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GOP candidates try to out Trump each other in race against Louisiana Democrat Gov. Edwards



WASHINGTON — Republicans are hoping President Donald Trump will prove he can still turn out his base in a red state like Louisiana, where the GOP is trying to topple Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards on Saturday.

Trump will hold a rally on Friday night in Lake Charles to urge supporters to vote for either of the two Republican candidates — Rep. Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone — who will appear on the ballot alongside Edwards in the state’s unusual weekend “jungle primary.”

If Edwards clears 50 percent of the vote, he’ll win a second term. If he falls short, he’ll face the leading Republican in a Nov. 16 runoff election, and polls show it’s too close to call.

“I feel like it’s 50-50 that we get to 50 in the first round,” said the cautiously optimistic longtime Democratic strategist and Louisiana native James Carville.

Both Republican candidates have aligned themselves tightly with Trump. But it’s yet to be seen if the impeachment inquiry in Washington will affect the president’s ability to move voters to the poll, and his popularity has dipped a bit in the state since he won it by 20 percentage points in 2016.

“The Donald Trump coming to Lake Charles is not the Donald Trump of a year or year-and-a-half ago. He’s in a weakened position,” Carville added.

Eddie Rispone speaks at the Louisiana GOP Unity Rally in Kenner on Oct. 5, 2019.Sophia Germer / The Advocate via AP

Edwards, a moderate who faced backlash from his own party for signing into a strict anti-abortion law this summer, is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, though the party will have a shot at winning two more governor races next month in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Edwards is counting on backing from those who don’t typically vote Democratic, leaning heavily on his Catholic faith and record as an Army Ranger, with ads that show him meeting the pope, working on his 1966 Chevy pickup truck and receiving praise from local Republicans.

Still, there’s an acknowledgment that Trump’s visit less than 24 hours before the polls open may boost Republican turnout on a day when the election is competing with a Louisiana State University vs. University of Florida football game.

“He rallies Republicans, he speaks to his base,” Lenar Whitney, a former state representative and current member of the Republican National Committee, said of Trump. “That’s going to be the battle cry for this election and in future elections in 2020.”

While local issues like taxes and flooding dominated much of the race, Republicans have sought to excite their base with broader issues in recent days — even as Democrats have tried hard to avoid nationalizing the race.

Each of the Republican candidates has accused the other of disloyalty to the president, while also attacking Edwards’ stewardship of the state’s economy.

Abraham appeared on Fox News this week to tout a resolution he introduced in the House to expel Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and he tweeted a “Game of Thrones” parody video that portrays him facing down Pelosi, Edwards, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“The president deeply cares about Louisiana. Louisiana loves President Trump. It is a match that is literally made in heaven,” Abraham said in a debate Wednesday.

Rispone, meanwhile, has portrayed himself as Louisiana’s own Donald Trump — a wealthy businessman who went from political donor to politician to shake things up. And he’s tried to chip away at Abraham’s Trump credentials by highlighting the congressman’s criticism of the president after the 2016 release of the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump talking about sexually assaulting women.

Worries about a lack of Republican unity against Edwards loom large after GOP infighting in 2015 allowed the Democrat to narrowly win the governor’s mansion in the first place.

That year, Edwards advanced to a runoff against former Republican Sen. David Vitter, who was kneecapped by a decade-old prostitution scandal. The GOP infighting ran so hot that one of Vitter’s Republican rivals ultimately chose to back Edwards instead.

In a debate Wednesday night, the two Republican candidates sniped at each other as much as they did at Edwards, with both accusing the other of advancing “lies” about them.

While some conservatives pushed the GOP to consolidate around one candidate to avoid splitting the vote against Edwards, the party and its biggest players have remained neutral, especially after some better-known Republicans passed on running against Edwards.

Gubernatorial candidate Ralph Abraham arrives at the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office to register for the upcoming election in Baton Rouge on Aug. 6, 2019.Michael Democker / AP file

Despite the attacks, polls show Edwards remains popular, giving Democrats hope in the red state.

“They’ve spent millions attacking Gov. Edwards and he still has favorability and approval ratings in the 50s,” said David Turner, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association. “His record is more resilient than one presidential visit or one attack ad.”

But in the final days of the race, Edwards has been put on to the defensive by sexual misconduct allegations levied at a since-fired top aide made by a former Edwards staffer who is now appearing in TV ads funded by a nonprofit group that does not disclose its donors.

Edwards says he fired the former aide immediately, but critics note that same aide had been accused of harassment in a prior job.

The governor panned the attacks as political, telling The Advocate the GOP “got nervous and desperate,” but Republicans dismiss that.

“He has his own actions to thank for that — not the vast right-wing conspiracy he’s trying to invent,” said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Amelia Chassé Alcivar.

With gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Mississippi weeks away, and the 2020 election heating up, Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence also recently visited the state.

“It all starts here,” Pence said in Kenner, Louisiana, on Saturday. “And it all starts now.”

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Trump’s impeachment ire turns on Pompeo amid diplomats’ starring roles



WASHINGTON — The impeachment inquiry has created the first rift between President Donald Trump and the Cabinet member who has been his closest ally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to four current and former senior administration officials.

Trump has fumed for weeks that Pompeo is responsible for hiring State Department officials whose congressional testimony threatens to bring down his presidency, the officials said. The president confronted Pompeo about the officials — and what he believed was a lackluster effort by the secretary of state to block their testimony — during lunch at the White House on Oct. 29, those familiar with the matter said.

Inside the White House, the view was that Trump “just felt like, ‘rein your people in,’” a senior administration official said.

Trump particularly blames Pompeo for tapping Ambassador Bill Taylor in June to be the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, the current and former senior administration officials said.

Taylor has provided the House Intelligence Committee with some of the most damaging details on the White House’s effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating one of the president’s potential rivals in the 2020 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden.

A crack in the seemingly unbreakable bond between Trump and Pompeo is striking because Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, is viewed as the “Trump whisperer” who has survived — and thrived — working for a president who has routinely tired of and discarded senior members of his team.

But the impeachment inquiry has put Pompeo in what one senior administration official described as an untenable position: trying to manage a bureaucracy of 75,000 people that has soured on his leadership and also please a boss with outsized expectations of loyalty.

“He feels like he’s getting a bunch of blame from the president and the White House for having hired all these people who are turning against Trump,” an official familiar with the dynamic said of Pompeo, “and that it’s the State Department that is going to bring him down, so it’s all Pompeo’s fault.”

Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to requests for comment.

Four current State Department officials have testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

Three of them — Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary at the State Department in charge of Europe — appeared before the committee last week to deliver the first public testimony in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. All three of them currently remain employed by the State Department, though Yovanovitch has been sidelined to a teaching post at Georgetown University.

Taylor was dining in the State Department cafeteria the day after he testified, over the administration’s objections, and was surrounded by employees expressing support for him, according to two people who saw him there.

Kurt Volker, who was the State Department’s envoy on Ukraine until last month, was the first official to testify. He resigned about a week before his Oct. 3 deposition, during which he turned over reams of text messages detailing the White House’s Ukraine pressure campaign.

Trump has hinted publicly at tensions with Pompeo, and while the comments might go unnoticed by the untrained ear they’ve been heard loudly by people close to the president.

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The first was on Oct. 23, officials said, when Trump wrote on Twitter: “It would be really great if the people within the Trump Administration, all well-meaning and good (I hope!), could stop hiring Never Trumpers, who are worse than the Do Nothing Democrats. Nothing good will ever come from them!”

Trump followed up with another tweet specifically calling Taylor, and his lawyer, “Never Trumpers.”

Two days later, Trump said Pompeo “made a mistake” in hiring Taylor.

“Here’s the problem: He’s a never Trumper, and his lawyer is,” the president told reporters about Taylor. “The other problem is — hey, everyone makes mistakes — Mike Pompeo. Everybody makes mistakes.”

The next day, Oct. 26, Pompeo was notably absent as the president sat with his national security team during the U.S. military raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pompeo was not informed about the raid until late Friday after he was home in Kansas for his son’s friend’s wedding, officials said.

Throughout the impeachment inquiry, Pompeo and Trump have maintained their weekly lunches at the White House, according to the president’s public schedule.

But the president was angry when he arrived in his private dining room on Oct. 29, two officials said. Pompeo defended himself, officials said, by telling Trump he doesn’t know who half of these State Department officials are, officials said. He also noted that there are thousands of employees at the agency, explaining that he can’t control them, those familiar with the matter said.

One official said Trump and Pompeo patched things up during the lunch. Another person familiar with the meeting said Pompeo continues to be “iced out” by the president, a shift that often entails still being included in his meetings but listened to less.

“Pompeo feels under siege,” this person said.

He was at the White House last Wednesday for Trump’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The tension with Trump comes as Pompeo weighs whether to leave the administration to run for Kansas’ open Senate seat.

Pompeo has served in the administration since its start. Trump tapped him as CIA director, then moved him to secretary of state after he fired Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson. For almost three years, Pompeo seamlessly navigated a finicky president. He’s remained, and became more influential, as Trump churned through two chiefs of staff, three national security advisers, an attorney general, and secretaries of defense, state, labor, homeland security, interior, veterans affairs and health and human services.

But in recent weeks Pompeo has been under steady fire over his role in the Ukraine scandal, as well as his handling of it.

Initially when the Ukraine controversy became public, Trump wanted Pompeo to publicly defend him against the State Department bureaucracy, officials said. But the White House thought Pompeo appeared unprepared in his television interviews, and his performance only fueled the president’s frustrations, they said.

Pompeo has faced criticism for saying, during an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” that he didn’t know anything about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the center of the controversy. Pompeo didn’t disclose until more than a week later that he had listened in on that call.

Like the White House, he has attempted to block State Department officials from testifying. And he has refused to turn over State Department documents related to Ukraine.

His decision last week, however, to allow the State Department to help pay for the legal fees that officials ensnared in the impeachment inquiry are accruing could further strain his relationship with the president.

That decision underscores the balance Pompeo is trying to strike between the president and the department he leads.

State Department officials had thought Pompeo’s move to the agency in April 2018 would be a welcome antidote to what they viewed as the bureaucratic fecklessness of Tillerson, given Pompeo’s unfettered access to Trump and their close relationship.

But morale at the State Department has sagged for months, and it plummeted further as the Ukraine scandal unfolded, according to multiple officials.

State Department officials are critical of Pompeo for buckling to pressure from the president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and abruptly recalling Yovanovitch while she was serving as U.S. ambassador in Ukraine. Yovanovitch had been vilified by Giuliani, who convinced the president she was working against his interests.

Criticism of Pompeo inside the State Department escalated when he refused to publicly defend Yovanovitch after a reconstructed transcript of the July 25 call revealed Trump disparaged Yovanovitch to Zelenskiy, administration officials have said. Pompeo’s closest aide, Ambassador Mike McKinley, resigned over the secretary’s refusal to defend Yovanovitch.

Testimony from Taylor and others show Pompeo was keenly aware of the concerns his top officials had about Giuliani’s efforts and his handling of Yovanovitch.

In public testimony on Friday, Yovanovitch appeared to excoriate Pompeo for “the failure of State Department leadership to push back as foreign and corrupt interests apparently hijacked our Ukraine policy.”

“It is the responsibility of the department’s leaders to stand up for the institution and the individuals who make that institution the most effective diplomatic force in the world,” she said.

According to administration officials, Pompeo’s refusal to publicly defend Yovanovitch cemented a wider view within the State Department that he has enabled some of Trump’s impulsive foreign policy decisions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from Syria after a phone call with Turkey’s Erdgoan.

“Pompeo is hated by his building,” a person close to the secretary said, adding that he “feels the heat a great deal and feels it’s personal at state.”

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Senior Trump admin official Mina Chang resigns after embellishing resumé



WASHINGTON — Senior Trump administration official Mina Chang resigned from her job at the State Department two and a half hours after NBC News went to her spokesperson to ask about newly discovered false claims she had made about her charity work.

NBC News had previously reported that Chang, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations, had embellished her resume with misleading claims about her educational achievements and the scope of her nonprofit’s work — even posting a fake cover of Time magazine with her face on it.

“It is essential that my resignation be seen as a protest and not as surrender because I will not surrender my commitment to serve, my fidelity to the truth, or my love of country,” Chang wrote in her resignation letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Indeed, I intend to fight for those things as a citizen in the days and years to come.”

Chang said she had been “unfairly maligned, unprotected by my superiors, and exposed to a media with an insatiable desire for gossip and scandal, genuine or otherwise.”

NBC News had reported that Chang, who assumed her post in April, invented a role on a United Nations panel, claimed she had addressed both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions, and implied she had testified before Congress.

She was being considered for an even bigger government job, one with a budget of more than $1 billion, until Congress started asking questions about her resume.

The newly discovered false claims include misrepresenting a trip to Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission, listing an academic who says he never worked for her nonprofit as an employee, claiming a nonexistent degree from the University of Hawaii, inflating an award and claiming to be an “ambassador” for the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO.

Chang had portrayed the 2015 trip to Afghanistan as a humanitarian mission for her nonprofit, but a defense contractor footed the bill and no aid was delivered, according to documents from the company and a former employee.

Mina Chang and unnamed others in Afghanistan in a photo from the Facebook page of Automotive Management Services (AMS), a defense contractor operating in Afghanistan.via Facebook

After the Afghanistan trip, Chang posted photos of herself meeting a group of Afghan women in a room. In a video posted on her charity’s website, she refers to the photo and says the Afghan women are “in hiding” at a secret location.

“This is in Afghanistan, I am sitting with women in our program, they are living in hiding. I can only say they are right outside of the Kabul area,” Chang said in an interview posted on her nonprofit’s website.

But the women were not part of any program run by her charity, Linking the World. They were wives of local employees of the defense contractor that paid for her trip, Automotive Management Services, and they were not in hiding, a former employee said.

“They were photo-ops,” the former employee said of Chang’s trip to Afghanistan and another to Iraq.

Company documents obtained by NBC News show Chang was asked to help the firm manage an association of Afghan wives, whose spouses worked for the company. The plan would free up AMS to “focus on our commercial prospects,” according to a document outlining the project. AMS, which helped Afghan security forces maintain a fleet of armored vehicles, paid for Chang’s airfare and accommodation, according to documents and the former employees.

On her charity’s website, Chang posted photos from the Afghanistan trip, without indicating that the defense contractor bankrolled the visit and that her NGO conducted no aid work during the trip.

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In an email to NBC News, Chang said her organization was helping the defense contractor “create shared value” in Afghanistan. “Our work was not ‘humanitarian aid,’ it was to help a company with critical presence on the ground incorporate [creating shared value] into their business model.”

Chang also continued to claim the women were “in hiding,” saying “it’s irresponsible for anyone to share someone’s identity who says they’re hiding from the Taliban.” However, the pictures of the women Chang shared with an interviewer show the women’s faces.

Ian Dailey, Linking the World’s chief of staff, did not respond to a request for comment about the AMS sponsorship of Chang’s trip to Afghanistan.

The data scientist

In promotional material for Linking the World, under the heading “Who We Are,” the group lists a “chief data scientist,” Michel Leonard, an adjunct professor at New York University and Columbia University.

But Leonard told NBC News that “I was never an employee of this organization.” He said he had never seen the document touting his expertise, didn’t initially recognize the name of the charity and performed no work for it.

Dailey of Linking the World told NBC News in an email, “Linking the World is a volunteer-based organization, so no persons addressed on our site were employees. At the time, Mr. Leonard was employed by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and I was personally working with him on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two organizations, to share data, skills and analyzes (sic). However, Mr. Leonard left USIP before that MOU was completed.”

In her email to NBC News, Chang also said that Leonard was a volunteer like other advisers.

Michel Leonard from the “Linking the World” website, archived on Oct. 7, 2016.Linking the World

In numerous bios, including one when she was a fellow at the New America think tank in Washington, Chang said she had served as a “cross cultural ambassador” for UNESCO.

But Chang does not appear on a list of ambassadors for UNESCO. Spokesman Roni Amelan said the organization does not have a “cross-cultural ambassador” category.

Chang told NBC she was named cross-cultural ambassador at a club promoting UNESCO’s work at Sorbonne University in France in 2015. Her bios did not mention the title was conferred by a university club rather than UNESCO itself.

Chang has cited winning a “CBS Humanitarian of the Year Women That Soar” award in 2012. In fact, it was a local award in Dallas and the event was broadcast by a local CBS affiliate.

“It’s not a CBS award. It aired on a CBS station,” said Lori Conrad, market communications director for the CBS Corporation.

A spokesperson for the Women That Soar event did not respond to a request for comment but Chang’s bio has been removed from the organization’s website.

Facebook banner picture for defense contractor Automotive Management Services(AMS) featuring Mina Chang.via Facebook

In a profile published in 2012 with DFWChild, a Dallas publication, Chang is described as having earned a degree in international development from the University of Hawaii.

A University of Hawaii spokesperson says they do not have a Mina Chang of her age in their records, and that the university does not offer a “degree in international development.”

The magazine Monday published an editor’s note, saying the article was based on false information from Chang.

“As other falsehoods and misleading statements come to light, we’ve made the decision to preserve the text as it was originally published in May 2012. We stand by our reporting at the time, and we want this article to serve as a snapshot of the narrative Ms. Chang promoted then.”

Chang denies that she exaggerated her resume or the extent of her charity’s work.

In a statement issued through a spokesman, Chang said that she had been vetted by the FBI and the State Department’s diplomatic security service for her current job as well as the post she was nominated for at USAID and received a “top-secret” security clearance.

After the NBC report last week, the State Department reviewed her application materials again and found she had “in no way misled officials during the investigation,” Chang’s statement said.

The State Department has declined to comment on her case.

Chang was not allowed by the State Department to respond to NBC News’ requests for comment before the report was published last week, her statement said.

Chang insisted it was her decision to withdraw her nomination in September for a senior post at USAID. “She voluntarily elected to withdraw her nomination because after working with her team at the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, she became excited by the team’s talent and potential and the impact they could have together,” the statement said.

As for the fake Time magazine cover, “Ms. Chang was not responsible for the creation of the Time magazine cover, nor promoted it,” the statement said.

NBC discovered the fake TIME cover from watching a video that was posted on her charity website.

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House staffers on a summer trip to Ukraine learned U.S. aid was frozen. Stunned, here’s what they did next.



WASHINGTON — Two days after a whistleblower secretly filed a complaint about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine in August, two top congressional staffers arrived in Kyiv on a routine business trip that ended up setting off alarm bells on Capitol Hill.

The aides work for the Democratic leadership of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for federal spending. They had been dispatched to make an on-the-ground assessment of the cash Congress has been pumping into former Soviet states — including Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine — to aid their defenses against Russian aggression.

But after traveling from Chisinau, Moldova, for two days of meetings and Ukrainian special-forces training observation in Kyiv and Berdychiv starting on Aug. 14, the staffers were shocked to learn from U.S. embassy officials that there was no new money coming into Ukraine, a congressional aide familiar with their trip told NBC News. The Trump administration had frozen military aid to the country in the midst of its war with Russia.

What’s more, the two Appropriations staffers, Becky Leggieri and Hayden Milberg, couldn’t even get an explanation for the holdup, because embassy officials didn’t know the reason, the aide said. That set off a scramble in Washington to find out what happened to the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that had been specifically earmarked by Congress for Ukraine and that now play a pivotal role in a mushrooming scandal that threatens to lead to the president’s impeachment.

The anonymous whistleblower, a CIA employee, has received a great deal of attention for exposing what Democrats say was Trump’s plot to pressure Ukraine into investigating a rival for re-election — former vice president Joe Biden — to help him politically in exchange for receiving military aid. But even if the whistleblower had not stepped forward, there’s a chance that the scheme would eventually have been exposed by a combination of congressional accountants like Leggieri and Milberg, whose job it is to keep track of every major expenditure, and various executive branch officials who have emerged to share the pieces of the story they knew.

The appropriations staffers didn’t know about the Biden angle, only that military aid was being held up. The whistleblower sewed it all together — and did that in time to prevent a deal from being consummated or for the freeze on the funds to become permanent. But when the staffers realized the money was not flowing, they set off important alarm bells.

“As soon as Appropriations Committee staff learned that Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding had been held up, the committee began making urgent inquiries of the Defense Department to understand the situation,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement to NBC News. “After the Defense Department told our staff that the hold originated at the Office of Management and Budget, we began pressing them for an explanation.”

They wouldn’t get one, receiving only a vague acknowledgment that a re-assessment of U.S. interests was being done, and that only after the freeze became public two weeks later. But pressure from the lawmakers who hold the purse strings for the government is not insignificant.

At the time of the staffers’ visit, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, was “beginning to fear that the longstanding U.S. policy of strong support for Ukraine was shifting,” he told House impeachment investigators in a closed-door deposition in late October. Even two weeks later, when he sent a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to inquire about whether there had been such a reversal in U.S. policy, Taylor testified, it still had not occurred to him that the aid could be conditioned on Ukraine opening an investigation touching on American politics.

“That, however, would change,” he testified.

Ultimately, the visit by Appropriations staffers played only a modest role in exposing Trump’s actions on Ukraine, which was thrust further into public view last week with the first open televised hearings, including one featuring Taylor. But that piece of the puzzle — first discovered by NBC News in a routine House travel disclosure filing made on Nov. 8 — sheds light on how Trump’s actions were partially revealed by wonky number-crunchers, who typically toil away far from the spotlight.

As legendary Chicago mobster Al Capone found out when he was put away for tax evasion, accountants are quick to catch on when something is amiss. All across Washington this summer, in the sleepy offices of the federal government infrastructure, red flags were raised. The same thing was happening at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. In some cases, the hands being raised belonged to officials within the Trump administration who worried that the suspension of aid was illegal.

The hunt to find out why the money wasn’t moving played out on Capitol Hill and across several federal agencies at the same time the whistleblower complaint was quietly winding its way through separate government channels in August and early September, and it illustrates the difficulty anyone connected to the administration would have in hiding a purported plot to withhold federal funds.

It also raises the possibility that the episode would have been discovered without the whistleblower. There are just too many nonpartisan civil servants who come in contact with a $391 million spending package to execute such a maneuver undetected, according to experts on the federal budget process.

“You could try to create a quid pro quo by holding up the money and hope you get your quo before anybody finds out, but it wouldn’t take very many weeks,” said Kate Eltrich, a former Senate appropriations aide and Obama administration OMB official. “If you were trying to do something nefarious, it would be very difficult to contain that to a small number of people.”

In the case of the Ukraine money, which included defense dollars and State Department grants for the purchase of weapons that Congress required the administration to spend, the sprawling network of federal officials tasked with overseeing aspects of the spending included House and Senate members of both parties, their staffs, nonpartisan budget officials at the State and Defense departments and career government workers at White House agencies.

The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent, behind, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 13, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The pause in funding spilled into public view on Aug. 28, two weeks after the congressional aides arrived in Kyiv, when Politico published an article in which an unnamed senior administration official said the spending was frozen pending a review of whether its release was deemed in the best interests of the United States. The article, which did not mention any effort to secure an investigation into the Joe Biden or his son Hunter, quoted Democratic lawmakers charging that Trump was helping Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Ukraine.

It wasn’t until after that article was published that OMB finally responded to House appropriators with a similarly vague explanation for why the money was being withheld.

Ultimately, it would take only a matter of weeks for scattered data points to reveal more edges of the puzzle. On Sept. 9, the director of national intelligence notified House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that a whistleblower had raised a matter of “urgent concern” that the DNI overruled. The whistleblower already had consulted with a member of Schiff’s staff before filing the complaint in August, according to The New York Times, and Schiff was aware of at least the outlines of the concern.

The Intelligence Committee “was unaware of the freeze in security assistance at the time the (appropriations) staffers traveled to Kyiv and had no interaction with them prior to their trip,” an Intelligence Committee official said in an email to NBC News. “At no point has the Committee discussed whistleblower matters with them, either.”

On the same day that he was told of the “urgent concern” matter, Schiff and the chairmen of two other committees sent White House counsel Pat Cipollone a letter demanding that the administration preserve and transmit records related to the possible withholding of aid to Ukraine as a means of forcing that country to open investigations into Joe Biden — a leading contender to challenge Trump in 2020 — and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Two days later, after the White House counsel’s office received the whistleblower complaint from the Justice Department, Trump released the money for Ukraine. That decision was announced publicly by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., as he tried to fend off amendments to a military spending bill, assuring his colleagues they didn’t need to force the White House to lift the hold because Trump had assured him it already had been done.

In the weeks since the whistleblower’s complaint was made public in late September, along with a White House summary of a July 25 Trump call with Zelenskiy in which the leaders discussed both U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense and the Bidens, a parade of current and former U.S. officials have testified that Trump and a rump group of his hand-picked political emissaries conducted a shadow foreign policy with Ukraine that focused on boxing Zelenskiy into a simple trade.

If Zelenskiy wanted the money, he had to publicly announce the opening of investigations that would cast aspersions both on Biden and on the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House, the officials have said under oath. The latter would require Ukraine’s president to fictitiously implicate his own nation and exonerate its mortal enemy in service of Trump.

While Trump and his allies argue there’s “no harm, no foul” because Ukraine ultimately got its aid, the behind-the-scenes machinations in Congress reveal just how tenuous the situation became, with the flow of aid not resuming until after lawmakers began asking questions.

The crisis wasn’t fully averted, because there wasn’t enough time left to spend all of the funds before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, as government budget officials ultimately told Congress.

Laura Cooper, an assistant secretary of Defense, testified that the government managed to get roughly 80 percent of the dollars to Ukraine by the end of September. To ensure the remainder didn’t disappear, new language had to be tucked in to a must-pass spending bill known as a continuing resolution to claw back the unspent funds and then reissue them, giving the administration another year to spend the money.

Even now, as Trump faces potential impeachment in the House, it’s not clear that all of the funds have yet made it to Ukraine.

“Thanks obviously to the Congress we got the language in the continuing resolution that thankfully will enable us to obligate all of the funding, ultimately,” Cooper told the House in her closed-door deposition.

And both in Congress and within the administration, the freeze triggered concerns that aid suspension was not just politically questionable but also illegal, according to interviews with congressional aides as well as transcripts from witness depositions in the impeachment proceedings.

“An important part of the accountability of our system is that there are people whose sole job is to carry out what is required by the law or policy,” Eltrich said, adding that having those civil servants is crucial if “you want to prevent corruption.”

Cooper, in her deposition, explained that the administration can only refuse to spend money appropriated by Congress if it takes one of two steps: a “presidential-level rescission,” in which the president formally cancels the money and notifies Congress, or a “reprogramming action,” in which the Pentagon in this case would assign the money to another priority.

Neither of those steps took place, Cooper testified. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, acknowledged the White House had been aware of the legal issue regarding not spending the funds set aside by Congress during his news conference last month.

“We knew that that money either had to go out the door by the end of September,” Mulvaney said, “or we had to have a really, really good reason not to do it.”

So did two House appropriations aides who spent part of their summer at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.

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