New emails emerge: OMB officials were planning to withhold Ukraine aid before Trump call to Zelensky

In a midnight squeaker, the Office of Management and Budget decided to obey a federal court order and produced nearly 200 pages of documents directly related to the withholding of U.S. military assistance from Ukraine. The collection of emails was turned over in response to a FOIA request from the website American Oversight, which made the information public even as the Senate was debating an amendment to seek other information from the OMB.

The emails obtained show that OMB officials were already aware of Donald Trump’s plans to suspend Ukraine aid before his “perfect” call to the president of Ukraine. Included is a planning document from political appointee Michael Duffey—one of the four people Sen. Chuck Schumer has sought to subpoena for Trump’s Senate impeachment trial—that show that the OMB was planning to bring down the hammer on Ukraine assistance even before Trump put in a demand for “a favor” in the form of political investigations.

The FOIA request had a midnight deadline. OMB avoided further court action by turning over the redacted emails with just two minutes to spare.

Included is a document prepared on the evening of July 24, hours before Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This "Ukraine Prep Memo" was sent to Duffey, but just what it says isn’t clear—because almost all of the email is hidden behind redactions. Which shows that, important as these FOIA requests may be, they’re no substitute for a subpoena.

What can be seen is that Duffey responded to a Department of Defense announcement in June and communicated with OMB official Mark Sandy to discuss Ukraine assistance. And the two of them said … redacted. Duffey spent some time reviewing public announcements of DOD’s approval of Ukraine assistance, and the announcement that it was prepared to provide material to Kyiv. Then he and Sandy discussed the topic again, saying … redacted. They worked out a draft of a note to go back to DOD, the contents of which are … redacted. And all through the day of Trump’s call, they passed versions of their note around the OMB—a note that remains fully redacted. With the names of most of those who received the note also redacted. In all, there are more than a dozen emails zipping around the OMB on July 25 alone, with Duffey seeking to meet with the general counsel’s office and dispatching notes to unknown recipients. But the contents of those emails is completely—completely—redacted.

Which isn’t so much a FOIA response as it is a teaser reel. It’s possible to see that Duffey was keeping an eye on Ukraine issues in the days before Trump’s call, and that he reviewed what appears to be every public release of information from the DOD, as well as how that information was being reported in the press. Then, in the period directly around Trump’s call, Duffey opened a floodgate of communication on the Ukraine topic to every point of the OMB compass and to other officials in unknown agencies. With even most of the recipients of the emails redacted, it’s impossible to tell which higher officials were in the chain.

And, while it’s certainly easy to guess that Duffey was telling everyone to stay quiet on Ukraine as Trump began an illegal hold on assistance, none of that really leaks past the black boundaries, as every single word of substantive content at this point is hidden.

The pattern continues into August, with every substantive word and most of the recipients in the exchanges still redacted. However, Duffey continued to send dozens of notes, and to complain about the “challenges” he was facing on the Ukraine issue. And while the redaction hides any recipients of the notes within the DOD, one in-the-clear line notes that Duffey had some questions from the DOD, showing that the department was involved in the back-and-forth.

There is some information from a presentation available deep in the exchange. It shows that Duffey was communicating with the DOD about shifts in both the “commitment date” and the “obligation date” for the assistance to Ukraine. It also shows that everyone was aware that deadlines were looming that would render the assistance legislation moot. But much of this presentation has been blacked out to leave nothing but the dates, disguising real topics of concern.

Sixty-four pages in, there is a document from Duffey indicating that “we have no interest in delaying any action up until just before the obligation date,” but the statement is made in response to a request that’s been redacted, and the remainder of the sentence is redacted. It appears that Duffey is saying that the DOD should continue to prepare as if the aid would be provided … but it is far from clear. Similarly, there’s an indication in one email that funds “will go into the system” and be obligated on Aug. 19, but since Duffey’s reply to that statement is redacted, it’s impossible to tell if he agrees with that move or acts to stop it. In fact, looking at the connection between that note and another on Aug. 17, it seems possible that the funds under discussion are not even allocated to Ukraine.

Overall, what can be learned from the emails is that Ukraine was the subject of a furious exchange on the day of Trump’s phone call and was a frequent target of Duffey’s concern from June right up until the whistleblower report on the issue was made public. Duffey’s clear interest in the DOD announcement and his review of publications that followed the announcement show that he was looking at how much information had been released, which fits with other information showing that he not only helped clamp down on the assistance, but also told military officials to go quiet on the subject of Ukraine.

However, the biggest thing that can be learned from the FOIA response is that Duffey and the OMB absolutely thumbed their noses at the federal order. Technically they’ve “responded” to the request. Practically, they’ve done so by releasing no more than a collection of email headers and occasional sentences that reveal more about when Duffey was having lunch than about Ukraine assistance.