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Pentagon Letter Undercuts Trump Assertion On Delaying Aid To Ukraine Over Corruption

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 10:10 pm

Updated at 9:03 p.m. ET

Earlier this week, President Trump cited concerns about corruption as his rationale for blocking security assistance to Ukraine. But in a letter sent to four congressional committees in May of this year and obtained by NPR, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood informed lawmakers that he "certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption [and] increasing accountability."

The certification was required by law for the release of $250 million in security assistance for Ukraine. That aid was blocked by the White House until Sept. 11 and has since been released. It must be spent before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

At a news conference on Wednesday wrapping up a three-day visit to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump repeated his professed concerns about corruption as the reason for holding up $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine.

"We want to make sure that country is honest," Trump said of Ukraine. "It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?"

The Defense Department announced in mid-June that it would be sending $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine, which has been battling pro-Russia separatists near its eastern border with Russia since 2014.

But the White House blocked that assistance in July. That was prior to a phone call Trump made to Ukraine's recently elected leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

According to notes of that call released by the White House on Wednesday, Trump asked Zelenskiy to "look into" reports that former vice president and current Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden "went around bragging" that he stopped the Ukrainian government from looking into his son Hunter's activities in Ukraine.

Trump has denied seeking to pressure Zelenskiy into carrying out such a probe by withholding the military assistance. That aid was released Sept. 11 after an angry bipartisan response from Congress to reports that the money was being withheld.

Some congressional Republicans are defending Trump's conversation with Zelenskiy. "I think to suggest that this phone call was the president of the United States threatening to withhold aid to the Ukraine unless they did his political bidding," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., "is simply ridiculous."

Another explanation Trump has been giving for blocking the Ukraine assistance is his view that European allies are not contributing enough to that aid. "Europe and other nations [must] contribute to Ukraine," he told reporters at the U.N. on Tuesday. "Because they're not doing it. Just the United States. We're putting up the bulk of the money."

Eight European embassies in Washington contacted by NPR on Wednesday reported no attempts by the Trump administration over the summer to increase their contributions to Ukraine. "There was no effort at all," said a senior official at the German Embassy, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "The topic was not brought up at all at recent meetings we've had."

European diplomats hasten to point out that they have been contributing far more to Ukraine than what Trump has claimed. "Our bilateral assistance to Ukraine of $1.4 billion is almost at the U.S. level," said the German Embassy official. The U.S. has disbursed nearly $1.5 billion since 2014 in security assistance to Ukraine, while the European Union has provided about $15 billion, mostly in the form of loans.

House committees that are starting impeachment inquiries are virtually certain to probe further into Trump's reasons for holding back assistance to Ukraine while he was seeking an investigation there of a potential Democratic rival in next year's election.

Read the letter below or here.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump has repeatedly said that corruption was his driving concern about giving Ukraine millions of dollars in military aid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are supporting a country. We want to make sure that country is honest. It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?

CORNISH: In fact, the White House did hold up hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine prior to President Trump's July call with the Ukrainian president. However, now NPR has obtained documentation that appears to undercut President Trump's concern about Ukrainian corruption.

Joining me now to talk about this is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Welcome to the studio.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So what is this document that calls into question Trump's rationale for holding up aid?

WELNA: This is a letter that was sent to four congressional committees in May by the under secretary of defense for policy, John Rood at the Pentagon. And it's kind of a routine thing. Ukraine is a country that's notorious for its corruption. And so Congress has stipulated that if there's going to be any military aid sent there, first, there has to be a certification that they have made enough improvement in their efforts to fight corruption to deserve getting that aid. And that letter, which NPR has obtained today, says that Rood tells Congress, I have certified that the government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption and increasing accountability. So he's very clearly saying that while there may still be problems in Ukraine, this is - this country is deserving to get this aid, kind of undercutting what President Trump was saying about corruption in Ukraine.

CORNISH: All right, I want people to keep following this because I understand the Pentagon actually put out a press release - this is in June - announcing that it was providing $250 million in military aid to Ukraine.

WELNA: Yes. This was the following month. And it seemed that the Pentagon had every idea that it was going to go ahead and give Ukraine this aid, that it had no clue that this money was going to be cut off. But suddenly it was by the White House. And this was, of course, as you said, before President Trump called the newly elected president, Zelenskiy. And there are real concerns about why, in fact, he did cut out that aid.

CORNISH: And of course, the president has also given another explanation for holding up that aid for more than two months. What was it?

WELNA: Well, he says that it's out of concern that European nations were not contributing enough to Ukraine in terms of assistance. And that would suggest that the U.S. was using the withholding of that aid to try to pressure European countries. But I've checked with a number of European embassies here in Washington who tell me that they perceived no effort whatsoever on the part of the U.S. government to force them to increase their contributions. In fact, they pointed out that they've actually given nearly as much as the U.S. has in aid to Ukraine. And they say that they really see no sign that this was a concern at the White House.

CORNISH: So undercutting these rationales from the president for withholding aid, how significant is this?

WELNA: Well, you know, President Trump says that he was not looking for a quid pro quo from President Zelenskiy of Ukraine in asking him to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for releasing this aid. But the explanations he's given for withholding that aid haven't really stood up against this new evidence that's come forward. I'm sure the Congress is going to have many more questions about this as they hold hearings in the weeks to come. But President Trump changed his explanation from concerns about corruption to concerns about contributions already this week. We may hear more.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Thank you.

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