WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal watchdog concluded Thursday that the White House broke the law by allowing President Donald Trump to freeze U.S. aid to Ukraine so that he could put his own policy priorities before congressional ones.
The 9-page report from the independent Government Accountability Office states that the Office of Management and Budget improperly withheld $214 million in military assistance appropriated by the Defense Department for Ukraine.
As well as being unauthorized, the report says the hold violated the Impoundment Control Act.
Just a few months ago, that piece of legislation went from being utterly obscure to most Americans to a key piece of Trump’s impeachment in the House of Representatives.
Administration officials who testified in the proceedings suggested the president paused the aid to Ukraine in July 2019 while actively pressuring Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential rival for Trump in his re-election effort. The investigation would ostensibly focus on a position Biden’s son Hunter held on the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma Holdings.
Lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee explicitly flagged the 1974 law as one that Trump likely violated roughly a week into public hearings.
The Impoundment Control Act prohibits a president from withholding U.S. assistance funds without congressional approval first. It was first enforced as a response to then-President Richard Nixon’s refusal to appropriate funds to programs he didn’t personally like.
The legislation stipulates that a president must notify Congress with a “special message” when he intends to withdraw or hold certain funds. He must also explain why and provide an explanation for the potential budgetary or economic effects the hold would have on other U.S. policy and programs.
There’s a 45-day period where the president can sit on the funds but if the withdrawal is approved yet not officially enacted, the funds must go back from whence they came.
The Office of Management and Budget said Thursday that it disagreed with GAO’s assessment.
“OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president’s priorities and with the law,” Semmell said.
The White House’s budget office contends that the hold was not subject to the Impound Control Act because it fell under the category of a “programmatic delay.” In the parlance of Capitol Hill bureaucracy, this means the OMB considered the freeze a routine hold.
The GAO report tells a different story, however, saying programmatic delays occur when an agency is taking the necessary steps to implement a program but, due to ongoing factors outside its control, the funds are temporarily unobligated.