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White House ordered Pentagon to freeze Ukraine aid 90 minutes after Trump's call to Zelensky, documents reveal

Donald Trump’s administration ordered the Pentagon to freeze $391m (£300m) of military aid to Ukraine less than two hours after the phone call in which US president asked Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rival Joe Biden, newly released internal emails have revealed.

A declassified White House memorandum documenting the president’s 25 July call with Mr Zelensky shows the call – during which Mr Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart to probe a conspiracy theory his own aides have attributed to Russia’s intelligence services – began at 9.03 am and ended 30 minutes later. 

At 11.04 am that day - 91 minutes after the call had ended -  senior Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official Michael Duffey sent an email to Defence Department officials requesting the Pentagon stop making plans to distribute any security assistance funds to Ukraine, the papers show.

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The White House’s decision to withhold the funding – a move legal experts say violated US law prohibiting the president from “impounding” congressionally appropriated funds – is at the centre of the “abuse of power” charges for which the House of Representatives impeached Mr Trump on Wednesday.

The House’s vote to approve impeachment charges was the culmination of a months-long investigation stemming from a whistleblower complaint notifying the US Intelligence Community’s Inspector General that that the anonymous whistleblower had “received information from multiple US government officials” which indicated that Mr Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election” 

While administration officials have told impeachment investigators the president had ordered the OMB to withhold aid to Ukraine as early as July 12, the newly released documents show White House officials ordering the Pentagon to pause the funds shortly after Mr Zelensky declined to acquiesce to Mr Trump’s request for “a favour” during the 25 July call.

“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 DoD obligations of these funds, pending direction from that process,” wrote Mr Duffey, associate director for national security programmes.

Associate director Mr Duffey, a political appointee who was previously head of Wisconsin’s Republican Party, had taken over management of the Ukraine aid portfolio from his deputy Mark Sandy, a career civil servant.

The email, which was one of many released in a 20 December document dump in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Centre for Public Integrity, shows that Mr Duffey was aware the decision to place a hold on funds intended to help Ukraine fight off a Russian-backed invasion would be controversial, as he asked Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker keep the information “closely held to those who need to know to execute direction”.

While most of the emails released are heavily redacted, the information that remains also shows how the 25 July 25 directive from Mr Duffey was not the first time he had contacted Ms McCusker about the congressionally approved military aid package to Ukraine.  

On 19 June 19, Mr Duffey emailed the comptroller to enquire about a story in the Washington Examiner detailing how Congress had approved $250m (£192m) for defence assistance to Kiev.

“The president has asked about this funding release, and I have been tasked to follow-up with someone over there to get more detail,” he wrote, asking Ms McCusker if she had “any insight on this funding”.

During his 25 July call with Mr Zelensky, Mr Trump responded to his Ukrainian counterpart’s request to purchase more of the Javelin anti-tank missiles the US had been supplying to combat Russian-built tanks with an unusual request: “I would like you to do us a favour though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it”.

Mr Trump then asked Mr Zelensky to “get to the bottom” of a conspiracy theory which posits that Ukraine - not Russia - was responsible for breaking into Democratic National Committee (DNC) email servers during the 2016 election, and to investigate baseless charges that former vice-president Mr Biden ordered Mr Zelensky’s predecessor to fire a top prosecutor to protect his son, Hunter Biden.

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No credible evidence supports the claim that Mr Biden’s directive to ex-Ukrainian president Petro Poroskenko was rooted in any personal motive, as the ouster of ex-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin was a condition for loan guarantees set by the government of the United States, and was supported by the government of the United Kingdom, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and numerous other EU governments. 

A series of investigations, including one undertaken by special counsel Robert Mueller, found that the DNC cyberattack was executed by Russian hackers as part of a “sweeping and systematic” effort to swing the election to Mr Trump by damaging his opponent  Hillary Clinton.

Additionally, the idea that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election has been rejected by multiple Trump administration officials, including Mr Trump’s own former top Russia advisor - Dr Fiona Hill – who called the theory “a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves”.