Independent Audit Says Trump Freeze on Ukraine Aid Was Illegal

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.

President Donald Trump, left, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, right, walk along the colonnade of the White House in Washington on Monday. 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)

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. 

“This presumes, of course, that the agency is making efforts to obligate. Here there was no external factor causing an unavoidable delay. Rather, OMB on its own volition explicitly barred DOD from obligating amounts,” the report states, using an abbreviation for the Department of Defense.

Further, by the time the OMB issued its first notice that U.S. aid was being withheld, the Defense Department had already developed a plan to expend the funds. The Defense Department had notified Congress of this as early as May 23.

“Program execution was therefore well underway when OMB issued the apportionment footnotes. As a result we cannot accept OMB’s assertion that its actions are programmatic. The burden to justify a withholding of budget authority rests with the executive branch,” the report states. “Here, OMB has failed to meet this burden.”

The report comes just a day after Trump’s impeachment trial moved from the House to the Senate. Its contents could provide fodder for impeachment managers who will present evidence to fellow lawmakers.

At the report’s conclusion, the watchdog notes that both the Office of Management and Budget and the State Department have failed to provide all of the requested documents and information the oversight body needs to conduct its review.

“We will continue to pursue this matter and will provide our decision to the Congress after we have received the necessary information,” the report states.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer weighed in on Thursday, pointing to other revelations about the issue from Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

“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 this promised aid,” Hoyer said. “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. They attest to President Trump’s impeachable offenses, which the Senate must now consider under the oath of impartiality they will take today.”

Speaking at a press conference Thursday about the GAO’s report, Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen said it underscored the fact that President Trump was willing to break other laws as part of his overall scheme to abuse power and cover up that abusive scheme.

“And the GAO report also made clear that in their inquiry, in their investigation, they were stonewalled. … They didn’t get all the documents they wanted and. in their report, they said they believe that raises constitutional questions,” Van Hollen said. “The GAO report, like other evidence that has come out, has underscored the importance of having relevant fact witnesses and relevant documents. You don’t have a fair trial if you don’t get all the evidence.”

Speaker Pelosi shared similar sentiments Thursday, saying the GAO report affirms the president’s commitment to cover-ups.

“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,” Pelosi said. “No one is above the law.”

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