The House Intelligence Committee is expected to hear from Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon official overseeing U.S. policy towards Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, during an open hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Cooper mainly focused on the Trump administration’s decision to withhold the Congressionally-approved assistance to Ukraine despite the Pentagon’s recommendation that the U.S. distribute it.
House Democrats pursuing the impeachment probe are trying to determine if Trump abused his power by allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in exchange for unfreezing the aid.
Lawmakers will potentially question Cooper about what she knew about the holdup of military aid to Ukraine, and whether that decision was part of a scheme to pressure the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July 25 call into launching investigations that would have benefitted Trump politically.
On September 11, the U.S. released the aid to Ukraine without having to do anything in return as part of a quid pro quo alleged in a “whistleblower” complaint that triggered the impeachment probe.
Key Democrat Talking Points
Dozens of Republicans who were not part of the House panels conducting the probe famously interrupted the closed-door meeting in the basement of the capitol in protest to being excluded from the meeting. Democrats will likely try to play that up to make it seem they were trying to prevent Cooper from criticizing Trump.
Cooper testified on October 23 that during a July meeting, many in the administration raised concerns that Trump may have lacked the legal authority to freeze aid after Congress had approved it. She told House investigators that Trump had to notify Congress of the hold on aid.
“So the comments in the room at the deputies’ level reflected a sense that there was not an understanding of how this could legally play out,” Cooper testified behind closed doors. “And at that meeting, the deputies agreed to look into the legalities and to look at what was possible.”
Cooper described Trump’s decision to hold aid as “unusual” during her closed-door deposition, noting that Ukraine was at war with Russia.
Democrats will try to focus on Cooper’s knowledge of discussions among various federal agencies about freezing the aid to Ukraine. They will try to grill her on answering who, exactly, directed that the U.S. withhold the security assistance and whether it was leveraged to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens.
Cooper suggested she had a “very strong inference” that the Ukrainians knew there was a hold on U.S. funding as of August 20, after the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky at the heart of the impeachment probe. Democrats and their media allies claim that undercuts a vital defense of Trump: that there could be no quid pro quo because Ukraine did not know that the U.S. had withheld aid.
Cooper’s comments, however, suggest that Ukraine did not know the U.S. had frozen the aid at the time of the July 25 call, suggesting that there could be no quid pro quo during that conversation.
What the Democrats Don’t Want You to Hear
Trump held the aid to Ukraine over corruption concerns. Combating corruption in Ukraine is a significant component of U.S. policy. Several impeachment inquiry witnesses have testified that there were merits to the corruption investigations into the company that hired Hunter Biden sought by Trump.
While several impeachment witnesses have been dismayed by the decision to hold aid, the U.S. ultimately released the security without Ukraine doing anything in return. Democrats are trying to move beyond the quid pro quo narrative, claiming Trump engaged in extortion and bribing, but witnesses have denied the new allegation.
Unlike his predecessor, Trump approved lethal aid to Ukraine to help them in their fight against Russia.
On Wednesday, Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (D-CA) noted that Democrats had not released the transcript of the closed-door deposition Saturday of White House Office of Management and Budget Mark Sandy, who told Congress the real reason the aid had ben withheld.
Cooper, officially the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia testified last month that her role primarily focuses on the Pentagon’s long-term strategy and current policy toward Russia.
Regarding Ukraine, she mainly focused her work on fostering a strong relationship with the country’s Defense Ministry and “building the capacity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to resist Russian aggression.” Trump’s lethal assistance likely helped build that capacity.
The Democrat-led House Intelligence Committee, one of three panels conducting the impeachment inquiry, is hosting the public hearings.