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Pentagon official cited alarm over hold on aid to Ukraine

A top career Defense Department official described to House impeachment investigators her dismay over the summer’s delay of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, painting a portrait of a Pentagon doing battle with the White House over the release of funding deemed “vital” to national security.

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Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper, who testified late last month, said that she took part in her agency’s review of Ukraine’s progress in combating corruption, in which officials concluded that "sufficient progress has been made."

Despite this assessment, top officials in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), guided by President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE, felt otherwise.

Cooper testified that it was felt unanimously except for OMB that Ukraine was making progress in combating corruption. She also said OMB was reflecting the views of "higher-level" guidance, a likely reference to Trump. 

“It was unanimous with the exception of the statements by OMB representatives, and those statements were relaying higher-level guidance,” she told investigators behind closed doors on Oct. 23, according to a transcript of her testimony released Monday evening. 

When Cooper sought clarification over why the aid was withheld, she said the White House initially declined to give it. That aid was "vital,” she said, “to helping the Ukrainians be able to defend themselves” from aggression from neighboring Russia.

Russia had invaded Crimea in 2014, and the Pentagon deemed the aid crucial in bolstering Ukraine’s hand during peace talks. 

“If they are seen as weak, and if they are seen to lack the backing of the United States for their Armed Forces, it makes it much more difficult for them to negotiate a peace on terms that are good for Ukraine,” Cooper testified. 

Cooper said release of the aid was contingent upon Ukraine meeting certain congressionally required “benchmarks” to battle corruption — steps the Pentagon deemed Kyiv to have met in May. Yet in a July 18 meeting, Defense Department officials learned of a hold on the funding without explanation, a scenario she described as “unusual.” 

Eight days later, during another meeting, the reason was revealed: “the president’s concerns about corruption,” she said. That led to a scramble within the national security community, both in the Pentagon and beyond, to convince the White House to release the funds.

“My sense is that all of the senior leaders of the U.S. national security departments and agencies were all unified in their view that this assistance was essential, that we could work with the government of Ukraine to tackle corruption, and they were trying to find ways to engage the president on this,” she said.

The standoff carried heavy national security implications, Cooper said, since Ukraine, along with Georgia, are on the front lines of the fight to defuse Russian aggression in the region. 

“In order to deter further Russian aggression, we need to be able to shore up these countries’ abilities to defend themselves,” she said. 

The details of Cooper’s testimony are the latest to arrive as Democrats systematically release the transcripts from their private depositions, conducted over the last six weeks, with 15 top diplomats and national security officials with insight into Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Ukraine. 

The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry centers on allegations that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in aid to Kyiv in order to secure a commitment from Ukrainian leaders to open investigations into the 2016 elections and Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE, a leading 2020 presidential contender. Both investigations could have helped Trump politically heading into next year’s elections. 

The aid was eventually released, in mid-September, without Ukrainian officials launching the investigations Trump had sought. And Trump and his allies have denied any nefarious intent, saying the president was merely seeking to ensure that taxpayer dollars were not wasted in a country with a long history of political corruption. 

Yet Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, described an August meeting with Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerGOP senators request details on Hunter Biden's travel for probe Yovanovitch retires from State Department: reports Live coverage: Senators enter second day of questions in impeachment trial MORE, then the special U.S. envoy to Kyiv, in which he brought up his effort to have Ukrainian leaders release a statement “that would somehow disavow any interference in U.S. elections and would commit to the prosecution of any individuals involved in election interference.” 

Asked if Volker indicated that such a statement would lead to the release of the withheld aid, Cooper was terse.

“Yes,” she said.