WASHINGTON — In the span of three months, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy made two trips to foreign countries where U.S. military aid was being withheld without explanation by the Trump administration and both times, within a week of his return, the assistance was released.
The first trip was to Ukraine, the nation now starring in the impeachment inquiry with President Donald Trump. The second trip was to Lebanon, where Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, traveled early last week.
The Trump administration notified Congress on Monday that it released $105 million in funding for the Lebanese Armed Forces just before Thanksgiving, although the money had already been approved by Congress and supported by the Pentagon and State Department.
There is no evidence that Murphy’s visits to Lebanon or Ukraine prompted the White House’s decision to release funds. But there are notable parallels between the trips and the delays in aid to the two countries.
But while in Lebanon, Murphy spoke to Lebanese politicians, the Commander General of the Lebanese army and American diplomats, who shared concerns about the hold up of the money at a time when Lebanon is facing massive civil unrest, new leadership and the threat of extremism, he said.
Murphy said he relayed those worries to senior Trump administration officials in the U.S. Department of Defense and State Department, including General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of the U.S. Central Command, and Timothy A. Lenderking, deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs.
“My conversations while I was there were with business leaders, civil society leaders and the military, all of which were incredibly worried that the United States was going to the leave the Lebanese military right at the moment where they needed more support, not less,” Murphy told Hearst Connecticut Media Tuesday. “I had a lot of communication with Trump administration officials about this. But I don’t know if that eventually filtered up to wherever the log jam existed.”
At least, some senior officials were already of the anxiety caused by the delay in aid. David Hale, undersecretary of political affairs for the State Department, testified to House impeachment investigators that diplomats had concerns about the wait for aid for Lebanon, according to a transcript of his closed-door hearing. He said the aid was frozen since at least June, the same time as the Ukraine aid.
Neither the White House nor the Office of Management and Budget responded to questions about the release of aid from Hearst Connecticut Media and other media outlets. Lawmakers are also left wondering, why the delay?
A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Murphy theorized: “I think it was going to be really hard for them to continue this hold, given the fact that Congress placed no conditions on the aid. I also think that in the shadow of the Ukraine scandal, this hold looked particularly familiar and unsavory. My hope is that the trip helped shed some light on why releasing the aid was so important, but I don’t know whether my trip and that attention surrounding it had an impact or not.”
The distribution of security assistance is a legally specified process. Conditions on aid are set by laws made by Congress, while federal agencies like the Departments of Defense and State determine whether countries meet those conditions.
Other members of Congress have wanted to see conditions placed on aid to Lebanon. Some Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have supported a measure to ensure aid to Lebanon is cut until the president can ensure the influence of Iran and Shiite group Hezbollah is curbed.
In a public hearing on Nov. 20, Hale also said the Trump administration was conducting a foreign assistance review to set new norms for how money is sent overseas. Hale supported this review, he said.
In the case of Ukraine, it appears more likely that the release of military aid may have been tied to the public announcement of a whistleblower complaint alleging that the Trump administration used the aid as leverage to try to secure investigations from Ukraine that would benefit Trump in the 2020 race. Testimony about whether the aid was indeed part of a quid pro quo has been the subject of numerous impeachment hearings.
Murphy and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy about the aid on Sept. 5. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., announced the existence of the whistleblower complaint on Sept. 10 and the security assistance was released on Sept. 11.
Since that time, Murphy’s trip to Ukraine has been discussed by House impeachment investigators and Murphy gave a kind of testimony about the trip to the House Intelligence Committee in the form of a letter.
In both Lebanon and Ukraine, military aid is intended to promote democratic forces and counter the influence of adversaries like Iran and Russia.
While the impeachment inquiry targets Trump’s conduct, it has also shed a light on U.S. military aid more broadly. Hale testified to Congress that U.S. military aid has also at times been withheld to Pakistan, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.