Watchdog: White House budget office violated federal law in withholding Ukraine security funds

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WASHINGTON – The White House budget office violated federal law when it withheld funds that Congress had appropriated to provide security assistance for Ukraine, a nonpartisan government watchdog has concluded.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday that the White House Office of Management and Budget did not have the authority to withhold the money under the federal Impoundment Control Act, which governs Congress’ role in the budget process.

“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 concluded. “OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted” under the law.

The White House’s decision to withhold the money was at the heart of a congressional inquiry that triggered the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The White House disputed the watchdog group’s findings.

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

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters he would not address questions on the GAO report but said the aid was released and national security was not affected. 

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The watchdog agency’s report was released as the Senate was preparing to swear in House impeachment managers who will prosecute the impeachment case against Trump in the Senate. The House approved two impeachment articles against Trump in December, charging him with obstructing Congress and abusing his power by asking Ukrainian officials to announce investigations that would benefit his reelection and of obstructing Congress. 

The White House withheld nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine as Trump was pressuring Ukraine to open an investigation into a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.

Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, acknowledged that the money was withheld in part because of the president’s desire for the country to investigate potential corruption regarding U.S. domestic politics.

Trump also acknowledged in September that he withheld the funds but insisted he didn’t use the money as leverage to demand an investigation by Kiev into the Bidens. Trump said he held up the money because he wanted other countries to contribute as well.

In May, a top Pentagon official informed Congress that Ukraine had met anti-corruption standards required for release of the aid. That letter, sent by John Rood, undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department, undercut White House claims that the aid had been withheld over concerns about corruption there.

Pentagon officials expressed dismay with the OMB for withholding the aid, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. The top Pentagon official in charge of release of the aid warned colleagues that delaying the aid would break the law.

“OMB continues to ignore our repeated explanation,” Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s comptroller, said in an email to colleagues in August.

The funds were released after a whistleblower filed a complaint that triggered the impeachment inquiry against Trump. The aid package included Javelin anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers, radar and night-vision goggles to help Ukraine battle Russian-backed forces in a conflict that has killed 13,000 people. Since 2014, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with $1.5 billion in security aid.

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On Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers said the report reinforces that Trump withheld the funds to further his own political interest.

“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,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Trump administration broke the law and that the report “reinforces again the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who asked the GAO to investigate the matter in December, called the report a “bombshell” and said it “demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump administration illegally withheld security assistance from Ukraine.”

The White House has clashed with GAO before as part of its battles with Congress, particularly the Democratic House.

In a Nov. 5 memo, OMB general counsel Mark Paoletta told federal agencies that they are not obligated to comply with GAO legal decisions. He said the agency is part of the legislative branch and therefore has no authority over the executive branch.

“OMB respects GAO’s opinions as those of an agency of a coequal branch of government,” the memo said. “However, under the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers, a legal opinion by a Legislative Branch agency cannot bind the Executive Branch.”

Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook

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