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Trump’s hold of Ukraine aid was illegal, according to the US government’s top watchdog

This could bolster Democrats’ case to convict Trump in the impeachment trial.

President Donald Trump prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the Clemson Tigers and the LSU Tigers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020, in New Orleans.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The US government’s top internal watchdog has determined that the Trump administration broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine last year after Congress had approved its disbursal.

Coming on the very day the Senate is swearing in the judge in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the finding could potentially bolster Democrats’ case that the president should be convicted in its impeachment trial next week.

In a legal opinion released Thursday, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) decision to keep $400 million in Pentagon assistance to Ukraine for a “policy reason” in violation of the Impoundment Control Act of 1974.

That law was designed to “prevent the President and other government officials from unilaterally substituting their own funding decisions for those of the Congress,” according to the House Budget Committee.

Trump has admitted to putting a hold on the money, but his reasoning has changed. Initially he said he didn’t want to give Ukraine the funds until it dealt with its corruption problem, even though the Pentagon said Kyiv had made enough reforms to warrant the money. Then he said he wanted to wait until European nations also contributed to Ukraine so it wasn’t just the US footing the bill.

But Bill Taylor, the former top US diplomat in Ukraine, said during the House Democrat-led impeachment inquiry last year that the president likely paused the money to compel Ukraine to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s family. That’s the center of the now-infamous quid pro quo: Kyiv helps damage Trump’s political opponent, and then Ukraine gets the money.

The administration did eventually release the money last September, after the outlines of the scandal had become public.

Taking all of this into account, the watchdog concluded that “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law.” Therefore, the report notes, the OMB violated the law.

This decision has angered and animated Senate Democrats who will now push harder for more documents and witnesses in the impeachment trial. The “opinion is forceful and it is unambiguous: When President Trump froze congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine, he did so in violation of the law and the Constitution,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the vice chair of the chamber’s appropriations committee.

Which means that Senate Democrats likely feel their case is stronger headed into the impeachment trial next week. The question, though, is if it will actually change anything.

The report may change the tenor of the Senate’s impeachment trial

The White House has already refuted the report’s conclusions, accusing the GAO of “overreach.” And OMB spokesperson Rachel Semmel said her agency “uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President’s priorities and with the law.”

The anger in these statements makes sense, especially since both the White House and OMB are being accused of something serious. But they also have the space to be indignant because they can be confident the report isn’t likely to change anything.

Importantly, nothing major will likely happen on the legal front. Some ethics group will probably sue the administration over this, and the GAO might even do so as it has before, but it’s unlikely to lead to much. It’s possible, though, that the White House will fire staff at OMB or even acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who also heads that office.

The White House may still not change its procedures. Last November, an OMB lawyer said the executive branch didn’t have to abide by GAO rulings. “When an agency of the legislative branch interprets a law differently than the executive branch, the executive branch is not bound by its views,” Mark Paoletta, the OMB’s general counsel, wrote in a memo last November.

The most probable outcome, then, is that this report will serve as fodder for the president’s opponents who want to see him removed. It bolsters the case against him that he did something illegal — for his own political gain — and therefore must be booted from office. But the Senate is controlled by Republicans, which means even this new information is unlikely to lead to the president’s conviction.

So the GAO report is another good data point to support the case that the president’s actions were corrupt and illegal, but in the grand scheme of things, nothing will change.

If that’s not a depressing state of affairs about America’s democracy, I don’t know what is.

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