WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper did not listen in on the July 25 phone call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart that is ground zero of a fledging impeachment inquiry of the president, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
“To my knowledge, no one from the Department of Defense was on that call,” Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, told Pentagon reporters on Thursday.
“I’ve specifically asked (Defense Secretary Mark Esper) that question and he was not on that call,” Hoffman said.
He said he was not certain if Esper received any notes from the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is now under scrutiny
Later in the briefing, Hoffman noted that “The secretary has an incredibly busy schedule and is working on a number of different issues at any one time. He doesn’t spend most of his days sitting in on other people’s phone calls.”
Questions about Ukraine dominated the 32-minute briefing, including the announcement that the Pentagon’s general counsel’s office has directed that all departments should provide any critical documents and records related to the Ukrainian issue for “cataloging and review.”
Hoffman said that was “a fairly standard practice.
“Out of an abundance of caution, they’ve taken the steps to have documents be preserved,” Hoffman said. The records will go to General Counsel Paul C. Ney, Jr.
The center point for the impeachment probe, as far as any Pentagon connection, is the July 25 call where Trump asked Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as a favor. Some interpret that as an attempt to pressure Kiev in exchange for nearly $400 million in congressionally-mandated security assistance.
Esper became Defense Secretary on July 23. He served as Acting Secretary of Defense from June 24, 2019, to July 15, 2019.
The aid was first announced on June 18 but the Trump administration delayed releasing it until September 11, 2019.
In May, Defense Undersecretary for Policy John Rood wrote to Congress and “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption (and) increasing accountability.”
That letter was legally required to release the $250 million of the aid that flowed from Pentagon coffers. In June, Pentagon officials publicly announced the release of the money. It was to be spent on sniper rifles, ammunition, and counter-artillery radar systems and other equipment, as well as training and interoperability support.
An additional $141 million was to come from the State Department.
Congress had been notified on Feb. 28 and May 23 that the White House intended to send the assistance.