White House Budget Official Questioned Hold on Ukraine Aid

WASHINGTON (CN) – A White House Office of Management and Budget official privately testified that he raised questions over President Donald Trump’s hold on Ukraine aid before being replaced with a political appointee in late July.

Mark Sandy, a career employee in the White House Office of Management and Budget, arrives to testify in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry on Nov. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs, told lawmakers about his concerns and precipitous replacement during closed-door testimony on Nov. 16, a transcript of which was released Tuesday evening by three committees of the House of Representatives.

Those committees released Sandy’s testimony in a trove of nearly a dozen on the heels of a report finding a pattern of abuse in how OMB held up vital military assistance to Ukraine.

“The testimonies from Ambassador Reeker and Mr. Sandy continue to paint a portrait of hand-picked political appointees corrupting the official levers of U.S. government power, including by withholding taxpayer funded military assistance to Ukraine, to further the President’s own personal political agenda,” the committee chairs wrote in a joint statement.

Those chairs are Representatives Adam Schiff of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Eliot Engel of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Carolyn Maloney of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Weeks before a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the center of the House impeachment probe, Trump’s assistant Robert Blair emailed Sandy that the president was holding up the aid.

“To the best of my recollection, that the President is directing a hold on military support funding for Ukraine,” Sandy recalled of the message from Blair, who was among the select group of people to listen in on the call with Zelensky.

On top of being Sandy’s supervisor, Blair was the predecessor for OMB political appointee Mike Duffey. Sandy had been in charge of clearing Ukraine aid until being replaced by Duffey, who contacted him about Trump’s concerns on July 19.

After Duffey disclosed Trump’s intentions about the aid, Sandy immediately raised concerns about its legality, according to the testimony.

“I just made a general reference to the Impoundment Control Act,” Sandy recounted, referring to the legislation meant to prevent the executive branch from intruding upon Congress’ power of the purse.

When Duffey refused to appear before the committee, Schiff proclaimed, “Despite his legal obligations to appeal, Mr. Duffey is not present here today and has therefore defied a duly authorized congressional subpoena.”

The committee chairs noted that Sandy also implicated Trump’s chief of staff.

“Mr. Sandy confirmed that he was told by the office of Mick Mulvaney, the Acting White House Chief of Staff, that the President himself had directed the hold on security assistance to Ukraine,” they said Tuesday. “However, he was provided no other reason or justification for the hold when he was directed to implement it.  And in fact, after he raised concerns with OMB leadership and lawyers that the withholding of funding for Ukraine may violate the law, his authority for approving security assistance funding was revoked and given instead to a hand-picked Trump OMB political appointee.”

On Sept. 11, the Trump administration lifted the hold, and Blair paid a visit to Sandy’s office. Blair allegedly told Sandy that Trump ordered the freeze out of concerns that the United States had been sending more aid than other countries to support Ukraine. Sandy indicated he had been previously informed around the same time over email, prior to Blair’s drop-in.

These details from Sandy’s testimony caught the attention of the committee chairs.

“Finally, we learned from Mr. Sandy that he was first informed in early September—approximately two months after the hold was implemented—that the reason for the hold was due to concerns regarding European countries not paying their fair share of foreign assistance,” they wrote. “Given other testimony and the public admission by Mr. Mulvaney that the aid was held to pressure Ukraine to conduct the investigations desired by the President, this constitutes powerful evidence that this justification was concocted as an after-the-fact rationalization to justify the hold.”

Sandy’s testimony implicating Trump and his allies stands in stark contrast to characterizations of what he said by House Republicans at the time.

New York Representative Lee Zeldin had declared: “You have an even deader case after today.”

The committees also released long-secret testimony by Ambassador Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, who spoke passionately in supported of his ousted colleague Marie Yovanovitch on Oct. 3.

“I’ve seen the outrageous smears and attacks against Ambassador Yovanovitch, in particular, George [Kent], our embassy, the Foreign Service in general,” Reeker told lawmakers. “We have been called Obama holdovers and ‘deep state’-whatever, which, of course, is personally offensive having done this for 27 years through one administration to another, regardless of party, and being nonpolitical, and focused on, you know, the foreign policy of the United States, and trying to engage, and support our interests, regardless of who the President is.”

Reed College political science professor Paul Gronke told Courthouse News in a phone interview Tuesday night that Reeker appeared to be trying to distance himself from the State Department’s attempt to suppress a statement of support for Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

“One of the directions this is going to go in, is undermining our foreign services for our country,” Gronke said. “Domestic politics are trumping the long run diplomatic intention of the country.”

The White House did not provide comment by press time.

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