Trump wrong to withhold Ukraine aid, congressional watchdog finds

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — President Trump had no authority to withhold some $250 million in military aid to Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress, the Government Accountability Office found in a report released Thursday morning, just as the Senate was prepared to begin considering the impeachment articles against him. 

The nine-page report seems to bolster the Democrats’ case against Trump. Speaking on CNN, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., called the report a “bombshell.” Republicans, for their part, noted that the office is headed by an official appointed under a Democratic administration. An administration official described the report as an example of “pretty clear overreach.” 

Reports by the GAO, which operates an investigative arm of Congress, are by law, and tradition, apolitical.

The GAO report relates directly to the first of the two articles of impeachment passed last month by the House of Representatives. That first article pertains to Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. The younger Biden was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company with a history of corruption. The older Biden is running for president against Trump.

Congress appropriated a total of $400 million in military and other aid to Ukraine in 2019. The funds were supposed to bolster the Eastern European nation in its war against Russia and Russian-backed separatists, who have been fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine since 2014.

Allegedly seeking to force Zelensky to announce a Biden investigation, Trump ordered his Office of Management and Budget to hold back the aid package throughout the summer of 2019. The directive confused and angered officials at the Department of Defense, whose attorneys were prepared to declare it illegal. But the budget office informed the Pentagon that the hold was, in fact, legal, as it had been ordered by the president himself. 

President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 25. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

But according to the GAO, Trump could not order aid that had been properly appropriated by Congress to remain undisbursed. “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 says. The budget office was accused of violating the Impoundment Control Act, which was passed in 1974 after President Richard Nixon attempted to withhold $8.7 billion in appropriated funds for domestic programs he disliked.

The GAO is not a law enforcement agency, and the finding does not trigger a criminal investigation. As a practical matter the issue is moot, some argue, because the aid was eventually released.

But that release did not come easily, or quickly. The report describes how the OMB “issued a series of nine apportionment schedules,” which had the effect of extending the hold on Ukraine aid. If the hold had continued past Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, the funds could not be spent unless Congress passed another appropriation during the next budgeting process. That would take months. 

The budget office challenged that assessment. “We disagree with GAO’s opinion,” said OMB spokeswoman Rachel K. Semmel. “OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president’s priorities and with the law.”

The aid to Ukraine was abruptly released on Sept. 11, supposedly because Ukraine had met required anticorruption benchmarks. But the Pentagon had certified months before that those benchmarks had been met. 

The release came after the House of Representatives learned of a complaint by an intelligence community official under the whistleblower act, alleging that Trump had improperly pressured Zelensky in a July 25 phone call. The White House was aware of the complaint and the House investigation it triggered. 

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The president and his allies have used a no-harm, no-foul defense, arguing that since the aid was eventually released, Democratic accusations of bribery and extortion are immaterial. They also point out that President Barack Obama had never provided lethal weapons to Ukraine, as Trump has.

But the GAO report says Trump had no authority to withhold the aid. “An appropriations act is a law like any other,” the report counsels. “Therefore, unless Congress has enacted a law providing otherwise, the President must take care to ensure that appropriations are prudently obligated during their period of availability.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mentioned the report in her remarks to journalists Thursday morning. “This reinforces again the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate,” she said

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted calls by Democrats to include witness testimony or new evidence in the Senate trial, which will begin next week. He has given no indication that the GAO report will change his mind.

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