Politics

Pentagon official Laura Cooper describes widespread frustration over Trump's hold on Ukraine aid

Key Points
  • House impeachment investigators release a transcript of testimony by Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon official for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.
  • Cooper describes the frustration of national security officials when they learned nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine had been mysteriously frozen by President Donald Trump.
  • Cooper testifies she was also told that if Ukraine issued a particular statement then the frozen aid would be released.
U.S. President Donald Trump, center, looks on as Patrick Shanahan, acting U.S. Secretary of Defense, left, and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listen during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 3, 2019.
Shawn Thew | Bloomberg | Getty Images

House impeachment investigators on Monday released a transcript of testimony delivered last month behind closed doors by Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.

In it, Cooper describes the frustration she and other national security officials experienced in late July when, she said, an official at the Office of Management and Budget informed staffers across several agencies, during a conference call, that nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine had been mysteriously frozen at the insistence of President Donald Trump.

She also suggested that the officials in the room did not believe the president had the legal authority to place a hold on aid that had been specifically appropriated by Congress.

The July meeting, Cooper said, "was the first time it was stated very clearly what — that yes, [two types of U.S. financial assistance to Ukraine] are both affected by this hold and that it relates to the President's concerns about corruption. And that is what, in that meeting, Mike Duffey from OMB said."

Duffey is head of national security at the White House Office of Management and Budget. Like several other OMB officials, Duffey defied a congressional subpoena on Nov. 5 requiring him to testify before the impeachment inquiry.

After Duffey spoke at the July meeting, Cooper said, "Immediately, deputies began to raise concerns about how this could be done in a legal fashion because there was broad understanding in the meeting that the funding — the State Department funding was related to an earmark for Ukraine, and that the DOD funding was specific to Ukraine security assistance. So the comments in the room at the deputies' level reflected a sense that there was not an understanding of how this could legally play out."

The argument that Trump's hold on the aid constituted an illegal abuse of power is at the center of the case House Democrats are building against Trump in the impeachment inquiry. Cooper's testimony suggests that top officials also questioned the legality of Trump's actions as soon as they learned of them.

Cooper also testified that in August she heard from Kurt Volker, Trump's then special envoy to Ukraine, that Volker was engaged in an effort to get Ukraine to issue a particular statement and he indicated to Cooper that if the statement was issued then the frozen aid would be released.

"In that meeting [Volker] did mention something to me that, you know, was the first about somehow an effort that he was engaged in to see if there was a statement that the government of Ukraine would make, that would somehow disavow any interference in U.S. elections and would commit to the prosecution of any individuals involved in election interference," Cooper told House investigators.

In early September, text messages between Volker and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, revealed that Volker attempted to draft a statement to be read out loud by Ukraine's recently inaugurated president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. That statement, Volker and Sondland hoped, would persuade Trump to release the frozen aid.

Accounts and written records from current and former national security officials show that Zelenskiy came very close to reading the statement during an interview arranged with CNN but that he ultimately did not go through with it. Politico first reported on the frozen aid on Aug. 28, sparking questions that would ultimately form the basis of the impeachment probe.

As of Monday, the House Intelligence Committee had not yet called upon Cooper to testify in public, as several other officials have been called on to do.

Cooper's testimony helps to round out the picture emerging of how senior officials reacted in real time to news of the aid to Ukraine being frozen. So far, the picture painted is one of confusion and frustration across several different government agencies.