What Did OMB Know About Trump's Order To Freeze Ukraine Aid?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What did White House budget officials know about President Trump's order to freeze aid to Ukraine, and what did they make of it? One of them says he warned the White House that delaying the aid might be illegal. His name is Mark Sandy. A senior career official at the White House budget office, he was the only budget official to testify in the impeachment inquiry, at least thus far. And House Democrats released the transcript to his closed-door deposition last night. NPR's congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is with us for more. Claudia, good morning. Can you...

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: ...Tell us more about Mark Sandy's concerns?

GRISALES: Yes, Sandy said he immediately shared these concerns that the hold on aid could violate the law. He said he learned about this hold on July 18. It was unclear how long it would stay in place and why. He reported that worry to a top OMB official, Mark Duffy (ph) - I'm sorry, Mike Duffy - the very next day.

We should note that according to a new summary we obtained from the House Budget Committee, OMB issued its first official stop to the aid in writing the evening of July 25, just hours after that now-famous call between President Trump and the Ukrainian leader.

Sandy said he knew they were on this clock to release this Ukrainian security assistance by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. If not, they could violate something called the Impoundment Control Act, which requires this sort of a security assistance, to be obligated before it expires or the money goes back to the Treasury Department. And this was the central argument, that if this money was held up past the deadline, they could be breaking the law.

MARTIN: And he wasn't alone in his concerns, right?

GRISALES: Exactly, there were two other OMB officials who expressed concerns. They resigned because there were frustrations, at least in part with this hold on the Ukrainian assistance.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's congressional reporter Claudia Grisales for us. Thank you. We appreciate it.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And we're going to turn now to Michael Bopp. He served as associate director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2006 to 2008. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

MICHAEL BOPP: No problem.

MARTIN: First off, I understand you know Mark Sandy, not well, but you've worked with him in the past. Did it make sense to you that he would have raised these concerns?

BOPP: It does. Look, I mean, Mark is a hard-working - he's a career civil servant. He finds himself sort of thrust into the most political issue of this decade. And, look, I think he's just trying to tell the truth.

MARTIN: He says he was never given a reason why the U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being held up. Is that normal, I mean, to be asked to do something like that and not be given an explanation?

BOPP: It's not normal. This process was opaque. It was odd that no explanation was - or appears to have been given, even to the political appointees at OMB. But, you know, different administrations do things differently. It's not at all unprecedented for the White House, as opposed to OMB, to hold information close to the vest, and this is especially the case when information might not be well-received by Congress, which was the case with this apportionment.

MARTIN: So can you walk us through what this would look like - I mean, in particular, like, a paper trail. Would there be kind of a way to retrace how the decisions unfolded in relationship to delaying this Ukrainian aid, especially if this came from the president, right?

BOPP: That's right. And it's important to understand that the Impoundment Control Act gives the authority to withhold appropriated funds to the president. It's not to executive branch officials unless the president delegates that authority. The paper trail would come in the form of apportionment notes. And yes, you could follow the actual apportionments of the appropriated funds. I know we're sort of getting into the weeds here. But you can follow them through the apportionments themselves, and there were several between July 25 and September 11 when this money was released.

MARTIN: Sandy is the only official from the Office of Management and Budget to testify. Several other OMB officials defied subpoenas. What do you make of that?

BOPP: You know, these executive branch officials who've been subpoenaed to testify have also been directed by White House counsel not to do so, due to, you know, whether it's executive privilege, deliberative process, attorney-client privilege or some other concerns. They're in a lose-lose situation. I mean, I can sympathize with them completely in asking the judicial system to answer for them the question of whether they have to testify. And I mean, of course, this is the last decision a judge would want to make, refereeing a dispute between the legislative and executive branch, and executive prerogatives is not where a judge wants to be.

MARTIN: Do you think Mark Sandy's testimony changes the impeachment inquiry in a significant way?

BOPP: You know, it's a great question. I think his testimony is very important. I think it shows how the Ukrainian aid was held up and under what circumstances - who knew about it, what was said, what wasn't said. You know, on the other hand, it does not add to the substantive allegations against the president. As I mentioned, the president has the authority to withhold appropriated funds under the Impoundment Control Act, and Congress gave him that authority. It's his authority, and in this case he chose to exercise it.

MARTIN: A lot of the president's allies have been waging pretty personal attacks on those who come forward and choose to testify in the impeachment inquiry. Is the OMB - does it have a history of being political in any way? Was it like that when you were there?

BOPP: You know, OMB is there to carry out the policies of the president. In that sense, yeah, there's a political component. That said, the vast majority of OMB officials and employees are career. And the career staff, like Mark Sandy, they are there from one president to the next. And they are there to, you know, carry out the policies of the president. And so can you somehow divorce those assignments from politics? No, absolutely not.

MARTIN: Michael Bopp - he is a former associate director of the Office of Management and Budget. He did work in the past with Mark Sandy, that OMB official whose deposition was released recently. Mr. Bopp, thank you for your time this morning. We so appreciate it.

BOPP: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.