Trump’s decision to withhold nearly $400 million in military aid, which he reversed in September after House investigators began probing the move, is at the heart of the articles of impeachment the House passed last month, and it will be a central focus in the Senate’s impeachment trial that begins later Thursday.
The report undercuts an oft-stated defense of Trump’s decision to hold the aid back: that it was a lawful exercise of the president’s authority.
GAO, an independent nonpartisan government watchdog that responds to congressional requests, said the White House attempted to justify its decision not to notify Congress of the hold by claiming it was simply a “programmatic delay.” But GAO rejected that claim, saying Trump’s decision, carried out by the budget office, was a violation of the Impoundment Control Act, which requires notification to Congress of any such delay in an appropriation of funds.
“OMB’s assertions have no basis in law,” the GAO argues, referring to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel pushed back on GAO’s conclusions.
“We disagree with GAO’s opinion,” Semmel said. “OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the president’s priorities and with the law.”
The GAO report also states that OMB and the State Department “failed” to provide all of the information that was necessary for its investigation. That decision will likely fuel Democrats’ arguments in the Senate trial that Trump has attempted to obstruct Congress’ ability to investigate the Ukraine matter, and that he has been engaged in a “cover-up.” The second impeachment article alleges that Trump obstructed Congress when he ordered senior officials to refuse requests and subpoenas seeking testimony and documents.
“The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has confirmed what congressional Democrats have understood all along: President Trump abused his power and broke the law by withholding security assistance to Ukraine,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) requested GAO’s opinion in a letter last month, noting that several administration officials have raised concerns about whether the president’s decision violated federal budget law. The move prompted two White House budget officials to resign in part out of frustration. Senior officials at the Pentagon and State Department sought an explanation for the hold, but were ultimately unsuccessful.