice Department.

According to Just Security's Kate Brannen, who reviewed the unredacted emails:

The documents reveal growing concern from Pentagon officials that the hold would violate the Impoundment Control Act, which requires the executive branch to spend money as appropriated by Congress, and that the necessary steps to avoid this result weren't being taken. Those steps would include notifying Congress that the funding was being held or shifted elsewhere, a step that was never taken. The emails also show that no rationale was ever given for why the hold was put in place or why it was eventually lifted.

What is clear is that it all came down to the president and what he wanted; no one else appears to have supported his position. Although the pretext for the hold was that some sort of policy review was taking place, the emails make no mention of that actually happening. Instead, officials were anxiously waiting for the president to be convinced that the hold was a bad idea. And while the situation continued throughout the summer, senior defense officials were searching for legal guidance, worried they would be blamed should the hold be lifted too late to actually spend all of the money, which would violate the law.

Ryan Goodman, founding co-editor-in-chief of Just Security and professor of law at New York University, broke down the emails and their significance in a series of tweets:

Walter Shaub, who resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics in mid-2017 over clashes with the Trump administration and is now a senior adviser at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), tweeted in response to the report that "just imagining what else they have concealed boggles the mind."

Pelosi also responded to the report on Twitter:

In a statement Thursday, the top Democrat in the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), said that the "newly-revealed unredacted emails are a devastating blow to Senator McConnell's push to have a trial without the documents and witnesses we've requested."

"This new evidence also raises questions that can only be answered by having key Trump administration officials—Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, Michael Duffey, and Robert Blair—testify under oath in a Senate trial," Schumer added. "The American people deserve a fair trial that gets to the truth, not a rigged process that enables a cover-up."

Both Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, shared the report on Twitter, highlighting a line that Michael Duffey, associate director of national security programs at the OMB, emailed Elaine McCusker, the acting Pentagon comptroller, on Aug. 30: "Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold."

"Like we needed any more confirmation Trump was directing all this, but here it is," Murphy commented. Tweeting at McConnell and the rest of the Senate Republicans, Pocan asked: "Is this clear enough for you?"

This post has been updated to reflect that the Just Security report was published Thursday.

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