But Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) had it right Monday when he argued before the Senate that Trump “will not change” and he will “do it again.” Why? Because Trump’s misuse of taxpayer funds, at the heart of his impeachment, is part of a pattern.
The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan government agency charged with overseeing the use of taxpayer money, found that the Trump administration’s hold on congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine was illegal, as it violated the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). And emails between the Office of Management and Budget and the Defense Department’s acting comptroller show that the White House was on notice that it was acting outside the law. “In fact,” as GAO noted in its decision, “Congress was concerned about exactly these types of withholdings when it enacted and later amended the ICA.”
It’s not the first time Trump has violated budgetary laws to further his aims. In 2018, Trump shut down the federal government, refusing to sign a government spending bill unless it included funding for his border wall. As the shutdown stretched on, however, he became increasingly concerned about the public response. So, ignoring the law, he began reopening parts of the government to try to reduce the political pain of his actions. Most notably, he recalled tens of thousands of IRS employees to ensure that processing of tax refunds would not be delayed.
The shutdown ended without Trump being able to secure the funding he wanted for his proposed border wall. But he was desperate to have the wall finished before Election Day, recognizing the political consequences if he failed to deliver on a central campaign promise. So he settled on yet another misuse of taxpayer money: declaring an emergency at the border — for circumstances that simply do not allow for the use of presidential emergency authority to siphon funding away from the military to use for his wall. He unilaterally granted himself the authority to turn the U.S. armed forces into his personal construction company, so he could build what amounted to a campaign backdrop on the southern border.
What happened next is instructive for the current impeachment debate: The House and Senate rebuked him on a bipartisan basis, passing legislation in March 2019 that would overturn the emergency declaration and protect military funding from being raided. Trump vetoed that legislation, so Congress again passed bipartisan legislation in September 2019 overturning the fake emergency declaration. Trump vetoed that legislation, too.
Was the president chastened by the bipartisan outcry in the wake of his misuse of military funding for his own political purposes? No, he has continued his efforts to poach defense funding to build the wall, and reporting in January revealed that he plans to take even more money from military projects in 2020.
Given that he ignored the bipartisan consensus against taking military funding to build his wall, there is every reason to think that Trump will see a tepid response from Republican senators as a green light to further misuse taxpayer funding, if the opportunity arises, to aid his reelection efforts. He won’t “think twice” — indeed, as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, the Zelensky call took place the day after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified before Congress, effectively ending his inquiry into the activities of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
By putting the president, essentially, above the law, Republican senators will give him a blank check to misuse public funds again for his own gain.