House Democrats requested an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a legal branch of Congress. GAO’s resulting report claims President Donald Trump broke federal law by withholding Ukrainian security aid in July 2019, after Congress approved the funds.
The GAO determined the Trump administration broke the Impoundment Control Act of 1974. This law creates a mechanism for the executive branch to ask Congress to reconsider a funding decision or appropriation that’s already been signed into law.
“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 Office of Management and Budget] withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control act,” said Thomas Armstrong, General Counsel for the GAO.
The report also concluded that the Trump Office of Management and Budget did not provide all the information needed to fulfill their duties.
“[The Office of Management and Budget] and State have failed, as of yet, to provide the information we need to fulfill our duties under the ICA regarding potential impoundments of [Foreign Military Financing] funds,” Armstrong said.
Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland requested the GAO investigation in December.
“This bombshell legal opinion from the independent Government Accountability Office demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump administration illegally withheld security assistance from Ukraine,” Van Hollen told the Washington Post.
They key phrase in Van Hollen’s statement is that the GAO’s report is simply an “opinion.” Rachel Semmel, director of communications for the Office of Management and Budget, said the GAO’s decision has no legal baring on the Trump administration.
“We disagree with GAO’s opinion. OMB uses its apportionment authority to ensure taxpayer dollars are properly spent consistent with the President’s priorities and with the law,” Semmel said.
The GAO has a long history of attempting to stay relevant in the executive branch, even long before the current impeachment of President Trump. The GAO also has a record of flip-flops. They were forced to reverse a faulty opinion on legal grounds when they opposed the reimbursement of federal employee travel costs. They have consistently rushed to insert themselves into the impeachment discussion and the OMB is hopeful they will be forced to reverse their opinion again.
Notably, the Obama administration was also at fault under the GAO’s rules. A 2014 report found Obama broke the law when he failed to notify Congress about the impending prisoner swap between Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and five Taliban leaders.
There was no legal action taken against the Obama administration for not abiding by the GAO in 2014. That same precedent should be upheld during the Trump administration as well. The OMB and Trump administration have no legal duty to abide by the GAO and their legal opinions.