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Trump administration sought major cuts to efforts to fight corruption in Ukraine, elsewhere

President Donald Trump, speaking at a rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Fla., has not filled many top watchdog positions within government agencies.

CHRIS URSO, TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS

By ERICA WERNER | The Washington Post | Published: October 23, 2019

The Trump administration has sought repeatedly to cut foreign aid programs tasked with combating corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere overseas, White House budget documents show, despite recent claims from President Donald Trump and his administration that they have been singularly concerned with fighting corruption in Ukraine.

Those claims have come as the president and his administration sought to explain away a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during which Trump pressured his counterpart to open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, and into a debunked conspiracy theory involving a hacked Democratic National Committee computer server.

“I don’t care about politics, but I do care about corruption. And this whole thing is about corruption,” Trump told reporters earlier this month when discussing the Ukraine issue. “This whole thing — this whole thing is about corruption.”

The phone call is central to the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. The Democrats have accused Trump of holding back congressionally approved military aid package for Ukraine until Zelenskiy publicly committed to launching investigations into the Bidens. On Tuesday, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine — acting ambassador William Taylor — told lawmakers that Trump made the release of military aid to Ukraine contingent on public declarations that it would investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election.

But Trump, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and other administration officials have insisted repeatedly that their goal in delaying the military aid package to Ukraine was to ensure corruption was addressed in that country — not to produce political benefit to Trump.

“There were two reasons that we held up the aid. We talked about this at some length. The first one was the rampant corruption in Ukraine,” Mulvaney said Sunday on Fox News Sunday. “Corruption is a big deal, everyone knows it,” he said. (The second reason was to ensure that other nations contributed to Ukraine’s defense, Mulvaney said.)

The administration’s professed interest in fighting corruption in Ukraine has not been reflected in its annual budget requests to Congress.

For example, the administration sought to cut a program called “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement.” Among the goals of the program, as described in White House budget documents, is “helping U.S. partners address threats to U.S. interests by building resilience and promoting reform in the justice and law enforcement sectors through support to new institutions and specialized offices, such as Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau and Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office.”

The program directs specific sums of money to individual countries. In 2019, $30 million was directed to Ukraine, after Congress rejected an administration request to cut the sum to $13 million. In its 2020 budget request, released in March, the administration again sought to cut the program’s spending on Ukraine to $13 million. Congress seems likely once again to reject the proposed cut, although lawmakers have yet to agree on any spending bills for the 2020 budget year that began Oct. 1.

In another example, the administration sought to streamline a number of overseas democracy assistance and foreign aid accounts under one larger umbrella called the Economic Support and Development Fund. The White House believed that consolidation would cut those programs by more than $2 billion. That fund, too, is aimed at fighting corruption in countries around the globe, among a range of other goals, according to White House budget documents. Spending in Ukraine for the accounts in question was $250 million in 2018; the White House has asked for $145 million in 2020 under the new iteration of the program.

The Trump White House routinely has pursued deep cuts to foreign aid in its budget proposals, only to be rebuffed by Congress. The proposed cuts to anti-corruption programs were a byproduct of the administration’s larger goals of cutting the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, and were not specifically targeted, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“The president has consistently sought across-the-board cuts to foreign aid, and has proposed more cuts in his budgets than any other president in history,” said Rachel Semmel, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. “He has also strongly encouraged other countries to contribute their own efforts and resources to their defense and reform efforts.”

Nonetheless, the cuts to anti-corruption aid stand in contrast to recent claims from administration officials and the president himself about being focused on corruption in Ukraine, raising the question of why the White House has not sought a larger budgetary commitment to addressing the issue. Democrats largely have dismissed the White House’s insistence that Trump was focused on corruption, but White House officials continue to say it was a primary reason the military aid was held up.

“This is about corruption, and this is not about politics,” Trump said. “This is about corruption. And if you look and you read our Constitution and many other things, we — I have an obligation to look at corruption. I have an actual obligation and a duty.”

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