Just Securitys Kate Brannen has gotten her hands on unredacted emails in which the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department discussed the withholding of military aid. The big new takeaway is that there was significant concern within the Pentagon about the legality of the hold. Despite that, according to one email from top OMB official Michael Duffey on Aug. 30, there was clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.
The even-bigger takeaway, though, may be how much this fact was obscured. The emails were previously released in redacted form, but many of the redaction choices are puzzling and even suspicious. The redactions include repeated references to legal problems with withholding the aid, basic questions about that subject, and warnings that waiting until too late in the fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) might mean some of the funds would never be released.
And an entire draft letter from the deputy defense secretary to the acting OMB directorwarning that “we have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond Aug. 19, 2019 jeopardize the Departments ability to obligate USAI funding prudently and fully”was blacked out by DOJ pic.twitter.com/jWEX9J0MzQ
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) January 2, 2020
That latter fact appears to have been doubly obscured including in an official communication. OMB general counsel Mark Paoletta wrote a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Dec. 11 that suggested the Defense Department had never flagged such a risk.
In fact, at no point during the pause in obligations did DOD [Office of General Counsel] indicate to OMB that, as a matter of law, the apportionments would prevent DOD from being able to obligate the funds before the end of the fiscal year, Paoletta wrote.
In fact, though, on Aug. 27 acting Defense Department comptroller Elaine McCusker shared a draft letter that the Pentagon was preparing to send OMB with Duffey. In the letter, the deputy defense secretary was to say, As a result, we have repeatedly advised OMB officials that pauses beyond Aug. 19, 2019 jeopardize the Departments ability to obligate USAI funding prudently and fully, consistent with the Impoundment Control Act.
The next day, Politico broke the story that the funds were being withheld. Emails were exchanged establishing talking points, including one similar to the statement that eventually found its way into Paolettas letter: No action has been taken by OMB that would preclude the obligation of these funds before the end of the fiscal year.”
McCusker, though, explicitly told Duffey that wasnt the case.
I dont 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, she said.
Both the draft letter and the disagreement over the talking points were redacted from the initially released emails, according to Just Security, along with other evidence of dissension over this subject. Another redaction came in an Aug. 26 email, in which McCusker told Duffey that Paoletta appears to continue to consistently misunderstand the process and the timelines we have provided for funds execution. McCusker also told Defense Department officials internally in an email that OMB continues to ignore our repeated explanation regarding how the process works.
Repeatedly. Continued. Consistently. The Defense Department seemed to believe this message was being conveyed rather unmistakably, but Paoletta suggested it wasnt really part of the conversation. Then much of the evidence establishing these internal disagreements was redacted from the emails that were released, for reasons that arent terribly clear and raise all kinds of questions.
Whats more, the internal discord and the worry about the funds never being released seems to have potentially weighed on the decision to release them on Sept. 11, less than three weeks until the end of the fiscal year. The GOPs argument here that the aid was ultimately released, so theres no corruption was already fanciful. First is the fact that there was considerable bipartisan pressure to release the funds, and second is that the whistleblower stuff was starting to break its way into the open, giving Trump plenty of motivation to back down from his gambit. We now know the longer it went on, the more long-lasting the fallout might have been, according to rather heated internal debates.
Republicans are arguing that theres simply not much there, there and that its not even worth calling witnesses in the Senates impeachment trial. But a steady trickle of evidence sure suggests otherwise.