White house lawyers concerned internal investigation could cause political problems for president.
Donald Trump’s right-hand man asked White House officials if there were legal grounds to withhold military aid from Ukraine in the month after the president had made the decision – according to an internal investigation uncovered by US media.
The withholding of $391m of aid – and whether the move was used to pressure Ukrainian officials into launching an investigation into Mr Trump’s political rival Joe Biden – has become the centrepiece of the impeachment investigation against the president.
Now an internal investigation by the White House’s legal department has reportedly uncovered hundreds of documents that reveal the extent of the Trump administration’s attempts to justify the delay of the financial support.
Among them, according to The Washington Post, is an August email between Donald Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that shows him asking the department if there was a legal justification for the aid to be withheld.
The conversation came after the president’s now-infamous 25 July call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – during which Mr Trump said he would like Kiev to “do us a favour” regarding an investigation into Mr Biden and his son, Hunter.
As well as spurring on the impeachment investigation led by house democrats, the call formed the basis of the internal White House investigation when it was revealed a transcript of the exchange was stored in a classified vault usually reserved for state secrets relating to national security.
It is unclear if any of the details uncovered by the review will pose legal issues for Mr Trump – however White House lawyers were reportedly concerned that their review could unearth conversations likely to embarrass the president – and that public disclosure could cause him and his office political problems.
Officials in the OMB have since worked to play down the investigation and its findings – claiming that Mr Mulvaney’s interaction with the department, which he remains head of while also serving as acting chief of staff, followed standard procedure.
“There was a legal consensus at every step of the way that the money could be withheld to conduct the policy review,” OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel told the paper. “OMB works closely with agencies on executing the budget. Routine practices and procedures were followed”.