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Esper, other Defense Department officials not on Ukraine call, Pentagon says

Pentagon faces heightened scrutiny in aftermath of whistleblower complaint

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told Pentagon officials he wasn’t involved with President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian leader. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told Pentagon officials he wasn’t involved with President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian leader. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

No one from the Defense Department was listening in on President Donald Trump’s now-infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Thursday.

The Defense Department’s general counsel has advised Pentagon officials to preserve documents and communications relating to the Ukrainian security assistance program, Jonathan Hoffman said during a briefing with reporters. That move, however, was made out of an abundance of caution.

“This is a fairly standard practice … when there is significant congressional or inspector general interest,” he said. “It seems to be a fairly routine but proactive measure we are taking.”

Hoffman said he specifically asked Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper about the call, and Esper said he wasn’t involved.

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The Pentagon is facing heightened scrutiny after a whistleblower’s complaint alleged that Trump abused his office — in part by withholding security assistance dollars from Ukraine — to coerce Zelenskiy to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 election.

During the call, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was eager to buy U.S.-made Javelin missiles. Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot, and Ukraine knows a lot about it,” according to a readout of the call released by the White House.

The State Department has become embroiled in the fallout from the phone call, which is now at the center of an impeachment inquiry. House Democrats have subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reportedly was on the call, for documents, and five current and former State Department officials have also been requested for depositions.

On Thursday, the State Department approved the sale of 150 of the anti-tank missiles to Ukraine for $39.2 million. Since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine with $1.6 billion in security assistance, Hoffman said.

As NPR first reported, Pentagon policy chief John Rood wrote to Congress in May to certify — as required by law in the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill — that Ukraine had taken appropriate actions to counter corruption and increase accountability in its defense institutions.

On June 18, the Pentagon announced it was providing Ukraine $250 million for training, equipment and advisory efforts. The remaining $150 million in aid fell under the State Department’s purview.

But by the time of the July 25 call, the assistance had been put on hold. It wasn’t long before members of Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, began asking about the holdup.

The funds were eventually released Sept. 12.

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To further confuse the issue, the Pentagon was in a period of leadership transition over the summer.

After more than six months under acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Esper, then the Army secretary, took over as acting Defense Secretary on June 24. Esper stepped aside while the Senate formally considered his nomination — Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer served as acting Defense secretary from July 15 to July 23 — before the Senate confirmed Esper on July 23, two days before the Zelenskiy phone call.

Hoffman could not say if or when Esper saw a readout from the July 25 call, or what the secretary told concerned lawmakers when they inquired about the holdup on the security assistance funds.

“The secretary was aware that there was a delay, and we were working through it,” Hoffman said. “The department has been consistent in our interactions with Congress in pushing forward to actually see these funds released and expended by the end of the fiscal year.”

Asked if Esper was comfortable with the Pentagon’s level of input in decisions affecting national security, Hoffman said yes, adding that Esper has a “very solid working relationship” with the president, Pompeo and the national security adviser.

“You guys have asked about one specific call, and as to whether the secretary was on a call that took place in July,” Hoffman said. “The secretary has an incredibly busy schedule, and is working on a number of different issues at any one time. He doesn’t spend most of his day sitting in on other people’s phone calls.”

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