WASHINGTON — US diplomats who had pushed for the Trump administration to restore security funding to Ukraine were advised by the White House to play down the release of the money when it was finally approved, documents show.
“Keep moving, people, nothing to see here . . . ” Brad Freden, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary overseeing issues in Europe and Eurasia, wrote in a Sept. 12 e-mail obtained by The New York Times.
He said the National Security Council would not publicly announce that $141 million in State Department assistance was being restored after being held up in what the White House described as a normal review.
The money is now at the heart of an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats into whether President Trump withheld a total of $391 million in funding as he sought damaging information on his political opponents from Ukraine’s newly elected leader.
A series of previously unreported internal State Department e-mails reflect diplomats’ frustration with the unexpected freeze on funding that Congress had approved.
“We realize the strain this puts on posts and your ability to conclude grants and carry out programs,” Jim Kulikowski, the State Department’s regional assistance coordinator, wrote in an Aug. 5 e-mail.
“We currently await further guidance and will provide you with an update as soon as we know about next steps,” Kulikowski wrote in the message, which was sent to dozens of State Department employees, including diplomats in Kyiv and in countries across Eastern Europe.
The e-mail did not explain why the assistance was being withheld.
Trump administration officials said the funding had been frozen weeks earlier, before a July 25 telephone call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. During that call, Zelensky said he was grateful for the security assistance that the United States had supplied to Ukraine and made it clear that he hoped to receive more.
A Ukrainian official has said Zelensky’s government did not learn of the funding delay until about a month later. The White House has said the review merely sought to ensure the money was properly spent.
But the freeze irritated diplomats who questioned whether it was tied to Trump’s demands for Ukraine to investigate two politically fraught allegations: a widely-debunked conspiracy theory about election tampering in 2016 and corruption at an energy company that employed the younger son of former vice president Joe Biden.
Once the decision to freeze the aid became public in late August, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pressed the administration to reverse course, saying that holding up the money sent the wrong signal as a new Ukrainian government confronted a continuing military threat from Russia.
William B. Taylor Jr., the top US envoy in Kyiv, wrote in a Sept. 9 text message that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” In response, Gordon D. Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, wrote that “the President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
Sondland then suggested that the conversation continue by telephone, rather than by text. On Tuesday, the Trump administration blocked Sondland from testifying to the House in the impeachment inquiry.
Officials were informed that the freeze had ended — and the $141 million in foreign military financing would be released — in a Sept. 12 e-mail from the White House that was then sent around the State Department.
“Apparently, and I don’t have full visibility, decision made last night,” Kulikowski wrote.
In an e-mail Wednesday, Taylor declined to comment. The State Department did not respond Wednesday to several requests for comment.