GAO says Trump administration broke law by withholding Ukraine aid

The Government Accountability Office issued a legal opinion on Thursday saying that President Trump’s administration broke the law by withholding defense aid to Ukraine — the issue at the heart of the president’s impeachment trial.

That money — $214 million which had been allocated to the Department of Defense for security assistance — was appropriated by Congress and therefore the administration did not have the ability to hold the money back because it disagreed with its allocation, the opinion said.

“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 opinion said. “OMB withheld funds for a policy reason … not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that the OMB violated the ICA [Impoundment Control Act].”

The Trump administration, through the Office of Management and Budget, withheld a total of about $400 million of security assistance from Ukraine last summer. The $214 million the GAO says was illegally withheld was allocated to the DOD, while the rest was allocated to the State Department. The legal opinion said the GAO also had questions about the money from State, and that it was looking into whether that, “withholding was proper.”

“The Constitution grants the President no unilateral authority to withhold funds from obligation,” the opinion said. “Instead, Congress has vested the President with strictly circumscribed authority to impound, or withhold, budget authority only in limited circumstances as expressly provided in the ICA.”

The opinion raised further constitutional concerns about the lack of cooperation from the Trump and his executive branch officials with the GAO’s investigation. The opinion’s conclusion panned, “a reluctance to provide a fulsome response,” on the part of the OMB and the State Department, which the opinion’s author, GAO General Counsel Thomas H. Armstrong, said interfered with the GAO’s oversight role on behalf of Congress.

“GAO’s role under the ICA  — to provide information and legal analysis to Congress as it performs its oversight of executive activity — is essential to ensuring respect for and allegiance to Congress’ constitutional power of the purse,” he wrote.

“The President has narrow, limited authority to withhold appropriations under the Impoundment Control Act of 1974,” Armstrong continued in a separate press statement. “OMB told GAO that it withheld the funds to ensure that they were not spent ‘in a manner that could conflict with the President’s foreign policy.’ The law does not permit OMB to withhold funds for policy reasons.”

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