Pentagon official says Ukraine asked about military aid in July

Ukrainians may have known about the hold on aid package this summer, undercutting GOP impeachment arguments

Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of Defense, right, and David Hale, undersecretary of State for political affairs, are sworn in before they testify before the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Trump on Nov. 20. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Laura Cooper, a Pentagon expert on Ukraine, told the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday evening that Ukrainian embassy staff in Washington contacted her office in July with questions about the White House’s hold on military aid promised to their country.

Cooper’s testimony adds a new twist to the House impeachment inquiry, into the connection between the hold on that aid and President Donald Trump’s desired politically motivated investigations into a Ukrainian energy company and the Biden family.

The timing of Ukraine’s questions about the aid package potentially undercuts a key Republican argument that Kyiv did not know about the hold on security aid before it was ultimately lifted in September.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said Cooper's “testimony today destroys two of the pillars of the president's defense and one justification for his conduct.”

Cooper, the deputy assistant Defense secretary for Russia and Ukraine, told lawmakers that her staff received an inquiry from the Ukrainian embassy asking about the status of the funds on the afternoon of July 25.

On a phone call earlier that morning, Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to pursue investigations into Ukranian energy company Burisma and in turn, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on the Burisma board. Biden is a top Trump rival in the 2020 presidential election.

“On July 25, a member of my staff got a question from a Ukrainian Embassy contact asking what was going on with Ukraine security assistance,” Cooper testified.

Republicans have argued for weeks that Ukraine did not yet know about the hold on funding at the time of the call and therefore, there could not have been pressure on Zelenskiy to take any actions in exchange for releasing the aid. GOP lawmakers have said repeatedly that Ukrainian officials first learned about the hold on aid weeks later from a news report.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, suggested that the Ukrainian officials were perhaps just asking on July 25 about the aid package generally, not the hold on the aid. Cooper said that wasn't her understanding.

“In my experience with the Ukrainians, they typically would call about specific things and not just generally checking in on their assistance package,” Cooper told Ratcliffe.

Cooper testified alongside David Hale, the No. 3 official at the State Department, who is charged with overseeing legislative affairs.

Republicans countered the new information from Cooper by pointing out that the lethal aid to Ukraine, which each witness who has testified in the impeachment inquiry agrees is vital, began under the Trump administration and was not provided by his predecessor.

Additionally, Republicans attempted to show that Ukrainian soldiers were not left defenseless.

“There was no shortfall in equipment delivery,” Cooper told the panel in response to a question from Texas Republican K. Michael Conaway. Hale explained that while U.S. funds had not been released for the aid until September, the Ukrainian armed forces were not short on supplies due to the hold.

Ohio Republican Jim Jordan pressed Hale, asking if he knew whether any key administration officials told him of any political motivations related to withholding the aid. Hale said he was not aware of any such motivations.

It was the same defense House Intelligence Committee Republicans gave just hours earlier when U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told the committee that it was his “presumption” that Trump was withholding aid in exchange for an investigation into Burisma.

Republicans insinuated that Sondland’s testimony was not evidence against the president because Sondland was never overtly told by Trump or anyone else that the president was withholding aid in exchange for investigations. Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, however, believed that Sondland’s testimony was compelling.

“My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words, ‘Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president,’ that there is no evidence of bribery,” the California Democrat argued.

The second hearing of the day began a little before 6 p.m. and the committee waived the two 45-minute periods of questioning for the chairman, ranking member and respective counsels. Another political event, a Democratic presidential debate, was scheduled for 9 p.m.

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