White House Violated the Law by Freezing Ukraine Aid, GAO Says

January 17, 2020 by Dan McCue
FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2020. file photo, President Donald Trump, left, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, right, walk along the colonnade of the White House in Washington. The federal government's watchdog agency says a White House office violated federal law in withholding security assistance to Ukraine aid. The Government Accountability Office said Thursday the White House Office of Management and Budget violated the law in holding up the assistance. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON – The White House violated federal law in withholding security assistance to Ukraine, one of the actions that set the stage for President Donald Trump’s impending  impeachment trial in the Senate, a nonpartisan federal watchdog said Thursday.

In a long-awaited report released mere moments before the Senate gathered to prepare for the trial, the Government Accountability Office said the Office of Management and Budget violated the law in holding up the aid, saying, “the president is not vested with the power to ignore or amend any such duly enacted law.”

The aid was held up last summer on orders from Trump but was released in September after a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s July call with the Ukrainian leader became public.

The independent agency, which reports to Congress, said OMB violated the Impoundment Control Act in delaying the security assistance Congress authorized for Ukraine for “policy reasons,” rather than technical budgetary needs.

“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” wrote the agency’s general counsel, Thomas Armstrong, in the report.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats immediately seized on the report as evidence of White House corruption.

“The Government Accountability Office has confirmed that the President’s actions at the center of our impeachment articles, withholding Congressionally-approved military aid from Ukraine, broke the law,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., said in a written statement.

“The GAO also reaffirmed that the President’s cover-up is ongoing and endangers our Constitution, stating, ‘we consider a reluctance to provide a fulsome response to have Constitutional significance.’  Despite what the President says, Article II does not mean that he can do whatever he wants,” she said.

“This important ruling further strengthens the House’s case for impeachment and removal, and reinforces the need for a fair trial in the Senate that includes documents and witnesses.  No one is above the law,” she concluded.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoer, D-Md., noted the report came on the heels of Lev Parnas’s explosive appearance on “The Rachel Maddow Show” Wednesday night.

On the program Parnas, an indicted associate of the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, said President Trump was fully aware of the scheme to solicit a bribe from Ukrainian President Zelensky for his interference in the 2020 election in order to release the promised aid. 

“The release of shocking new documents allegedly confirming the President’s knowledge and direction of this scheme – and confirming an effort to harass former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch – add to the growing body of evidence that, for this president, the law holds no power, the Constitution has no weight,” Hoyer said. “They attest to President Trump’s impeachable offenses, which the Senate must now consider under the oath of impartiality they will take today.”

The OMB responded to Thursday’s report contending that the hold was appropriate and necessary. The agency is overseen by Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who is also a central figure in the impeachment.

“We disagree with GAO’s opinion. OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President’s priorities and with the law,” said OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he too disagreed with the GAO’s assessment.

“There were taxpayer dollars going to another country … [and] people believed there was corruption within the new administration. I think it was the right thing to do,” he said of withholding the aid.

Trump was impeached last month on charges of abusing his power for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rivals, as he was withholding the aid, and for obstructing Congress’ ensuing probe.

The GAO finding concludes that the White House budget office “withheld the funds for an unauthorized reason in violation” of the Impoundment Control Act, a federal law that requires the executive branch to spend money that is appropriated by Congress.

The full blown trial on the charges is set to get underway in the Senate on Tuesday.

“With each passing day, the body of damning evidence against the President grows,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Senators must now decide whether they will put political party and loyalty to the president first, or whether they will uphold their oaths and do their duty by ensuring a fair trial that considers all the facts—including this report, as well as documents and witnesses that the administration has blocked.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the newly sworn in jurors in the case, said GAO was really a statement of the obvious that “confirms what we already knew: President Trump’s hold on Ukraine aid was illegal.”

“The fact that the president decided to move forward, despite warnings from advisors, shows the scope of his abuse of power,” Murphy said. “This finding, combined with the revelations from Lev Parnas … and every other piece of evidence uncovered by House investigators, highlight the critical need for the Senate to conduct a fair and comprehensive trial that hears from witnesses and gathers additional documents. Next week, every senator will have a chance to make that a reality.”

“The Senate now faces its greatest test since its creation,” Leader Hoyer said. “I urge senators to take seriously their Constitutional oaths – both to ‘support and defend the Constitution’ and to act impartially in judging whether this president has abused the power of his office by placing his own personal and political interests ahead of the nation’s and obstructing Congress in order to cover it up. 

“History will record their conduct in the days and weeks ahead; the American people are watching to see if their democracy still works, to know whether those they have chosen to defend our Constitution will uphold that sacred faith,” he concluded.

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