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- There had been a coup in Egypt, and by law, U.S. aid had to stop.
- Obama kept Congress in the loop. Congress knew nothing about the freeze on Ukraine aid.
- There was a bipartisan call for a hold on aid to Egypt. There was a bipartisan call for aid to flow to Ukraine.
President Donald Trump’s defenders in his impeachment trial say the hold he put on nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine was not unusual. Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow said on the Senate floor that President Barack Obama did the same sort of thing.
"The Obama administration withheld $585 million of promised aid to Egypt in 2013," Sekulow said Jan. 21, "but the administration's public message was that the money was not officially on hold as technically it was not due until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
"So they didn't have to disclose the halt to anyone. Sounds like this may be a practice of a number of administrations."
This comparison has become a popular talking point among the president’s supporters. Trump tweeted on this, as did Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who tweeted a list of countries where the Obama White House withheld aid, including Pakistan, Honduras, Mexico, as well as Egypt.
But Sekulow’s comparison with Egypt is off the mark in several ways. While past administrations have delayed aid, the circumstances and the nuts-and-bolts process, including keeping Congress in the loop, bear no similarities to the Ukraine affair. In particular, with Ukraine, Congress had pushed to send the aid. With Egypt, they were pushing to have it held back.
In the summer of 2019, Trump put a hold on aid designed to help Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression. As part of that aid, the Pentagon had signed off on $250 million for weapons including Javelin anti-tank missiles, the last step before the money would be released. It was after that sign-off that the Trump administration put a hold on aid.
In early July 2013, Egypt’s military overthrew a democratically elected government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamic group.The military arrested Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and held him in an undisclosed location. Security forces rounded up Musllim Brotherhood leaders, imposed press restrictions and suspended the constitution.
In mid August, the military fired on demonstrators in Cairo. Nationwide, about 1,000 people died.
At the time, Egypt was due $585 million through the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program.
U.S. law requires that when there’s a coup, aid has to stop. So the Obama administration was caught between wanting to retain ties to a key regional partner and following the law.
The hold on Ukraine aid was a closely held decision that many members of the Trump administration were unaware of until weeks after it was made. When they learned, the departments of Defense and State and the National Security Council pressed for the release of the aid. The hold was in place by July 3, but the public didn’t know until Aug. 28 when Politico broke the story.
For Egypt in 2013, top Democrats and Republicans in Congress were publicly calling for the suspension of aid. Amy Austin Holmes, author of the book "Coups and Revolutions" about the cataclysm in Egypt, was in Cairo at the time and followed the debate closely.
"Two senators, (Sen. John) McCain and (Sen. Lindsey) Graham, R-S.C., visited Egypt. It was very public," said Holmes, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo. "They were saying this is a coup and there should be consequences for that."
Congress wasn’t in the loop on the state of Ukraine aid. It isn’t precisely clear when Ukraine learned that its aid was on hold, but it was at least several weeks to a month after the decision was made.
The situation with Egypt was hardly straight forward, but some moves were transparent.
At the end of July 2013, the Obama administration told Egypt it had halted delivery of four F-16 fighter jets.
Around late July 2013, the Obama administration started talking to key congressional committees about aid to Egypt.
"There was nothing secret about this," said Andrew Miller who was the Egypt analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department at the time. "The appropriators knew that we were looking at it all –– weapons that had been purchased but not delivered and the rest of the money."
In August, Obama publicly announced that U.S.-Egyptian relations were under review.
Obama did not spell out how that review would affect the $585 million in military aid slated for Egypt. Broadly, between July and early October, it aimed to avoid making a decision.
"The Obama administration was on the fence," Holmes said. "They knew this was a coup but decided not to call it a coup, because of the legal implications."
When it became public in mid August that the aid was on the line, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "It would be inaccurate to say that a policy decision has been made with respect to the remaining assistance funding."
That said, in effect, aid was on hold pending the White House policy review.
In October 2013, the administration announced that it was holding up four large-scale weapons systems for Egypt, including 125 M1-A1 battle tank kits, 20 F-16 fighter jets, 20 Harpoon cruise missiles, and 10 Apache attack helicopters. (By 2015, Egypt got it all.)
Less publicly, at the end of September, the State Department moved the $585 million into an account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where it would sit until the the administration signed off on each payment from that account. The money would still go to American arms makers to send weapons to Egypt, but Egypt had no direct access.
Sekulow said both the Ukrainian and Egyptian aid faced the same deadline. They didn’t.
For Ukraine, the appropriation of $250 million had a hard expiration date of Sept. 30, 2019.
For Egypt, the administration had the work-around of that Federal Reserve bank account in Egypt’s name.
Psaki told reporters in 2013 that this sort of money was "expended on a rolling basis, so this isn’t a FY2013 issue."
Sekulow said that the hold on Ukraine aid in 2019 was substantially the same as the hold on Egyptian aid in 2013. But the differences outnumber the similarities.
With Egypt, the Obama administration kept Congress informed as it responded to a coup. With Ukraine, the Trump White House informed neither Ukraine nor Congress of its policy. With Egypt, top congressional Democrats and Republicans were calling for a halt to aid. With Ukraine, members of Congress wanted aid sent to Ukraine; so did the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council.
There was a hold on aid in both cases, but beyond that, the two episodes bear little resemblance to each other. We rate this claim Mostly False.
CNN, Special impeachment coverage, Jan. 22, 2020
Donald Trump, tweet, Jan. 23, 2020
U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Next steps on Egypt policy, Oct. 29, 2013
Congressional Research Service, Egypt in Crisis: Issues for Congress , Sept. 12, 2013
Congressional Research Service, Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations , July 24, 2015
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks by the President on the Situation in Egypt, August 15, 2013
U.S. State Department, Daily press briefing, Aug. 19, 2013
U.S. Congress, Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2013, May 25, 2012
Washington Post, McCain calls for suspension of aid to Egypt, other senators disagree, July 7, 2013
The Guardian, Egypt's ousting of Mohamed Morsi was a coup, says John McCain, Aug. 6, 2013
Atlantic Council, What’s Happening with Suspended Military Aid for Egypt? Part I, Oct. 16, 2014
Atlantic Council, What’s Happening with US Military Aid to Egypt, Nov. 17, 2014
Lawfare, Summary of Laura Cooper’s Deposition Testimony, Nov. 16, 2019
Foreign Assistance, Egypt, accessed Jan. 24, 2019
Washington Post, Trump’s lawyers don’t understand how foreign aid works, Jan. 23, 2020
Daily Beast, Senator: Obama Administration Secretly Suspended Military Aid to Egypt, Aug. 19, 2013
Washington Post, Why the U.S. should cut off aid to Egypt: An interview with Marc Lynch, Aug. 15, 2013
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Egypt: Security, Human Rights, and Reform, July 24, 2018
Email exchange, Christina Arabia, Security Assistance Monitor, Jan. 24, 2019
Interview, Amy Austin Holmes, associate professor American University in Cairo and fellow at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, Jan. 24, 2019
Email exchange, Seamus Daniels, coordinator for Defense Budget Analysis, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jan. 24, 2019
Interview, Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy, Project on Middle East Democracy, Jan. 27, 2019
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