The White House budget office "violated the law" by freezing military aid to put political pressure on the government of Ukraine, a USA congressional watchdog announced on Thursday (Jan 16) as President Donald Trump's impeachment trial looms. "We conclude that OMB violated the [law] when it withheld [the] funds for a policy reason".
"The ICA does not permit deferrals for policy reasons", the GAO notes, and the White House Office of Management and Budget's rationale for putting the Ukraine aid on hold "falls squarely within the scope of an impermissible policy deferral". The legal opinionsaid the GAO also had questions about the money from State, and that it was looking into whether that, "withholding was proper".
The abuse of power cited by the House included Trump's withholding of $US391 million ($567 million) passed by Congress in security aid for Ukraine, a move aimed at pressuring Kiev into investigating political rival Joe Biden, the Republican president's possible Democratic opponent in the upcoming United States election.
More on this as it develops.
Last June, Trump placed a hold on $214 million of security assistance from the Pentagon for Ukraine, as it battles Russian-led separatists in its eastern provinces.
The White House said it disagrees with GAO's "opinion".
Van Hollen in a statement called it a "bombshell legal opinion" that "demonstrates, without a doubt, that the Trump Administration illegally withheld security assistance from Ukraine".
Administration officials on Thursday were quick to point out that GAO is an arm of Congress and the administration is not bound by any of its findings.
"This should be a call to action for every senator to put country over party and vote to remove Trump from office", he said in a statement Thursday.
"The Constitution grants the President no unilateral authority to withhold funds from obligation", the opinion said.
But GAO said that the executive branch can't use that kind of policy reason to withhold funds appropriated by Congress.
The funding hold was formally initiated July 25, the same day Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the phone to congratulate him on his recent election. Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry against President Trump as the result of a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump tried to coerce Ukraine into investigating his political opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
"The President is not vested with the power to ignore or amend any such duly enacted law", the report said.
But recently released internal government emails, as well as transcripts of closed-door depositions and interviews with TIME, show that both Pentagon and OMB officials became increasingly concerned that what they were being asked to do could violate this very law.
The Senate will be holding the president's impeachment trial.
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