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As Ukraine war intensifies, questions from first Trump impeachment linger

It’s easy to forget amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that the war-torn country and its suddenly beloved leader were at the center of Donald Trump’s first impeachment in 2019.

But that seemingly distant chapter of American politics — when the American president secretly withheld military assistance for Ukraine before asking President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to announce an investigation of his political opponents — has a direct tie-in to today’s war, according to lawmakers and witnesses central to that first impeachment probe.

At the time, Zelenskyy desperately needed lethal aid, and a united front with the U.S., as pro-Russia separatists waged war in his country’s east. But Trump had other ideas; though he had previously delivered shipments of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, he secretly orchestrated a hold on military aid before asking Zelenskyy to roll out corruption probes targeting President Joe Biden. Zelenskyy initiated no such probe, and the aid was eventually sent to Ukraine.

But the larger war on Ukraine has underscored the critical importance of U.S. military aid over the years to helping blunt Russia’s invasion and prevent the conflict from spilling into NATO countries. It has also highlighted the Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate with the Democrat-led impeachment investigation, in particular the efforts to learn more about the hold on aid to Ukraine; one of the two articles of impeachment against Trump accused him of ordering nine senior aides to refuse to testify.

Those aides — high-ranking budget, State Department and White House officials — have still never revealed key accounts at the heart of the controversy. Those who were intimately involved in holding back the aid say there’s no further probing necessary.

Mark Paoletta, who served as general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget at the time, told POLITICO that the hold “did not cause any lapsing of funds,” and cited data showing that a higher percentage of Ukraine funds set aside by Congress were obligated in 2019 than in the last year of the Obama administration.

“The Obama administration had refused to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, such as Stinger missiles, because President Obama did not want to piss off Vladimir Putin,” Paoletta said. “That’s where we started. The Trump administration changed that and began supplying Stinger missiles.”

Among the nine aides who put up stiff resistance to the impeachment inquiry were Russell Vought, who served as Trump’s budget director, and a top Vought deputy, Michael Duffey. As a result, investigators ended up with several blind spots about how and why the Ukraine aid was put on hold. A federal watchdog later determined that the withholding of the aid was illegal.

In fact, the importance of Vought’s role only came to light after the Senate, mostly along party lines, acquitted Trump of the House’s charges that he sought to extort a foreign leader for political gain and subsequently obstructed Congress’ investigation. Less than a week after the Senate acquitted Trump on both counts in early 2020, Vought testified before the House Budget Committee for a routine hearing. But Democrats never asked him about the initial decision to withhold the military assistance.

Vought did not comment for this story, but Paoletta said Vought was willing to testify before the impeachment investigators if an administration lawyer was present to protect claims of executive privilege — an offer Democrats rejected.

Meanwhile, the chaos caused by the abrupt pause on aid became an existential crisis for Ukraine — one that bears on the current war, in which aid from the U.S. and Western nations has provided a lifeline to Zelenskyy’s government.

One person involved in the first impeachment probe, who spoke candidly on condition of anonymity, pointed to a particularly salient lingering question left by the refusal of some of Trump’s budget advisers to testify or share documents: the contingency plan drawn up by defense officials to deliver Ukraine its aid — citing legal obligations — over the budget office’s objection. Because the aid was ultimately delivered, this backup plan was never set in motion, even though planning documents may have been drafted.

The 2019 impeachment inquiry revealed several facts about Trump’s pressure campaign, including his efforts to enlist U.S. diplomats and outside advisers in his push for Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into Biden family members based on spurious claims. Much of that bid was routed through Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and Trump’s personal attorney.

Trump also repeatedly rebuffed Zelenskyy’s urgent pleas for a White House visit and discouraged then-Vice President Mike Pence from attending the Ukrainian leader’s inauguration as a signal of U.S. support. Pence is at the center of another lingering mystery of the first impeachment: a Sept. 18, 2019, phone call that he, a key Trump envoy to Ukraine, conducted with Zelenskyy.

Details of the call came days after the withheld aid to Ukraine had been released and impeachment fervor began to take root among House Democrats. They were marked as classified by Pence’s office, leading to protests from Democrats who said the decision to shield the information was unjustified.

The Pence-Zelenskyy call was revealed to the House Intelligence Committee by Jennifer Williams, then a national security aide to Pence, who testified that she believed Trump’s posture toward Zelenskyy was improper and political. Williams recalled the phone call after her public testimony. Pence aides did not respond to a request for comment on the nature or substance of his conversation with Zelenskyy.

Amid those holes in the public’s understanding of the Trump-Ukraine saga, Democrats continue to insist that Trump bears some of the responsibility for the current crisis in Ukraine. The former president’s willingness to condition support on political investigations, Democrats say, signaled to Putin that the west wouldn’t be united behind Ukraine.

Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Trump’s decision to withhold the aid “absolutely” made the Ukrainians less prepared to fight the Russians and skeptical of the long-term U.S. commitment to their security.

“Remember, this was the guy who tried to extort political favors from President Zelenskyy for his own personal political gain,” Warner said. “But the fact is we need to continue to get all the aid we can, as quickly as possible.”

Other figures involved in the 2019 affair similarly said they still had burning questions about what played out. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted by Trump just before Zelenskyy’s inauguration, told POLITICO in a recent interview that she believed Trump’s treatment of Ukraine “emboldened” Putin. She said she still has no answers about some of the circumstances that led to her removal, but noted that a string of tell-all books have shed new light on the events.

“I expect,” Yovanovitch said, “that there will be more details forthcoming.”

Marianne LeVine and Katie Fossett contributed to this report.

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