5 things we learned about US aid from the impeachment hearings

George Kent listens to William Taylor testify during public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo by: REUTERS / Erin Scott

WASHINGTON — Washington has been consumed by the first public hearings of the impeachment inquiry related to President Donald Trump’s withholding security assistance to Ukraine.

While the specific assistance in question was security assistance from the Department of Defense, the impeachment hearings have offered an unprecedented window into U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine. America’s anti-corruption programs and efforts to counter Russian aggression, as well as the risks of mixing foreign assistance with personal politics, are all at the center of this historic inquiry into Trump’s conduct.

“If we are doing a systemic, holistic program, you need institutions with integrity.”

— George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs

On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee heard testimony from acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent. On Friday, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted by Trump, appeared before the same committee.

Here are five things we learned about U.S. aid from the first week of public impeachment hearings:

1. Presidents do not typically use foreign aid for their own personal, political reasons

The White House has tried to portray Trump’s withholding of security assistance to Ukraine as an example of routine foreign policy at work. In his initial defense of the president, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters, “We do that all the time,” and highlighted the example of withholding aid to Central American countries in order to get their governments to do more to stem migration.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Taylor clarified that what Trump is alleged to have done — withholding aid in order to extract a personal favor from a foreign government — is unprecedented.

“In your decades of military service and diplomatic service representing the United States around the world, have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?” asked Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman.

“No, Mr. Goldman, I have not,” Taylor said.

2. USAID was told to reconsider a public-private partnership with Ukrainian energy company Burisma

Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, has been at the center of the impeachment inquiry due to its association with corrupt oligarchs and with Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.

Kent on Wednesday recounted an episode that he believed reflected poor judgment by officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Republican counsel for the impeachment hearing, Steve Castor, asked Kent to describe the situation.

Kent testified that, in the summer of 2016, he became aware of a clean energy awareness campaign that USAID was undertaking in Ukraine, which included an essay contest for young Ukrainians, with a prize — “I believe it may have been a camera,” Kent said — for the winner.

“And they had co-sponsored — and with ‘public-private partnership’ being a buzzword — having a co-sponsorship with Burisma. Given the past history of our interest in recovering stolen assets from Zlochevsky, it was my view that it was inappropriate for the embassy to be co-sponsoring a contest with Burisma,” Kent said, referring to the Mykola Zlochevsky, Burisma’s owner. “I raised that with the mission director at the embassy. She agreed, and the USAID mission kept the contest but dropped the public-private partnership sponsorship.”

3. US anti-corruption efforts are extensive and do not begin with a president asking for a favor

The White House has argued that Trump’s request for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to conduct investigations into the Bidens was part of an effort by Trump to advance U.S. anti-corruption goals in the country.

Fighting corruption and supporting the rule of law and democratic institutions are key foreign policy priorities of the U.S. in Ukraine, which the U.S. government pursues through its diplomatic and development engagement with the country.

According to Kent, however, there is a well-established and highly sophisticated framework for pursuing this work, which would not be helped — and might actually be hindered — by the president asking a foreign leader to steer his country’s judicial system toward specific cases or individuals. Kent offered a brief overview of what that the existing system looks like.

“If we are doing a systemic, holistic program, you need institutions with integrity. That starts with investigators. It goes to prosecutors, it goes to courts, and eventually it goes to the corrections system,” Kent said, before adding specific details about U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.

Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, then read Trump’s statements from the transcript of his July 25 call with President Zelenskiy, in which Trump specifically expressed concerns about “Biden’s son,” and told Zelenskiy, “Whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great.”

“Mr. Kent, when you hear those words, do you hear the president participating in or requesting a thoughtful and well-calibrated anti-corruption program?” Himes asked.

“I do not,” Kent said.

4. Republicans are making the case that holding up assistance to Ukraine was part of the president’s general skepticism of foreign aid

Security assistance to Ukraine was not the only funding that was subject to White House delays and review during the summer of 2019.

In early August, the White House Office of Management and Budget froze U.S. foreign aid accounts estimated to contain between $2 billion and $4 billion in funding that supported a wide variety of programs in numerous countries. The freeze was expected to lead to a “rescission” proposal, by which the White House would seek to reclaim foreign aid funding already appropriated by Congress. That plan never materialized, though remaining USAID and State Department funds faced spending restrictions until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Some Republicans have pointed to that broad pullback of aid funding to suggest that withholding funding from Ukraine was part of the same process, and therefore not evidence of any specific effort by the president to extract political concessions from a foreign government.

“I don’t contest it was held up at the direction of the president … What I do contest is the reason why it was held up,” Rep. Mark Meadows from North Carolina told reporters on Wednesday.

“The president not only held up aid here — he held up aid to Lebanon that still remains on hold. He held up aid to other places. We have multiple witnesses that say that part of this president’s reset with regards to foreign policy is … to not send foreign aid to other countries without there being some condition applied to it, and that condition has nothing to do with investigations. It has to do [with] being a good steward of the American taxpayer dollars,” Meadows said.

Democrats can point to two major differences between the Ukraine situation and Trump’s general skepticism of aid spending. First, Trump appears to have been personally involved in withholding aid to Ukraine in a way that he was not with other accounts that were frozen by the Office of Management and Budget.

Second, American and Ukrainian officials widely understood that Trump wanted Zelenskiy to commit to investigating the Bidens before he would release the aid or grant the Ukrainian president a White House visit, which — as Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified — would be unprecedented.

5. Trump is not winning the hearts of US officials serving in hardship posts

In the midst of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony on Friday, Trump criticized her on Twitter.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” Trump wrote.

Yovanovitch was posted to Somalia early in her career in the foreign service, which spans more than three decades. The president’s suggestion that a U.S. diplomat serving in a hardship post should be blamed for problems in her country of service was widely criticized.

"I don't think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, and not in other places. I actually think that where I've served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I’ve served in,” responded Yovanovitch when the president’s tweet was read to her during the hearing.

More than 200 former USAID officials have signed a letter of support for the State Department officials testifying in the impeachment hearings and in opposition to Trump’s “cavalier (and quite possibly corrupt) approach to making foreign policy on impulse and personal interest rather than in response to national security concerns.”

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.