POLITICS

Trump Administration Illegally Withheld Ukraine Aid, Congressional Watchdog Finds

The Office of Management and Budget violated the Impoundment Control Act in the summer of 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said.

The Trump administration illegally withheld congressionally approved U.S. aid to Ukraine in the summer of 2019, according to a congressional watchdog report released Thursday.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, found that the Office of Management and Budget violated federal law under the direction of President Donald Trump.

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

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to send articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, where lawmakers will determine in an upcoming trial whether the president should be removed from office.

The two articles of impeachment ― abuse of power and obstruction of Congress ― relate to Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to publicly commit to investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a front-runner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.

Several current and former State Department officials testified during a monthslong impeachment inquiry in the House last year that the Trump administration withheld over $240 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine as part of that pressure campaign.

Trump has claimed he did nothing wrong in asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden.

The Office of Management and Budget ― a federal bureau within the executive office that oversees the president’s budget and the performance of federal agencies ― rejected GAO’s findings Thursday, claiming its handling of the aid was consistent with the law.

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

But Democrats quickly seized on the report’s conclusions.

In a news conference Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said GAO’s findings reinforce the need for the Senate to call witnesses and obtain relevant documents during the impeachment trial.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate committees on appropriations and budget, emphasized the troubling nature of GAO’s findings.

“The bombshell legal opinion from the independent [GAO] demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump Administration illegally withheld assistance from Ukraine,” Van Hollen tweeted. “The public evidence shows that the president himself ordered this illegal act.”

Though GOA’s decisions are significant, the office doesn’t have the authority to compel other agencies to take action in response to its findings.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the House judiciary committee, told HuffPost he hadn’t read the report but that he was skeptical of the conclusion.

“How can money that does not need to be appropriated until September 30 — and it was appropriated before September 30 — how are they saying that’s illegal?” Collins said.

As noted in the GAO report, Congress appropriated $250 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine for fiscal 2019. OMB had until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 to release the funds before they would expire.

OMB repeatedly delayed the release of funds, stating on apportionment schedules that withholding the aid was necessary “to determine the best use of such funds,” according to GAO.

However, OMB suddenly released the aid to Ukraine on Sept. 11 following a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky and the House’s decision to investigate the president’s Ukraine dealings.

Asked about the unlawful delays in aid, OMB told GAO that withholding the money was necessary to ensure it was not spent “in a manner that could conflict with the President’s foreign policy.”

“The ICA does not permit deferrals for policy reasons,” the GAO report notes. “OMB’s justification for the withholding falls squarely within the scope of an impermissible policy deferral. Thus, the deferral of USAI funds was improper under the ICA.”

Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.

CONVERSATIONS