In a blow to GOP defenses of President Donald Trump, a Defense Department official said Wednesday the Ukrainian government asked "what was going on" with U.S. military aid as early as July 25 — the very day that Trump asked Ukraine's president to investigate Democrats.
Testifying in an evening hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper told lawmakers her staff recently showed her emails that she had not yet seen when she testified behind closed doors last month in the impeachment probe looking into Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
Cooper said her staff received an email on July 25 from a Ukrainian embassy contact asking "what was going on with Ukraine's security assistance." She said she "cannot say for certain" that Ukraine was aware the aid was being withheld, but said "it's the recollection of my staff that they likely knew."
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Republicans have argued there couldn't be a "quid pro quo" — investigations into Democrats for military aid — if Ukrainians weren't aware of a hold on the aid.
"Your testimony today destroys two of the pillars of the president's defense," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. "The first pillar: No harm no foul. The Ukrainians didn't know that the hold was in place, so it didn't really hurt them. The second pillar: This president was a real champion of anti-corruption."
Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy occurred in the morning in Washington. After Zelenskiy pressed for the military aid, Trump suggested Ukraine "look into" Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a huge Ukrainian natural gas company.
In addition to the email from the Ukrainian Embassy, Cooper testified that her staff also received two emails from the State Department that afternoon of July 25. One said "that the Ukrainian Embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee are asking about security assistance." A second email said "the Hill knows about the (military aid) situation to an extent and so does the Ukrainian Embassy."
The House Intelligence Committee was hearing testimony Wednesday from Cooper and David Hale, the undersecretary of State for political affairs.
The impeachment inquiry is looking at whether Trump violated his oath of office by holding back congressionally approved funds while he asked the new Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a favor — to investigate political rival Joe Biden's family and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Cooper testified last month that Ukraine officials began quietly asking the State Department about the holdup.
Cooper told investigators that, in a series of July meetings at the White House, she came to understand that Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was holding up the military aid for the U.S. ally.
"There was just this issue of the White House chief of staff has conveyed that the president has concerns about Ukraine," she told House impeachment investigators in a closed-door interview.
When she and others tried to get an explanation, they found none.
"We did not get clarification," she said.
"My sense is that all of the senior leaders of the U.S. national security departments and agencies were all unified in their — in their view that this assistance was essential," said Cooper, an assistant defense secretary. "And they were trying to find ways to engage the President on this."
Cooper said she and other aides were asking questions about what legal authority the White House had to halt congressionally approved aid for Ukraine.
She said it was "unusual" to have the congressional funds suddenly halted that way. The Pentagon was "concerned."
Cooper told investigators that it was when Ambassador Kurt Volker visited in August that he explained there was a "statement" that the Ukraine government could make to get the security money flowing.
It was the first she had heard of what is now the quid pro quo central to the impeachment inquiry.
"Somehow an effort that he was engaged in to see if there was a statement that the government of Ukraine would make," she said, "that would somehow disavow any interference in U.S. elections and would commit to the prosecution of any individuals involved in election interference."
Her testimony last month was delayed several hours after two dozen Republican House members stormed into a closed-door deposition inside a secure room inside the Capitol.
Hale, the State Department's No. 3 official, was questioned earlier this month about the abrupt removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who delivered chilling testimony last week about her ouster amid a “smear” campaign by President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Hale said he repeatedly pushed for a State Department statement defending the ambassador, who spent a 33-year career in the foreign service. But that effort failed.
He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “most likely would have been the person” to make the decision not to publicly support Yovanovitch.
Hale provided new information with call records showing Pompeo and Giuliani had been in touch twice, on March 28 and March 29, around the time of her ouster.