A Watchdog Has Found the Trump Administration Handled Some Ukraine Funds Lawfully
This is “distinguishable” from the 2020 ruling in which the watchdog determined the Trump administration did violate the law with other aid spending, GAO said.
The Trump administration did not violate the law in the handling of certain assistance funds for Ukraine in 2019, a watchdog recently found.
In January 2020, the Government Accountability Office determined that the Office of Management and Budget, under then-President Trump, violated the Impoundment Control Act––which governs what happens when a president wants to delay or not spend money appropriated by Congress–– by withholding approximately $214 million in Defense Department funds to Ukraine, which was a separate funding stream. The Trump administration contested the ruling. This came amid Trump’s first impeachment inquiry and trial, during which the administration's handling of funding to Ukraine was scrutinized.
In its January 2020 report GAO said, “we also question actions regarding funds appropriated to the Department of State for security assistance to Ukraine.” The watchdog noted at the time that it was still working to “determine if the [Trump] administration’s actions amount to a withholding subject to the [Impoundment Control Act], and if so, whether that withholding was proper.” GAO issued a decision on Feb. 10 saying these actions with State Department assistance didn’t violate the law.
“This decision is distinguishable from our decision in 2020 regarding the impermissible withholding of Ukraine security assistance funds,” said a press statement from GAO. “In that previous decision, the president had little discretion in expending funds for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. Here, the [foreign military financing] program requires the president to exercise considerable judgment and discretion in carrying out the program, including in choosing recipient countries.”
In this situation, the Office of Management and Budget didn’t violate the Impoundment Control Act as the office issued three appointment letters in August 2019 “and we see no evidence that OMB intentionally withheld the relevant funds in contravention of the [act],” said GAO in the decision. Also, “to the extent OMB delayed the obligation of the funds, the delay was the result of programmatic considerations and therefore not an impoundment requiring transmission of a special message.”
Government Executive reported in September that GAO had some delays in obtaining the information they needed, but at the time they had secured it and GAO officials were actively reviewing it.
“Even though both scenarios–impoundments and unavoidable technical/programmatic delays–result in the same thing (the money not being spent according to the expected timeline), the important thing is why it happens, not that it happens,” Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government affairs managers at the Project on Government Oversight, told Government Executive.
“In the case of the DOD funding of security assistance for Ukraine from the same time period, GAO found that the Trump administration was, in fact, guilty of perpetrating an impoundment because the attempt to delay and ultimately withhold that funding was based on a policy/political objective; specifically, dangling funding in exchange for the public announcement of a Ukrainian investigation into Joe Biden, which ended up forming the basis of the first impeachment of President Trump in 2020,” he continued. “In contrast, the GAO investigation into this separate State Department funding stream for Ukraine uncovered no evidence that the delay had been predicated on policy/political objectives but rather that the delay was the result of a normal course of action in the context of apportionment and reapportionment by OMB.”
Following the GAO report in January 2020, House Democrats introduced The Congressional Power of the Purse Act in April of that year. The act—and its Senate companion introduced in June 2020—would strengthen Congress’ role in budget decisions, increase transparency of the executive branch and bolster the enforcement of budget laws. The legislation was included in the Protecting Our Democracy Act, which the House passed in December 2021.
GAO and Hedtler-Gaudette made similar legislative recommendations to the provisions of the Congressional Power of the Purse Act in order to reduce the potential for future problems.
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