WASHINGTON – The Trump administration disclosed on Friday that there were 20 e-mails between a top aide to President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff and a colleague at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) discussing the freeze of a congressionally mandated military aid package for Ukraine.
But in response to a court order that it swiftly process those pages in response to a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, lawsuit filed by the New York Times, OMB delivered a terse letter saying it would not turn over any of the 40 pages of e-mails — not even with redactions.
“All 20 documents are being withheld in full,” wrote Dionne Hardy, the office’s Freedom of Information Act officer.
The information act request sought e-mail messages between Robert Blair, a top aide to Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and Michael Duffey, an OMB official who was in charge of handling the process for releasing $391 million in weapons and security assistance Congress had appropriated to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression.
In her letter, Hardy cited exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act for correspondence involving the president’s staff and internal policy deliberations, suggesting that the disclosure of this material would “inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views that is necessary for effective government decision-making.”
David McCraw, a lawyer for the Times, said the newspaper would challenge the blanket withholding of the documents and would ask the judge overseeing the lawsuit, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, to approve an expedited schedule for briefs and arguments given the urgent public interest in learning more about the dispute.
The Trump administration’s move to withhold all the e-mails in full is a step beyond its heavy censorship of a related set of e-mails it released in response to another FOIA lawsuit brought by the Center for Public Integrity.
The documents released to the center consisted of about 300 pages of e-mails between OMB and the Pentagon about the Ukraine aid package. While the officially released version was heavily redacted — and the center is contesting the censorship in further litigation — the visible portions showed, among other things, that Pentagon officials had worried that holding the funds could be an illegal impoundment.
A report Thursday by the legal policy website Just Security added fuel to the controversy by revealing what was under some, but not all, of the deletions. The website said it had been shown some of the e-mails in unredacted form, including an Aug. 30 message from Duffey to a Pentagon budget official stating that there was “clear direction from POTUS” — an acronym referring to the president of the United States — “to continue to hold” the Ukraine military aid.
The Times separately reported last week that Blair warned Mulvaney to “expect Congress to become unhinged” if the White House went ahead with the hold on the aid.