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Emails Shed Light On What Pentagon Knew About Ukraine Aid

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been focused on the fallout from a U.S. strike that killed a top Iranian military commander on Friday. But now we want to turn to another major story that also broke late last week but has received far less attention. The site Just Security published a story that included information from unredacted Trump administration emails. It's information that significantly advances what we know about the decision to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine last year. Basically, we're talking about new who-knew-what-and-when revelations about a key part of the impeachment proceedings into President Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

Kate Brannen is the author of that story. She's the editorial director of Just Security. And she's with us now from New York. Kate Brannen, thanks so much for talking to us.

KATE BRANNEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what do the unredacted emails you were able to see reveal, exactly?

BRANNEN: So the emails stretch from June of this year through the very beginning of October. And they're between officials at the Office of Management and Budget, OMB, and mostly people who work finance and the budget over at the Pentagon. And the two sort of main characters are Michael Duffey, who oversees national security programs at OMB, and this woman named Elaine McCusker, who is the acting Pentagon comptroller. And it's - the story starts with the order that comes down from the president to hold the money. Then, as the summer wears on, it's really kind of the nitty gritty of the mechanism that they have to use in order to hold the money.

And in about mid-August, the Pentagon makes very clear that if they keep holding the money, they're going to run out of time before the fiscal year ends on September 30 to spend it all. And that would mean they're going to violate a law called the Impoundment Control Act, which was put in place after President Nixon. And it mandates that the executive branch spend all the money as Congress appropriated.

MARTIN: So what do these revelations add to the narrative of what we've known so far and what's come out during the impeachment proceedings on the House side? How does this add to the big picture here?

BRANNEN: There's one email, and it's the email I decided to lead the story with. It's dated August 30. We know from New York Times reporting and, also, from these emails that I uncovered that there was a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and President Trump to discuss the ongoing Ukraine hold. And at that point, those officials sort of were well aware of all the issues around this, including the legal issues the Pentagon was raising.

And after that meeting, Mike Duffey sent Elaine McCusker an email that said clear direction from POTUS to hold. So after this meeting, despite all of the issues that - and concerns that are floating around the government about what we're doing here, the president wants to keep the hold in place. And so that is sort of a new piece of evidence that points the finger right at Trump.

MARTIN: So has the Pentagon said anything more recently about how the aid was handled, why it was held up? Have they had any response to these new revelations?

BRANNEN: Not really. So Laura Cooper's the one Pentagon official we heard from during impeachment proceedings. And her - what she testified to matches up, directly, with these emails. She said that in late July, the Pentagon first voiced their concerns about the Impoundment Control Act, about not being able to spend the money in time. And so that's, you know, what we're seeing in these emails now. OMB has said publicly and in a letter to Congress, you know, the Pentagon never really told us they had any concerns about this. And so these emails fly in direct contradiction to that. It's clear that they were warned multiple times. And so they're in a tight spot now.

And then sort of the only person who's really commented on them since they were released last week is the president in a tweet. He retweeted a columnist - I can't remember where - saying these emails show nothing new. I - you know, I had my concerns about whether the money was being spent well. And after sort of I looked into that, the money was released.

And what's clear in these emails, too, that's always kind of been the pretext for why the money was hold or the public story is President Trump wanted a policy review, or he was worried about, you know, Ukraine corruption. Throughout four months' worth of emails, nobody is referring to any policy review taking place within government. And nobody's talking about Ukrainian corruption. Those are not words associated with this money being held. So that's clear as well.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I've asked you how the Pentagon's responded, and you've told us how the White House has responded. What about the Democrats? Have they responded to this new information?

BRANNEN: The Democrats latched onto it very quickly on Thursday. And later that day, Senator Schumer was talking about it in the Senate, Speaker Pelosi put a statement out about it. And chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff was also talking about it all in the context of there is information that's out there that we've subpoenaed from emails to document to other kinds of documents to witnesses, and the White House is not cooperating with our constitutional role to provide oversight of the executive branch. And, you know, this story and these emails are just further evidence of the type of obstruction that they're engaged in.

MARTIN: Kate Brannen is the editorial director for Just Security. Kate, thanks so much for joining us. And do keep us posted.

BRANNEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.