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Top Defense Democrat Says Lawmakers Forced Trump's Hand On Ukraine Aid

Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash. (left) and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, are seen before a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March.
Tom Williams
CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Reps. Adam Smith, D-Wash. (left) and Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, are seen before a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March.

It was sometime in July when House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith says he started hearing rumblings from some defense contractors. They were wondering whatever happened to the orders they'd expected after the Pentagon announced in mid-June plans to provide Ukraine with $250 million worth of weaponry.

"We approved the money. The president signed it and we just assumed it was going out," the Washington state Democrat tells All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly. "Then we started to hear from a variety of people that it was not going out."

That money had been blocked by the White House, but Smith says neither the Pentagon nor the executive branch made Congress aware of that decision. "It is very unusual that we would not be notified," he adds. "They certainly move money around a lot and make decisions that are not completely in keeping with what we've passed, but they always tell us and they also have a legal justification for doing it. Neither was true in this case."

It was not until August 30, though, that Smith demanded in writing an explanation from acting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. "Initially, this didn't seem like something that would be a big problem," Smith says, adding that he wanted to ensure the letter sent would be bipartisan and had the signature of his committee's ranking member, Texas Republican Mac Thornberry. "We sent a letter saying, please release the money and please tell us why you're holding it up."

There was no response to the lawmakers' bipartisan letter from Mulvaney — or from anyone else at the White House. Smith says worried lobbyists for the defense contractors decided the key to ending the freeze of Ukraine funds would be finding a group of lawmakers who had President Trump's ear. That turned out to be the conservative House Freedom Caucus, of which former congressman Mulvaney was a founding member.

"My understanding is that people reached out to the Freedom Caucus, who were in favor of releasing the funds," Smith tells NPR. "Members of the Freedom Caucus were asked to directly lobby the president to release the funds ... What I do know is that people called him up and eventually he responded to that campaign and decided to release the funds."

The White House freed the Ukraine money Sept. 11. At a news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto on Wednesday, Trump singled out Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman for making that happen. "I gave the money," Trump said, "because Rob Portman and others called me and asked."

Trump's decision to release the Ukraine funds also came on the eve of a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee at which Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin intended to introducean amendment that would force Republican members to take a stance on the withheld security assistance.

The next week, the first news reports appeared of a whistleblower's complaint raising concerns about Trump using the blocked aid in a July 25 phone call to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Trump had asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, now a leading Democratic challenger for next year's presidential election.

Smith contends it's clear Trump withheld the funds to force Ukraine to provide political dirt on Biden. "I have no doubt whatsoever that's exactly what happened," he says. "I mean, you know, there is no other explanation."

Trump denies such charges. "There wasn't ANYTHING wrong in my conversation with the Ukrainian President," he tweeted on Thursday. "This is a Democrat Scam!"

Most of the money for Ukraine is now in the pipeline. The State Department has already obligated the entire $191.5 million it was authorized to spend on security assistance, according to a spokesman. As for the $250 million in funding being handled by the Pentagon, spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday, "The bulk of that aid went out the door prior to the end of the fiscal year and the rest of it will be going out in the next few days to a week."

For Smith, the alarm bells sounded by members of Congress as well as the whistleblower complaint show safeguards did what they are supposed to do.

"The law worked," he says. "The law worked as a system of checks and balances to control an executive who was abusing his power."

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.