Administration Threatened Veto Over Ukraine Aid in Spending Package

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s advisers rejected a bid to force his administration to quickly release military assistance for Ukraine early next year, threatening in recent weeks that he would veto must-pass spending legislation if Congress did not remove the directive.

According to three officials familiar with the discussions, Democrats ultimately agreed to drop the language, which would have forced the administration to release $250 million in defense aid to Ukraine within 45 days of enactment of the spending package, in order to avoid a government shutdown. Mr. Trump signed the $1.4 trillion in spending legislation late Friday, hours after signing a critical defense policy bill while at Joint Base Andrews to leave for his holiday break at his Florida estate.

The discussion in the final days of negotiations over a dozen spending bills, first reported by The Washington Post, came after the administration’s decision to withhold Ukraine military assistance became a central issue in the inquiry that led to Mr. Trump’s impeachment this week for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The officials who described the discussions did so on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

A House Intelligence Committee investigation concluded, based on extensive evidence and sworn testimony from administration officials, that Mr. Trump had frozen nearly $400 million in security assistance that Congress had allocated for Ukraine this year, using it as leverage in his quest to get the country’s president to announce investigations into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other Democrats.

Lawmakers in both parties had expressed concerns about the decision to withhold this year’s money, and Democrats had proposed new language so that funds could not be withheld in the future.

Had the language been kept in the spending package, the budget office would have had to release the funds for a defense program, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, within 45 days after the measure became law. The Pentagon would then be allowed to spend the money.

But Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, negotiated with lawmakers to have the language removed from the spending legislation, along with other provisions deemed to be so-called poison pills that would lead to a White House veto.

The spending package Mr. Trump is set to sign on Friday does, however, have language strengthening reporting requirements if the money is not obligated by budget officials within 90 days.

Two administration officials said that the veto threat was not a direct issue regarding Ukraine, but part of a broader effort to defend the president’s authority to spend money at any time and in any manner that he determines appropriate.

The administration also objected to Democratic language that would have required the Office of Management and Budget to make public budget documents, known as apportionment letters, related to the release of aid to federal agencies, one official said. Those letters were used to freeze the Ukraine aid.

The administration argued, according to one official, that the documents were already sent upon request to Congress and the specific directives in the spending legislation were unnecessary.

Democrats also agreed to soften language surrounding the disbursement of aid to Central American countries, which Mr. Trump has previously threatened to end, according to one person familiar with the talks.

Had Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats refused to remove the language, the administration could have publicly announced its intent to veto the legislation and further jeopardized efforts to fund the government before funding lapsed at midnight Friday.

Leading Democrats played down the decision to eliminate the spending controls, which was part of a wide-ranging negotiation among the White House and senior Democrats and Republicans to forge a spending agreement that would avert a second consecutive Christmastime shutdown.

“These issues were negotiated primarily by the Appropriations Committee and O.M.B.,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi. “These matters were two among dozens that had to be resolved in order to reach agreement on the two minibuses between both houses of Congress and the White House.”

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