The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) violated the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine that was approved by Congress, the Government Accountability Office said in a Jan. 16 legal opinion.
The OMB froze the congressionally approved $250 million appropriated to the Department of Defense for security assistance to Ukraine to review corruption issues in Ukraine, President Donald Trump said. The office withheld the funds by issuing a series of documents, nine in total, that pushed back giving the funds to Ukraine. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in December 2019 that the aid didn’t have any impact on U.S. national security.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in the legal opinion (pdf) that the delay in transmitting the funds, which were eventually given to Ukraine, violated the law.
“Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. 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,” Thomas Armstrong, the GAO’s counsel, wrote in the legal opinion.
The White House didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
“I haven’t had a chance to read that report but I’m really glad that Ukraine got its aid and got it within the deadline,” Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters outside the White House Thursday morning. “And it’s much higher than they ever got under the Obama administration.”
The OMB told the Government Accountability Office that the funds were frozen to make sure the money wasn’t spent “in a manner that could conflict with the president’s foreign policy.” The budget office said the delay didn’t violate the ICA because it constituted a programmatic delay. A “policy development process is a fundamental part of program implementation,” so its impoundment of funds for the sake of a policy process is programmatic, the office said.
The GAO said the assertions “have no basis in law” because programmatic delays only occur when an agency “is taking necessary steps to implement a program, but because of factors external to the program, funds temporarily go unobligated.”
“Here, there was no external factor causing an unavoidable delay,” Armstrong stated.
The GAO said it was also reviewing whether the OMB violated the law in withholding security assistance funds meant for Ukraine from the State Department.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that the legal opinion “confirmed what congressional Democrats have understood all along: President Trump abused his power and broke the law by withholding security assistance to Ukraine.”
“Congress makes funding decisions, and the Trump administration’s illegal impoundment of these vital national security funds was a brazen assault on the checks and balances inherent to our democracy. Given that this illegal conduct threatened our security and undermined our elections, I feel even more strongly that the House has chosen the right course by impeaching President Trump. No one is above the law,” she added.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) added that the legal opinion “demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump administration illegally withheld assistance from Ukraine and the public evidence shows that the president himself ordered this illegal act.”
This bombshell legal opinion from the independent @USGAO demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump Administration illegally withheld assistance from Ukraine and the public evidence shows that the president himself ordered this illegal act. pic.twitter.com/bkwyQ4Vk3K
— Senator Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) January 16, 2020
The Government Accountability Office describes itself as an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress.
The agency “examines how taxpayer dollars are spent and provides Congress and federal agencies with objective, reliable information to help the government save money and work more efficiently,” it states on its website.
But Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) alleged bias, saying early Thursday that the office “is run by someone confirmed to a 15 year term in 2010 under a Democrat President, Democrat controlled Senate and Democrat House,” referring to Gene Dodaro, who became the head of the office in 2012 after being nominated by President Barack Obama.
“Just like Pelosi, Schiff, and the Dems in Congress, the GAO ignores that the President has been hugely concerned about corruption in Ukraine for a long time, which is entirely consistent with US law and US policy. It’s also important to get other nations to contribute more,” he said.
“Let’s see a GAO report on Pres Obama delivering $1.7Bil in pallets of cash to Iran in the middle of the night as cash ransom in a hostage swap. I don’t recall any Congressional notification or approval before that Obama foreign policy decision not authorized by Congress.”