The Trump administration violated the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine for policy reasons, according to a Government Accountability Office memo released just as articles of impeachment are being transmitted from the House to the Senate.
The House impeachment saga has centered on the accusation that President Donald Trump abused his presidential power by withholding military aid in order to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter's business dealings in Ukraine.
According to the GAO, an independent congressional watchdog, delaying aid to advance a policy agenda rather than for programmatic reasons is illegal.
"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 GAO report reads. "[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."
OMB issued a statement defending the legality of the decision to temporarily withhold the military aid.
"We disagree with GAO's opinion," OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said, according to the Washington Post. "OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President's priorities and with the law."
There are no criminal penalties associated with violation of the ICA, and the determination by the GAO is not likely to have any direct impact on impeachment — although Democrats have already used it as justification to call additional witnesses for the Senate trial.
Previous administrations have been called out by the GAO for violations of the law as well, although they may not have created as big a media splash since they lacked the context of a related impeachment trial. From the Post:
Several administrations have been slapped by the GAO, including that of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In general, those administrations released funds after being cited, making lawsuits unnecessary. Most recently, in December 2018, the GAO said the Department of Homeland Security illegally withheld $95 million appropriated for the Coast Guard to support national security efforts. The funds were eventually released.
GAO also found in 2014 that the Obama administration broke the law in exchanging five Taliban commanders for a captured U.S. soldier without giving Congress 30 days notice.