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Newly Obtained Emails Shed Light On U.S. Aid Delay To Ukraine

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some newly public emails show that about an hour-and-a-half after President Trump had his July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president, an official from the White House budget office encouraged discretion as it asked for aid to Ukraine to be paused. Now, remember this is the same phone call during which Trump asked the Ukranian president for a favor, which started the House impeachment inquiry. Those new emails were obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Center for Public Integrity. That's a nonprofit newsgroup.

R. Jeffrey Smith is a national security editor for the Center for Public Integrity. He's one the line now. Good morning, Mr. Smith.

R JEFFREY SMITH: Good morning.

KING: So what do these emails show?

SMITH: Well, they show that there was huge anxiety inside the government that the aid hold was not only unwise but that it was illegal - that it was a violation of the law that Congress - of a law that Congress had passed to rein in Richard Nixon. And they show that lots of legal opinions were sought and discussed. But tensions about the legality of the - of Trump's order didn't die quickly. And many officials at the Pentagon and the Office of Management Budget, which provided the emails to us, were never given a clear or even remotely satisfactory explanation for the aid hold.

KING: What is OMB's response to the release of these emails? Have they said anything?

SMITH: So OMB has - a spokesperson for OMB has said that the timing of the - this request on the 25 of July, the same day as the Zelenskiy phone call, the timing of that request isn't significant because the aid had actually been halted before then and was discussed at a interagency meeting on July 18.

KING: Right, exact - Gordon Sondland testified to that, yeah.

SMITH: Yes - and so did Bill Taylor. I mean, he was part of the meeting that took place on the 18. So it's true that the aid had been halted before.

What's interesting about the timing of all of these internal emails is that - so the president - the sequence runs something like this. An email goes from someone in the White House to OMB on the 12 of July. It says all the aid is going to be halted or should be halted. Then it's discussed more widely by OMB with other officials within the government on the 18. And then on the 25, an actual written notice goes to the Pentagon. And that notice took a while to work out, the wording of that language. There are lots of emails back and forth before then about - how can we make this comply with the law? - and it wasn't easy for them to try to do that. And it's uncertain whether they actually succeeded.

KING: Can you explain the law that they seem to be afraid of violating?

SMITH: Sure. What happened in the - during the presidency of Richard Nixon was that Congress would appropriate money but the executive branch - Richard Nixon - would choose not to spend it, sometimes as much as a fifth of some of the budget accounts that Congress had given him money for. And Congress became frustrated because they felt like their will was being thwarted by Nixon's refusal to spend the money. So they took a good amount of time. They carefully considered all the aspects of this issue and passed something called the Impoundment Act (ph), which basically says that if Congress appropriates money, you have to spend it. The executive branch has to spend it.

KING: You've got to get it done, yeah.

SMITH: It can't just decide on its own not to do it.

KING: OK. The White House is responding to this by saying there is nothing new here. Here's Marc Short, the vice president's chief of staff, talking on NBC's "Meet The Press" yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MARC SHORT: So yes, there was a delay. There's nothing new in these emails about the timing, truly, Chuck. There was a lot of emails and back-and-forth exchanges about timing of this. The aid was released.

KING: So he's right that the aid was released, which has become one of these big questions in the impeachment - or one of the big defenses in the impeachment. What do these emails reveal that Mr. Short maybe isn't saying?

SMITH: They show that not everybody inside the administration was happy with the halt. And people worried that they were being asked to do something that was illegal. So yes, it's true that the aid was released, but that aid was released only after Congress announced the beginning of its investigation.

And right up until the 5 of September, which was six days before the aid was released, people at the Pentagon were worried that they would miss a statutory deadline which is part of the Impoundment Act's requirement. It has to - all the money has to be spent by the end of the fiscal year; that was September 30. They were worried that - what one of the top Pentagon officials called, there would be a failure to execute, meaning that they wouldn't be able to carry out the Congressional will by the end of that month and, thus, they would be in violation of the law.

KING: Let me ask you in the seconds that we have left - Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said effectively, these emails are the reason we need witnesses during the impeachment trial. Do you think these emails put new pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow witnesses?

SMITH: Yes. I mean, there absolutely is no transparency. There's - most of the emails that we got back had blacked-out information, and we don't know exactly what people said. We were only able to glean this information from small pieces of information.

KING: R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity. Thanks so much.

SMITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.