Trump admin. broke law by withholding Ukraine aid, GAO says

U.S. President Donald Trump exits after speaking at a White House Mental Health Summit in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House on December 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Donald Trump exits after speaking at a White House Mental Health Summit in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House on December 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Trump administration acted unlawfully when it withheld $214 million in security assistance to Ukraine, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

In a legal opinion released Thursday, the GAO concluded that the Office of Management and Budget violated federal law when it withheld aid to the Eastern European country from last July until last September. 

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the GAO said in its opinion. 

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“OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act. The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA.”

According to the GAO, the OMB sent out a series of apportionment schedules starting on July 25 of last year in which they included a footnote that ordered a withholding of funds for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

On Sept. 12 of last year, OMB issued an apportionment removing the footnote that made the USAI funds unavailable, effectively ending the withholding. 

GAO General Counsel Thomas H. Armstrong said in a statement released with the report on Thursday that President Donald Trump “has narrow, limited authority to withhold appropriations under the Impoundment Control Act of 1974.”

“OMB told GAO that it withheld the funds to ensure that they were not spent ‘in a manner that could conflict with the President’s foreign policy.’  The law does not permit OMB to withhold funds for policy reasons,” Armstrong said.  

The Trump administration also expressed disagreement with the GAO’s decision. Fox News quoted an unnamed administration source who called the decision “a pretty clear overreach.”

“GAO has a history of the flip-flops, reversing 40-years of precedent this year on their pocket rescission decision, they were also forced to reverse a legally faulty opinion when they opposed the reimbursement of federal employee travel costs,”  the source told Fox News.

“In their rush to insert themselves in the impeachment narrative, maybe they’ll have to reverse their opinion again.”

OMB general counsel Mark Paoletta said in a memo in December that the administration had legal authority to withhold the funds.

"For decades, OMB has routinely used its apportionment authority to prevent funds from being used," Paoletta said.

James Freeman, assistant editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, also took issue with the GAO report, pointing out that the administration still made the aid available to Ukraine before an obligatory Sept. 30 deadline.

“It’s not entirely clear which date would have made GAO happy but in the agency’s view the White House did not have an unavoidable ‘programmatic delay’ which prevented funds from going to Ukraine,” wrote Freeman.

“Wouldn’t the logic of this decision also apply to Vice President Joe Biden’s famous withholding of Ukraine aid until the local prosecutor investigating his son’s company was fired?”

Last year, the House of Representatives voted largely on party lines to advance two articles of impeachment against the president.

Trump was accused of using his office to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden when he asked him to look into the country's alleged interference in the 2016 election, and discussed Biden's threat to withhold $1 billion from Ukraine during the Obama administration and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was managing the U.S.'s Ukraine policy. A transcript of Trump and Zelensky's conversation can be read here.

Article one of the impeachment claimed that Trump’s actions constituted abuse of power, while article two accused Trump of obstruction of Congress when he told administration officials to not cooperate with the congressional investigation.

The GAO report comes as the Senate begins the impeachment trial, with United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and the senators being sworn in on Thursday afternoon.

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