White House control over Ukrainian aid violated federal law, says Congress regulator

The GAO decision comes when the Senate prepares for the political trial of President Trump, a process that will begin on Thursday.

“The faithful execution of the law does not allow the President to substitute his own political priorities for which Congress has promulgated,” the decision said. “OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not allowed by the Impoundment Control Act.”

The White House quickly refuted the charge, criticizing the agency’s decision as an “overreach” and an attempt to insert itself into the “media controversy of the day.”

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

Last month, the Democratic-controlled House accused Trump of abusing the power of his office in a campaign of pressure against Ukraine.

Trump has attacked impeachment charges as politically motivated. The White House budget officials have defended their power to prevent the money from being handed over to the Department of Defense, arguing that both Congress legislators and executive branch officials demand delays in already approved funds.

The report brings new scrutiny to a chain of events at the Office of Administration and Budget of the White House last year. When senior White House officials instructed the Pentagon to withhold aid from Ukraine, some OMB officials opposed it, warning that the stop could be inappropriate. At least two officials resigned, partly because of concerns about Ukrainian money.

White House officials were withholding security assistance at a time when Trump was pressuring the new leader of Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son. The emails published at the end of December showed that a senior budget official ordered the Department of Defense to suspend aid less than two hours after Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The president and the White House have strongly denied any irregularity due to the suspension of security assistance. The US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told Congress that he believed there was a connection between Trump’s help and desire for Ukraine to announce investigations.

The GAO discovered that the administration violated the Impoundment Control Act, a 1974 law that provides a mechanism for the executive branch to ask Congress to reconsider a financing decision that has been enacted.

“This bomb of legal opinion of the Office of Responsibility of the independent Government demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump administration illegally withheld security assistance from Ukraine,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Who requested to the GAO to write the report in December.

It was widely expected that the GAO report would stay away from the specific charges of dismissal from the House. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives accused Trump for two reasons: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Lawmakers alleged that the president abused the power of his office by holding money as a lever to pressure Zelensky to publicly announce investigations that would undermine a political rival, and then obstructed the investigation of those actions.

The publication of the GAO decision, one day after the House voted to send its articles of political judgment to the Senate, can give political ammunition to Congress Democrats in hopes of portraying the president and his administration as willing to extend the law to obtain political gains.

The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Has described the House of Representatives’ political trial articles as weak, and it is unlikely that there will be enough votes in the Senate to remove Trump from office. . Trump “has done nothing wrong,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham on Wednesday.

The controversy has focused attention for months on the White House budget office on its central role in delaying aid.

The administration previously disagreed with the GAO findings, including last year when GAO said the Trump administration violated the federal spending law during the government shutdown by allowing popular park sites to remain open.

In cases of rape, the most that GAO can do is sue the administration to release money, which happened only once, in the 1970s. The lawsuit was later dismissed when the funds were released.

The GAO has slapped several administrations, including those of George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In general, administrations were cited for releasing funds for expenses, making judgments unnecessary. More recently, in December 2018, the GAO said the Department of Homeland Security illegally withheld $ 95 million allocated to the Coast Guard to support national security efforts. The funds were finally released.

OMB began discussing aid to Ukraine on June 19, the day Trump learned of the help of an article in the Washington Examiner.

OMB extended a temporary suspension of aid eight times in August and September before Trump accepted his release under pressure from Vice President Pence and Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on September 11, as he had been informed of a complaint of complainants on the retention of aid and the pressure campaign of Ukraine and after the announcement of September 9 by three House committees controlled by Democrats that they were investigating whether the aid was withheld to pressure Ukraine for political purposes.

Democrats have claimed that OMB exceeded its legal authority by restricting funds. The White House cannot legally substitute its political judgment on a decision approved by Congress.

“If the executive branch violates the [Impoundment Control Act] with impunity, Congress loses its power to direct the expenses of federal funds and any program authorized by law could be financed by the Fiat Executive, “Van Hollen wrote in a letter addressed to Gene L. Dodaro, GAO comptroller general, in December .

In a legal memorandum published in December, OMB’s principal lawyer defended retention as legal and within the limits of the preceding one.

“For decades, OMB has routinely used its distribution authority to prevent funds from being used,” OMB General Counsel Mark Paoletta wrote in a December memo to GAO.

“Often, when administering allocations, OMB should briefly pause the legal capacity of an agency to spend those funds for a number of reasons, including to ensure that funds are spent efficiently, that they are spent in accordance with legal directives. , or to evaluate how or if the funds should be used for a particular activity. “

Critics said President Trump has given other explanations to stop the aid.

In September, on the sidelines of a session of the United Nations General Assembly, Trump told reporters that his concern was corruption. “We want to make sure the country is honest,” he said. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”

The next day, he suggested that he block the aid because European countries were not providing their fair share of aid to Ukraine.

“OMB was withholding the funds as part of an extortion plan to pressure Ukraine,” said Sam Berger, former OMB lead attorney during the Obama administration. “That is illegal.

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