WASHINGTON (CN) – On the heels of blockbuster testimony by President Donald Trump’s handpicked ambassador confirming a “quid pro quo,” a Pentagon official who oversees military assistance sprang forward on Wednesday afternoon with another damaging revelation.
Defense Department deputy secretary Laura Cooper testified that the same day of Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, her staff received an inquiry from Ukraine’s embassy asking about the status of the security aid the former Soviet satellite had been counting on in its war with the Russians.
“In a series of interagency meetings, I heard that the president had directed the Office of Management and Budget to hold the funds because of his concerns about corruption in Ukraine,” Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official overseeing military aid, testified in her opening statement.
“Let me say from the outset that I have never discussed this or any other matter with the president and never heard directly from him about this matter,” Cooper added.
Cooper’s revised timeline dismantles a Republican talking point expressed by Representative Jim Jordan during the morning session.
“So, [security assistance] gets held up for 55 days, gets held up on July 18, and then is released on Sept. 11,” Jordan asserted. “But it seems to me more important than the 55-day pause is the 14 days when Ukraine realized aid was held up on August.”
“I mean, Ukraine learns aid is held up on Aug. 29,” Jordan emphasized.
Now, a senior Pentagon official has flatly contradicted that assertion under oath.
Cooper told lawmakers Wednesday night that Ukraine inquired about the aid the same day President Trump had his call with Zelensky on July 25.
That same afternoon, Cooper said, the Pentagon received an email from Ukrainian officials inquiring about delay to military assistance.
“My staff was also contacted by Ukrainian embassy officials on the 25th asking ‘What is going on?’ Cooper said as she waved her hands and hunched up her shoulders, illustrating the confusion she felt Ukrainian officials felt.
House Democrats took notice of the chronological shuffle.
California Representative Eric Swalwell told the witness that her testimony “destroys two pillars” of the president’s defense, the first being that there is “no harm, no foul” because Ukraine got the aid.
Swalwell added that her testimony also toppled Trump’s self-description of an anticorruption champion in Ukraine.
Asked whether Trump called her after his decision to put a hold on aid, Cooper replied: “No, sir.”
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff’s opening statement set the stage for a late August meeting between Cooper and Ambassador Kurt Volker, who surprised many on Tuesday as the Republican-called witness extolled former Vice President Joe Biden and reversed his earlier testimony on the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
“During that meeting, in which they were discussing the hold on security assistance, Volker revealed that he was engaged in an effort to have the government of Ukraine issue a statement that would ‘commit to the prosecution of any individuals involved in election interference,’” Schiff remarked in his opening statement. “Cooper understood that if Volker’s effort were successful, the hold might be lifted.”
The chairman continued: “Unbeknownst to Cooper, no such statement was forthcoming.”
David Hale, the third-highest ranking official at the State Department, agreed with an oft-repeated characterization during hearings, that placing a hold on military aid in order to leverage assistance from a foreign country to investigate a political opponent would be considered “unusual.”
But when pressed over whether it would be “completely inappropriate,” Hale went a step further.
“It would be inconsistent with the conduct of our foreign policy,” Hale said.
During questioning Wednesday night, at least two Democratic lawmakers – Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas and Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut – mentioned a specific piece of legislation on multiple occasions: The Impoundment Control Act.
It is the first time since televised public hearings began that lawmakers have referred to the legislation by name, signaling they may use it as a foundation for an article of impeachment against President Trump later.
The legislation, enacted in 1974, prohibits the president from withholding assistance funds without congressional approval. Its creation and passage was a response to President Richard Nixon’s refusal to release appropriated funds to programs he personally opposed.
Himes was the first to mention it Wednesday night, asking Cooper if she understood how the legislation worked.
Though she said she is “not a lawyer,” Cooper affirmed her understanding that the bill was put in place to place a check on the president’s powers.
Under the legislation, the president must send a “special message” to Congress identifying the funds he wishes to claw back as well as the reasons for doing so. Those reasons must also include explanations of the budgetary and economic effects the withdrawal will have and how it may impact other federal programs or policies.
Once the president notifies Congress, the president can continue to withhold the funds for up to 45 days. If the withdrawal is approved but not enacted within 45 days, then the targeted funds must be made available for their original purpose.
A 2018 legal opinion from the Government Accountability Office – which remains in force – stipulated further: If the president holds or withdraws funds, he must make the affected funds ready and available before a funding deadline runs out.
This, according to an October statement from the House Committee on Budget, means “that the president cannot strategically time a rescission request for late in the fiscal year and withhold the funding until it expires, thus achieving a rescission without congressional approval.”