The Government Accountability Office ruled Thursday the Trump administration’s withholding of aid to Ukraine violated the law, because Trump can’t use his policy priorities to supersede the constitutional power of the purse that Congress enjoys.
If Congress appropriates the money, essentially, Trump needs to have a very specific reason for withholding it, and the reasons supplied didn’t qualify.
In a nine-page report, GAO general counsel Thomas H. Armstrong delivers rebukes to Trump and his administration, saying it has failed to abide by the law, failed to substantiate its actions and failed to cooperate by providing the necessary documentation.
The GAO report specifically refers to $214 million in funds for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative — it hasn’t reached a conclusion on an additional $26.5 million in foreign military financing that was withheld — that was delayed via footnotes. It says the footnotes, which said the funds were withheld to make sure they were not spent “in a manner that could conflict with the President’s foreign policy,” don’t satisfy the requirement for overriding Congress’s appropriation of funds.
“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 begins. The Office of Management and Budget “withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA). The withholding was not a programmatic delay. Therefore, we conclude that OMB violated the ICA.”
While that section focuses on the OMB violating the law, other portions of the report point more directly to Trump.
“The President is not vested with the power to ignore or amend any such duly enacted law,” it says.
To be clear, the GAO report is not a criminal indictment. The office can at most sue the administration for the release of funds, and they have already been released. There’s not really a next step here.
But it means something symbolically and practically. An official report of the U.S. government now says the withholding of military aid that Trump used to leverage Ukraine was in violation of the law. Whether any quid pro quos themselves were illegal or abuses of power, now we can say the use of the leverage itself was, according to GAO.
Republicans have taken to arguing in recent weeks that the lack of a statutory crime in the two impeachment articles the House sent to the Senate on Wednesday indicate Trump’s actions weren’t that bad — or even, in some extreme arguments, that this impeachment isn’t valid. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has taken to arguing the Supreme Court should strike down Trump’s impeachment, because there is no accusation of a crime.
This ignores the broad legal consensus that the “high crimes and misdemeanors” requirement in the Constitution doesn’t actually require statutory crimes. Even the GOP’s legal expert impeachment witness, Jonathan Turley, acknowledged as such.
Trump even pushed the argument on Twitter, literally minutes after the GAO report came out.
Giuliani’s specious argument aside, there are perhaps political reasons for Democrats to have actually accused Trump of a crime, and they passed on using “bribery” — which is listed in the Constitution as an impeachable offense and is a statutory crime.
Now they can plausibly argue Trump took an illegal action here as part of his pressure campaign on Ukraine. They can now say he broke the law to leverage a foreign government for dirt on a political opponent.