President Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25 in New York.

President Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25 in New York. Evan Vucci/AP

Former White House Officials Call Trump Administration’s Foreign Aid Process ‘Unconventional,’ But Legal

House Democrats have subpoenaed OMB and the Defense Department for documents related to the decision to withhold funding from Ukraine.

The Office of Management and Budget’s handling of $400 million in aid to Ukraine—now the subject of an impeachment inquiry—was “unconventional” and “unusual” but not illegal, according to former OMB officials. 

The Wall Street Journal first reported on Thursday that the Trump administration gave OMB Associate Director for National Security Michael Duffey, a political appointee, the authority to delay the aid, despite concerns from career budget staff. 

Leaving aside the question of whether the Trump administration held up the congressionally mandated aid for political reasons, which is the subject of the impeachment inquiry, from a purely budgetary perspective, “it appears what [OMB] did here was unconventional, but by no means illegal,” said Grant Thornton Public Sector Managing Director Douglas Criscitello, a former OMB budget examiner during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations and Housing and Urban Development Department chief financial officer during the Obama administration. 

Likewise, Michael Casella, the former director of USAID’s Office of Budget and Resource Management during the Obama and Trump administrations and OMB International Economic Affairs Branch chief and senior program examiner from 1991-2005, said Duffey taking control of the aid was “very unusual,” but not unprecedented, although he couldn’t recall specific instances of similar actions himself.

It is not clear exactly why administration officials withheld the aid, although President Trump asked Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelensky “to do us a favor” when the issue arose in a July 25 phone call. The White House eventually released the funds before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30. When asked for comment, an OMB spokesperson directed Government Executive to the Wall Street Journal story, which said: 

“The idea that administration officials would not be involved in budget execution, including apportionment authority, after decades of precedent, is absolutely ludicrous,” Rachel Semmel, an OMB spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal. “It is absurd to suggest that the president and his administration officials should not play a leadership role in ensuring taxpayer dollars are well spent.”

Criscitello said the process of signing apportionments is a “ministerial duty” that career officials usually perform as a matter of carrying out the law. However, he noted, “political appointees can take on any duty that they’d like in an agency.”

The Washington Post also reported on the controversy. “Even though some career staffers raised concerns about the way the money was being withheld, some other career staffers said the move did not violate any protocols,” The Washington Post reported on Friday. “White House and OMB officials had discussions on whether their holds were violating the act, and eventually decided that they were not.” 

On Monday, House Democrats subpoenaed the Defense Department and OMB for documents related to the “extent to which President Trump jeopardized U.S. national security by pressuring Ukraine to interfere with our 2020 election and by withholding military assistance provided by Congress to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression.” The agencies have until Oct. 15 to comply.