By Frida Ghitis
The praise or condemnation President Donald Trump is drawing for the latest US actions in the Middle East in no way diminishes the power of the legal bombshell that just exploded in the United States with new evidence of his behavior regarding Ukraine.
Newly revealed documents paint an incriminating picture, showing administration officials anxiously struggling to follow orders from Trump himself despite concerns that the order could go against the national security interests of the United States and warnings from the Pentagon that it could be illegal.
Frida GhitisThe emails are the portrait of a corrupt policy and an effort to conceal it — a tug of war between two sets of government officials, one side trying to protect American security and follow the law, another working to enforce direct orders of the President of the United States.
The documents, obtained through the work of the Center for Public Integrity and later, in their unredacted versions, revealed by the online legal forum Just Security, show that administration officials knew Trump was ordering them to do something possibly illegal.
Just hours after Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — the one Trump absurdly calls “perfect” during which he requested a “favor” from Ukraine — Michael Duffey, at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), emailed the Pentagon to put a hold on aid to Ukraine and said to keep the decision secret “given the sensitive nature of the request.”
Over the succeeding weeks, OMB and the Pentagon discussed the decision.
Pentagon lawyers and others appeared to grow increasingly anxious. Duffey later writes, “Clear direction from POTUS to hold,” again making it clear this was the President’s doing.
On July 26, the “Ukraine Deputies Small Group” met. The National Security Council’s top Ukraine experts — Trump’s own team — declared “unanimous support” for restarting military funding as Russia’s allies continued their assault on eastern Ukraine.
As the clock ticked toward a disbursement deadline, aides increasingly raised the legality of the issue
And rightly so. The decision didn’t just run against national security, it violated the law.
Under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA), the administration is obligated to spend the money as directed by Congress. If it doesn’t, it is required to inform Congress that it is doing so and why.
In a draft letter by the Pentagon to the OMB, top Defense Department officials noted, “We have repeatedly advised OMB officials” that the suspension of aid jeopardizes “the Department’s ability” to comply with the ICA.
With the deadline for compliance nearing, the infighting and finger pointing intensified. Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting controller, asked Eric Chewning, the chief of staff of Defense Secretary Mike Esper, “Do you believe DOD is adequately protected from what may happen?” Eventually, the secret came out. Politico broke the story of the aid freeze.
Congress began asking questions. Impeachment was on the horizon.What could be worse than a President sacrificing national security for personal political gain, and violating the law in the process?
What makes it worse is that the administration, working hand in glove with the US Department of Justice, did everything in its power to conceal the latest batch of information even after a court ordered it released. The Trump administration is engaged in what looks very much like a coverup. In Nixon’s Watergate case, it became cliché to note that the coverup was worse than the crime. In this case, the crime and the coverup are both extremely serious, even if most members of the Trump-era Republican party refuse to acknowledge it.
The administration has refused to release the documents demanded by Congressional investigators and has tried to prevent key witnesses from testifying. But these emails came after a judge ordered their release in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Center for Public Integrity. That’s when the Justice Department tried to have it both ways, releasing the documents but hiding the most incriminating pieces, blacking out big chunks of conversations.
Then came the work of Just Security, the online legal forum, which reviewed the unredacted documents, pulling the pin on this political grenade.
Now we know why Trump refuses to put forward a real defense as he faces an impeachment trial. He has no defense. Every shred of information we have seen so far is thoroughly consistent with what we heard from witnesses during the House impeachment hearings: Trump ordered his team to withhold military aid from Ukraine — urgently needed to defend against a Russian-backed invasion — as he pressured Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into his chief Democratic rival in the 2020 election, former Vice President Joe Biden.
If Trump had a coherent explanation, a viable defense, he would put it forward. He doesn’t. The more we learn, the guiltier he looks. That’s why he blocks every release of information, and his team blacks out key pieces in court-ordered document releases.
His defense strategy amounts to shouting “Witch Hunt!” He has nothing better.
The documents curiously show that at no point in the discussions between the officials was there any explanation of why Trump abruptly halted aid. We know why from the White House summary of the call with Zelensky, from Trump’s rants about Biden and Ukraine, from Giuliani’s statements, and from the officials who spoke in the impeachment hearings. Trump, as his own diplomats declared, conditioned the release of the aid on Ukraine announcing an investigation of Biden and his son.
As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff noted, these documents amount to a small fraction of what the House has subpoenaed. The Trump administration refuses to provide more information. It’s pretty clear why. Every piece of information adds to overwhelming evidence of corruption, of abuse and misuse of power by the President of the United States.
What’s happening in the Middle East matters, but we should not let it divert us from holding this President to account.
Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review.