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Pentagon expert could reveal key details in Ukraine probe

Yahoo! News logo Yahoo! News 10/18/2019 Alexander Nazaryan
a person wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense (Photo: Olena Khudiakova/Ukrinform via ZUMA Wire) © Provided by Oath Inc. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense (Photo: Olena Khudiakova/Ukrinform via ZUMA Wire)

WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2018, Congress allotted $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, part of a continuing effort to help the Eastern European nation defend itself against Russia. Several months later, Laura K. Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine and Russia policy, touted the forthcoming aid package, which would be joined by $141 million from the State Department.

“You can count on the United States to remain your strong partner in strengthening Ukraine’s military to defend Ukrainian democracy,” Cooper said in a video address on Dec. 7, 2018, as she stood before the Ukrainian and American flags.

But months went by, and the assistance did not come, not even after a May letter from the undersecretary of defense in charge of policy, John C. Rood, in which he affirmed that the Ukrainians had “taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.”

Now, less than a year later, Cooper, who played a crucial role in trying to move the Ukrainian aid forward, is set to testify next week in the impeachment inquiry being led by Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman. Cooper, who was originally slated to appear before lawmakers on Friday, will be the first career official to testify from the Pentagon, which has largely remained outside the recent political controversy.

The impeachment panel has already heard from Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine; former National Security Council aide and Russia expert Fiona Hill; and State Department official George P. Kent. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has testified twice, including on Thursday.

Schiff’s office did not answer requests for comment about Cooper’s expected testimony.

Conversations with roughly a dozen Capitol Hill staffers and foreign policy experts suggest that while no one is sure precisely what Cooper might say, there is broad consensus that, as the top defense official on Ukraine matters, she was among those who pushed to have the $250 million in aid released. In fact, her public assurances to Ukrainians about the coming assistance make clear that she fully expected the funds to flow sometime in early 2019.

A former senior U.S. official confirmed that Cooper was involved in such efforts. That could make her testimony crucial to Democrats’ argument that President Trump and his loyalists were guided solely by political considerations.

What’s known from the public record is that by June, the money remained tied up in a bureaucratic quagmire because the White House’s Office of Management and Budget had put a hold on the funding. Throughout the summer, frustrated Pentagon officials endeavored to figure out why that hold was in place. They went so far as to conduct a legal analysis, determining the hold had no merit, since Congress had already appropriated the funds.

That forced the White House budget office to reveal to the Pentagon that the hold had been ordered by the president.

Adam Schiff wearing a suit and tie: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff speaks on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP) © Provided by Oath Inc. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff speaks on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

As the assistance remained in limbo, Trump, in a July 25 call with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, asked for Kiev’s help in investigating Hunter Biden, who had been involved with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.

Conservatives contend that Hunter Biden’s dealings were improper and merit an investigation; the president’s detractors say Trump only seemed to pressure Zelensky for such an investigation because Hunter Biden’s father, Joe Biden, is running for president.

Although the funding was released to Ukraine in mid-September, a whistleblower that month filed a complaint about the Zelensky phone call with the inspector general of the intelligence community. That complaint has served as the basis of an impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats.

While it is unclear what exactly Cooper will say, those who have worked with her expect to see evidence of a civil servant who stayed away from politics — only to be forced, ironically, into the biggest political scandal in modern American history.

Cooper is a “capable professional,” Daniel Fried, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, told Yahoo News in an email. In a subsequent message, he praised her for being a “skilled and knowledgeable” civil servant. “I expect she did support the security assistance to Ukraine,” Fried said, though he could not describe her role with firsthand knowledge.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/AP) © Provided by Oath Inc. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (Photo: Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The Pentagon would not answer questions about Cooper’s role in the Ukraine matter. The White House also declined to comment.

Schiff and his colleagues will likely want to know just how involved Cooper was in pushing for the lifting of aid holds throughout the summer, and if she encountered resistance from Trump allies.

Trump had deputized former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is also the president’s personal lawyer, to pressure the Ukrainians to investigate Biden. Giuliani, who has maintained that there was nothing improper about his work in Ukraine, told Yahoo News in a text message that he did not know who Cooper was.

According to Evelyn N. Farkas, who held Cooper’s job during the second term of Obama’s presidency, Cooper is a “super-responsible” government official who would have flagged any improprieties she witnessed. Farkas told Yahoo News that Cooper works directly with Rood, the Pentagon policy chief, and was therefore almost certainly involved in the Pentagon’s efforts to have the holds on Ukrainian aid dropped.

While Cooper is one of the lowest-profile figures in the inquiry, she could prove consequential if she contradicts the Trump administration’s claim that the aid was being withheld out of concerns that it would be misused.

That concern was most recently voiced on Thursday by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who said Trump worried that the $250 million would be “poorly spent” by Ukraine. Mulvaney said that in discussing the hold, Trump called Ukraine a “corrupt place” where officials would use American dollars to “line their own pockets.”

The central question next week will be whether Cooper’s testimony contradicts that claim, and if so, how detrimental it proves to the Trump administration’s narrative.

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