A top Pentagon official with jurisdiction over Ukraine testified publicly on Wednesday that Ukrainian officials were aware weeks earlier than previously believed that there was an unexplained holdup in hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military assistance.
In the sixth open impeachment hearing to date, Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said that since her closed-door deposition, she has learned from her staff that officials at the Ukrainian embassy in the U.S. contacted them to ask about the status of the aid on July 25—the day Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky had their now-infamous phone call.
The staffer, said Cooper, was contacted by Ukrainian embassy staff “asking what was going on” with the security assistance. Later, in early August, a Ukrainian diplomat told a member of Cooper’s staff that they might raise concerns about the stalled aid with other U.S. officials.
Later in the hearing, she was pressed by Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) about whether she was sure the Ukraininans were inquiring about the aid. Cooper said she didn’t have a “certain data point to offer.”
But, she added, “In my experience with the Ukrainians, they typically would call about specific things and not just generally checking in on their assistance package.”
The news that the $400 million in aid was on ice was first reported by POLITICO on Aug. 28. A central plank of Republicans’ impeachment defense has been the argument that Ukrainian officials couldn’t have felt pressured to open investigations Trump wanted because they weren’t even aware that the security aid was stalled.
Other officials have previously testified that is not the case, but Cooper’s testimony places the Ukrainians’ knowledge of the hold earlier in the year than any other witness. The Pentagon official also testified it was the impression of her staff that Kyiv was not only aware of a problem with the aid, but was concerned about it.
Beyond that news—which was a late addition to Cooper’s opening statement—Tuesday evening’s hearing seemed drawn up to hammer two key Democratic points: that the president did not have the authority to unilaterally and secretly withhold aid from Ukraine, and that the Department of Defense had already completed its own anti-corruption process to determine that Ukraine was worthy of the aid before Trumpworld intervened.
That second point is especially important to Democrats’ case that the aid delay was squarely about Trump’s personal interests and not about any well-meaning concern over corruption in Ukraine. Cooper testified that in May 2019, the Pentagon had determined that the Ukrainian government met the anti-corruption standards needed to receive U.S. security aid.
With their time, Republicans returned repeatedly to the point that Zelensky was new and that Trump was justified in waiting to feel him out.
The other witness on the stand—David Hale, the number three diplomat at the State Department—testified that it was “understandable for the administration to understand better what [Zelensky’s] policies would be.”
GOP lawmakers also argued that presidents can withhold aid when they feel it’s warranted—and in fact do so all the time.
"Having no explanation for why aid is being withheld is not uncommon?" Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) asked Hale. "I would say it is not the normal way that we function,” responded Hale, but allowed that “it does happen” after Ratcliffe pressed him on it.
Ratcliffe, for example, pointed out that the White House is currently withholding $100 million of aid to Lebanon—a package that both Congress and the State Department approved earlier this year.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), followed Ratcliffe, and said his Republican colleague “perfectly summarized the defense Republicans are mounting: the president is acting on some deep, historical concern about corruption, and because he’s so concerned, he’s holding up aid and being prudent and judicious.”
“President Trump,” declared Himes, “was not worried about corruption in Ukraine.”