On Ukraine Aid, ‘Nothing to See Here’: Diplomats Urged to Play Down Funds’ Release

WASHINGTON — American 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 email 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 emails reflect diplomats’ frustration with the unexpected freeze on funding that Congress had already 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 email.

“We currently await further guidance and will provide you with an update as soon as we know about next steps,” Mr. Kulikowski wrote in the message, which was sent to dozens of State Department employees, including diplomats in Kiev and in countries across Eastern Europe.

The email 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 Mr. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. During that call, Mr. Zelensky said he was grateful for the security assistance that the United States had supplied to Ukraine, and made clear that he hoped to receive more.

A Ukrainian official has said Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Joseph R. Biden Jr. There is no evidence that the Bidens were involved in wrongdoing.

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 American envoy in Kiev, 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 United States ambassador to the European Union, wrote that “the President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”

Mr. Sondland then suggested that the conversation continue by telephone, rather than by text. On Tuesday, the Trump administration blocked Mr. Sondland from testifying to the House in the impeachment inquiry.

Officials were informed that the freeze had been reversed — and the $141 million in foreign military financing would be released — in a Sept. 12 email from the White House that was then sent around the State Department.

“Apparently, and I don’t have full visibility, decision made last night,” Mr. Kulikowski wrote.

Mr. Freden said the Ukrainian government had already been told that the funds were forthcoming. But he urged State Department employees not to announce the reversal.

“Ukrainians are aware, but N.S.C. said that in the spirit of the ‘hold’ being a normal review, there will be no public announcement that it has been lifted,” he wrote, referring to the president’s National Security Council.

Mr. Taylor said he planned to announce it in Ukraine.

“I will inform President Zelensky as soon as he is out of a meeting,” Mr. Taylor wrote to Mr. Freden. “We then intend to make it public here.”

Mr. Freden responded in minutes.

“In terms of public messaging, N.S.C. is deliberately treating both the hold and its lifting as administrative matters,” he wrote. “My advice is to keep your public messaging low-key as well.”

“Good advice — thanks,” Mr. Taylor emailed back.

In an email on Wednesday, Mr. Taylor declined to comment. The State Department did not respond on Wednesday to several requests for comment.

Some senior State Department officials readily volunteered information about the $141 million in aid as it was finally approved.

At a breakfast meeting with reporters on Sept. 12, R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, said that department officials were notifying lawmakers that morning that the State Department’s portion of aid to Ukraine was moving forward.

He told reporters to anticipate other notifications to Congress — specifically $250 million in military aid from the Pentagon, assistance the Defense Department announced later in the day would also move ahead. Lawmakers from both parties quickly announced the same day that the aid had been released.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.