Republicans play the 'Obama did it too' card on military assistance — and of course they're lying
The first statements from Donald Trump’s defense team in the impeachment trial in the Senate on Tuesday included multiple big, instantly refutable lies, such as White House counsel Pat Cipollone’s claim that no Republicans were allowed into the “secret hearings” held in the House, or that Republicans weren’t allowed to call witnesses. But among a laundry list of talking points disconnected from reality, there was one that stood out: the claim that Trump did nothing wrong because President Barack Obama also withheld funds, from Egypt.
Obama did withhold funds. He did so when, between the time Congress allocated funds and the time the Pentagon approved their release, military forces in Egypt mounted a coup. Not only were those funds not approved to be sent, not only did Obama notify Congress that they were being withheld, but members of Congress insisted that the funds not be turned over. That included pleas from Sen. Lindsey Graham to hold the funds. But as the House team continues to lay out its case, and Republicans wait for their chance, it appears that “Obama did it too” is going to be the go-to argument from Team Trump.
Overnight, Sen. Marsha Blackburn tweeted out a list of supposed holds placed by Obama (not all of which appear to be real). Then Sen. John Cornyn joined in, both on Twitter and in an interview, to expand the claim not just to Obama, but to administrations going back to Nixon. Neither Cornyn nor Blackburn claimed that Obama withheld funds so that he could twist the arm of a foreign leader so he’d give him a personal political advantage. So far. But it seems likely that they will, as the Obama-did-it-too meme becomes the latest attempt from the Republican side to distract from Trump’s crimes.
Of course, there’s more that Blackburn and Cornyn are ignoring than just the lack of a quid pro quo in any of Obama’s foreign assistance delays. Every aid package has qualifications that have to be met in order for the aid to be approved. Legislation authorizing foreign assistance routinely includes review by agencies that have to sign off that goals have been achieved in advance of the release. In the case of 2019 assistance to Ukraine, that responsibility was assigned to the Department of Defense, which completed its review on May 23 with a conclusion that Ukraine had met required goals on both fighting corruption and promoting democracy.
What happened in past delays was often simply that the certifying agencies found issues, or that, as in the case of Egypt, conditions on the ground had changed significantly between the time the legislation was passed and the time the funds were slated to go out. In some cases, the result was further review before funds were eventually released. In some cases, the result was a more prolonged delay: Egypt didn’t get any funds from the U.S. for almost two years, until the State Department was satisfied that the new president wasn’t just a puppet of the military. In every case, both Congress and the public were aware not just that there was a delay, but of the reasons for the delay.
In the case of Trump and Ukraine, the assistance was approved by the Department of Defense just two months after the election of a new Ukrainian president who ran on an anticorruption platform. Then Trump placed a hold on the funds in secret. He provided no reason for the delay. The DOD was instructed not to talk about the delay. Congress was not informed of the delay. No reason was ever given for the delay. And the delay remained in place until 1) the delay wasn’t just obvious, but also the subject of public articles, 2) multiple senators contacted the White House expressing concern, 3) three separate House investigations were opened, 4) the White House counsel informed Trump that the whistleblower report was circulating, and 5) the intelligence community inspector general determined that the whistleblower report was urgent. Then Trump released the funds, and Republicans began to make up explanations for the hold—explanations that shifted on a nearly daily basis during the House impeachment hearings.
Other foreign assistance packages have been delayed. For good reasons. With notification of and cooperation from Congress.
Try again, Republicans. Try again.