House staffers on a summer trip to Ukraine learned U.S. aid was frozen. Stunned, here’s what they did next.
The untold story of how two congressional aides who track federal spending got wind something was wrong and touched off a scramble to find the truth.
Nov. 18, 2019, 10:38 AM EST / Updated Nov. 18, 2019, 10:41 AM EST
By Jonathan Allen
WASHINGTON — Two days after a whistleblower secretly filed a complaint about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine in August, two top congressional staffers arrived in Kyiv on a routine business trip that ended up setting off alarm bells on Capitol Hill.
The aides work for the Democratic leadership of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for federal spending. They had been dispatched to make an on-the-ground assessment of the cash Congress has been pumping into former Soviet states — including Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine — to aid their defenses against Russian aggression.
But after traveling from Chisinau, Moldova, for two days of meetings and Ukrainian special-forces training observation in Kyiv and Berdychiv starting on Aug. 14, the staffers were shocked to learn from U.S. embassy officials that there was no new money coming into Ukraine, a congressional aide familiar with their trip told NBC News. The Trump administration had frozen military aid to the country in the midst of its war with Russia.
What’s more, the two Appropriations staffers, Becky Leggieri and Hayden Milberg, couldn’t even get an explanation for the hold-up, because embassy officials didn’t know the reason, the aide said. That set off a scramble in Washington to find out what happened to the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that had been specifically earmarked by Congress for Ukraine and which now play a pivotal role in a mushrooming scandal that threatens to lead to the president’s impeachment.
The anonymous whistleblower, a CIA employee, has received a great deal of attention for exposing what Democrats say was Trump’s plot to pressure Ukraine to help him politically in exchange for receiving military aid. But even if the whistleblower had not stepped forward, there’s a chance that the scheme would eventually have been exposed by a combination of congressional accountants like Leggieri and Milberg, whose job it is to keep track of every major expenditure, and various executive branch officials who have emerged to share the pieces of the story they knew.
The appropriations staffers didn’t know about the Biden plot, only that military aid was being held up. The whistleblower sewed it all together — and did that in time to prevent a deal from being consummated or a freeze on the funds becoming permanent. But when the staffers realized the money was not flowing, they set off important alarm bells.