Trump 'didn't seem to care' that the law required him to release millions in aid to Ukraine that he froze while pressuring Zelenskyy, his ex-Pentagon chief says

Trump 'didn't seem to care' that the law required him to release millions in aid to Ukraine that he froze while pressuring Zelenskyy, his ex-Pentagon chief says
Defense secretary Mark Esper looks on as President Donald Trump addresses White House reporters in March 2020.Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
  • Mark Esper says he repeatedly tried to warn Trump against withholding aid to Ukraine.
  • Trump's defense secretary writes in a new book that Trump questioned why the US needed to help Ukraine.

Former Defense secretary Mark Esper claims that he warned President Donald Trump that withholding military aid to Ukraine was both illegal and that it would further weaken Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's government.

"I ran through a series of arguments that failed time and time again: deterrence of Russian aggression; showing Moscow our commitment to our partners; and aiding a democracy under siege," Esper writes in Politico Magazine in an adapted excerpt from his forthcoming book "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times." "I then pivoted to the fact that 'Congress appropriated the funding, and we don't really have a choice' to not release it. 'It is the law, Mr. President,' I said bluntly."

Esper writes that Trump was unmoved by the suggestion that he was breaking the law.

"With his arms folded in front of him as he leaned forward into his desk, he was silent. He didn't seem to care."

Esper's caveats only add to the long list of officials who cautioned Trump about withholding aid to Ukraine. But Trump didn't listen and his administration froze nearly $400 million in congressionally-approved military assistance for over two months. Experts echoed Esper's point at the time, arguing that Trump's defiance of Congress potentially violated two budgetary laws that lawmakers enacted decades ago to thwart presidents trying to ignore them.


House lawmakers later impeached Trump later over the episode but he was acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate. Trump's pressuring of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family over baseless allegations of corruption has received renewed attention since Russia began its war in Ukraine on February 22.

Trump in recent months has boasted about providing Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kyiv during his presidency, while omitting the fact that he withheld vital military aid from Ukraine as Ukrainian forces fought a war against Kremlin-backed rebels in the eastern Donbas region. The full-scale war in Ukraine that Putin launched in late February was an expansion of the conflict in the country's east that began back in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

In response to some of Esper's claims, Trump released a statement to "60 Minutes" calling his former Pentagon chief "Yesper" and saying Esper was so "weak and totally ineffective" that Trump had to run the military himself. Esper's book goes on sale tomorrow.

Former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whose ouster was one of the focuses of the impeachment proceedings, previously told Insider that during the Trump era Russian President Vladimir Putin "could just sit back and let the good times roll." Similarly, Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia expert on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, in February told CNN that Trump opened the door for Putin to invade Ukraine by treating the country like a "playground."

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in recent interviews with Insider, pointed to a host of Trump's actions that may have encouraged Putin.


Ukrainians badly needed lethal defensive equipment and a show of support from the US with a meeting between Trump and Zelenskyy, but they got neither initially, "all because he wanted a political favor," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez told Insider.

"It may very well have sent a green light to Putin that you can move against Ukraine, you know, because he doesn't have a solid support of the United States," Menendez said.

Trump "only coddled Putin" and acted as though he was willing to have a good relationship with Russia at any cost. "When you deny the positions of your own intelligence services unanimously, and you believe Putin over them, it said to Putin 'well, you know, I got someone here who I can ultimately use,'" Menendez said.

Trump invited Russian interference as a candidate in the 2016 election and didn't respond to it in a meaningful way as president, Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and committee member, told Insider recently. Trump publicly took Putin's word over the US intelligence community's, and he "facilitated and advanced" Putin's goal of dividing the US from NATO and the EU by fighting with European allies and partners, imposing tariffs and demanding they increase their NATO contributions, Coons said. At one point, Trump called the European Union a "foe" of the US.

"Trump certainly contributed significantly to encouraging Putin to believe that the West was divided, that the United States was distracted, and that our own domestic internal problems would prevent us from responding forcefully," Coons said. "The most important contribution to that was the January 6 riot. Nothing undermined a sense of our ability to come together and to act in our national interest like a riot overrunning our Capitol."


Many Republicans have blamed Biden for the invasion, arguing – like Trump – that Putin didn't invade countries during the Trump administration.

"On every objective level, Trump's substantive policies were far tougher on Russia than Biden's policies," Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and committee member, told Insider. Cruz said the important thing Trump did was sign Cruz's bipartisan legislation to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, a project that raises concerns about increasing European dependence on Russia. Biden waived sanctions in May to help rebuild relationships with Germany.

"At the time, the government of Ukraine said publicly that if Biden did this, Putin would invade Ukraine," Cruz said. "The government of Poland said if Biden waived the sanctions on Nord Stream 2, Putin would invade Ukraine and sadly they were right."

Biden announced sanctions against the company behind the pipeline at the beginning of the Russian invasion while Germany halted certification of the project.

Putin wasn't "making moves" during the Trump administration and was unsure how Trump would respond "but he knew that he had to be very careful," Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, told Insider. It seems, based on Senate briefings, that Putin started making the decision to build up after the pipeline sanctions were waived and the August 2021 "debacle" of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said.


"After Afghanistan, it looked as though he was trying to find out whether or not if he tested the waters in Ukraine, would the United States respond?" Rounds said. "It looked as though we were just simply tired of confrontation, and we were just simply prepared to stay home, rather than continue to engage."

Coons, a key ally of Biden's, brushed that criticism aside.

"A view of Putin's aggression that doesn't include some accounting of Trump's role in encouraging it is an incomplete review," he said.