In testimony to Congress last month, career Office of Management and Budget official Mark Sandy testified that President Donald Trump’s interest in a $250 million aid package to Ukraine was piqued by a June “media report.” Within days, Trump’s order to freeze that aid was handed down the chain of command to Sandy and his team.
Sandy’s testimony raised the question: Which media report caught the President’s attention?
The timing of Trump’s interest offers a clue — Sandy testified that it came a day after the Defense Department announced in a press release that it had cleared the $250 million package for Ukraine, on June 18.
On June 19, Sandy testified, he was copied on an email from his boss, the budget office political appointee Michael Duffey, to the Pentagon asking about the aid.
The President, Sandy recalled Duffey saying in the email, “had seen a media report and he had questions about the assistance” to Ukraine.
Pentagon official Laura Cooper, who coordinated the content of that June 18 press release, also recalled receiving an email with questions about it “a few days later,” asking “for a follow-up on a meeting with the President.”
Cooper speculated that the questions were the result of an article that “could have been a little bit misleading” because its headline stated “something like, you know, U.S. gives 250 million to Ukraine.”
Several outlets covered the Pentagon’s press release about the $250 million package, including the conservative website Washington Examiner, whose articles Trump has frequently tweeted. It declared midday on June 19: “Pentagon to send $250M in weapons to Ukraine.”
Whether or not this article is the “media report” Trump saw is still unknown, though some have speculated as much. Several administration officials who might know, including Duffey and others in the White House, have refused to testify. And neither the White House nor the Defense Department have turned over subpoenaed documents to congressional investigators.
Still, even if Trump’s curiosity about the nine-figure aid package was piqued by coverage of the Pentagon’s public announcement, his animus toward Ukraine in the weeks and months before the announcement has been well documented. In May, for example, Trump told administration officials who’d attended Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration that Ukraine “tried to take me down” in 2016.
And in the days before Sandy received an email expressing Trump’s interest, Fox News pundits were blasting conspiracies about Ukraine to deflect criticism from Trump after the President told George Stephanopoulos that he would be willing to accept a foreign country’s assistance again in 2020.
The clearest indication of Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine, though, came from Trump himself in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on the night of June 19.
Mid-way through a 40-minute phoner, the President tipped his hand.
“Take a look at Ukraine” he instructed Hannity after the Fox News host asked about Italy, Great Britain and Australia’s cooperation with the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian election meddling.
“How come the FBI didn’t take the server? Podesta told them to get out. He said ‘get out.’ So how come the FBI didn’t take the server from the DNC? Just think about that one, Sean. Think about that.”
It sounds nonsensical because it is. Trump was referring to a conspiracy theory based on the false belief that the cybersecurity company Democrats hired after Russians hacked their email system, Crowdstrike, is owned by a Ukrainian (it isn’t) and that Crowdstrike framed Russia for the hacks (it didn’t).
A month later, Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate the matter during a phone call.