White House scraps Pentagon nomination for official who privately raised concerns about frozen Ukraine aid

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2020.  REUTERS/Joshua RobertsFILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 29, 2020.  REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

U.S. President Trump speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak in Washington

Reuters


  • The White House on Monday withdrew Pentagon official Elaine McCusker’s nomination to be the department’s comptroller, Politico reported.
  • The development comes after internal emails showed McCusker repeatedly raising red flags about President Donald Trump’s decision to freeze Ukraine’s military aid, and her concerns that his actions may have been illegal.
  • McCusker is the latest official to face Trump’s apparent anger as he seeks vengeance against officials who spoke out against him, both publicly and privately, throughout the course of last year’s impeachment inquiry.
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The White House has decided to withdraw the nomination of Elaine McCusker to be the Pentagon’s comptroller and chief financial officer, Politico reported Monday, citing two Senate aides.

Defense News later confirmed the development.

McCusker, a career civil servant who was nominated to be the comptroller last year, questioned the legality of President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold $250 million in aid to Ukraine, a decision at the heart of the recent impeachment proceedings, according to unredacted emails between McCusker and the Office of Management and Budget obtained and published by Just Security in January.

The New York Post first reported in mid-February that McCusker’s nomination was in jeopardy and expected to be pulled.

“This administration needs people who are committed to implementing the president’s agenda, specifically on foreign policy, and not trying to thwart it,” a White House official told the outlet.

Defense One asked McCusker, who serves as the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, if she would credit the New York Post story.

She responded at the time: “I wouldn’t.”

Senate aides told Politico that the chamber received notice of McCusker’s nomination withdrawal on Monday.

While the Trump administration argued that it withheld aid to Ukraine to urge the country to adopt more anticorruption reforms, several witnesses testified that the president directly tied the aid and a White House meeting to the Ukrainian president pursuing politically motivated investigations against his rivals.

The House of Representatives impeached Trump in December for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, but the Senate acquitted him in a nearly party line vote last month.

The president’s decision to withdraw McCusker’s nomination follows his move to oust two critical witnesses who testified against him in the impeachment inquiry: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Gordon Sondland, the US’s former ambassador to the European Union.

Trump also fired Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, who served as as ethics lawyer on the NSC and had no involvement in the impeachment probe.

Most recently, the president asked John Rood, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, to resign. Rood certified to Congress that Ukraine was eligible to receive the aid the president later withheld. In letters that leaked last fall but were written earlier in the year, Rood undermined the administration’s argument that the aid was withheld due to concerns about corruption in Ukraine, arguing that the country had taken “substantial actions” to combat corruption.

Here’s a timeline of McCusker’s involvement in the Ukraine controversy and what happened in the crucial days leading up to the aid’s release:

  • As The New York Times recently reported, an OMB aide, Robert Blair, learned on June 19 that Trump was questioning the delivery of the aid package, at which point Blair told Russell Vought, the acting head of the office, that “we need to hold it up.”
  • That day, another OMB official, Michael Duffey, emailed McCusker and copied Mark Sandy, an OMB official, on national-security programs, to ask if she had “insight on this funding,” according to the emails published by Just Security.
  • After McCusker explained on June 25 which companies were producing the military equipment and said that only $7 million of the Pentagon’s $250 million part of the package had been spent, Blair told Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on June 27 that they should “expect Congress to become unhinged” by withholding the aid.
  • On July 25, Sandy officially froze the Ukraine aid. This was also the day Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the phone and asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
  • Shortly after Trump’s call, Duffey emailed several Pentagon officials and asked them to “please hold off on any additional DOD obligations of these funds.” He requested that the recipients keep the directive “closely held to those who need to know” because of “the sensitive nature of the request.”

    • McCusker replied that day and asked whether the OMB had cleared the hold with the Defense Department’s lawyers. This was the first sign of the Pentagon’s concerns about the legality of withholding the aid. The Justice Department redacted McCusker’s question in the initial batch of emails it released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by media.
  • On July 26, Rood emailed Defense Secretary Mark Esper a readout of a meeting in which top national-security officials voiced their “unanimous support” for sending the security assistance.
  • On August 9, McCusker warned Sandy, Duffey, and other senior OMB officials that if the aid was not released soon, it might affect the “timely execution” of the program. “We hope it won’t and will do all we can to execute once the policy decision is made, but can no longer make that declarative statement,” she wrote.
    • The DOJ redacted this warning from McCusker, which, notably, contradicted the OMB’s talking points.
  • On August 12, when it became clear that Trump would continue the aid freeze, McCusker emailed Duffey and asked him to include language in a footnote in a budgeting document to reflect the growing risk of withholding funding. The language was not included, and the request was redacted in the initial document release.
  • The DOJ also redacted several emails from McCusker near the end of August raising additional legal questions about withholding the aid and the possibility that Trump’s actions violated the Impoundment Control Act.
  • In one noteworthy exchange on August 27 that was redacted, McCusker said the situation surrounding the aid freeze was “particularly difficult because OMB lawyers continue to consistently mischaracterize the process.”
  • Another redacted portion contained information about a draft letter from the defense secretary to a senior OMB official highlighting the divisions between the two agencies over the legality of freezing Ukraine’s military aid.
  • On August 28, after Politico publicly revealed the aid freeze, the OMB’s general counsel, Mark Paoletta, sent around talking points including that “no action has been taken by OMB that would preclude the obligation of these funds before the end of the fiscal year.”
    • McCusker pushed back, writing: “I don’t agree to the revised TPs — the last one is just not accurate from a financial execution standpoint, something we have been consistently conveying for a few weeks.” Her response was initially redacted.
  • As September came around, McCusker raised concerns about whether the Defense Department would be “adequately protected from what may happen as a result of the Ukraine obligation pause.” She added, “I realize we need to continue to give the WH has much decision space as possible, but am concerned we have not officially documented the fact that we can not promise full execution at this point in the [fiscal year].”
  • On September 9, Duffey sent McCusker a misleading email suggesting that if the president greenlighted the aid but the Pentagon was not able to obligate the funding, it would be on the Pentagon and not the OMB.
    • McCusker responded: “You can’t be serious. I am speechless.”
  • On September 11, after Congress became aware of a whistleblower’s complaint accusing Trump of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 election, Duffey emailed McCusker and said the president had lifted the hold on Ukraine’s military aid.
    • “Glad to have this behind us,” he wrote.
More:

Donald Trump
elaine mccusker
Impeachment
Trump impeachment

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