Dispatch January 30, 2020

Romney’s Question Torpedoes Trump’s Entire Defense

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) asked a late-night question that got to the heart of the matter before the U.S. Senate: “On what specific date did President Trump first order the hold on security assistance to Ukraine, and did he explain the reason at that time?” It should have been simple for the president’s counsel to answer. But they couldn’t—because the answer is incredibly incriminating.

The president’s defense team has pointed to other times when security assistance to a country had been held back. But in every single one of those instances, it is possible to point to a precise timing for the hold as well as the national security rationale. There are decision memos and documents, interagency meetings with detailed readouts, and continuous engagement and briefings for Congress.

Trump’s lawyers could not answer Sen. Romney’s simple factual question because in this case, the decision-making process and the rationale behind the hold were kept off the books. They were kept off the books because withholding the aid was a corrupt decision—and because the administration did not want any record of it.

By failing to answer Sen. Romney’s simple factual question, Trump’s lawyers exposed the corruption.

  • Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel and the president’s main defender on Wednesday afternoon, hemmed and hawed through an answer about how the public record didn’t provide a specific answer to Sen. Romney’s simple question.

If Trump’s hold had been legitimate, it would have left a clear paper trail.

  • As Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO) explained, every other time a president has chosen to withhold aid, “we would have the documents, we would have the testimony, we would have the facts to back that up.” Instead, what we have is “an almost two-month period where none of the individuals who would normally be involved in that process were aware of the reason for the hold.”
  • If emails existed that answered Sen. Romney’s question, the White House would have released them by now. Instead, the White House has blocked Congress from seeing any internal emails, presumably because they know the emails wouldn’t help their case.
  • The few emails that are public show that the people in charge of implementing Trump’s hold understood that the directive came straight from the president—but not that the move was about “corruption” or “burden-sharing,” as Trump’s defenders now claim.

If the reason for withholding aid was legitimate, there would have been no need for an off-the-books “three amigos” foreign policy “channel.”

  • Early in the hold, the U.S. Department of Defense notified the White House that, as the Government Accountability Office would later conclude, freezing aid without going through the proper process was illegal. The White House went through with it anyway.
  • Rather than working through normal channels, the president delegated work on Ukraine to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and the so-called three amigos, alienating and confusing the people ostensibly in charge of implementing his policy in Ukraine.
  • When former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor connected the dots by texting U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland that “it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Sondland responded by specifically telling him to “stop the back and forth by text” and communicate via call instead.
Philbin implausibly tried to claim that the hold being kept secret was actually an indication of a legitimate process.
  • Philbin tried to argue that the White House didn’t tell anybody—even Ukraine—that aid was being withheld specifically because they “did not want there to be any signal to the Ukrainians or to others,” including Russia.
  • This doesn’t hold up for obvious reasons:
    • The only demand Trump ever made of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to announce specific investigations into American citizens and Trump’s political rivals. They did not ask Ukraine to take on any broader anti-corruption efforts.
    • The administration released the aid just two days after Congress learned of the whistleblower complaint and launched investigations into Trump’s extortion scheme, without any meaningful reforms to fight corruption in Ukraine or an increase in contributions from other countries.
    • According to Ukrainian officials, Ukraine did know aid was withheld by late July; the Pentagon itself reportedly discussed the hold with Ukrainian officials by early August.
    • Keeping the hold secret would entirely defeat the stated purpose, which they’ve alternately claimed was to ensure that European countries would step up their contributions and/or to force Ukraine to do more to combat corruption.

Trump’s lawyers couldn’t answer Sen. Romney’s question because the actual answer is incriminating. There was no legitimate reason to freeze aid to Ukraine. There was only one reason: to force Ukraine to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents.