House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, center, leads the way through the rotunda on his way to the Senate  Thursday to deliver impeachment articles against President Trump.

House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, center, leads the way through the rotunda on his way to the Senate Thursday to deliver impeachment articles against President Trump. Julio Cortez / AP

GAO: Trump Administration Violated the Law by Withholding Ukraine Aid

The administration pushed back on the findings, and has said GAO decisions are not binding.

The Office of Management and Budget violated the law by withholding security aid to Ukraine for policy reasons over the summer, a government watchdog reported on Thursday. The Trump administration disagreed with the findings.

The Government Accountability Office’s report on the Trump administration's handling of nearly $400 million in congressional appropriations approved for Ukraine comes as the Senate begins its impeachment trial of President Trump. The delay in providing aid to Ukraine is central to the allegations against the president. The watchdog said OMB violated the Impoundment Control Act by withholding approximately $214 million in Defense Department funds and GAO is continuing to review a potential impoundment of about $168 million in State Department funds. 

“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,” said the report. “OMB and State have failed, as of yet, to provide the information we need to fulfill our duties under the [act] regarding potential impoundments of [foreign military financing] funds. We will continue to pursue this matter and will provide our decision to the Congress after we have received the necessary information.”

A whistleblower complaint exposed that President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “to do us a favor” by investigating a 2020 political rival on a July 25 phone call. This led to House Democrats impeaching Trump on the basis that the president asked a foreign power to interfere in an election and attempted to withhold aid until Ukraine agreed to cooperate. The White House eventually released the funds on Sept. 11 before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30.

The administration pushed back on GAO’s findings and has previously told agencies they can ignore legal decisions from the watchdog. GAO’s decisions are not binding, the administration has said. 

“We disagree with GAO's opinion,”  OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said Thursday. “OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president's priorities and with the law.”

The findings are “a pretty clear overreach,” a senior administration official told Government Executive. “In their rush to insert themselves in the impeachment narrative, maybe they’ll have to reverse their opinion again.”

In October, former OMB officials told Government Executive that the administration's handling of the aid was “unconventional” and “unusual” but not illegal. GAO’s findings contract this. 

Although the president can withhold funds before the end of the fiscal year temporarily, he or she must give Congress a detailed justification, said GAO. “OMB did not identify—in either the apportionment schedules themselves or in its response to us—any contingencies as recognized by the [Impoundment Control Act], savings or efficiencies that would result from a withholding, or any law specifically authorizing the withholding,” said the report. “OMB described the withholding as necessary to ensure that the funds were not spent ‘in a manner that could conflict with the president’s foreign policy.’”

As the impeachment trial in the Senate begins on Thursday, Democrats are using the findings as a rallying cry. 

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-V.t., ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said, “This decision from an independent, nonpartisan watchdog reaffirms Congress’ power of the purse, and reaffirms that the president is not above the law.”

“While Senate Republicans face a choice in the upcoming trial on whether to be loyal to the president or to the Constitution, Congress must also take legislative action to ensure effective management of taxpayer dollars going forward,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations Committee chairwoman. “Working with my colleagues on the Budget Committee, we will soon put forward strong reforms to address the Trump administration’s abuse of apportionment authority and appropriations law.”