A key Republican talking point in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump took a hit at Wednesday’s hearing in an exchange between Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., and Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas.
In his questioning of David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, Ratcliffe reprised a now familiar defense of the president, that putting a hold on military aid to Ukraine was done out of concern about corruption in the country. The reasons for the hold in summer 2019, during Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia, were not communicated either publicly or within the diplomatic and national security bureaucracy.
Citing other recent instances in which congressionally approved U.S. foreign aid had been withheld without explanation, Ratcliffe asked Hale, “So, having no explanation for why aid is being withheld is not uncommon?”
“I would say it is not the normal way that we function,” Hale responded.
“But it does happen,” Ratcliffe pressed, making the point that Trump’s decision to suspend aid to Ukraine was in keeping with past protocol.
“It does happen,” Hale conceded.
Himes was the next lawmaker on the House Intelligence Committee to question Hale and Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, and he began with a dig at Ratcliffe.
“I’m delighted to follow Mr. Ratcliffe because he just perfectly summarized the defense that my Republican colleagues are mounting for this behavior. And the defense goes like this: The president is acting on some deep historical concern — apparently invisible concern — about corruption, and that because he’s so concerned about corruption in Ukraine, he’s holding up aid and being prudent and judicious,” Himes said. “The first part of that is pretty easy to dispose of because President Trump wasn’t worried about corruption in Ukraine. In fact, in the two conversations he had with the president of Ukraine on April 21 and July 25 not once does the president of the United States use the word or mention corruption to the president.”
Himes then turned to the idea that Trump withholding aid was an acceptable practice. “That’s not just wrong, it’s illegal,” Himes said, before directing his questions at Cooper.
“Since the Impoundment Control Act of 1974, the president has not had the authority to do on a whim or out of prudence or, as Republicans say, ‘because of a general skepticism of foreign aid’ to stop foreign aid. Ms. Cooper, under our Constitution, it’s the Congress and not the president that controls the power of the purse, correct?”
“Yes sir,” Cooper answered.
“And the security assistance that was authorized to Ukraine was authorized and appropriated by the Congress, correct?”
“Yes sir,” Cooper said.
“So Congress is also concerned about corruption. It wants to insure that American foreign assistance is spent wisely and does not worsen corruption. And so when Congress authorizes money it built in conditions, just as Mr. Ratcliffe suggested. By law, Ukraine wouldn’t get all the money until it demonstrated that it had undertaken substantial anti-corruption reforms. Ms. Cooper, under the law, the Department of Defense works with the State Department and other agencies to establish anti-corruption benchmarks to determine whether Ukraine has sufficiently met those benchmarks, correct?”
“That’s correct. That provision pertains to the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative,” Cooper said.
Himes then pointed out that the Department of Defense had certified that Ukraine had met the anti-corruption benchmarks “months” before Trump suspended military aid to the country.
“So this wasn’t about corruption,” Himes said of the president’s decision. “The timeline proves it.”
During last week’s testimony, Ratcliffe asserted that there was no evidence to support the Democrats’ claim of a quid pro quo linking military aid to an investigation of Joe Biden.
“You have to ask yourself, what did President Zelensky actually do to get the aid? The answer is nothing,” Ratcliffe said. “He didn’t do any of the things that House Democrats say that he was being forced and coerced and threatened to do. He didn’t do anything because he didn’t have to.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, meanwhile, has repeatedly asserted that Trump used a 55-day freeze on military aid to Ukraine to assess whether the country’s newly elected president was sincere in fighting corruption.
“We’re talking about Ukraine, one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. And we’re talking about the hard-earned dollars of the American people,” Jordan said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “They [the Trump administration] became convinced that this media star — this new guy to politics, his party just won an overwhelming majority in the parliament — was the real deal. He was worth the risk. And they said, ‘We’ll release the aid.’”
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