The White House is seen under dark rain clouds in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2015. 
Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

Newly released materials shed new light on Trump’s Ukraine scheme

When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reached out to the Republican leadership last week about calling witnesses at Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the New York Democrat pointed to several individuals who could shed light on the White House’s Ukraine extortion scheme. Two names – former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney – generated the most headlines.

But they weren’t the only voices Schumer proposed hearing from. Schumer’s letter also pointed to Michael Duffey, associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget, as someone senators really ought to hear from.

Over the weekend, Duffey’s perspective grew quite a bit more important. NBC News reported:

Newly released emails regarding Ukraine defense aid held by the White House show that a request to withhold funds came less than two hours after President Donald Trump’s July phone call with the Ukrainian president that has served as the backbone of the impeachment proceedings against him.

The Center for Public Integrity obtained 146 pages of heavily redacted emails through a Freedom of Information Act request and court order.

The released documents are online here.

The timeline of events is striking, and as it turns out, still coming into even sharper focus. On the morning of July 25, according to the White House’s own call summary, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on launching investigations in Kyiv intended to target the Republican’s domestic foes. It was on this same call that the Ukrainian leader referenced military support, to which Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

Just 91 minutes after the call ended, Mike Duffey wrote to officials at the OMB and the Pentagon, “Based on guidance I have received and in light of the Administration’s plan to review assistance to Ukraine, including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, please hold off on any additional [Department of Defense] obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process.”

Reinforcing concerns about a possible cover-up, Duffey added, “Given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute the direction.”

In other words, Congress – which approved the military aid, but wasn’t involved in “executing” the direction – was to be kept in the dark, legal requirements notwithstanding.

If Duffey’s name sounds at all familiar, it’s because it came up quite a bit late last month. Mark Sandy, a career staffer in the White House Office of Management and Budget, told Congress in November that two OMB officials left the department because they believed the president’s scheme – withhold aid until Ukraine met Trump’s political demands – may have unfolded outside legal boundaries.

It was at that point that the White House transferred power away from Sandy and to Duffey – a political appointee who used to lead the Wisconsin Republican Party – a move without precedent at the OMB.

Chuck Schumer spoke at a New York City press conference yesterday, telling reporters, “If there was ever an argument that we need Mr. Duffey to come testify, this is that information. This email is explosive. A top Administration official, one that we’ve requested, is saying stop the aid 91 minutes after Trump called Zelensky and said keep it hush-hush. What more do you need to request a witness?”

That need not be a rhetorical question. What possible rationale could Senate Republicans come up with to argue that Duffey’s perspective and knowledge in this matter is unimportant in Trump’s impeachment trial?